Seanad debates

Thursday, 24 September 2020

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Unaccompanied Minors and Separated Children

10:30 am

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman. It is his first visit here and only our second sitting in the Chamber.

Photo of Lisa ChambersLisa Chambers (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister and thank him for taking this matter. The issue is unaccompanied minors from the Moria camp on Lesbos. It is the largest refugee camp in Europe and home - I use that word lightly - to almost 13,000 men, women and children. The camp was initially built to house less than 3,000. Almost two weeks ago, the camp was burned and 12,000 men, women and children were left on the streets with nothing - no shelter, food or water. Security in the camp had already deteriorated prior to the fire, and tensions were high. The refugees were crammed into overcrowded, inadequate tents, with limited access to food, water, sanitation and healthcare. This has been happening on EU soil.

In 2016, Turkey made a deal with the European Union to stop refugees crossing over to Europe. In my view, that deal should never have taken place. Following the breakdown of the deal, the number of refugees arriving at Lesbos increased substantially. In 2018, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, urged the Greek Government to move asylum seekers away from Lesbos, describing the conditions as at boiling point. At that time there were just 8,000 living in the camp; today there are over 12,000. The situation in Lesbos is critical now and Ireland must act, not just as a member of the European Union but as a decent, First World country that has plenty of resources to deal with this issue.

Following the burning down of the Moria camp, the Greek Government closed access to all mainland and other towns to stop migrants entering them. The migrants have essentially been boxed in and have nowhere to go. These people are fighting for their lives. We have been asked to take in a very small number of unaccompanied minors, another way of describing children. They are small children with no parents or family. Can one imagine any of our children in that situation? I note that the Minister announced last Thursday that Ireland would take in four, in addition to the previous commitment to take in 36. To date, we have taken in just eight. I know that the Minister, as an individual, wishes to take in more. Four children is a start. I do not wish to get angry about this, but I believe the Irish people are angry about it because four is nowhere near enough. Isabel Simpson, the executive director of Médicins Sans Frontières, said that while any commitment to resettle unaccompanied minors and children is welcome, it must be noted that 4,000 minors affected by this fire still remain in insecure and unsafe conditions. She added that the EU should take the Moria disaster as an opportunity for real change in European migration policies of containment and boxing people in, and start with the evacuation of all people from that island.

As a decent First World country, Ireland must do more. The constant response from the Government is that it does not have the money or resources. No child in this country is living in the conditions in which these children are living. They are literally on the side of the street. There is no shelter, food or water, or it is very limited. Two weeks ago, on 13 September, the front page of The Sunday Timescarried a photograph that I doubt I will ever forget. It showed a mother running with her young baby. It is said that a picture paints a thousand words, and this was a call for the decency and humanity to take in more of these children. We must do something about it. I am sure that whatever the Minister needs from this House will be forthcoming. We are always caught up in red tape and bureaucracy, saying we cannot do something, we do not have the funding and asking how we will manage. Germany stepped up to the plate a number of years ago when it took in a number of refugees. At the time Angela Merkel was heavily criticised domestically and even in other parts of Europe. There are people who wanted her to fail. They wanted that policy to fail, but it has been successful. She showed real and true leadership when she did that. This is an opportunity for Ireland, as a small nation, to do the same. I remind our Government, and I am aware that I am a member of it, that we recently campaigned for a seat on the UN Security Council on the basis of promoting human rights and being a voice for the world's most vulnerable yet here we are today taking in just four additional unaccompanied minors. We should be ashamed to suggest that this cuts the mustard; it does not. I would like to see this House engage in a real campaign, working with the Minister, to do whatever it takes to take in those children without delay. I am conscious that it is already two weeks since the fire. What has happened in the past two weeks? Can anybody imagine being in a situation where they do not have food to feed their child, they cannot bathe their child, they do not have clothes for their child, their child does not get to go to school, they do not have any shelter and they are not safe? Can we imagine living in that situation every single day? It does not bear thinking about.

I noted some of the commentary online when this matter was being discussed. One person asked how we can be sure they are minors. Who thinks like that? As a start, we should take the children who do not have parents or guardians out of that camp. Every human being should be evacuated from that camp today. That is what should be happening. That camp should not exist. Every member state of the European Union has the money to deal with this. I am conscious that the person who commented was probably sitting in a very comfortable environment tweeting away on their phone, probably with plenty of food available, a roof over their head and clothes on their back.

We need to take a look at ourselves because we have a seat on the UN Security Council. We are supposed to be a leading light. We are supposed to be leading by example. Let us be a leader in Europe on this issue. Let us not wait for other countries to step up. Let us be the first to do so.

Roderic O'Gorman (Dublin West, Green Party)
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I thank the Senator for raising this very important matter and for speaking with such passion on it. Before I address her, I want to say that it is an honour to be speaking to this House for the first time. I look forward to working with Members here. I know many Members of this House have a very personal and deep interest in the issues that fall within my Department. We have a lot of legislation and many plans coming from my Department within the programme for Government and I look forward to working co-operatively with all of the Members in advancing those, and with the Cathaoirleach also.

Earlier this month, we witnessed the shocking scenes in the Moria camp on Lesbos with the fire destroying large sections of it. Following that tragedy, the German Presidency of the EU made a call to member states requesting their support for the relocation of 400 unaccompanied minors who were resident in the camp. Ireland supports the EU in the effort to relocate unaccompanied minors from Moria. Our support for the EU is part of the wider commitment we have made to accept unaccompanied children from migrant camp settings across Greece. In 2018, Ireland undertook to accept 36 children and eight of those arrived in the State in June of this year. I am happy to be able to report that those eight children are now settling happily into their lives here.

In an immediate response to what happened in Moria two weeks ago, I asked officials in Tusla to examine our capacity to accelerate the arrival of more children and as a result Tusla has said, as the Senator stated, that it has immediate capacity to take four more unaccompanied minors. Those children will arrive in Ireland in the next number of weeks. However, I very much agree with the Senator that we all know Ireland needs to do more. As such, my officials and I continue to work with Tusla to identify how we can provide additional capacity to take more children. Moreover, in the context of the budget 2021 negotiations, which are ongoing, I will be seeking extra financial support to meet our commitments to the unaccompanied minor children in Greece as quickly as possible.

In recent years, a total of 41 children were relocated to Ireland under the Calais Special Project. That project came to a natural conclusion in 2018 as there were no further children who met the criteria of the Dáil resolution. Identifying and transferring children who are living in the Greek refugee camps and wish to come to Ireland is one of two international commitments we have in this area. Once an unaccompanied child has been identified as wishing to come to Ireland and is granted permission to do so by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Tusla officials work with colleagues in the International Organization for Migration to process and prepare the young person. A young person may have experienced real suffering during their stay in the camps. They may need ongoing support with the English language, medical treatment or various therapies to overcome the trauma they would have suffered.The Senator referred to one particular picture. We have all seen the conditions in Moria. It brings home the very real suffering that everybody there is experiencing.

The second area of our commitment to minors seeking asylum is when they arrive unannounced at our ports or airports. At the end of July, there were 59 separated children seeking asylum in the care of Tusla. It has a dedicated separated children seeking asylum team which has developed expertise over many years through Ireland's participation in other international protection programmes and caring for the majority of unaccompanied minors who arrive unannounced at Irish ports.

Yesterday, HIQA published an inspection report of a children's residential centre which provides care to separated children seeking asylum. The findings were very positive, with the children reporting that they liked the staff and the atmosphere in the centre and were supported in accessing education. This is a real testament to the work done by Tusla and its staff to support these children.

The eight young children who came in June are aged between 15 and 17 years. Children who are younger than this will usually be placed in foster care if that is possible. Children in the 15 to 17-year-old range are usually placed in small residential care settings. Given their age when they arrive and the length of time it might take for them to recover from their experiences, they have to acclimatise to a very different life. They often need very significant after-care supports, including accommodation after they pass the age of 18.

The cost of providing for unaccompanied refugee children in this way are not inconsequential. However, as the Senator said, we have international obligations but we also have moral obligations which trump everything. We have to respond to the crisis we are seeing across the world.

It should be noted that Tusla was not provided with specific additional resources to enable it to meet its care obligations to the 41 children brought in through the special Calais project. As such, I want to restate what I said earlier, namely, that I will work with Tusla in the immediate term to determine if there is any additional capacity. In the context of budget 2021, I will seek to put in place a sustainable funding stream so that we can continue to regularly meet our commitment to unaccompanied minors in Greece as quickly as possible.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister. The Senator has one minute.

Photo of Lisa ChambersLisa Chambers (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for the response. It is much appreciated. At the outset, I want to say that I am appalled that Tusla was not given additional resources from 2018 by the previous Minister and Government. That is quite scandalous.

The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, is being asked to take resources from other children in the State to try to fund children coming in from Lesbos. He cannot make that call. Extra resources are clearly needed. After this debate, I will write to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, to ask that he consider that request positively, and I will also write to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe.

In terms of the capacity issue, it is unfair to put the burden on the Minister's Department simply because that is where it sits at the moment. Every Department must play its role. The Department of Justice and Equality has a role to play and should be helping the Minister with this, rather than foisting it on to him and telling him that it is now his problem. That is what is happening. The problem is being pushed around and people are saying that it is not their responsibility and is instead someone else's responsibility. That is how everything happens in this country. It is not acceptable for this particular issue.

As the Minister said, we have a moral obligation which trumps everything else. We have enough money in the State to deal with this and an awful lot more. Why not be a bit more radical about this? Why not put out a public call to Irish citizens for a fostering programme and ask who is willing to take unaccompanied minors from Moria camp in Lesbos? There should be a separate campaign with separate funding to deal with this particular issue.

The Minister should not be asked to take money from other aspects of Tusla's work because it is already underfunded and does not have sufficient money. I would support a very strong call from the House that the Minister be given extra resources to deal with this issue.

I know that 18 aid agencies have written directly to the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, and other Ministers. The chief executive of Oxfam Ireland said in his letter that the young refugees currently being held in Greece are already experiencing the trauma of separation from and loss of their families as well as displacement. Can one imagine any child who is seven or eight years old having no parents, loved ones or family connections and who is not in his or her own home? Every week that ticks by they are left alone.

Action is urgently needed, not in three weeks or three months' time. It is needed now. We need to be a leader on this. Whatever it takes from the House, the Minister will have our support.

Roderic O'Gorman (Dublin West, Green Party)
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I thank the Senator for her offer of support. If she could send those letters I would appreciate it. I am very happy for the Department to take responsibility but I need additional resources. If they can be achieved it will make a huge difference.

I had thought about the point the Senator made about our fostering campaign and we will have a general national fostering campaign. I have spoken to Tusla, and in light of the significant needs many of these children have some of the level of care required may be best delivered in a residential setting. I will let Tusla make the call on this. I have discussed the issue with it and I am not ruling it out. As we have outlined, these children have experienced trauma the likes of which none of us knows.

The Senator said the 13,000 people in Moria camp call it their "home". If one good thing can be said, it is that the HIQA report demonstrates to me that the children we have been able to move here are now calling this home. They do see themselves as supported and protected. We just need to bring more children over and put them in a similar situation. I thank the Senator for raising this very important issue.