Séamus Healy (Tipperary, Workers and Unemployed Action Group) Since Operation Pontus in the Mediterranean became Operation Sophia, the number of refugees landing in Italy has more than halved. For a considerable time, there has been serious concern that the price that the EU and Ireland are prepared to pay for stemming migration is the gross abuse of the human rights of migrants. The Irish office of Amnesty International has stated, “The Libyan coastguard is intercepting people in distress at sea and transferring them to Libya, where they are being held in detention centres and exposed to systematic and widespread human rights violations such as arbitrary detention, torture, rape and exploitation.” The statement goes on to indicate that while Ireland is not directly sending people back to Libya, it shares responsibility due to Europe’s joint actions to strengthen the capacity of the Libyan coastguard to intercept people and return them to Libya. Amnesty International has said that EU member states, including Ireland, cannot plausibly claim to be unaware of the grave violations being committed by some of the detention centre officials and coastguard agents with whom they co-operate. It has also argued that European Governments, including Ireland, stand accused of being knowingly complicit in the torture and exploitation of thousands of migrants and refugees by the EU-financed Libyan coastguard and officials running the country’s detention camps. The UN human rights chief, Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, has also described the suffering of migrants in these camps as “an outrage to the conscience of humanity”. Médecins sans Frontières has also supported, in various reports, the views of those other organisations.
In view of the human rights abuses in Libya I have outlined, will the Taoiseach order Irish vessels to cease all co-operation with the Libyan coastguard? Will his Government cease participation in the training and funding of the Libyan coastguard through Operation Sophia? In a reply to a recent parliamentary question, I was told that, on its tour of duty, the LÉ Niamhrescued more than 600 migrants, 294 of whom were put ashore in Italy. Will the Taoiseach tell the Dáil to what non-Irish vessels were the remaining more than 300 migrants transferred? Where were those transferred migrants put ashore in each case? Will the Taoiseach give an assurance that none of these migrants was transferred to the Libyan coastguard by the LÉ Niamhor to any other vessel to which they had already been transferred?
Leo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael) The Deputy asked if we will withdraw from our mission in the Mediterranean in Operation Sophia. We will not do so. I am very proud of the work that our Naval Service and Defence Forces are doing in the Mediterranean, rescuing migrants from the sea and training the Libyan coastguard to do what a coastguard should be able to do, namely, secure its seas and do its work, at least in its own territorial waters. It is an operation of which we are part. We are very proud of our Naval Service for being part of it. That will continue. The Deputy asked if people were transferred to the Libyan coastguard. I am advised by the Minister of State with responsibility for defence that this was not the case and people transferred to other boats were brought to Italy. I will seek confirmation of that to ensure I am correct in that regard.
It is evident to everyone in Europe that we face a large amount of migration from the Middle East and Africa. The numbers have decreased very considerably in the past couple of years.
Anyway, it has had a huge effect. It has had a big effect on the politics of Europe. We see that from the elections in Italy, where a populist anti-immigrant government has been elected and in the countries of central and eastern Europe, where anti-migration governments have been elected. We cannot be in denial about the fact that this has changed politics. Public opinion in Europe is changing too. We see it evident in Germany, which was initially welcoming to millions of migrants. Now, public opinion is in a very different place in Germany and we cannot be blind to the realities of that.
John McGuinness (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail) It is happening in Austria as well.
When it comes to co-operation with source countries and transit countries, we have to bear in mind why people risk their lives to travel to Europe and to cross the seas in the way they do. It is because they come from countries that are badly governed or unsafe or where there is no economic opportunity. That is why it must be part of the core mission of Europe, when it comes to the Middle East and Africa, to try to build peace and security and bring about economic opportunities in the Middle East and Africa. We have seen how the power of the free market in Asia has lifted 1 billion people out of poverty in 20 years. We need to see that kind of power happen in Africa as well so that people are not forced to travel.
We need to step up border security as well because what is happening is terrible. People are travelling huge distances. Traffickers put them in dinghies and boats that are not seaworthy knowing full well that European navies and others will come to the rescue and bring them the rest of the journey. That is something that cannot be encouraged. None of us should in any way encourage human trafficking of that nature. The Libyan coastguard has a big job to do to deal with that.
I note he failed to give an assurance that Ireland will stop training and funding the Libyan coastguard and, through the coastguard, the Libyan Government, which is torturing migrants in these camps.
The Taoiseach is Minister for Defence and, as such, he is responsible for this area of operations. In a parliamentary reply recently I was told that 139 suspected people smugglers or traffickers had been apprehended under Operation Sophia and that 545 boats were taken from criminal organisations. Were any of these boats or smugglers handed back to the Libyan coastguard? More important, were any of the refugees or migrants on these boats handed over to the Libyan coastguard or any other Libyan ships to be sent back to detention centres in Libya?
I will double check so that I am sure, but I am informed that none of them was handed over to the Libyan coastguard and that they were taken to European countries.
The Deputy ascribed comments to those various organisations. I am not sure that they said that about the Government. One or two might have but they certainly did not all say that. It is very much our position as a government that the camps or detention centres should be run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, or the International Organization for Migration, IOM.
The UNHCR said it.
That is very much the point I will make at the summit of European prime ministers later this week. Reception centres, where they exist, should be run by the UNHCR or the IOM so that we can be assured human rights are upheld and standards are protected. At the same time, we need to ensure we never equivocate on human trafficking. No one should do anything to facilitate these people smugglers and human traffickers.
I am afraid that some actors in this area are doing that. It might not be their intention but they are doing it.