Fri, May 26, 2023
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Neasa raising the case of Irish aid worker, Seán Binder, who was arrested and accused by Greek authorities of aiding human trafficking when he volunteered as a lifeguard with a humanitarian NGO on the Greek island of Lesbos assisting asylum seekers arriving in small boats.
Neasa Hourigan TD: Along with the Syrian refugee and human rights activist, Ms Sarah Mardini, Mr. Seán Binder was arrested in 2018 and accused by Greek authorities of espionage, aiding human trafficking and belonging to a criminal organisation. Mr. Binder, whose mother lives in Togher, has spent a significant part of his life in Ireland. In 2018, he volunteered as a lifeguard with a humanitarian NGO on the Greek island of Lesbos, assisting asylum seekers arriving in small boats from the nearby Turkish coast. Mr. Binder and Ms Mardini were attempting to save lives. In his own words: “Framing the act of helping someone as either criminal or heroic, implies that it’s somehow abnormal. But it isn’t. Helping someone in distress is the most normal thing to do.”
I wish to put this matter in context. Mr. Binder now faces up to 12 years in prison for the act of helping people. To illustrate just how awful the circumstances are at the EU’s borders at the moment, we have a perhaps terrifying example from just this month where an Austrian activist on the island of Lesbos filmed 12 people – men, women, children and a baby – being taken out of a van by Greek authorities, towed out to sea and put on an inflatable raft. The authorities forced people with a six-month-old baby onto that raft and abandoned them. That group of people are now in a detention centre on the Turkish coast. This is the reality of what Mr. Binder was dealing with. It is difficult to imagine here on our perch on the north of Europe what that is like, but we help to uphold that system.
What is the Irish Government doing to help people like Mr. Binder, who has lived here, and to interrogate how the funding that we make available for migrant services in the Mediterranean is used? I have asked this question many times before. There seems to be little oversight of how Irish taxpayers' money is being used to fund action at the borders of the EU. Are we paying to have a six-month-old baby forcibly put on a dinghy? The Taoiseach has congratulated Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on his recent election, but there have not been many questions about that baby or the other 11 people. Are we providing cover and funding to a government that is not only perpetrating this crime, but also prosecuting one of our own who acted to protect those very vulnerable people? What are we doing to protect Mr. Binder and his family, who are still living here? When was the last time someone from the Department of Justice or the Department of Foreign Affairs met Mr. Binder or his family? When was the last time the Greek ambassador was called in to explain what Greece was doing in those situations at the EU border and what it was doing on the island of Lesbos? When was she called into the office of the Taoiseach or the Minister for Foreign Affairs to explain this extremely aggressive prosecution of human rights activists and the recent uncovering of inhumane and dangerous treatment of migrants at Greece’s border? When is the Minister doing to reach out to Mr. Binder and how we are holding the Greek Government to account?
Minister of State, Kieran O’Donnell: I thank the Deputy. I note the point she has raised. It was not the title of this Topical Issue matter. Nevertheless, I will make reference to it. The Deputy’s request is that there be a follow-through with the Department of Foreign Affairs in respect of Mr. Binder and his family. I will commit to taking the matter up with the Tánaiste and his office.
What I will now discuss is Ireland’s support of EU search and rescue efforts of migrants and asylum seekers in distress at sea in the Mediterranean. I will touch on some of the themes the Deputy covered. On behalf of the Tánaiste and Minister for Defence, I thank the Deputy for raising the issue ahead of the forthcoming deployment of a Naval Service vessel to participate in Operation Irini over a seven-week period in June and July. The core task of Operation Irini is to contribute to preventing arms trafficking within its agreed area of operation in accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1970 of 2011 and subsequent resolutions on the arms embargo on Libya.
As the Deputy will be aware, the Dáil recently approved the deployment of the Naval Service vessel and associated support staff in accordance with the triple lock provisions of the Defence Acts. In the course of the Dáil debate on the deployment, a number of issues arose, including any role the Naval Service might have in capacity building and training of the Libyan Coast Guard as well as the arrangements in place as regards search and rescue and the assistance provided to persons found in distress on the high seas, which falls into the Deputy’s theme.
Regarding search and rescue, let me reiterate the Government’s position that there are no circumstances in which members of the Naval Service will be involved in capacity building and-or training of the Libyan Coast Guard.
Ireland will declare caveats to this effect on formally joining the operation. In any event, it should be noted that capacity building and training of the Libyan coastguard and navy element of the mandate is not currently in operation due to political fragmentation in Libya, and as such is suspended.
On the issue of safety of life at sea and search and rescue, I recall that the motion approved by the Dáil included an amendment to the effect that the Naval Service vessel participating in Operation Irini would be subject to the obligation under international law to provide assistance to persons in distress at sea. Government was happy to accept this amendment on the basis that it restates a previously existing obligation on Ireland under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, an obligation to which the Naval Service would have to give effect whether in the context of Operation Irini or otherwise. While Operation Irini has no mandate for safety of life at sea and search and rescue, and strategic reviews of the mission have stated that Operation Irini is not a pull factor in migration, the involvement in the search and rescue and safety of life at sea event while part of Operation Irini cannot be totally ruled out.
The recent strategic review of the mission indicated that in 2022, 91,985 migrants arrived via the central Mediterranean route into Europe. Of this figure, an estimated 163, or 0.17%, were rescued by Operation Irini. In the event that Operation Irini is involved in safety of life at sea and search and rescue, the mission direction is that those migrants rescued by the ship should be taken to and disembarked to a European coastguard ship as soon as possible so that Operation Irini can return to its mandated operation with minimum delay. That said, the instances in which Irini vessels have been involved in rescue have been rare.
Given the area within which it is anticipated the Naval Service ship will be operating, Defence Forces advise that it is unlikely it will be involved in safety of life at sea or search and rescue events. However, I can assure the House that should the Naval Service vessel be required at any point during its deployment to respond to a safety of life at sea or a search and rescue event, it will do so in accordance with the mission direction. Such rescue operations will be conducted in line with international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Neasa Hourigan TD: I thank the Minister of State, and I welcome some of his comments about Operation Irini. The detail he gave is instructive because it shows that these operations and their funding are quite complex. They often stray into areas for which they were not originally envisaged, but they also have to be dealt with. Our funding should operate in a similar way. The way in which the Government contributes to EU funds that are used to patrol EU borders in the manner we have seen in the past six weeks, and certainly since 2017 when Seán Binder was arrested, is deeply troubling.
I also welcome the Minister of State’s offer to bring this back to the Minister. However, I would like to flag that when he does so, the Minister will say Seán Binder is not a citizen and therefore is the German Government’s problem. I ask the Minister of State to remind the Minister that we are currently blocking Seán’s attempt to become a citizen. He absolutely qualifies, but because of this case we are blocking his attempts to become a citizen. Second, I do not sit in the Bundestag; I sit in this House. We are responsible for how this House operates. We are responsible for how this House operates and for how we spend taxpayers' money when it comes to operations in the Mediterranean.
We are all aware that the motivation of charges like these against activists and human rights activists are to deter their work, to deter them from assisting migrants, and to make the Greek coast as dangerous, deadly and unappealing as possible to those seeking sanctuary in Europe. It is to create a chilling effect so that no help is forthcoming for men, women, children and babies we sometimes leave to drown at sea.
I think it was three years ago that Ursula von der Leyen said that Greece was Europe’s shield in deterring migrants. I find those words deeply troubling. Even reading those words, I do not think this is what Ireland signed up for. I do not think we signed up for the prosecution of people like Seán Binder. I do not think we signed up for dragging people into the middle of the sea on a raft and leaving them there. I would love if the Minister of State could bring that to the Minister, so that we could understand the full extent of Greece’s tactics here.
Minister of State, Kieran O’Donnell: I have committed to bringing the matter to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Micheál Martin. Obviously, Greece is a sovereign nation. However, it is a matter I will draw to the Minister’s attention. I see the Deputy’s genuine passion in this regard.
On behalf of the Tánaiste and Minister for Defence, I again thank Deputy Hourigan for her engagement on this matter. Ireland has been an active participant and contributor to the EU’s common security and defence policy, CSDP. That contribution will increase significantly next month with the deployment of a Naval Service ship to the EU’s Operation Irini. In doing so, our Naval Service will be helping to stem the flow of weapons into a volatile region and thus make a valuable contribution to the creation of conditions for a permanent ceasefire in Libya. In engaging with this UN-mandated EU mission, Ireland will be playing an active part in contributing to security and stability in the Mediterranean region.
All of the CSDP actions in Libya and the central Mediterranean contribute to the European Union’s commitment to peace and stability in Libya. The EU civilian CSDP border assistance mission in Libya, EUBAM Libya, to which Ireland contributes one civilian expert at present, aims primarily to contribute to enhancing the capacity of the relevant Libyan authorities and agencies to manage the country’s borders and to reduce cross-border crime, including human trafficking and migrant smuggling. The work of the mission is carried out through advising, training and mentoring Libyan counterparts in strengthening their border services in accordance with international standards and best practices, and by advising the Libyan authorities on the development of an integrated border management, IBM, strategy. EUBAM Libya is one part of the European Union’s comprehensive approach to supporting the transition to a democratic, stable and prosperous Libya.
I again restate it is not intended that Irish Naval Service personnel will engage in capacity building and training of the Libyan coastguard when deployed as part of this mission. This element of the mandate is, in any event, currently suspended from the mission. I again stress that while the operation has no mandate for safety of life at sea or search and rescue, the Irish Naval Service vessel will of course be subject to the obligation under international law to provide assistance to persons in distress at sea. Ireland’s contribution of a Naval Service vessel to Operation Irini is a positive gesture in support of our European partners, and one which I wholeheartedly support.