Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said his first visit to a refugee camp had changed his perspectives on the issue but also argued it would still be mistaken to dismiss people's concerns about migration.
The Taoiseach visited the Mai Aini refugee camp close to Ethiopia's border with Eritrea on the last day of his three-day visit to Ethiopia. The camp houses around 12,500 of the 907,000 refugees registered in Ethiopia.
“I think coming here for me certainly helps to have a better understanding and change perspectives of the challenges we face in the world. We read about refugee camps, we see them on TV, it’s only when you can be in a place like that that you can understand,” he told reporters.
He also said migration needed to be managed in European countries such as Ireland.
“Generally speaking, Irish people have been quite welcoming of refugees,” he said.
"I think we also need to understand public concerns about migration. The biggest political mistake some people made across Europe is to be dismissive of people who have concerns about migration.
“They have concerns about the increasing impact migration has on housing for example, the impact on the health and education systems, particularly when there are a lot of kids in school who do not have English as a first language. They will have concerns about security and crime.
“Migration is a good thing. Ireland has benefited enormously from migration in my view.
“But it does need to be managed. We need to manage it right and see the picture as a whole, not just about responding to refugee crisis or humanitarian crisis, but the best in international development, peace and security. Those are the policies that work in the long term.”
During his visit, the Taoiseach met newly-arrived refugees from Eritrea as well as those who have been there for some years. Some of the residents are women with children whose husbands have already made their way to Europe.
He also saw the camp school, which has almost 1,000 pupils, and the distribution centre where refugees get basic provisions such as the staple injera bread (made from a type of teff or wheat), beans, flour, oil and laundry soap. They also receive a cash payment of about €2 each month.
He met Selamawit Tesfagghi who was registering as a refugee with her two young children. She said she wished to join her husband who has been in Luxembourg for a year.
Asked by the Taoiseach how she hoped to get there, she said: “I have not started on my journey but I do have a plan to join my husband.
“Life has been very difficult for me especially when [I] don’t have a husband helping [me].”
In his comments, Mr Varadkar said he would return home with a “recalibrated perspective of what we must do in the world.
“Europe must do more in the future to bring to Eritrea, in particular, greater democracy, greater freedom, greater security and greater economic opportunity for them so that they don’t feel they have to leave their homes.”
He argued while the EU needed to respond to humanitarian and refugee crises, its best option was to engage in long-term investment and partnerships in Africa.
“By 2050 there will be 2.5 billion people living on the continent of Africa.”
He said its population would be five times larger than Europe.
“There is no way the EU could take 10, 20 or 30 per cent of Africa’s population.
“That’s why we have to do, above all, is to get Africa right, to bring to Africa security, to bring to Africa political freedom, bring to Africa economic opportunities. If we do that most people won’t leave their homes.”
He was asked if Ireland’s commitment to receive 4,000 refugees was paltry in the context of Ethiopia, a poor country, hosting almost a million refugees.
He said there was a case for increasing the number, but there were issues in Ireland relating to housing that limited the capacity. He added: “The solution is never going to be about accepting refugees . . . The solution is the underlying process (of African development),” he said.
On the last stop of his visit, Mr Varadkar visited St Mary’s Church and monastery in Axum, where ancient annals and paintings were housed. Access to the monastery was confined to males, and female members of his party were not allowed entry.