Last February, I raised the issue of the Syrian crisis in this House in a Commencement debate at the request of the Ireland Syrian Solidarity Campaign. At the time I pointed out that thousands of people risked their lives on overcrowded boats sailing to Europe. I also urged the Irish and European authorities to do more to help the refugees and address the root causes of the crisis.
As other Members have said, the crisis has been unravelling in front of our eyes for years. It is too all of our great shame, as Europeans and that of the international community as a whole, that the issue did not become a political priority until photographs of poor Aylan Kurdi emerged in the international media. We could not ignore the image of a small child lying dead on a beach. His image resonated with parents all over the world. People thought that could have been their child, that his family was just like their families and that they were unfortunate to have been born in Syria. It was as a result of a huge public outpouring of anger and upset after those images emerged that we finally started to see some political leadership devoted to the issue. Even then, the response was slow and totally inadequate. In a European Union that is supposed to have been built on the principle of solidarity, the countries at the front-line were left on their own. Senator Norris has mentioned the case of Greece and Italy but other countries were left for a long time to cope with the crisis on their own. Other European countries turned their backs and pretended not to see while saying, “They are not on our borders so why should we have to do anything about it.”
I, too, am very proud of the incredible work that has been done by the Irish Naval Service. I have no doubt that it has been emotionally difficult for the personnel involved to respond in that environment. The naval personnel have all done us proud by their efforts to rescue families in the Mediterranean. I am concerned about the slow response by the Irish Government to the crisis. We were not one of the first European countries to respond. Our European colleagues, like Angela Merkel and others, criticised countries like Ireland for not stepping up and agreeing to take more refugees at the start. Yes we sent the Irish Naval Service to rescue people but we then deposited them in other countries.
Initially, our response was very slow and even now the number of people that we have agreed to take is very small. At a European level there has been a collective lack of leadership. One had host countries such as Germany, which had Angela Merkel welcome people into Germany, but other EU countries did not step up. From now on I would like to see the Minister of State and his ministerial counterparts step up and show leadership on this issue. Let us be generous. Let us be mindful of our history and be generous in our response because the Irish response has been too slow.
As has been pointed out, the number of refugees coming to Europe is very small when compared with that of Lebanon and our neighbouring countries. We can and we must have an effective system to receive these refugees.
I would like the Irish Government to push for an effective EU asylum policy because it has become clear that we do not have one. There has been an agreement on some resettlement in this particular case but we need a proper asylum policy that is fair to each of the 28 EU states. Such a policy would ensure that we respond in a humane and an efficient manner to an increasing refugee crisis which is happening not just in the Middle East but also in Africa and elsewhere. It is time that the Dublin Convention is looked at again because it is fundamentally flawed and needs to be reviewed.
The response by some European leaders has been pathetic but the generosity of Irish people has been incredible. Irish people are mindful of their history of famine, occupation and emigration. They were horrified at the extent of human suffering in Syria and want to help. All over the country communities are responding. Individuals have pledged rooms in their homes. Community groups are collecting donations of clothes, tents and other essential items to send over to the refugees. In my own area of Howth, which is a small village in north Dublin, a community has collected over 500 packs in a few weeks. The response and generosity of Irish people is something of which we can be deeply proud. There is a need to co-ordinate the response. A couple of weeks ago I met Deputy Denis Naughten, community groups, Oxfam, GOAL, Special Olympics and other organisations to discuss how we can provide a proper welcome in Ireland for these groups.
Senator Norris asked a question about accommodation. I, too, would be very concerned if these refugees were accommodated in direct provision. It is far preferable for families to be located in different villages around the country where they can be integrated from the start and have Irish people look after them. That is far preferable than going into the institutionalised setting provided by direct provision.
I reiterate my call on the Government to end the use of direct provision as long-term accommodation. That solution was only intended to last a few months and act as a way to receive people into the country while dealing with their applications. It is to our great shame that families have been left to languish in direct provision for years on end. People have been left without proper accommodation, any kind of family environment and no right to work. As I have mentioned previously in the House, there are huge child protection concerns about children having to share bathrooms and other accommodation with unrelated adults. I take this opportunity to request action be taken. I know there is a task force and the matter has been talked about for quite some time. Over the years we have debated the issue on a number of occasions in this House. I ask the Minister of State to talk to his colleagues about making sure that action is taken.