Seanad debates

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

6:50 pm

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail) | Oireachtas source

I extend a hearty céad míle fáilte to the Minister of State, Deputy Joe Costello, who is very familiar with this Chamber. I applaud him for the initiatives he has taken so far on behalf of the people, particularly his recent visit to Jordan which was widely publicised. He brought home to the people the horror of the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding just a few hours away by aeroplane. In fact, the UN envoy, Mr. Brahimi, warned on Monday that the situation was "extremely bad and getting worse."

I will take up the theme of Senator Healy Eames's contribution regarding what the Government can do and the issue of the UN and its lack of capacity to move forward on this issue at the Security Council. What political dimension is the Government bringing to this? I compliment the Government on the fact that it moved very quickly. As a result of initiatives taken over the last number of years we were able to move resources from within the region. Heretofore, we would have been obliged to send them directly from Ireland, which would have taken a great deal of time. Goods to the value of ¤400,000 were moved from Dubai and there has been a total donation of ¤2.1 million. That is an example of joined-up thinking in terms of the manner in which we provide humanitarian aid internationally.

What else is the Government doing, for example, in terms of lobbying at the United Nations? Ireland has a proud record in the United Nations. It is not seen as an aligned country, although the complexities of the Middle East might limit our capacity in that regard. It should also be remembered that Ireland currently holds the chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE. As Russia is a leading player in the OSCE, have there been bilateral discussions with the Russian Federation regarding the stance it has taken so far at the United Nations? Obviously, Russia has a vested interest given that its only port on the Mediterranean is in Syrian territorial waters. China always has its own agenda and it is keeping a watching brief. Obviously it is scared silly, as is Russia, of any type of military intervention because they say it would infringe on the country's sovereignty. When one has the Chechen problem in one's backyard, as Russia does, and a Taiwan problem, as China has, one will obviously take that position anyway. However, that does not help the situation. Like Senator Mac Conghail and others, I ask the Minister of State to elaborate in his final comments regarding the Russian Federation now engaging in terms of putting forward a concrete proposal. It would be helpful to hear if the Minister of State has any further information in that regard.

The humanitarian crisis is overwhelming when one considers the numbers. As the Minister of State outlined them, I will not repeat what he said but 2.5 million people, which is equivalent to two thirds of the population of the country, are in need of humanitarian assistance. The biggest problem is the impact it is having in terms of the destabilising effect on neighbouring countries, particularly Lebanon. There are more than 56,000 Syrians in Lebanon who are registered or awaiting registration. However, there is also the Palestinian refugee issue, which has not been highlighted to any great extent. Syria hosts nearly 500,000 Palestinian refugees. It has offered assurances that they will not be attacked but the camps have been attacked. As a result the Palestinians have been fleeing to Jordan and Lebanon. In Jordan there is a real destabilising impact because of the sensitivities surrounding the Palestinians already in situ who came there following the expulsion of Palestinians from Kuwait in 1992 and the exodus from Iraq during the war. In Lebanon it is even more problematic because those who are fleeing Syria are seeking shelter in the Shatila refugee camp, which is effectively a slum and where there are 455,000 Palestinian refugees already registered. The question is whether that country has the capacity to absorb any more without destabilising it.

I make a plea to the Minister of State in the context of humanitarian assistance. I understand that while Syrian refugees receive assistance from the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, to which we have contributed ¤2.1 million, Palestinian refugees fall under the mandate of UNWRA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which has a smaller budget. UNWRA has appealed for an additional ¤21.4 million for its consolidated regional plan but has so far received less than a quarter of that sum. It has appealed for the ¤21.4 million to assist Palestinian refugees, who are falling between the cracks in this growing humanitarian crisis. Perhaps the Minister of State has an opinion on this. We contribute to UNWRA and as I am sure the Minister of State has already visited the UNWRA camps, he will be familiar with this matter. Given his background he will already be aware of the important work UNWRA is doing in the Palestinian territories.

I will conclude my contribution with one stark fact. In the context of any attempt being made by Mr. Brahimi, the UN, the Government and others to try to solve this problem, it is estimated that there are more than 2,000 armed groups operating on Syrian soil. Most of them are fragmented and disparate. I wish the Minister of State well in his efforts.


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