Taoiseach says ‘not realistic’ to set figure for refugees

Kenny says he instucted Minister Fitzgerald to attend crisis meeting with ‘flexible mind’

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has said it is “not realistic” to set a figure immediately on the number of refugees Ireland can take. Photograph: Getty

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has said it is “not realistic” to set a figure immediately on the number of refugees Ireland can take. Photograph: Getty

 

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has said it is “not realistic” to set a figure immediately on the number of refugees Ireland can take.

EU justice ministers will meet to discuss the migration crisis on September 14th.

“The past experience is that countries will not measure up if they’re asked to do so purely voluntarily,” said Mr Kenny. “So it may well be that they are going to have to work out a formula here to say what numbers are appropriate for each individual country, and then get on with having a plan and a strategy that can deal with that catastrophic human situation.”

Asked whether Ireland would be happy to accept a mandatory number, Mr Kenny said: “That’s a decision that’s going to be taken by the EU Council — whether you can have a compulsory, mandatory number fixed for each country, be it based on their population as a percentage of the overall population, or in whatever way.”

Mr Kenny said he instucted Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald “to go to the meeting with a flexible mind here. We’ve got to be realistic in what we can contribute. We’re not within the protocol, but we are opting in because of our personality and tradition.”

Speaking after meeting with President Francois Hollande in Paris, Mr Kenny said the photograph of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying dead on the beach at Bodrun was “absolutely shocking.”

“Any parent could see that child in their own arms. Here’s a body of a young boy; a life lost, potential wasted, washed up on a beach like driftwood. That picture more than any I’ve seen of all the tragedies may well shock political processes into taking action here, in terms of the stream of migrants and the causes that underlie that.”

Regarding the numbers of asylum-seekers Ireland will accept, Mr Kenny noted that “We have opted into the protocol” (that is to say an EU Council decision in the Justice and Home Affairs area, where Ireland normally has an opt-out).

Mr Kenny said Ireland’s “investment in humanitarian issues in Syria is substantial for a country of 4.8 million,” adding that “because of our tradition, we have indicated an extension of the naval humanitarian mission in the Mediterranean.”

Numbers

The EU had talked about distributing 40,000 asylum-seekers throughout the Union. “Now we’re talking about over 100,000 people,” Mr Kenny said. “The root causes of these things in countries where there are no governments and tragic circumstances unfolding every day with no plan to deal with it has got to be sorted out.”

Minister Fitzgerald said Ireland is “of course” willing to take more refugees than already committed to, and its ability to do that “will be looked at”.

Speaking to The Irish Times she said she shared the “total upset the entire country feels at the images of the little boy [Aylan Kurdi], drowned on a beach”.

“It is one of the most distressing images we have ever seen.”

She said there was “a huge sense that we must do more” but said the figure of 600, which is the number of refugees the Government has committed to take under the current European refugee relocation programme, was “just one statistic in a wider context” of increased numbers of people seeking asylum here and seeking residency under other criteria.

Ireland would be “very proactive” on putting forward measures to deal with the crisis at the meeting on 14th September.

Assessed

She agreed there was an “appetite” among the Irish people for the Government to take more but said any increase in numbers had to be co-ordinated at an EU-level and a plan had to be in place here as to where and how they would be housed.

“The reality is there have to be criteria. There are three full-time staff in my Department working out the process for taking 600. If that number were to double for instance, there would have to be additional resources. Other countries are building tented cities, using schools and gymnasiums.”

Asked if Ireland could do this, she said: “Of course, but it’s not ideal. The whole point is that this all has to be worked out.”

She said there were already hundreds of people, who had been recognised as refugees but still living in direct provision centres, because they could not find housing. There was also a 50 per cent increase in the number of people arriving in Ireland and seeking asylum here, apart from those caught up in this crisis.

“There is a wide range range of significant pressures and challenges,” she said.

Her junior minister, Aodhán Ó Ríordain, said however he was “confident” the numbers to be given protection here would “increase substantially”.

“I am confident Ireland is going to take a lead. The numbers will increase. They will increase substantially. The mechanisms as to how that will happen will have to be worked out but the Irish people are demanding we do more and want their Government to take a lead on this. It’s a moment in history and we must step up to the plate.”

Hot-spots

She expected extra aid to be provided so temporary housing and processing centres could be built to better accommodate the needs of arriving people.

She also said the Dublin Convention, according to which asylum seekers must make their application for protection in the first EU country in which they land, was “clearly not working”.

Asked whether she thought the rule should be shelved or changed, she said: “It is going to have to be looked at. It is not being adhered to and we will have to discuss with our European colleagues where we are going with that.”

Most important, she said, was the safety of the migrating people, particularly during their attempts to cross the Mediterranean and Aegean seas. She said people-smugglers’ activities had to be disrupted while those desperate to make the crossing had to be rescued.

Ministers and TDs have said Ireland must take more refugees than it has committed to so far. They have also said Ireland must take a leading role in pushing for a comprehensive EU response to the refugee crisis.

Seán Sherlock, Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, said there was “a case to be made for taking in more refugees.”.

He said Ireland had contributed €31 million towards the humanitarian effort on the ground in refugee camps along the Syrian borders, and pointed to the deployment of the Irish naval vessels in the Mediterranean who had saved hundreds of people from drowning while trying to cross to Europe.

“As a nation I think we have genuinely lived up to part of our end of the bargain but yes, there is case to be made that we should take in more.”

Pat Breen, chair of the joint committee on foreign affairs, said: “I think we could take more. It’s a balancing act. If we were to take an amount proportionate to the numbers Germany is taking, that would be 40,000. Obviously our economy couldn’t take that. But there is room for us to take more.

“It needs to be a co-ordinated response from the European Union. There are countries who don’t want to take any.”

Spiralling

“I also think the Dáil must have a debate on this within a day or two when it’s back on September 22nd,” he said.

Jerry Buttimer, chair of the Oireachtas committee on health, when asked whether Ireland should accept more than planned number of refugees said, “Yes. Yes because it’s the right thing to do.”

Joanna Tuffy, chair of the Oireachtas committee on education, also called for a larger number of refugees to be taken by Ireland, and said Ireland needed to “take a leadership role in Europe among other countries. We should be calling for a co-ordinated response across Europe.

“The question of where more refugees would be accommodated is something that could be worked out. There are hotels. There are vacant buildings. The priority for these people is that they reach safety.”

Labour TD Joe Costello said: “We certainly should be doing a lot more. We have to be prepared to take more refugees. We have a huge diaspora of our own and we have had our people welcomed in other countries.

“It could be done at parish-level. There needs to be a buy-in at grassroots level, with people in each parish taking people in.

“We should be taking a lead in Europe. Heads need to be banged together in Europe and it needs to be done urgently. People are dying.”