Friday 18 October 2019

Government had opposed migrant rescue missions in Mediterranean

Crew members on the Irish Navy vessel LE Eithne
Crew members on the Irish Navy vessel LE Eithne

Greg Harkin

Ireland initially opposed migrant rescue operations in the Mediterranean, newly released EU documents show.

The operations, which the navy has since joined, have led to the rescue of more than 170,000 people.

Thousands of people have died trying to cross from north Africa into Europe.

Italy and Greece have borne the brunt of the influx of migrants.

The Irish position was set out in papers prepared for the Justice and Home Affairs section of the European Council last year.

The briefing papers advised that "no contribution" should be made by Ireland at meetings and were marked "no intervention anticipated".

The Irish view was that Italy's rescue operations had "inadvertently" helped criminals in that they could provide less sea-worthy vessels on the grounds that the migrants would be rescued.

The papers, obtained by RTÉ Radio One's 'This Week' programme, advised that if Ireland was asked for a view, civil servants should highlight that the country had taken in 300 Syrian refugees. They were also advised to point to financial aid given to countries in the Middle East where refugees had settled.

However, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice and Equality said today that Ireland 'never voiced any opposition to search and rescue at EU level nor was the Minister advised to do so'.

The department representative said 'internal briefing' pointed to one of the unintended consequences of such operations, 'namely the risk of more smuggling activity in even more dangerous and unseaworthy vessels'.

"The briefing supplied was for the purposes of providing a full picture and was entirely valid at that time. To construe this as Ireland being opposed to search and rescue is simply incorrect," the spokesperson said.

"The focus at the time on replacing the Italian 'Mare Nostrum' operation with a Frontex co-ordinated operation was not likely to involve Ireland as we are not Members on account of our Schengen status. 

"Where we could help was in taking in refugees and humanitarian aid and we did this. 

"The situation continued to deteriorate however in 2015 as the numbers taking to sea escalated accompanied by major loss of life," he continued.

"The EU put together a much broader response following an emergency EU council in April. 

"Ireland quickly intervened to deploy the LE Eithne and also to take additional refugees on resettlement. However our actions were on a bilateral basis with Italy rather than participation in a Frontex operation. 

"The reality is that the response in the EU to the Mediterranean crisis has evolved as events unfolded and this is true for all member states including Ireland."

Sue Conlon from the Irish Refugee Council said she was both shocked and despondent at Ireland's initial response to the crisis covered by the 2013 and 2014 documents.

"The documents show that Ireland at that time was not facing up to the crisis," she said.

Irish Independent

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