Ireland: Socialist MP supports plea of Afghan refugees on hunger strike

No deportations to “one of the most disturbed and violent places on earth”

Around 40 Afghan refugees, including children, sought sanctuary in St Patrick’s Cathedral, in Dublin, last weekend, and started a thirst and hunger strike, to try to stop their deportation from Ireland to Afghanistan.

Joe Higgins, Socialist Party TD (member of Irish parliament), raised their desperate plight in Dáil Éireann (the Irish parliament), during Leaders’ Questions, on 16th May 2006.

Socialist MP supports plea of Afghan refugees on hunger strike

Dáil Éireann, Leaders’ Questions, 16th May 2006

Joe Higgins (Socialist Party)

Over the last few days, we have the tragic and unsettling event of a group of Afghan refugees, in desperation at the uncertainty of their situation, mounting a hunger and thirst strike in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Deputy Cowley and I, along with other Opposition Deputies, visited them today. Happily, they are now taking liquids, a great relief to them and to all who wish them well. Dehydration was having a dramatic and extremely rapid deteriorating effect on their health. This afternoon, there was a meeting with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the outcome of which we do not know yet.

Only two months ago the Taoiseach was in the US. He pleaded with the President of the US to allow, on grounds of compassion, 40,000 to 60,000 – we are not sure of the exact figure – Irish citizens in the US without official permission to remain and make their lives there. Every Member, be they on the right or the left, strongly supports that view.

Mr. F. McGrath: Hear, hear.

Dr. Cowley: Hear, hear.

The Taoiseach [Irish Prime Minister]

On Sunday last, 14 May, some 34 Afghan nationals entered St. Patrick’s Cathedral and commenced a hunger strike which they stated would not end until they were granted asylum in Ireland or leave to remain. At present, approximately 40 Afghans remain in the cathedral. The exact number is still imprecise as some additional people were admitted to the cathedral on Monday morning and some have been admitted to hospital today.

According to the information available to me, which is based on the individual names available to the Department at present, all the individuals concerned are in either the asylum or the leave to remain processes. At present, none of the individuals concerned has been issued with a deportation order as the process has not yet concluded in any case.

Applications for asylum are assessed as part of an independent process under the Refugee Act 1996. Case assessments are made on the basis of information provided by the applicant, as well as the detailed country of origin. An applicant who is found to have no grounds for refugee status is invited to make representations to the Minister under section 3 of the Immigration Act 1999 stating why he or she should not be deported from the State. In addition, the safety of a returning person, or refoulement, is fully considered in all cases.

As Deputy Joe Higgins is aware, the asylum process in this State is comprehensive and compares well with those of any of our EU partners. This was recently acknowledged by the former UNHCR representative in Ireland who was quoted as stating that Ireland is now a model for the new member states of the European Union and that it has a system which in many respects is one of the best in Europe.

I understand the present position to be that the individuals concerned have asked to meet officials of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to discuss their situation. The Department has agreed to meet a small representative group in its offices at Burgh Quay. The purpose of the meeting is to hear the exact reasons for their protests, as well as to explain the nature of the asylum and leave to remain processes and that the Minister is bound by law to deal with their cases within the present framework. No negotiations will take place at the meeting. It is a question of explaining the position to the protestors. As Deputy Joe Higgins has noted, there are eight minors among the group.

To be clear, people of more than 100 nationalities participate in the asylum process at present and conceding to any demands from the protestors would have major negative consequences for the asylum system which has been built up in the past decade. Undoubtedly, concessions would lead to similar protests and a major inflow of additional applicants in the hope of benefitting from similar actions. At present, 20 churches in Belgium contain asylum seekers. I wish to be straight in this respect. We will not go down that road. We have a system which people may follow if they wish. However, we will not give way to threats.

J. Higgins

The Taoiseach should not consider this to be a threat when people are so desperate and insecure for their future that they put their health and lives at risk. People come here seeking refuge and compassion because they are under threat in the places from which they have come. Many Members who deal and have dealt with individual cases of people in grave difficulties and human situations have reacted compassionately.

Interference by the major powers for more than two decades has plunged Afghanistan into being one of the most violent and disturbed countries on earth. First the Russians and then the CIA and Saudi Arabia and the rest intervened with their national interests in mind. Latterly, the CIA and Saudi Arabia called both the jihad and the horrific Taliban, which has been a major source of the instability and violence, into existence.

Does the Taoiseach not agree it is a gross misrepresentation of the truth to portray or attempt to portray Afghanistan as a peaceful and democratic society? Does he not agree it is one of the most disturbed and violent places on earth? Some of the Afghans who seek refuge here carry healed wounds from that conflict, unlike our Irish compatriots in the United States.

I noticed the Taoiseach did not refer to my equation of their seeking humanity and compassion in Ireland with the position of the tens of thousands of our fellow countrymen and women. Can he not see that in many ways, it is a similar situation? Irish representatives, both here and in the United States, who call for compassion on the part of the United States Government do no more than do Members in respect of these people and others who seek refuge. Will the Taoiseach speak to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform? On the grounds of compassion, humanity and the humanity of the people, as well as the respect for human rights cherished by the people, I ask that these people be allowed the refuge they need to have some future in society.

F. McGrath

Hear, hear.

The Taoiseach

I will not argue with any of Deputy Joe Higgins’s observations regarding Afghanistan or its difficulties. However, people of more than 100 nationalities have lodged applications in our present system.

J. Higgins

It is the same in the United States.

The Taoiseach

We are discussing Ireland. We have a very fair process. It is recognised as such within the European Union, in the United Nations—–

Mr. Costello

Not all aspects of it.

The Taoiseach:

—– and by the UNHCR. While 1% of the population was non-Irish a decade ago, that figure reached 9% before the recent census was taken. We have been very fair and tolerant. None of the individuals concerned has completed the process or been served with a deportation order.

Neither St. Patrick’s Cathedral nor any church is an office in which to deal with our legislation. We will be unable to have a process if we give into this action and I will not countenance that prospect. The individuals concerned should talk to the officials and follow the process. While I do not wish to be hard in this respect, there is no other way to deal with the process. They would be best advised to listen to the officials and to understand the system. This also applies to everyone else.

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