International community must invest more in peacebuilding and conflict prevention

Seán Sherlock TD
28 April 2016

I am very pleased to have this opportunity to address the House on the challenge of addressing the impact of the unprecedented combination of conflicts and humanitarian crises worldwide, but especially in the broader Middle East and Africa. I have been proud to lead the Irish aid response over the past two years as Minister of State for Development and Trade.

Europe has experienced the impact of the crisis, with a huge influx of desperate people fleeing conflict and misery. Many have been driven from their original homes by war in Syria, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Libya and in Ukraine. Others have been driven by drought, poverty and conflict in Africa. Europe is facing its biggest humanitarian challenge since the conflict in the former Yugoslavia over 20 years ago. The world is facing its biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. The events of the last year have reminded us again that Ireland and Europe cannot isolate ourselves from our wider global neighbourhood.

Next month, the first ever World Humanitarian Summit will be held in Istanbul, called by the UN Secretary General. The hosts, Turkey have over the last five years become hosts also of the world’s largest refugee population, with over 2.7 million Syrian refugees.
As the refugee crisis has unfolded in the Middle East, the Government has been responding on behalf of the Irish people, through Irish Aid. By the end of this year, we will have provided €62 million for the Syrian crisis alone, and we have made specific efforts in support of our European partners in Greece and the Balkans.

We provide core support to the Red Cross and to UNHCR, which have been particularly active in meeting the immediate needs of refugees in Europe. Since the start of 2015, Irish Aid has provided €180,000 specifically to support the work of NGO partners in Macedonia. Last December, Irish Aid shipped 9 tonnes of blankets Serbia to be distributed to refugees travelling during the cold winter months.

Under Ireland’s Rapid Response Initiative, we have deployed two rapid responders to Serbia and Macedonia, and two to Greece. A further deployment next week will support UNHCR’s provision of water and sanitation services for refugees there.

Syria crisis

Those arriving in Europe start their journey in many different places. Over the last decade, most migrants have arrived from sub-Saharan or North Africa. However, the Syrian conflict has dramatically changed the profile of migrant flows, and Syrians are now the largest group arriving in Europe, accounting for nearly half of those arriving in Greece last year.

Last month marked the fifth anniversary of this brutal conflict, which the UN now estimates has caused up to 400,000 deaths.
The continued violence and war crimes which have forced millions of Syrians to flee their homes and their country must end. Those responsible for these crimes must be held accountable, and Ireland believes that the UN Security Council should refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.

Ireland urges all sides to the Geneva negotiations to support a political resolution to the conflict and the formation of a representative transitional government.

A political solution is desperately needed, but sadly it is not clear that this will happen soon, and needs are rising to the point where the global humanitarian response cannot keep up.

Ireland has been providing assistance to Syrians since 2012, and this aid has been scaled up as the impact of the conflict has worsened. Over 4.8 million people have already had to leave Syria.

In 2015, Ireland provided over €13 million in assistance to Syria, and in February this year, at the London pledging conference on Syria, I committed Ireland to providing a further €20 million in 2016. Irish Aid funding is supporting Irish NGOs including Concern, GOAL, and Trocaire in their work with refugees in Syria and the surrounding region.

The statistics for the numbers of people affected by the Syria crisis, and the amount of funding needed to meet their needs, are so staggering, that the human stories behind the numbers are sometimes forgotten.

Last October, I travelled to northern Jordan to see for myself what Ireland’s contribution is achieving. I was very moved to be able to meet with a family who had arrived in Azraq refugee camp, having fled with their two small children after armed groups attacked their village.

The mother of the family gave birth to her third child at a border post, without medical assistance. I was struck by how relieved and grateful she was to have arrived at a place of safety, where there is a Red Cross hospital and she could receive care for herself and her seven-day-old son. I was proud that Ireland’s contributions to the Red Cross, to the UNHCR and to UNICEF in Jordan.

As conflicts continue year upon year, however, that moment of immediate relief when a family reaches safety gives way to new challenges. As years go by, with no immediate prospect of returning home, people want opportunities to work, to progress in education and to contribute to society – to invest in their own future.

One Syrian family I met in Jordan had to choose between paying either for the education of their younger children, or of their older children. The choice was heart-breaking, and one which they should not have had to make. The family’s great hope is to return to Syria, but meanwhile, they are trying to build a life where they are.

Irish Aid’s contribution supports programmes which give these families hope, and I am proud that Ireland’s support to Syria in 2016 will contribute to providing many young Syrians with a meaningful future.

Global issues

The Syrian crisis is the largest humanitarian emergency for a generation. But forced displacement and migration do not just affect Europe and the Middle East.

We need to address the factors that drive people to leave their homes and risk treacherous journeys to find safety. Too many have lost their lives in a desperate attempt to enter Europe by sea.

The UN recently forecast that at least 56 million people in sub-Saharan Africa will need humanitarian assistance next year, in conflict-affected countries such as Somalia, Sudan, and northern Nigeria. Millions more are affected by other root causes of migration, such as poverty and underdevelopment, which themselves lead to instability and conflict. In parts of Africa, the pressures of climate change have increased tensions for resources and forced people from their homes as they can no longer farm the land.

A strong European response to the current refugee crisis must not result in the diversion of funding away from long-term programmes which promote much-needed economic development.

Ireland is firmly committed to making a meaningful contribution to multilateral efforts to deal with the migration and displacement crisis. We believe that collective approaches are most likely to bear fruit. Ireland’s Ambassador to the UN in New York has also been asked to take on the difficult co-facilitation role, with Jordan, in the lead-up to a UN Summit on migration which will take place on 19 September.

As I look ahead to the World Humanitarian Summit next month, I am proud of Ireland’s consistent and principled support to those affected by war and conflict. Ireland targets our development assistance where it is needed most – in fragile states and least developed countries in Africa.

However, a key theme of the World Humanitarian Summit will be the need for greater global leadership in preventing and ending conflicts. The vast majority of crises globally are protracted, lasting a decade or more. On average now, people displaced from their homes remain displaced for 17 years. Displacement has become a political, human rights, developmental and economic challenge. Humanitarian action alone cannot solve conflicts, but yet humanitarian aid has to pick up the pieces when politics fail.

We need to create political will and momentum to address the root causes of migration. We believe that it is only by working in a spirit of equality and partnership with countries of origin that long term solutions to the challenges of migration will be found.

The international community must invest more in peacebuilding and conflict prevention. It is cheaper in the long-run to prevent conflict than to deal with the tragic aftermath. It is also our duty to our fellow global citizens.

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