CHILD REFUGEE CRISIS NEEDS AMBITIOUS, COHERENT AND SUSTAINED RESPONSE
I very much welcome the initiative of this debate. I applaud the motive and the actions of those who have been seeking to build all-party support for the motion on this matter, a motion which my party has been happy to endorse.
I am sure the supporters of this motion will understand and share my concern when I also say I very much hope this is not just another once-off gesture to tug at the heartstrings.
The situation is far too serious to think it can be dealt with by way of a single spontaneous act, no matter how well-intentioned.
Yes, we do need to act. But our actions need to be more ambitious, coherent and, above all, sustained.
Fred McBride, the Tusla CEO, pointed out a few days ago that his agency receives referrals of about 100 unaccompanied minors each and every year.
Thankfully, we are dealing with these children more humanely than was the case up to relatively recently. TUSLA now attempts to treat unaccompanied minors equally to the other children in its care.
They are no longer housed in hostels. They are instead if possible provided with foster care, or supported lodgings or residential placements. Most of them are now allocated a social worker.
And there has been a very marked decrease in the number of unaccompanied minors that simply go missing from State care.
But one major problem remains: what to do when unaccompanied minors reach 18. Some of them, if they have applied for asylum, must then enter the direct provision system.
And we face other challenges. Despite what the Minister says, we don’t have a targeted national strategy for unaccompanied minors. And an agreement next week to take in 200 from Calais, no matter how much we would welcome it, is not a substitute for a strategy.
The Department of Justice has responded to queries about accepting children from the Calais Jungle by highlighting our commitment to children coming from the Greek programme. That would make sense if in fact we were receiving a stream of unaccompanied children in need of resettlement under the Greek programme.
The last Government set up the Irish Refugee Protection Programme as a response to the refugee crisis. We pledged to accept 4,000 migrants by the end of 2017. There were meant to be two channels.
First, there is the EU relocation mechanism, established to assist Italy and Greece. Second, there is an UNHCR-led refugee resettlement programme, which is focussed on resettling refugees from Jordan and Lebanon.
The UNHCR’s resettlement programme seems to be working, so far as this State is concerned. But the EU relocation mechanism has been very slow. We will be lucky to have accepted 350 or so people by the end of the year.
We are told that Ireland told Greece that we want to accept unaccompanied minors under this relocation programme. The message doesn’t seem to have got through.
We are told there are inevitable administrative difficulties and delays. First the Greek authorities must forward case files for the minors they wish to relocate here. Then officials from TUSLA must travel to Greece to assess the needs of those minors. And so on.
The Department has said it doesn’t know how many unaccompanied minors will be accepted by this route – that it is in large part up to the Greeks – but we say that we will continue to prioritise our commitment to this vulnerable group.
The Irish Examiner gave us the hard facts yesterday.
Ireland has accepted ONE unaccompanied minor under the relocation programme. That is what our prioritised commitment has added up to so far.
Bear in mind that there are an estimated 2,500 children in Greece awaiting relocation, one-sixth of them under 14.
By the end of October, 75 of these children were relocated. Finland took 38, Spain 18, Luxembourg 9, Germany 4, Holland 3, Portugal 2.
And Ireland took one.
So, we cannot use our purported commitment to children in the Greek camps as grounds for turning our backs on Calais.
About 1,500 children and young people are directly affected by the closure of the Calais Jungle. A generous and humanitarian response is required, pretty much immediately.
To offer a welcome, a home and an opportunity to improve their lives – in an English-speaking county, which is above all what they want – is, undoubtedly, the right thing to do.
It is the right thing to do in Calais and, on an ongoing basis, it is the right thing to do under the EU Relocation Programme. We need to redouble our efforts with Greece to get that programme up and running.
We need to demonstrate that, when Ireland makes unaccompanied minors its priority, that means it is willing to accept more than just one child a year.
If we are to make a contribution to addressing this global tragedy, on what I’ve described as an ambitious, coherent and sustained basis, then we need a properly resourced and managed foster care system.
Agreement on 200 from Calais tonight might be a start. But just a start.