Dublin City Interfaith Forum


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Friday 29th April 2016

All faiths, Bahà'í, Buddhism, Christian, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, Integration, Mutuality, Pluralism, Respect, United


Speech by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Frances Fitzgerald TD

28th April, 2016

I welcome the opportunity to address this important issue today in the Dáil and I look forward to hearing the contributions of Deputies. At a time when anti–immigration and anti–refugee sentiment has unfortunately been part of mainstream rhetoric in the international political and media debate, it matters that Ireland and this house stands by our tradition of supporting refugees. As a nation, we naturally empathise with people fleeing war and persecution who seek to find a safe haven for themselves and for their
families. We see them as human beings. Not just numbers.

Europe is experiencing its greatest migration and refugee crisis since the aftermath of World War II. The tragedies in the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas underscore the desperation causing people to undertake the perilous journey to Europe. It’s a desperation gruesomely exploited by people smugglers and human traffickers.

Although the war in Syria has been the most immediate driver of new refugees into the EU, this is in the context where there are more than 60 million displaced persons globally. Ongoing crises in Eritrea, Mali and instability in other African regions exacerbated by hunger, poverty and climate change, mean that the migration issue is likely to stay high on the international agenda for the foreseeable future.

Ireland actively participated in the Valletta Summit Meeting of 11\12 November, 2015 which brought leaders from the EU and Africa together to address migration challenges originating in Africa. The protection of human rights is a central element in the Valletta Action Plan. The state of play of the implementation of the Plan will be regularly monitored within the framework of the Africa–EU Strategy, as well as within bilateral political dialogues among signatories to the Plan. This will help ensure that respect for human rights continues to guide engagement with participating Governments, including Eritrea and Sudan. The medium and long term policies to address the root causes through development, conflict prevention and resolution, are fully reflected and respected in the Valletta Declaration and Action Plan.

The European Union has taken concrete steps to address the crisis. Recognising that no member State can face this task alone, European–wide solutions have been adopted in the spirit of solidarity and cooperation on which the EU was founded. Measures have been adopted in support of Italy and Greece who jointly received more than one million migrants and asylum seekers last year.

From the outset, Ireland has committed to playing our part. Recognising that we do not experience the same migratory pressures as other Member States, we voluntarily opted in to the two EU Relocation Decisions and have also pledged to admit 520 programme refugees under the EU Resettlement programme. To coordinate our participation under these programmes, last September, the Government established the Irish Refugee Protection Programme under which we have agreed to accept up to 4,000 persons overall
under the EU Relocation and Resettlement programmes. This figure will increase through family reunifications. This is in addition to the applications for protection made within the State which have risen from under 1,000 in 2013 to over three times that figure in 2015.

Under the EU Resettlement programme our pledge to admit 520 persons is progressing well. 263 people have been admitted to date from Lebanon and the balance have been selected following a mission to Lebanon in January. We expect that those selected will arrive in Ireland by the end of September. Our national UNHCR–led resettlement programme is well established having admitted more than 1,400 persons from 28 different
countries since its inception in 2000. Our positive relationship with UNHCR is a key factor in its success. 

Regarding the EU Relocation programme, the initial pace was slow but is now beginning to accelerate. The scale of the EU programme, to relocate 160,000 over a two year period is unprecedented. Challenges in the operation of the programme at EU level have largely centred on two issues – the complexity of establishing the ‘hotspot’ locations in Greece and Italy, and misinformation being spread by the people smugglers which encourages migrants and asylum seekers not to cooperate with the registration process
at the hotspots – both of which are unfortunately outside of our control.  We are continuing to make all efforts to cooperate with the Greek and Italian authorities to give effect to the Relocation Decisions, approved by this House, and to support the work in the ‘hotspots’. My Department has already provided four experts to support the implementation of the programme, two in Italy and two in Greece and we remain open to providing further assistance upon request. We have also nominated Liaison Officers to
both Italy and Greece to support our identification of relocation candidates.

We have committed to relocate more than 2,600 people by the end of next year. The first relocated Syrian family of ten, who arrived in January, has been granted refugee status and are receiving our full support to assist them in their integration into Irish society. An additional 31 people have completed all checks, including security checks, and are expected to be relocated from Greece in the coming weeks. In the last week, a further pledge has been made to Greece for an additional 40 people. As the EU arrangements come on stream with greater numbers claiming asylum, particularly in Greece, the numbers and frequency of arrivals are expected to increase considerably over the coming months. This is a welcome development which will allow us to fulfil our obligations under the relocation decisions in a timely fashion. My Department is prepared and ready to respond to the needs of the arrivals.  

The crisis has not affected Italy as much as Greece and some procedural issues have a arisen. My officials are liaising with the Italian authorities to try to resolve these.
Resettlement has come to the forefront of the debate in recent weeks following the political agreement reached by the EU Heads of State or Government with Turkey at the March European Council. The EU–Turkey Statement has outlined a number of clear action points for implementation aimed at targeting the people smugglers involved in the exploitation of very vulnerable persons and remove the incentive to seek irregular routes
to the EU. I should point out that this is not a formal international agreement but rather an understanding of a package of arrangements to be introduced that affects different States in different ways. For example, Ireland’s only formal involvement will relate to taking a number of Syrians from Turkey.

Turkey has agreed to accept the return of all new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands as and from 20th March 2016. For every Syrian being returned to Turkey following an irregular entry via the Greek islands, another Syrian will be resettled from camps in Turkey to EU Member States under a 1 for 1 scheme. Priority under the scheme will be afforded to those who have not previously attempted an irregular crossing.
There will be no blanket or automatic returns of asylum seekers. All who apply for asylum in Greece will have their case heard on an individual basis and with the right of an appeal. The scheme will be operated in strict compliance with EU and international law and in full respect of the principle of non–refoulement. As noted under the Statement, the scheme is
being implemented as a temporary and extraordinary measure. The UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration will be important partners in the implementation of the scheme. 

The Statement does not establish any new commitments on Member States as far as the EU Relocation and Resettlement programmes are concerned. As I mentioned previously, a sufficient number of refugees has already been selected to fill the balance of our quota under the resettlement programme and are expected to arrive in three tranches between May and September of this year. We are working hard to expedite the relocation elements.

We’ve also sent international casework experts to the Greek islands to support the implementation of the agreement. So far, we have sent four nominations to the European Asylum Support Office for consideration for deployment to Greece. Two of these have been selected for immediate deployment and are currently on the Greek island of Lesvos. They will, working under the auspices of the European Asylum Support Office, support the Greek asylum service in the implementation of the admissibility procedure and the performance of vulnerability assessments. In addition, we have offered the services of two members of the Refugee Appeals Tribunal to support the establishment of Appeals Committees. Given that Ireland is not a member of Frontex, limitations apply to what we can do about deployment of Border Guards to assist in the return of people from Greece to Turkey in
compliance with international law. My officials are examining the issue in conjunction with An Garda Síochána to see if there is any scope for potential involvement.

We must recognise that Turkey is hosting more Syrian refugees than any other country, some 2.7 million people. The Facility for Refugees agreed under the EU–Turkey Action Plan of November last, will provide €3 billion in funding to support refugees in Turkey and will focus on meeting their immediate needs by providing food, health services and education. Ireland is contributing €22.9 million to this Fund. The first projects under the Facility, announced by the European Commission last month, will provide access to formal education for Syrian children in Turkey and humanitarian aid through the World Food Programme which will help to reach 735,000 Syrian refugees with food aid. The EU–Turkey Statement commits additional funding of up to €3 billion to the Facility for Refugees if the original €3 billion is fully spent and if all commitments under the agreement with Turkey are met.

Prior to the introduction of the EU Turkey agreement, more than 860,000 migrants and asylum seekers made the short treacherous journey from Turkey to the Greek islands last year, while over 154,000 have arrived so far this year. The early indications are that the average daily arrivals to the Greek islands have substantially reduced to approximately 130 per day, compared with more than 1,400 per day before the agreement. Humanitarian
assistance is being provided to the more than 45,000 people in Greece who arrived prior to the agreement taking effect. These people are entitled to apply for asylum in Greece and, if they meet the criteria, to begin a new life in another Member State under the Relocation programme Our willingness to provide protection and to fulfil our international obligations must be coupled with an effective returns and readmission policy for irregular migrants to ensure we have the capacity and resources to provide protection for those who need it most.

With the approach of the summer months, the calmer sea conditions will once again bring the Central Mediterranean migration route into sharper focus. Hundreds of people drowned last week attempting the journey to Italy and Malta. The tragedy goes on.  

While the protection of the EU’s external borders is extremely important, we must also ensure that we are fully implementing our humanitarian obligations under maritime law. My colleague, the Minister for Defence, recently announced a proposal to return the L.É Róisín to the Mediterranean Sea to resume humanitarian missions in support of the Italian Navy rescue ships. Last year, the Irish Naval Service rescued more that 8,000 migrants
in the Mediterranean and we can rightfully be proud of their achievements.  

The migration and refugee crisis is complex. In the short to medium term our concern must be offering protection to those in need, preventing further human suffering and discouraging vulnerable and exploited persons from embarking on dangerous journeys at the mercy of people smugglers.  Counteracting the narrative of the people smugglers is a key priority and in this regard a Task Force has been established at EU level to coordinate
an Information Strategy in third countries. Longer–term solutions will require a willingness to work with countries of origin and transit and to examine avenues for legal pathways for migration, including through scholarships and work programmes. As the EU relocation programmes get up to speed, Ireland is ready and equipped to meet the commitments approved by this House and we will remain a welcoming and inclusive society for those
who require our sanctuary.  

I look forward to hearing the contributions of Deputies on this important issue.