Seanad debates

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Humanitarian Situation in Syria, South Sudan and Central African Republic: Statements


11:25 am

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Costello, to the House.

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)
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I am pleased to be here to begin this very timely debate on the grave situation in Syria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic. The year 2013 was very challenging for the international community, with three level 3 emergencies, which is the most serious humanitarian crisis designation by the United Nations. They involved two of the countries we are discussing today, Syria and the Central African Republic, as well as the Philippines in the immediate aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan.

To put it in context, no level three emergencies were declared in 2012 and this year an already overburdened international humanitarian system is called upon to respond to three such crises, each necessitating a massive surge in humanitarian operational capacity and increased funding. Dealing with so many humanitarian crises simultaneously puts a remarkable strain on the international community and, in particular, the United Nations, but I am pleased to be able to report that as a result of many of the reforms undertaken in recent years, as well as the lessons learned since dealing with the Asian tsunami in 2004, the international community is now far better equipped to deal with humanitarian crises of this magnitude than it was ten years ago. I am also pleased to be able to say that in each of these countries Ireland is playing a significant role, both bilaterally and through the European Union and the United Nations, to provide vitally needed funding and, in some cases, humanitarian personnel and stocks. I pay particular tribute to the many Irish citizens working in these countries with NGOs or the United Nations, often in very difficult and dangerous conditions. They make an incredible contribution and are the finest ambassadors for the country. I propose to speak on each of the countries in turn and look forward to an informative debate with Senators.

Let me begin with the biggest in scale of the current crises, the protracted and tragic conflict in Syria, which has resulted in unprecedented levels of humanitarian need, both within Syria and in neighbouring countries, requiring a sustained response from the international community. During my visit to Lebanon last year I was able to witness at first hand the desperate situation of Syrians forced to flee their homes and country as a result of the conflict. I was struck by the overwhelming generosity of Syria’s neighbours who, to date, have received more than 2 million refugees. I take the opportunity to acknowledge its generosity and humanitarian effort.

Earlier this month I represented Ireland at the second international pledging conference for Syria which took place in Kuwait. Ireland pledged a sum of €12 million towards the humanitarian response in Syria and neighbouring countries in 2014. The money will be disbursed in the coming 12 months to key UN partners, as well as the Red Cross movement and non-governmental organisation partners. It will support the provision of life-saving humanitarian supplies and essential services such as health, education and protection. Ireland’s funding is aimed at helping implementing agencies to address the crisis within Syria and neighbouring countries, particularly Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Once we honour this pledge, it will bring our total contribution to the relief efforts in Syria and the region since the start of the crisis approximately three years ago to more than€26 million. In addition to funding,Ireland has also provided humanitarian support for the region in the form of supplies of non-food items from our emergency relief stocks held in Dubai and specialist emergency personnel under the rapid response initiative. I refer to qualified personnel such as engineers and electricians.

While the immediate imperative is to respond to the escalating humanitarian needs on the ground, we must also persevere with our international efforts to find a sustainable political solution that is so desperately needed. The current Geneva conference represents the key opportunity to end this devastating conflict and save Syria and the Syrian people from further atrocities and destruction. We are under no illusions as to the scale of the task and the difficulty of finding common ground in such a divided country, but the Geneva conference represents the best chance to bring this conflict to an end. I know Senators will join me in hoping for real and tangible progress from the ongoing talks. Already we have seen some limited potential progress made on the promises of increased humanitarian access to the city of Homs and the proposed free movement of women and children.

South Sudan is the world's newest but also one of its poorest states, with an official population estimated at 8.26 million people. Years of conflict and underdevelopment, combined with seasonal flooding, frequent dry spells and frequent outbreaks of disease, mean that South Sudan remains a serious concern for the humanitarian community. Since its independence just three years ago, it has been plagued by a series of crises that have generated huge humanitarian needs - communal conflict, militia attacks, border disputes and natural disasters such as floods. Recent fighting between rival factions in South Sudan’s army has led to a serious crisis in what was already a difficult situation. Clashes followed what the government claims was an attempted coup in the capital, Juba, on Sunday, 15 December 2013. There are fears the unrest could trigger a wider ethnic conflagration in a nation awash with guns and still fragile after decades of war that led to its secession from Sudan two years ago. The current outbreak springs from a long-running power struggle between South Sudan’s President, former guerrilla commander Salva Kiir, and another former guerilla commander Riek Machar, whom Kiir sacked from his post of Vice President earlier this year.

Although the death toll remains unconfirmed, the international crisis group has estimated that the number of dead in the conflict may be close to 10,000; a major increase from earlier estimates by the United Nations. As of 23 January, the number of people reported to be displaced by the current crisis in South Sudan is more than 575,000, including 352,000 internally displaced persons, IDPs. This includes 76,100 sheltering in UN peacekeeping bases. That is in addition to the pre-existing caseload of 228,000 refugees in the conflict affected areas.

In 2013 Irish Aid provided €2.5 million for the UN-managed Common Humanitarian Fund, CHF, for South Sudan. In addition, more than €1.5 million in funding was disbursed to NGOs for humanitarian assistance across the country. In response to the current outbreak of conflict and resulting displacement, two airlifts totalling 45 tonnes of emergency supplies have been dispatched to South Sudan from our pre-positioned stocks in Ghana. The supplies consist mainly of blankets, jerry cans, tarpaulins, kitchen sets and mosquito nets and will be distributed by our NGO partner, Concern. The first of the shipments arrived in Juba on Monday, 13 January.

On the political front, it is encouraging to note that a cessation of hostilities agreement was signed in Addis Ababa last Thursday, 23 January. I hope it will calm things down and ease somewhat the task of addressing the humanitarian crisis. Nevertheless, local hostilities are still taking place.

The Central African Republic has a long history of instability, coups and protracted and often forgotten crises since its independence in 1960 from France. Ireland has a policy commitment to address humanitarian needs in protracted crises, particularly those like those in the Central African Republic, that are underfunded and do not receive the attention they deserve. In that regard, although the Central African Republic has only been hitting the world media headlines in recent months, Ireland has been engaged for a long period and one of the top ten international donors since 2007. We are a founder donor to the UN Common Humanitarian Fund for the Central African Republic and have provided €12 million for the fund since its establishment in 2008. For Ireland, this mechanism is essential in enabling us to meet the needs of a very vulnerable population in a co-ordinated and sustained manner. The current situation in the country is truly shocking, with literally the entire population being affected.

I am particularly appalled by the impact of the violence on children. The United Nations reports that “like adults, children have been victims of killings, disappearances, torture, ill treatment and sexual violence”. The recruitment of children by armed groups is also very disturbing. Last month, as the situation deteriorated gravely, I announced an allocation of €2 million in 2014 to support the United Nation’s efforts to provide food, water, shelter, health care and education for those in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. In addition, a member of Ireland’s rapid response corps has been deployed to the capital, Bangui, to support the vital work of UNICEF. I represented Ireland at an international conference jointly convened last week in Brussels by the United Nations and the European Union which represented an important opportunity for the international community to demonstrate its commitment to and solidarity with the people of the Central African Republic who have been affected by the crisis. On that occasion, too, the European Union agreed to send a force of 1,000 soldiers to the Central African Republic and that will happen in the coming days.

Again, I thank the Cathaoirleach for inviting me to the House. I look forward to hearing the contributions of Senators and will try to address the issues and concerns they raise at the conclusion of this debate.

11:40 am

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House for this timely and important debate. The extent of the humanitarian crisis in the regions we are speaking about is alarming. I wish to recognise the commitment of the Minister of State to this area. His aptitude for the job is well known and recognised and I commend him on the efforts he has made to try to ensure the humanitarian aid programme and Irish Aid secure funding to be able to make a contribution to deal with the crisis. The extent of the crisis is beyond our capacity to make an enormous impact on it, but nevertheless, we are playing our part.

We should also compliment the various aid agencies active in these areas, some of which have appeared before Oireachtas committees. Two former Ministers of State, Peter Power and Barry Andrews, now lead two of those organisations and they appeared before the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade and outlined the extent of the challenges they face. They also gave us a flavour of the good work they are doing in this area. They and the Government, through the Minister of State and the Department of Foreign Affairs, are certainly making a constructive and valuable contribution.

The Central African Republic has seen a rapid deployment by the African Union of the international support mission. It is right to recognise and acknowledge that Catherine Ashton has asked at the European Council for greater European involvement in the Central African Republic. The Council has given approval for a possible new military operation and has approved the related crisis management concept. The initiative to have a donors' conference has proved beneficial and approximately €366 million has been pledged for humanitarian aid to the Central African Republic. In the past, we have seen pledges from various countries, but they do not always come to fruition. Promises are made, but are not always followed through on. It is important that the commitments made in this region are met.

We should note that the UN Security Council approved the planned deployment of European troops to the Central African Republic, in a bid to stop violence between Christians and Muslims. Indeed, the country's president has called for a UN peacekeeping force. Almost 1 million people, a quarter of the population, has been displaced by fighting. This has come about since the mostly Muslim Seleka rebel group seized power in March of last year in what is a majority Christian country. At least 2,000 people have been killed. In many ways, this conflict replicates some of the routes of crisis across that region. I am told by many Muslim people that much of the conflict being perpetrated in the purported pursuit of Islam is not recognised by or finds no foundation in the Koran. There is a need for moderate Muslims to be more vociferous in asking to be heard more and for them to play a greater part in ensuring that fundamentalists and extremists do not carry their agenda without any verbal opposition from within their own communities. I know there are risks to doing this, but this should be encouraged.

The United Nations has warned that this conflict, in a former French colony, could spiral into genocide. We have seen and read of examples of this in the past in some African states. This must be avoided. France has sent 1,600 troops to the Central African Republic to assist 5,000 African Union peacekeepers. The European Union has agreed to send approximately 500 troops. This is very small in proportion to the population of Europe and I believe there is a far greater potential for us to assist in this area. This is something we need to consider. Our neutrality policy needs to be examined to ensure that Europe, which is a highly respected voice on the global stage, is equipped to be able to give greater and more tangible assistance in these crisis areas.

The hostilities in South Sudan have resulted in suffering and the loss of human life and there have been large scale human rights violations. The European Union has called on all parties to agree an immediate cessation to hostilities and violence. The Minister of State has pointed out that South Sudan got its independence in 2011. An overwhelming majority of the Sudanese voted in favour of seceding to become Africa's first new country since Eritrea split from Ethiopia in 1993. However, there are various disputes with Khartoum and rivalries within the government party. The lack of economic development also clouds South Sudan's immediate future.

There is significant oil wealth in South Sudan, yet it is one of Africa's least developed countries. We talk about good and ethical governance and it is essential that the resources of the state are applied in the interest of all the people of the country. This is a principle we would strongly adhere to and call for, but unfortunately, all too frequently in countries in Africa and the Middle East this does not happen to the extent it should. There are major rows over border regions, some of which are rooted in disputes over land. There is also a religious undertone to the conflict, such as in the Nuba Mountains, where a largely Christian community and government forces are in conflict. Some 100,000 people have been displaced since independence.

This displacement is a feature of many of these conflicts and it is only when one visits these countries, as the Minister of State has seen in his visits to the Lebanon, Jordan and elsewhere, that one sees the effects displacement has on individuals and families and, particularly, on children. Syria is a prime example of this. I am glad to see the Inter-Parliamentary Union, IPU, has called for the immediate, unhampered access to civilian and refugee populations in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. The recent deaths of starving Palestinian refugees in the Yarmouk camp on the edge of Damascus are the latest civilian casualties of a conflict that has left whole communities besieged. These deaths highlight the need for aid and access to all parts of the country.

The UN has estimated that 9.3 million Syrians in the country and 2 million outside of it are in urgent need of aid. Humanitarian agencies are currently feeding more than 3.8 million people in Syria, but many populations cannot be reached because of the intricate dynamics of the conflict. The IPU is urging the international community to multiply its efforts to end the war, to negotiate a political settlement and to find an immediate and effective solution to the humanitarian crisis. We would all echo those sentiments. The initiative on the peace process is one we hope will yield a beneficial result. Last June when I was in Jordan and visited a number of the refugee camps there, I was struck by the fact that all the people we met said they reckoned the conflict and the war in Syria would last at least another decade. That is an appalling vista. Every effort that can be made should be made to try to secure peace, and a ceasefire in the first instance.

At that camp this time last year, I recall the Minister of State telling me there were 15,000 people there. Today, there are over 150,000 refugees there. There is no law and order in the camp with women used for prostitution and other means to gain revenues within the camp. The Jordanian police have no access to securing the camp. Among the countries in the region, both Lebanon and Jordan are sharing too great a burden of this conflict without the necessary international supports essential for them to deal with the crisis and maintain their own stability. Both countries are susceptible to ethnic and other political conflicts. While both are stable now, contamination from Syria could disturb this balance.

I urge the Minister of State to intensify his efforts at getting other EU member states, as well as the EU itself, to play an even greater role in these conflict areas.

11:50 am

Photo of Michael MullinsMichael Mullins (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the Seanad for this debate on the fast deteriorating situations in Syria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic. I thank him for his comprehensive update, detailing the extent of the Government’s contribution to humanitarian aid and relief, as well as his personal commitment to making real progress, in these troubled areas.

The humanitarian crisis in Syria is of truly alarming proportions and has deteriorated significantly in recent months. Figures suggest that as many as 13 million people are in need of assistance there. Out of this, 2.4 million are registered, or are awaiting registration, in the neighbouring countries of Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and other countries in north Africa. The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees predicts there will be 4 million refugees from Syria by the end of 2014, a truly alarming development. It is inevitable that the large influx of people is putting much pressure on their host communities, raising tensions in some areas. Countries bordering Syria are now approaching a dangerous point and require greater international assistance in helping with the refugee situation. It would be timely for a debate on how Ireland can help with refugee placements, as we do not have a particularly brilliant track record in this regard.

The violence and increasing insecurity in Syria is making it extremely difficult for aid workers to do their jobs and is preventing them from reaching those who desperately need aid. Ireland has taken the lead by calling for a UN Security Council resolution that would put pressure on the Assad regime to lift the unacceptable restrictions that prevent emergency assistance getting to millions of people. We all want to see urgent progress at the Geneva II conference that will lead to a political solution to the conflict. I welcome the EU’s reiteration that the only solution to the conflict is a genuine political transition based on the full implementation of the Geneva communique and preserving the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Syria. We wish Lakhdar Brahimi and his team much success. On a personal note, I want to wish success to a Rafif Jouejati, the deputy English-speaking spokesperson for the Syrian opposition, a wonderful lady who has visited this House on several occasions and whom I have met.

I am, however, concerned about some reports in the international media. Rime Allaf, a leading Syrian analyst, recently writing in The Guardian, pointed out that the peace talks are allowing Assad to engage in an endless process in which he can buy time and make further progress on the ground. She further stated:

There is nothing Bashar al-Assad's regime loves more than a process, and the international community has just delivered one that could maintain the status quo inside Syria indefinitely.
... and with the reluctance of the US and its allies to engage in more than timid [vapid] condemnations or declarations of intent, he can continue to terrorise most of the population into submission. ... The worst thing the international community could do is push talks for the sake of talks, to wash its hands of the problem that is Syria. Leaving the catastrophe to sort itself out in Geneva's corridors while continuing to refuse more direct engagement merely empowers Assad in the long run, and pushes his opponents further into a zero-sum calculation. Geneva would then be doing more harm than good to Syria, leaving Assad and his followers with the delusions that he is invincible and an irreplaceable partner in Syria. ... It is up to the international community to ensure that Geneva does not remain a mere process if it is serious, as most Syrians are, about ending the war.
I am sure the Minister of State, along with the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and our EU partners, will continue to exert pressure that will achieve real progress at the Geneva II talks that will bring an end to the appalling atrocities perpetrated against innocent, defenceless people relying on humanitarian aid for their very survival.

As a small country with limited resources, we have been supportive of relief for the humanitarian crisis in Syria. It is obvious that many wealthier nations have been less so. This needs to be highlighted at European and international level. I acknowledge the amazing work done by aid agencies, including Concern, GOAL, Trócaire, UNICEF and others funded through Irish Aid. The bravery and dedication of these aid workers who work in such dangerous and challenging situations is to be applauded and admired. The Irish people have traditionally strongly supported those organisations working with the poorest in the world through generous contributions. It is regrettable, however, that the recent exposure of bad governance in a small number of charities has had a negative impact on the fund-raising efforts of well-run organisations helping the most vulnerable and needy in the world. I urge the Government to put in place quickly the promised regulatory structures for the charities sector, so confidence in it can be restored. I also appeal to the people to continue to support the many wonderful and well-run charities providing humanitarian aid to people ravaged by war and hunger. The greed of a few cannot be allowed to jeopardise the good done by so many.

This morning I listened to an interview with a UNICEF aid worker in the Central African Republic. It was a harrowing account of appalling violence, human rights abuses and loss of life in that mineral-rich country, particularly the awful trauma endured by children and her concern for the long-term effect on them. It is estimated that 1 million people, 25% of the population, have been displaced since fighting began last March when mainly Muslim rebels seized power in the majority Christian former French colony and 2,000 people have been killed. It is critical that the international community takes a hands-on approach to stabilising the situation there. The selection of an interim government led by Catherine Samba-Panza to restore order is an opportunity that must be built upon. The decision of the UN Security Council on 20 January 2014 to adopt a crisis-management concept for a possible EU military operation to contribute to stabilisation is also to be welcomed. The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has said the US is prepared to impose targeted sanctions against those responsible for the religious-based violence. The appalling level of killings, sexual violence and recruitment of child soldiers deserves urgent international intervention. Those responsible for these awful crimes must be brought before the International Criminal Court. It is also critical Ireland continues to support the vulnerable people affected there through the UN’s common humanitarian fund.

The scale of the crisis in South Sudan is alarming. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 575,000 people have been internally displaced.

Approximately 112,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries. Most have fled with nothing and the conditions in the displaced persons camps are very difficult, without enough water, food or shelter. The spread of disease is a major concern in the region and even before the crisis, the health system in South Sudan was extremely fragile, with 80% of health services being funded and provided by international organisations. According to MSF, there are two major challenges in trying to provide humanitarian medical care, one being the sheer scale of the needs on the ground and the other, the lack of respect for humanitarian facilities and staff. UNICEF said yesterday that it required $32 million to meet the immediate needs of those affected by Sudan's recent crisis. We all condemn the ongoing hostilities in South Sudan and deplore the loss of life and the large scale abuse of human rights. We all support the EU call on all parties to agree an immediate cessation of hostilities and violence and urge all political and military leaders to protect the population and act in the interests of the South Sudanese people as a whole. We also urge them to engage meaningfully in the ongoing peace talks in Addis Ababa. I welcome the ongoing support being provided by the Irish Government for humanitarian aid, which is being distributed by Concern. I applaud the wonderful work being done by all NGOs on the ground in these very difficult situations. I regret that, undoubtedly, we will be back here again discussing these three very serious humanitarian situations in the future. I particularly urge everybody involved in the Syrian peace talks in Geneva to intensify their efforts to ensure that real and meaningful progress is made in the coming weeks.

12:00 pm

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for his explanation of what he is doing and what we, as a country, are doing. I remember when the first Irish troops went to Africa in 1960 and I took my then girlfriend - now my wife of over 50 years - out to Baldonnel Airport to see the troops leaving. There was an enormous sense of pride in Ireland that we were, as a nation, taking a role in helping in Africa. Her father, who was an army officer, was with us on that occasion and the whole nation focused its attention on that mission. To sit here, more than 50 years later and hear about the work the Minister of State, his Department and we, as a nation, are doing, is so interesting. The outline provided by the Minister of State is a real reminder of the need for us to continue to play our part. The situations outlined are very concerning and I commend the Department and particularly Irish Aid on the work they are doing and the assistance they are giving.

The Danish Foreign Minister recently describe Syria as "the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the millennium". We must bear that in mind in the course of this debate. We all hope that the peace conference will bring an end to the bloodshed and its devastating effect on civilians. However, as the Minister of State has said, success is not guaranteed. There has been some small relief in the deal to allow women and children to leave the city of Homs.

In terms of Irish involvement, I would like to mention Irish troops serving with the United Nations mission in Syria, on the Golan Heights, who were forced to return fire in November. There has been a total lack of debate on this issue and the only one to speak up has been a former army officer, Mr. Tom Clonan, who said that Irish troops are "human shields" on the Golan Heights, as they were on other peacekeeping missions. They are in the middle, between Syria and Israel, and it seems strange that the Irish troops are in more danger from the different Syrian factions than the Israeli troops. If some big incident were to happen involving the Irish troops, we will be debating why it happened in this House. We will have to admit then that there was no debate in Irish political circles or in the media on what was really behind the deployment or whether it was the right thing to do. I would welcome such a debate. We should be able to talk about it because these things should not happen without Parliament and the Oireachtas having a say. I know one Irish army officer who believes the move was madness. He is very unhappy at the way in which the army, he believes, was used by certain countries for their own ends. I am not commenting on that belief either way but if his feeling is shared by others in the Irish Army, then that is worrying.

As is clear from television coverage of the situation in the Central African Republic, the humanitarian crisis there is huge. The Minister of State described the situation there very well. The EU has raised almost $500 billion in aid but the situation seems to be getting worse. I am thankful for the update from the Minister of State on the humanitarian situation but have we completely ruled out sending troops to help as part of the EU mission? Senator Walsh said that there are 500 troops from Europe in the Central African Republic but perhaps we should get involved in a deeper way there. The situation in South Sudan has escalated to such a degree that many international aid staff have been evacuated. That makes it extremely difficult to ensure that aid gets to the right people. It is also very worrying to hear about the use of child soldiers there. It is horrifying but it appears to be going on there.

On humanitarian issues in a more general sense, I wish to touch on the situation in the Ukraine, although it is not our agenda for today's discussion. Last week the Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Carl Bildt, was the first EU Foreign Minister to comment on possible sanctions against the Ukraine, saying that he would not exclude that particular possibility as part of a solution to the crisis. Does Ireland have any policy on this issue? Can we play any part in helping to resolve the situation in the Ukraine through diplomatic channels? I know it is not on the agenda today but the Ukraine is much closer to us than some of the other countries we are discussing. The situation there is also of major concern to the European Union. I do not know what is going to happen and am not sure if we will be able to do anything. However, the fact that the Minister of State takes such an interest in his role gives me some solace and reassures me that if we can do something, we will. We are highly regarded as an independent, neutral nation and can achieve things that other, larger nations might not be able to achieve. I congratulate the Minister of State on his work and thank him for his address to the House today.

Photo of Lorraine HigginsLorraine Higgins (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. He has been very active in his role since being appointed and I commend him on all that he has done.

As the ethnic conflicts continue in Syria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic, the rest of the world has been faced with the question - should we involve ourselves in these crises? I believe we should get involved in any way we can in order to alleviate the human suffering that is going on. Ongoing crises, especially in lesser-developed countries, have a tendency to result in a mass of refugees, food shortages and health concerns. A number of years ago I travelled to the Benishangul-Gamuz region of Ethiopia as part of an Oireachtas delegation and spoke to a number of refugees there who had crossed the Sudanese border into Ethiopia. There were 5,000 such refugees living in camps in the area. They told me that they had crossed the border a number of times during their lives and that it was an ongoing crisis. These countries have divided governments, they lack basic infrastructure and are incapable of responding appropriately to the needs of their people. All three have the potential to become failed states and it is the responsibility of better-off countries to respond with humanitarian aid.

In Syria over 9 million people have been affected within the country's borders since the start of the conflict in March 2011. That figure includes the 6.5 million people who have been displaced, 2.5 million of whom are now in areas deemed hard to reach by international relief organisations, which is of the utmost concern. An additional 2 million people have fled Syria to seek refuge in the neighbouring states of Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.

In South Sudan approximately 688,000 people have been displaced as a result of the ongoing conflict, which has heightened since December. We read about it constantly in the newspapers. A total of 76,000 of these people are taking refuge at UN bases located throughout the country while 86,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries. I had the benefit of visiting one of the refugee camps in Ethiopia to see first-hand what was going on. Most of these 86,000 people have fled to Uganda. Since 2011 almost 3,000 people have been found dead and 200,000 have been displaced.

Delivering humanitarian aid to South Sudan has been particularly difficult because of insecurity, harassment of relief organisations and government-imposed restrictions limiting the activities of humanitarian groups. In the Central African Republic 12,000 members of the population are refugees from other fighting states, primarily Sudan, South Sudan and the Congo. An estimated 2.2 million people in a population of 4.6 million are in desperate need of life-saving emergency assistance. A total of 1.3 million people are considered food-insecure, which is an alarming figure. People have been forced from their villages by the fighting and into close quarters with poor sanitary conditions. This has resulted in a recent outbreak of measles, and it will be only the start. I am mindful of the fact that much of our aid should be targeted at certain areas and provision should be made for this when it is donated so that it reaches those who need it most. Citizens of all these states suffer from starvation, dehydration, illness and a lack of shelter. Because of the ethnic nature of the conflict it is also likely that acts of extreme discrimination and illegal violence are committed between struggling groups. These are commonly in the form of illegally detaining prisoners and using means of torture during interrogation.

In addition to the aforementioned issues facing these states, gender-based violence and child abuse have increased incredibly since the start of the conflicts. Historically this has been the norm during times of war, but on top of the increased violence, women and children are among the most vulnerable of the population in these conflicts. In Syria, not only have instances of rape and kidnapping become more frequent, but Syrians are also taking part in the practice of child marriage. This issue primarily affects young women and girls and has a detrimental impact not only on their lives but also on those of their families. Parents have resorted to engaging in this practice because they see it as a form of bartering and a necessity to survive. These young girls often additionally suffer from rape by their new older husbands and become very young mothers. In many cases this endangers their own health because of the inefficient systems in the country.

In some areas of South Sudan up to 80% of displaced people are women and children. In this more conservative patriarchal society, men are sent out to war or murder as a by-product of conflict between ethnic groups, and when killed they leave their women and children behind to fend for themselves, but they are often very ill-equipped. These women have no jobs, income or means of supporting their families. In the Central African Republic it is difficult to tell whether instances of rape have increased because the country has been engaged in conflict of one kind or another over the past 50 years. These rates remain high. Approximately half the population of the Central African Republic are children and the government has resorted to the recruitment of child soldiers to the military forces, which is very alarming. In addition to this violation of human rights, 50% of schools have closed and 70% of students do not attend school for fear of violence. Women and children in the Central African Republic face kidnapping, torture, sexual violence and other ill-treatment on a daily basis.

The incredible number of refugees produced by each of the countries we are discussing creates humanitarian crises within the respective state borders and also places a huge strain on the resources of neighbouring countries taking in refugees, which creates even more widespread need. Ireland has taken steps to participate in humanitarian relief missions in these nations and I commend the Minister of State, the Tánaiste and the Department on donating to the UN and other channels and keeping this going at a time when it is very difficult to do so. If we can do more we should do so.

Many organisations have been established specifically to assist women and children, such as UNICEF and the Women's Refugee Commission. The WRC conducts investigations on the ground and makes recommendations to the UN Refugee Agency on how its services work for women and children in the area. Organisations such as the Office of Transition Initiatives focus more on policy change. I call on the Department to link up with some of these organisations - perhaps it already has - and engage in detailed talks on the situation for women and children in each of these areas. The primary purpose of these organisations is to increase the role of women in government and civil society and encourage the participation of women in the political process. Until women are part of the political discussion in these countries, significant change affecting their livelihoods and those of their children for the better will not be made. For this reason I ask the Minister of State to carefully consider the need to apportion funding specifically to gender-based organisations and civil society or to make provision for it when sending aid money to a particular country.

12:10 pm

Photo of Kathryn ReillyKathryn Reilly (Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I thank the Cathaoirleach and Leader for having this debate. I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important issue. It is well documented that these conflicts have created their own disastrous and wide-ranging humanitarian crises. Debates in this House are not really listened to, never mind a debate on a matter as important as this, so how do we create greater awareness of what is happening in the world and these humanitarian crises? Is there a need for greater education in schools? What can we do through the media? It is heartbreaking not to see heightened awareness when so much conflict and so many humanitarian crises occur, and that they are not part of the daily discourse of people. For many people it is white noise. The conflict in Syria will continue for another decade and we cannot ignore it. We need greater awareness.

Thousands of people have been killed in fighting in the Central African Republic, and approximately 1 million people, which is a quarter of the population, have been displaced. It has taken on a very worrying sectarian trend, with the UN warning of a high risk of the violence spiralling into genocide. It is worth noting that before recent fighting broke out the Central African Republic was one of the poorest countries in the world and was very troubled socioeconomically, despite being rich in gold, diamonds and uranium reserves. These have largely been extracted and exploited by Western-based multinational corporations. This has led many to view violence as more to do with political control over access to natural resource wealth, and religious tensions are being stoked by foreign meddling to facilitate this. For a long time Muslims and Christians have lived in peace in the area, but there is no denying the scale of violence and depth of the crisis.

To the east of the Central African Republic lies the world's youngest country, namely, South Sudan, which is also facing a humanitarian crisis. Tensions have been rapidly increasing since splits in the ruling government party led to outbreaks of violence and rebellion. As the Minister of State said, it is the worst violence since independence was won in 2011 and has killed thousands of civilians and driven more than 500,000 people from their homes. The two sides have agreed to meet in Ethiopia for peace talks, but each side accuses the other of continuing violence, and discussions have been suspended until 7 February . There are deep ethnic, political and personal grievances which will be hard to overcome when the talks finally restart. South Sudan holds the third largest oil reserves in sub-Saharan Africa after Angola and Nigeria but it remains one of the continent's least developed countries. We must keep this to the front of our minds.

The Syrian conflict has been in the news and discussed heavily here today. It is a monumental humanitarian crisis. The United Nations has described the situation as the greatest humanitarian crisis in modern history, with millions of people in need of urgent assistance. It is welcome to see some dialogue between opposition rebel groups and the Syrian government at the Geneva talks.

I do not know how likely it is that a major breakthrough will be made at the talks that will resolve the conflict. There is a possibility that vital humanitarian corridors can be opened to provide assistance to the vulnerable besieged citizens in the towns and cities across the country.

The ongoing destruction has created over 2.3 million external refugees. That number refers to refugees who have registered with the UNHCR. It does not include people who have been internally displaced or Palestinian refugees because the latter are under the remit of the UNRWA programme. The international community has an obligation to help these external refugees by supporting the neighbouring countries that host them, especially countries where a refugee influx has the greatest potential for causing conflict. As well as funding for humanitarian needs, there should be a longer-term and more comprehensive approach adopted to strengthen the ability of host countries to accommodate refugees from the Syrian conflict. The measure would help to prevent a steep rise in social and political tensions. For example, the UNHCR has estimated that the total number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon has reached 1 million which amounts to a quarter of the Lebanese population. We are witnessing not just a humanitarian crisis in these war-torn and impoverished countries but a spilling over of conflict and humanitarian crises into neighbouring countries. I welcome the Government's commitment, so far, in terms of supporting humanitarian programmes in the Central African Republic, south Sudan and Syria and thank the Minister for his efforts in that regard.

At present the EU has agreed to accept 30,000 Syrian refugees from Lebanon under the UNHCR refugee settlement programme. I understand the Government will only accept 90 of the refugees but the Minister of State will correct me if I am wrong about the figure or if there are errors in what I say. Ireland remains the only country in the EU with no single unified system of refugee application which has led to huge backlogs and asylum seekers have ended up in direct provision facilities. It would be remiss of me not to mention the direct provision system and I urge that it is reassessed.

I shall finish my contribution by raising another issue. I welcome all of the concern expressed about the humanitarian crises in these countries. I shall take this opportunity to call on us all to remember the peace and human rights activist, Ms Margaretta D'Arcy. She has been incarcerated in Limerick jail for protesting against the illegal use of Shannon Airport by foreign military organisations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It must be noted that the actions of those military organisations assisted in creating an ongoing humanitarian crises in both countries.

I ask the Minister of State to comment on how we can raise awareness which is an important issue. We are fortunate to be able to debate these issues with him here and at committees. We have also been fortunate to have a lot of prominent witnesses attend, for example, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade. I know that people in Ireland have a lot of problems. I would like to know how we can heighten awareness of these matters among the public. How do we create a public awareness of what takes place in the world away from our doorstep?

12:20 pm

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senator. I call Senator Colm Burke and he has five minutes.

Photo of Colm BurkeColm Burke (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State and his separtmental staff for the contribution that they have made to all of these complex issues which are not easy to resolve.

I have sat on the foreign affairs committee and human rights committee in the European Parliament and in 2008 I spent six days in Chad. I visited the refugee camps which included Goz Beïda and Abéché that had 500,000 refugees. One of the sad parts about the mission was that 57,000 people from the Central African Republic were in those refugee camps out of a total of 500,000 people. More than 400 Irish troops were sent to protect those camps but the region created a lot of challenges. The nearest port to the camps was 2,500 km away and the only way for the camps to get food was to bring it through Sudan to the east, Libya to the north or Cameroon to the west. That was not a great choice as regards bringing food across 2,500 km. In March 2008 it was a challenge to bring in 56,000 tonnes of food by June in order to avoid the rainy season when nothing could be moved. Even four-wheel drive vehicles cannot move for four months once the rainy season commences. That is an example of the scale of the challenges faced by the aid agencies and the UN and similar challenges must be faced when dealing with conflicts in the region.

I shall touch on the interesting region of the Central African Republic. Last night I watched a human rights report about a young lady who had been on a truck trying to escape from the capital. She knew that she was not going to escape so before she was ordered off the truck she pleaded with another lady to take her seven month old child and handed over her child. She was then ordered to get off the truck and to go into a mosque where she was, along with a number of other people, hacked to death with machetes. That story highlights how dangerous the situation is in that country. One of the former Rwandan military who is located in the CAR has commented that he is afraid that what happened in Rwanda in 1994 will take place in the CAR. His comment highlights the urgent need to re-enforce the peacekeeping troops who operate in the region.

I welcome the Security Council's decision to approve intervention by the EU force but I not convinced that it will be enough. A determined effort must be made to prevent a repeat of what happened in Rwanda. The way the crisis has developed over the past number of weeks means we are very close to the crisis escalating. Over 1 million people have been displaced in the CAR over the past nine months. That is a huge number of people who have found themselves in very difficult terrain. It is not going to be easy to get aid into the region and the large number of people involved emphasises its importance. The European Union has a population of 500 million and comprises 28 countries. Therefore, we should come on board a lot more and ensure that the crisis does not escalate.

We need to take far more decisive action on another issue - the availability of arms. It is one of the issues that struck me when I visited Chad in 2008 because I did not pass one person who was not carrying a machine gun. It was estimated that over 10,000 young people had machine guns and I refer to people who were under 18 years of age. I pay tribute to Concern as it works in a lot of these areas and operated in Chad refugee camps in 2008. Even the aid agencies in the previous 18 months before I visited Chad had lost 85 four-wheel drive vehicles. When one was stopped on a road by a person carrying a machine gun all one could do was hand over the keys and walk away. Then the roof was cut off each vehicle and equipment added in order to turn them into armoured personnel carriers which was another challenge for the aid agencies.

I thank the Minister of State for the work that he and his Department has done. We must ensure that the crisis in the CAR does not escalate into a second Rwanda.

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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I call Senator Mooney and he has five minutes.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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I echo the complimentary remarks made about the work done by the Minister of State and Irish foreign aid, in general. There is not an awful lot more that one can add to what has been said by the Senators and the Minister of State.

In the context of the peace talks taking place in Geneva and hosted by Lakhdar Brahimi, an interesting comment was made by the Syrian National Coalition member, Murhaf Joeujati. He said: "Women and children leaving Homs will be subjected to inspection by security forces, under the suspicion of terrorism." It was understood that the humanitarian gesture had been advanced to the point where women and children were going to be allowed out but Mr. Joeujati's comment seems to add a sinister dimension to the initiative. On Tuesday he said: "The Assad regime does not allow aid in and is not breaking off the siege we asked for."

On Tuesday of this week, regarding the delay in letting humanitarian aid into Homs, Mr. Jouejati said that the trucks and convoy were ready to be distributed. He said: "There is absolutely no problem with logistics. The decision is a political one that came from the Government of Syria."

World Food Programme spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs has said the UN will send in a convoy once it receives the go-ahead. The agency has been unable to get supplies into the old city of Homs for more than a year. It would seem, in the context of Ireland's engagement - I know the Tánaiste was involved - that these are questions that need to be addressed to the Syrian regime. Is it an honest broker in this regard or is it just playing the optics? Obviously, there appear to be some conflicting views as to what is happening in Homs or what is proposed to happen in Homs, where there is a major humanitarian disaster. More than 100,000 people have been killed and approximately 9 million people have been displaced after three years of serious civil war, according to the latest figures from the UNHCR.

In the context of convoys being available, Lakhdar Brahimi has announced that an aid convoy to the besieged city was on standby and awaiting authorisation from the Syrian government. He added that areas under siege must get must get food and medication. That is humanitarian law. As the Minister of State has pointed out, Ireland has provided funding of €12 million from Irish Aid's 2014 budget for humanitarian emergencies, bringing the total value of the Irish Government's response to the crisis in Syria to more than €26 million, which in the current straitened times is an admirable sum of money.

The conflict between pro- and anti-government supporters in South Sudan, which seceded from Sudan in July 2011, has displaced more than 700,000 people across the country and sent another 123,000 fleeing to neighbouring countries in just over six weeks. It is an appalling humanitarian disaster. There are hopes that the cessation of hostilities signed in Ethiopia during the week by representatives of both sides will lead to an end to the fighting and help alleviate the plight of civilians in need. Again, questions arise about the distribution of humanitarian aid which the Minister of State may be able to clarify. Valerie Amos, the Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Co-ordinator at the UN, has said that the current crisis comes on top of an already challenging humanitarian situation in the country. She praised the work of humanitarian organisations that remain in the country during this tense and difficult period and are delivering urgently needed assistance, but said, "While this has saved many lives, we have not been able to provide assistance to many others due to the continuing insecurity." She added that the looting of aid agency warehouses and assets, as well as the subjection of aid workers to violence, has severely hampered efforts to assist the population.

According to the Minister of State, €1.5 million was disbursed to NGOs and two airlifts totalling 45 tonnes of emergency supplies have been dispatched to South Sudan from our pre-position stocks in Ghana. Has the Minister of State any up-to-date information as to whether this airlift has succeeded in getting through? Given the comments made by Ms Amos in regard to the looting of aid agency warehouses and assets, can the Minister of State assure the House this is not the case with regard to the Irish humanitarian aid that has gone to Juba in recent times?

In the Central African Republic, charities and aid agencies are striving to help victims of the violence that has left almost 1 million people displaced, while more than 2 million are dependent on humanitarian assistance. According to the Minister of State, Ireland has been a long-standing supporter of the Central African Republic and has provided €12 million to the UN common humanitarian fund for the Central African Republic since its establishment in 2008. However, escalating violence in the country and an ongoing humanitarian crisis has affected more than half the population. The UN reports that large areas of the Central African Republic continue to be affected by fighting. Amnesty International has reported this week the large-scale massacre of civilians in the north west region of the country. The charity has been appealing for rapid deployment of peacekeepers to protect threatened civilians.

On 20 January, EU foreign Ministers approved a new military mission, including the deployment of 500 troops. Is Ireland going to be involved in this at any level? I am not sure if the Minister of State responded to that question, which has also been raised by other speakers. He has announced that €2 million will be provided by way of funding and food, water, shelter and health care will be provided to the worst-affected areas.

I commend the Minister of State on the work the Irish Government is doing in three key areas of the world. Despite our straitened economic circumstances we are still punching above our weight, something that the Irish people have fully supported in the context of overseas aid for humanitarian purposes.

12:30 pm

Photo of Susan O'KeeffeSusan O'Keeffe (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State. As others have said, his commitment to this work is not in question. At a time like this when there seems so little any of us can do in a crisis, particularly the crisis in Syria, which is so alarming and so enormous, at least Ireland is giving the aid and support it can. While €26 million is small in world terms, it is a significant amount for this country and shows that we at least recognise and understand that solidarity is welcome to the people in Syria on the ground. It seems quite alarming that as we watch the crises in these three places unfold, we can already predict what will happen. There are plenty of experts to tell us how it will unfold, how many people will be displaced and how many will die. Yet it goes on, and we seem unable, as human beings, to stop. For me, that is the most difficult and most profound aspect. As Senator Colm Burke has mentioned, the horrors of Rwanda seem likely to unfold in the Central African Republic. Today, 30 January, the prediction is that the number of people who will displaced in Syria by the end of the year will rise to 4 million, which would be the equivalent of the entire population of Ireland being displaced.

In any proxy war of world powers it is very difficult for a neutral county such as Ireland to become involved at that level, but what we are able to do is to continue our efforts in the humanitarian areas and also use our influence as a neutral country to encourage that humanitarian aid. There appears to be some concern about the European Union's response. I understand only 18 countries have agreed to allow resettlement of refugees, although the number may be 19 as the UK appears to be on the edge of agreeing. Ireland is one of the 18 countries. What role, if any, can Ireland play in encouraging a greater response from the European Union? Surely that is an area in which we can play a role, as opposed to some of the other areas where we are simply not in a position to make a difference in the complexity of the war that is raging. I would be interested to hear the Minister of State's response to that issue.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, said: "I find it disconcerting how many Syrians struggle to find protection in Europe, with reports of people being pushed back from a number of borders." All of this is happening, although the overall numbers are small in comparison. We know what is going to happen. We note that the Turkish government has allowed 600,000 refugees into Turkey, which is an extraordinary number. Daniel Hannan, a correspondent for TheDaily Telegraph, observed as follows:

I am typing these words during a tea-break in a refugee camp on the banks of the Euphrates. Fourteen months ago, this was a patch of empty sand. Now, there are schools, a clinic, a mosque, shops and – as you will have gathered – wifi. Not that I want to make it sound cosy: no one lives in a container from choice. But the brisk and businesslike approach of the Turkish authorities does them immense credit.
I wonder how much we can do in encouraging European Union countries to do more. I draw attention to the observations of Kate Allen, who was then in charge of the Refugee Council, at the time of the Kosovo crisis. She said that although there had been enormous suspicion in the UK about allowing people to enter, and all sorts of suggestions that there would be outrage, when the first aeroplane arrived in Leeds with refugees on board, they were greeted with signs saying "Welcome to Leeds," and people came to the reception centres with food and clothes and treats and games for children. A fear has been trumped up that this will cause a problem but I think not. I think humanity will rise to the occasion, and we should be able to play a role in that.

With regard to addressing the gender-based violence and associated difficulties observed in all of the areas, but particularly Syria, can we have any role or bring any influence to bear? While I acknowledge the international complexity associated with the positions of the United States and Russia, I wonder what, if anything, we can do in respect of those two countries and their very great influence in Syria.

12:40 pm

Photo of Sean BarrettSean Barrett (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State. I agree with all of what my colleagues have been saying on this topic and about the Minister of State. A few months ago, some students of mine and I met the Minister of State on the plinth and they received an instant tutorial on whatever he was working on. They will remember it for a very long time. I thank the Minister of State for that. His enthusiasm shows through.

Senator Reilly was worried that not many people take an interest in Seanad debates. I believe they are very influential, however. I got some figures from the television companies and noted that there are probably tens of thousands of people watching this debate. It will be influential and will support the Minister of State in his work.

The conflicts the Minister of State has been describing have racist and sectarian elements. One function of bicameralism is to dilute the monopoly of power that obtains in a unicameral system. Our Seanad was founded with this in mind. The Canadians are interested in this also. Governance is needed in some countries. Of course, we are very good at dealing with symptoms when it all breaks down and people need food, shelter and water but, ultimately, the countries affected need a better system of governance. Senator Mullen and others mentioned the role of the Army and public servants and the role we might play in addressing water problems. If we have a surplus here due to the amalgamation of water departments in the State, it would meet a great need. Staff associated with railways, roads and public administration in general could have a role. We have built up an independent state over the years. If our experience can help, the Minister of State might think of it as part of the package.

We have learned to deal with sectarianism. In our time, we were helped by the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union and individuals from Canada and Finland. If we can help when people in a certain country fall out with one another, we should do so. As Winston Churchill said about politics, “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” We have a lot of experience in peacemaking so the role of peacemaker would be an extremely valuable one for us to play.

I echo all that my colleagues said about the countries the Minister of State is helping. With regard to the welcome for the ceasefire, I note the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs issued just this week an urgent notice on South Sudan. It has warned that the rainy season will be starting in just a few months, making it difficult to transport supplies and leaving some locations completely cut off. This is urgent, as I am sure the Minister of State and his officials are well aware. He will certainly have the support of everybody in the House in dealing with this, as he knows.

With regard to the Central African Republic, it is felt the new president, Ms Catherine Samba-Panza, will be a beacon of hope. One reason is that she is a seasoned politician. Many of the problems in question arise because of the collapse of what we would regard as politics and give and take. The new president is a Christian, which brings in the need for measures to combat sectarianism. Another advantage of her presidency, about which colleagues opposite will be delighted to hear, is that she is a woman. We wish her well in helping her country.

On Syria, I noted concerns expressed in The New York Times this week. Its headline was "Syrian Talks Disrupted by Congress's Approval of Aid to Rebels". As other Senators have said, if we are trying to make peace, we might at least make a representation to the effect that aid should not be military aid. We should use our skills in governance and in the areas of water, railways, roads, public service and education, and we should follow the noble example of the Army. If we can assist in policing, we should do so. We should bear in mind the great traditions of the Garda. All of these skills should be available to the Minister of State to support him in the excellent work that is so badly needed in the three countries in question. There is a need to solve the immediate problems of famine and refugees.

South Sudan is one of the newest countries in the world. Helping such countries to set up systems of government that work on behalf of all the people is a task in which we have considerable experience. I am sure the Minister of State will bring this experience to the countries that need it so badly.

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)
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I thank Senators Walsh, Mullen, Quinn, Higgins, Reilly, Burke, Mooney, O'Keeffe and Barrett for their wide-ranging and valuable contributions, questions and comments. There is not a stone that has not been upturned and examined.

Many Senators asked how we could raise awareness of the dire crises that are taking place in so many areas. There are three emergencies at the same time in the same year, which is unique to the United Nations, and the challenge is enormous. The pressures on donor countries, the United Nations and European Union to provide resources and funding are considerable. There is a need to raise awareness of how dire circumstances are. In Syria there is an incredibly difficult and complicated humanitarian disaster. Any attempt to deal with it is surrounded by great difficulties and controversies on the basis of positions taken by a number of countries. The Central African Republic has virtually no administration or infrastructure and it has been left in poverty ever since its foundation in 1960. This is at the heart of the problems now being experienced. The problem has been bubbling under the surface for a long time and it has now exploded, leaving the whole country in crisis.

It is important that we get the message out, including to our own people. A debate such as this one in the Parliament is enormously valuable. Through a range of programmes in the schools, we constantly seek to get the message out on circumstances and crises in developing countries and fragile states. For example, I launched a programme last week involving 1,000 schools. They are carrying out projects on the countries we are talking about and others. There is considerable emphasis on development education in my Department, particularly in the formal school system at both primary and secondary levels. In the universities, there is much engagement. In the adult and community areas, we have an education programme and a funding arrangement. Senators might examine community development in their areas if there is an educational element that relates to crises and fragile countries. We have the means to resource it.

I was struck by the references many Senators made to the good work done by officials in my Department and our rapid response corps, which is on the ground in difficult circumstances.

They also mentioned the Irish non-governmental organisations, which are very much at the cutting edge and some of my predecessors in government, namely, the former Ministers of State, Barry Andrews and Peter Power, now lead GOAL and UNICEF, respectively, here in Ireland. This is a remarkable situation that I was delighted to see develop and they are very outspoken on these issues as well. While that all is very important, the role all Members play as parliamentarians in these Houses is crucial. If Members did not play that role and if support was not forthcoming from the Houses of Parliament for the Irish aid budget, which the Government has been able to maintain at a high level in the most difficult of circumstances, it would have been impossible for Ireland to play the role it plays in respect of providing resources and funds in the form of actual humanitarian aid on the ground, having personnel provide their skills and expertise or having the Defence Forces or the police help in peacekeeping and training situations. Many Irish personnel actually are training police and military personnel in African countries in particular.

A question was raised regarding the placement of refugees and last year, through the Government's resettlement programme, 31 refugees were resettled from Syria. This year, the entire cohort or quota in the refugee resettlement programme, that is, 90, will be from Syria. This already has been agreed by the Minister for Justice and Equality and while perhaps it should be more, at present the entire resettlement programme will be devoted to Syrian refugees. Syria, if not the worst disaster in the millennium, certainly is one of the worst disasters that has ever been experienced. In excess of 130,000 people are dead, in excess of 2.5 million people are refugees and half the population of 22 million has been displaced. The entire population is under pressure, vulnerable and in need of humanitarian aid in many areas throughout the country.

On the difficulty of access being experienced, the priority in the initial Geneva II talks that are taking place at present is to find ways to access, on a humanitarian basis, the areas that are excluded at the present time. It is extremely difficult because of the nature of the opposition forces on the one hand, which very often are fighting one another and at loggerheads, and on the other hand one has the regime and the pressures that are put to prevent access. The Government is not convinced that the provision of humanitarian corridors by military force, as has been suggested, is an effective mechanism. What is needed is agreement among those engaged to allow humanitarian access and to allow aid. This is what the Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief, Valerie Amos, has presented as the official position from the United Nations. It proposes the granting of medical supplies, demilitarising medical facilities, prior notification to civilians and convoys of military offensives, designation of priority humanitarian routes, including those across front lines, to allow safe passage of aid convoys, the use of humanitarian pauses in fighting to allow humanitarian access to people and the use of cross-border operations where appropriate. The discussions are taking place along those lines at present to try to provide safe passage and access. Indeed, I recently met the Foreign Minister of Iran and urged him to use his good offices with the regime to allow humanitarian access and he promised to do so. However, it still is very much a sticking point and the conditionality that is being imposed in respect of Homs, for example, still is a matter to be resolved. While Lakhdar Brahimi indicates some progress is being made, we are a long way from a successful process being put in place at present.

As many Members have mentioned, the neighbouring countries surrounding Syria are under enormous pressure. I have visited Jordan and Lebanon, the Tánaiste has visited Turkey and many Members also have visited the region. The number of people who are officially registered under the auspices of the United Nations when combined with the number of those who simply have crossed the border, are not registered but are distributed throughout these countries obviously is even higher than the current official figure, which is approximately 2.5 million people. Apart from Turkey, these are small countries. Lebanon and Jordan are tiny countries that are of similar size to Ireland or smaller and they have very poor infrastructure. They have an inadequacy of services and providing an extension of those services to cater for the influx of the vast quantity of refugees is putting a huge strain on their resources. The Government is highly cognisant of this and of the perception that if this continues, the number of refugees could be up to 4 million by the end of the year and that these countries would almost collapse under the pressure it is imposing. This is a serious matter and it is not simply a question of humanitarian aid to the Syrian refugees and displaced persons but also is a question of assisting with the infrastructure that provides education, health and all the other services for which these countries need resources. The Government is focused strongly on that and wishes to and probably will place greater emphasis on it. I am thinking seriously of Ireland engaging in an initiative with other like-minded countries to come together and seek to address that particular aspect of the problem almost separately. I acknowledge it cannot be addressed separately in its own right but it was being discussed last week in Brussels. It is a major problem, whereby the entire surrounding area could collapse very easily.

On the pledges the Government has made for Syria, I note the target for donors was $6.5 billion in pledges, while the pledging reached $2.4 billion. It is a long way short of what was sought and consequently, the $2.4 billion that was obtained will only supply sufficient resources up to the middle of this year. There now is donor fatigue in respect of the enormity of the problems that exist and of these emergencies. They are so huge and the problems of Syria are of such magnitude that they pose a serious question of and problem for the resources of the United Nations, the other multilateral organisations and indeed the overall community, even though it has been extended and the Gulf states are far more involved now in providing much more money than they did in the past. A number of Senators mentioned the question of actually delivering on the pledges, which remains an issue. Ireland always delivers 100% on its pledges but some countries make pledges and then the delivery is not 100%. At all the meetings the Government attends, it wishes to emphasise the need for the various countries to continue to provide fully their pledges.

I have a few notes that summarise matters in broad context, which I will now deliver. I reiterate my thanks to Members and will conclude by making a few overall points that link together many of the themes that have been discussed here today. Syria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic all are experiencing extremely serious humanitarian crises caused by conflict.

In some important respects Syria stands alone, both in terms of the scale of the suffering, the ramifications within the region and the fact that solving the humanitarian crisis requires a political solution which involves many of the world's leading global players, not least the United States and Russia.

Ireland has always argued the need to keep the humanitarian issue at the top of the agenda while understanding that only a political solution can bring the suffering of the Syrian people to an end. Syria is ultimately a political crisis, with serious humanitarian consequences. In this context, the process now ongoing in Geneva is vitally important. It is likely to be slow and difficult, and initial signs are that the process of securing agreement between the parties to the conflict will be a challenging one. In the end, however, only a comprehensive political solution can ensure that this humanitarian crisis is finally ended.

On the point about refugees, I stress that Ireland is firmly of the view that Syria's neighbouring states cannot and should not be shouldering the burden of hosting the influx of Syrian refugees. It is for this reason that much of our support has been targeted at supporting citizens displaced within Syria and across the wider region.

It is essential that those most affected by the conflict are able to benefit from the humanitarian assistance pledged in Kuwait earlier this month. Together with our international partners, Ireland will continue to call on all parties to ensure that this aid reaches its intended destination by providing unhindered access for humanitarian assistance and to protecting civilians, including humanitarian workers and key medical staff who are in the front line of response to victims of violence.

Unlike Syria, even before the current crises erupted, the Central African Republic, CAR, and South Sudan were two of the poorest and least developed countries in the world, facing a myriad of problems exacerbated by inter-communal tensions. Sadly, they are both examples of what we call "forgotten crises", a priority area for Irish humanitarian effort. Ireland’s engagement in both countries has unfortunately been ongoing for many years and this is a tangible demonstration of the fact that long after the television cameras and reporters switch their attention away from the scene of a humanitarian emergency, Irish Aid maintains its focus and ensures that the many vulnerable people affected as a result of long-running conflicts are not forgotten.

One effect of the recent escalation of the situation in the Central African Republic is that, for the moment at least, it has ceased to be a forgotten crisis by the international community. The violence, the despatch by France of a small peacekeeping force, and the sustained media coverage of the deepening ethnic tensions have focused international attention on this country arguably for the first time. However, Ireland can say with some justification and pride that we had not forgotten about the people of the CAR, being until recently one of only two EU member states to donate to the United Nations Common Humanitarian Fund for that country. In addition to our financial aid, Ireland has consistently highlighted the humanitarian situation in the Central African Republic with our EU partners in Brussels and other international fora.

It is essential that as we look at addressing the needs of the humanitarian emergencies in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, we recognise that religion or different tribal roots are not the root cause of the violence we have witnessed in recent months. Rather, these crisis situations are the outcome of years and indeed decades of endemic poverty, under-development, weak democratic institutions and neglect by the international community. We must ensure that in responding to emergency needs, we work simultaneously to address the underlying causes and ultimately seek to build the resilience of very vulnerable populations. In mobilising funds for the immediate humanitarian response, we must also examine ways to ensure that we continue to support the people of the Central African Republic and South Sudan into the future.

The international community must continue to learn the lessons of the past and try to become better at anticipating crises before they begin. The current situation in South Sudan was predictable, and the situation in the Central African Republic has been brewing since the coup d'etatin March 2013. It has taken far too long for the international community to step up to respond to the scale of the needs in the Central African Republic. As mentioned earlier, the international humanitarian community has learned a lot from previous humanitarian disasters but we must continue to reflect on experience and refine our response in the future.

I should point out that, unfortunately in 2014, although I have focused Members' attention on three specific crisis situations, this is not the full picture. Ongoing challenges remain in the following areas: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Special Envoy Mary Robinson is at the present time; Mali, which French troops invaded recently to hopefully restore democratic structures; Somalia, which has been the subject of enormous conflict over a period and where Brigadier General Aherne is in charge of training the Somali soldiers; Sudan, where we had the break away of South Sudan; Haiti, which we heard all about and where great difficulty remains in restoring the structures - forgotten again - and where there is very little focus on the continuing needs of Haiti now that the cameras have left; Myanmar, which is coming to the fore at present; and the Philippines, with its recent disaster, and many other countries around the globe which result in millions of people in serious need requiring the ongoing attention of the international donor community. Ireland will continue to play our part its part.

Without delaying the House unduly I will deal quickly with some of the points raised. Senator Walsh referred to a political solution being the only answer, and we know the difficulties in that in terms of getting the United Nations Security Council to agree because of the differences between the major powers on the issue, the local difficulties as well as the other players, namely, Russia and the United States, who have tremendous interests in the area in not allowing the process. At least both Russia and the United States are represented at the talks and it is hoped that progress will be made.

I addressed the point about pledges not being made.

A number of Senators mentioned the issue of Irish troops. I understand Ireland will not be sending troops to the Central African Republic in the context of the Common Security and Defence Policy, CSDP, mission from the European Union. I understand that mission involves 500 troops initially, leading on to 1,000 troops. We are not sending troops on the grounds that we are already fully stretched in terms of our commitments in overseas peacekeeping operations as well as resource limitations. We do not have the capacity to contribute members of the Defence Forces to that mission.

We have a strong representation in Lebanon, and Senator Quinn raised the issue of the security of those forces. There are always difficulties in those areas. The very first mission in 1960, to which he referred, was to the Congo where we lost 11 members of the security forces at the Niemba ambush. A number of members of the security forces were lost in Lebanon over the years also. We have had missions in Lebanon since 1978 playing a major role as a buffer between the Israelis on the one side and the various armed groups and militia operating in the area on the other. It is a tough and dangerous assignment but we have been doing it for a very long time. Our troops are very well respected and that continues to be the case with the present forces.

Regarding the CSDP mission going beyond the capital of Bangui, the idea is that the European mission will secure the capital and the airport, which is one of the only secure airports. There are approximately 100,000 refugees in the airport in Bangui but that will allow the African and the French forces to engage in the countryside, which is not possible at the present time because of the lack of resources. The European force will not move beyond the capital of Bangui but it will allow the other forces to move into the countryside to seek to secure that area and allow many of the people who fled into the bush to come out.

Senator Mullins mentioned the refugee placements, the negotiations and the political process in Geneva. The process is not just talks for the sake of talks. Real engagement is taking place and we would be hopeful that there will be real results. It is the only way to reach a conclusion.

The Senator also spoke of the need to broaden the donor base. That is very important. Such endeavours are continuing all the time. It is extremely difficult to get some of the major powers such as China and India to come into the donor community. The Senator saw the contribution China made to the Philippines. It gave an initial contribution of €100,000 and then raised it to €500,000. We would have provided a hundred times more than China did to its neighbour. There are difficulties in that respect in terms of the perception of some of the emerging countries who have resources and means to make the contributions that they should. That is a major part of what is required, especially now with donor fatigue.

Regarding what was said about the charitable organisations, I will not go into that discussion now. However, it is important we realise that the non-governmental organisations with which we engage, GOAL, Oxfam, Concern, Trócaire and so on, are fully audited by both themselves and by Irish Aid, and we have independent auditors. In the absence of any regulator, they audit themselves as that is the requirement. The are over-audited, if anything. The public can rest assured that the money that goes to those organisations is well accounted for. Any salary in any of those organisations above €75,000 must be reported to us in order that we know precisely what salaries people on the higher echelons of those organisation are in receipt of.

1:10 pm

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)
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That might be a lead that could be usefully taken by some of the other charitable organisations. It is extremely important that we reassure the public that the money is well spent. We have an enormously generous public in Ireland, one of the most generous in the world in terms of charitable donations, and we must seek to ensure that continues.

The new President, Catherine Samba-Panza, is the agreed transition President in the country. Hopefully, the transition period will get under way and the new structures and administration will be put in place. That is the intention. Resources have been put in there. We had a meeting in Brussels last week. It did not start as pledging meeting, it was a meeting to discuss the situation in the Central African Republic. We contributed €2 million to it but it became a pledging meeting as well because of the urgency of the situation. Some €750,000 was collected on that occasion and obviously we are seeking further funds. It is important that we build administration and sustainable development in the health and education areas.

Senator Quinn mentioned the Danish Foreign Minister's reference to the scale of suffering, one of the worst humanitarian disasters of our time. He spoke of the Irish troops serving there. I have answered that point. Their security is our top priority and the security of our peacekeeping troops is always kept under review.

Senator Higgins referred to their potential of the three states to be failed states. There is no doubt that all three are failed states. The picture the Senator and we have painted of them is dreadful. She spoke of the increase of gender-based violence and child abuse. In conflict situations children are always brought into the conflict. They are very vulnerable and there seems to be a great willingness for the armed militia and regimes to recruit child soldiers and to put guns in their hands. This is happening in all of those countries. Irish Aid works very closely with the Consortium on Gender Based Violence, the United Nations and the non-governmental organisations. The protection of women against gender-based violence in times of conflict is mainstream in all the work we do.

I dealt with Senator Mullins's points on refugee placements and on the slow progress in Geneva. Senator Reilly spoke of development education programmes. I mentioned what we are doing in that area. She asked how can we heighten awareness of these matters. I addressed that point as well.

Senator Mooney raised the issue of Homs. It is a very difficult situation. The progress in Geneva is very slow but there is no alternative to those talks and to trying to get an agreed pathway. We hope that Iran, which is the major supporter of the regime on the ground, is coming back into the normal community of nations and is much more open to suggestions of using its good offices to help alleviate the humanitarian situations. We are anxious that this would happen.

Senator Mooney asked how we can be sure that our aid does not go astray and that it is not being looted. We sent the airlift to South Sudan on 14 January and it is being distributed by Concern. Irish Aid will receive a report once it has been distributed in order that we can see exactly how it has been distributed. Thus far there have been no difficulties. The Senator also asked about our troops serving there.

Senator O'Keeffe raised the refugees issue and remarked on the neighbouring countries. She also mentioned gender-based violence.

I have dealt with most of the issues. I hope I have not omitted any. I am delighted to have had this opportunity to speak to Senators on this issue. It is important that we bring everybody up to date and that the Senators have an opportunity to discuss these matters, ask questions and to know the priorities in Irish aid policy. We have had a very good track record in trying to cover all the humanitarian situations but we also have a very good track record in dealing with forgotten crises. There is only one other country in Europe that has engaged with us in the common humanitarian fund for the Central African Republic. The issues in the Central African Republic could have been dealt with long ago if the resources that the international community was seeking were there. The resources are in South Sudan but they are not in the Central African Republic and, as a result, it has been neglected all the time. The conflict had been bubbling away all the time and it has now erupted as though it was an ethnic and a religious divide but, in fact, it is stems from poverty. It is due to decades of poverty since independence and that is what has brought it the state it is in. These are the fault lines. There are always fault lines. We know from Northern Ireland there were the fault lines of religion and all sorts of other issues when in fact there was discrimination and poverty underneath the surface. We will seek to focus Irish aid all the time on the greatest needs. Senator Higgins asked how we keep it focused on greatest needs where people are most vulnerable and most in need of our assistance. That will continue to be the focus of our operations.

Photo of Caít KeaneCaít Keane (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State.

When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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At 2.30 p.m. next Tuesday.