Ireland Bucks European Trend, Pledges to Take More Refugees

Ireland is bucking the trend in the EU and is preparing to take some 600 refugees, more than its allotted quota under a scheme devised by the European Commission, which it could opt-out of if it wanted to.

The Irish navy vessel L.E. Ethne has been on a two-month tour of duty in the Mediterranean in which it rescued more than 3,000 migrants. Photo: Mark Zammit cordina

The Irish navy vessel L.E. Ethne has been on a two-month tour of duty in the Mediterranean in which it rescued more than 3,000 migrants. Photo: Mark Zammit Cordina/Times of Malta

Irish Defence Minister Simon Coveney said his government had already committed to take 540 refugees under the Commission’s scheme and was currently debating whether to take a further 60.

He was speaking during a visit to the L.É. Eithne, an Irish patrol vessel which docked in Malta’s Valletta harbour on Tuesday after a two-month Mediterranean tour of duty in which its crew rescued almost 3,400 people, including some 180 minors.

Irish Defence Minister Simon Coveney being briefed. Stock Photo: Irish Defence Forces.

Irish Defence Minister Simon Coveney being briefed. Stock Photo: Irish Defence Forces.

“We’re an island, we’re a relatively small country, we want to play our part and be fair and generous in terms of the numbers of people we can accommodate and support, but there’s limit, of course” he said.

Like Britain and Denmark, Ireland could choose not to take part in the scheme agreed upon by EU leaders at a bumpy summit in Brussels last week. Hungary was also left out of the agreement in view of the unprecedented influx of migrants it has seen this year – Budapest estimates that 66,000 migrants crossed its border with Serbia this year, compared to some 43,500 in all of 2014.

The surge has led to Hungary announcing it will stop processing asylum applications unless it is helped and that it plans to build a fence along the border with Serbia.

But the tussle over the European Commission’s quota system was not the only example of the discord that migration is creating within the EU. Over the past weeks, France stepped up border security and pushed back migrants trying to cross from the northern Italian town of Ventimiglia, while Austria too threatened to stop the “asylum express” by halting the processing of requests.

More recently, Britain announced it would build a fence around a train terminal in the French port of Calais to stop migrants from attempting to cross over.

The tensions made the word mandatory in the European Commission’s original proposal to redistribute 40,000 refugees from Syria and Eritrea particularly unsavoury. However, in the end, though the word was deleted from the final text (without being replaced with the word voluntary), EU leaders still made informal pledged to take the refugees from Italy and Greece. Over the next few days they will thrash out which country takes how many.

Meanwhile, the Irish Defence Minister would not be drawn to make comparisons with Britain’s decision to stay out of the deal, saying he “will let them speak for themselves” but “Ireland’s take on this is that we need to bear and shoulder our responsibility like everybody else”.

However, he stressed that the Mediterranean rescue effort itself is not a long term solution. “We can’t keep facilitating the mass movement of people, there needs to be stability in North Africa… and that’s going to take time and investment and political courage, and a collective effort by the European Union,” he said.

The L.É. Eithne is expected to remain in the Mediterranean for another ten days, after which it will be replaced by another Irish vessel until September when Dublin will reassess whether its involvement is still needed.

The country has been gradually stepping up its focus on Mediterranean, which, over the past 15 years has developed into a major global hotspot for migration.

Back in February, it announced the donation to the Armed Forces of Malta of the L.É Aoife, a 65m patrol vessel.

They 35-year-old vessel was used mostly for fishery protection off Irelands coast, but also sailed in other parts of the world including the Mediterranean to supply troops involved in UN missions.

At the beginning of L.É. Eithne’s Mediterranean tour in May, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, said his country would be taking 300 refugees. Since then, however, Ireland changed its stand with Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald arguing that the figure was only “a small proportion of” the number of refugees that should be relocated.