Saturday 22 October 2016

As a former minister, I'm frustrated by Ireland's response to appalling humanitarian crisis

Published 09/05/2015 | 02:30

A British Royal Navy sailor from HMS Bulwark gives water to a woman on a Royal Navy Landing Craft after rescuing a boat-full of people in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Italy
A British Royal Navy sailor from HMS Bulwark gives water to a woman on a Royal Navy Landing Craft after rescuing a boat-full of people in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Italy

As an awestruck observer of the unfolding humanitarian refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, a theme recurs from my time as Minister for overseas development and human rights from 1997 to 2002. Of speeches made over that period, at home and abroad, advocating an increase in aid budgets for the poor countries of the world, most included the argument that it was in the economic and security interests of the rich north to foster stability, economic development and poverty reduction in the least-developed countries in Africa and in the Middle East.

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Admittedly, the "enlightened self-interest" point was additional to the overwhelming case for aid based on humanitarian values which has fuelled decades of development assistance, channelling billions of euros in aid to poor African countries and Palestine. Europe is by far Africa's biggest donor. In Ireland's case, our highly-regarded development programme of assistance to poor countries has always focussed on a small number of the poorest African countries.

Irish aid in Africa developed from the template established by Irish missionaries and goes to basic needs, in areas such as education, healthcare, vaccination programmes, food security and agriculture, water and sanitation and support for democracy and good governance. A major part of the budget is via Irish and international NGOs for emergency and humanitarian relief.

Being neutral and non-aligned militarily, Ireland's overseas aid programme is effectively our major foreign policy. We don't do wars; we do peacekeeping and development. Even taking into account some reductions in aid due to the economic crisis, Ireland ranks number nine in the league of OECD donors of aid to poor countries as measured as a percentage of our GNP. Ireland is a strong and respected voice in the Global Aid community and at the United Nations, where many Irish people serve at the highest level.

Ireland, therefore, has genuine credibility on issues of humanitarian response. I say this because I have become frustrated at the timidity of Ireland's response to the deepening refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. Conflict and poverty in Africa is propelling hundreds of thousands of migrants into the sea in unseaworthy boats operated by traffickers. The migrant numbers are staggering and unprecedented; building up steadily with the acceleration of conflict right across North Africa and the Levant since the so-called Arab Spring.

What was originally viewed as an explosion of democracy and self-determination has deteriorated into factional and sectarian strife and the catastrophic emergence of Islamic State terror. The five-year-old Syrian civil war, which has produced four million refugees outside of the country as well as millions of internally displaced people, is a major contributor to the regional crisis.

It is too easy a distraction to argue that the diverse migrants drowning in the seas off Italy and Libya are not all "refugees" as defined by the Geneva Convention. Some are undoubtedly economic migrants seeking to escape the turmoil and chronic poverty of failed states. The major humanitarian imperative is to save the lives of those making the perilous voyages and being exploited by people traffickers.

Over seventeen hundred people have drowned this year alone and the body count goes up each day as terrified passengers are transported in appalling conditions in a desperate effort to find refuge and a better life.

What should Europe do?

Following the mass drowning tragedy of two weeks ago, Europe's governments were startled from their lethargy and had a crisis meeting. All that was agreed, however, even in the wake of such loss of life, was to restore funding for the rescue operation, which had been discontinued last year. The Italians had been left abandoned by their European colleagues to fund Mare Nostrum, to which their navy had been dedicated, saving over 60,000 migrants from the seas off the Italian coast in the last two years.

So that funding has been restored but it remains just a border control and rescue mission. There appears no wider strategy for a coherent migration and settlement programme for the influx of refugees. Many of these migrants have been in refugee camps in neighbouring countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan for many years and see no future there for themselves and their children. There is talk of Europe making efforts to halt the exodus by putting in place asylum facilities in EU offices in North Africa. And that could be part of a solution. But with so much war, instability and failed states, such efforts are unlikely to deal with the scale of the challenge.

This is undoubtedly the biggest humanitarian challenge this decade and the biggest refugee crisis since World War II. But, there is a regrettable lack of moral leadership emanating from European capitals. Former Commissioner Peter Sutherland, now the UN representative on Migration, has been resolute in calling for a coherent EU strategy for several years. Pope Francis has long called for morality to guide the response of Europe's leaders.

Barry Andrews, CEO of GOAL who has visited the region recently, was critical: "The EU has absorbed 1,000pc fewer refugees than Lebanon alone. The US has taken in 335 refugees out of a total of 3.5 million. Only 54pc of the 2014 UN appeal for Refugees was honoured, with the World Food Programme forced to halve food rations and forced to withdraw its support from nine refugee camps in Turkey." He points out that Ireland has only taken about 100 Syrian refugees per annum and questions whether this fits with our humanitarian tradition?

The international response is one of ineffectual handwringing, daunted by the scale of the refugee crisis and the growth of xenophobia. British prime minister David Cameron in time will regret his callous dismissal of any suggestion that the UK would accept any of the refugees. It was a shocking moral lapse, motivated by base electoral considerations.

Ireland's Minister for Defence Simon Coveney will dispatch the LE Eithne to assist in the rescue operations and that is a welcome initiative. But Ireland needs to do more and to accept a proportionate share of migrants. We should have a stronger voice in the European debate. Ireland's race memory of famine, mass migration and huddled masses in coffin ships should inform a more progressive and generous response.

EU leaders are looking at their hands when it comes to a comprehensive rescue and a shared resettlement programme. That is unconscionable. Nobody is arguing that this is easy but paralysis is not a policy. This is a challenge of governance and global leadership; a test of what values and priority we give to fellow human beings in distress.

Irish Independent

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