Media Library


Speech at the Immigrant Council of Ireland’s Conference “A Call to Unity”

Trinity College Dublin, 9th June 2016


May I begin by thanking Brian Killoran and the Immigrant Council of Ireland for inviting me to address this conference today, and for taking the initiative in hosting this event at such a critical moment for Ireland and for Europe as we struggle to shape a coherent, coordinated and humane response to unprecedented levels of displacement and forced migration in our world.

An interesting and varied line up of speakers has been confirmed for this conference. By coming together to exchange experiences and views, policy makers and civil society can, I believe, shape an adequate response to this extraordinarily challenging humanitarian issue. I wish you well for your discussions over the next two days.

The title for this two-day event, “A Call for Unity”, is especially appropriate: as we confront the challenge of contemporary migration and displacement, there is a need to rally support for urgent action; and the action that must be taken must be unified action – what is needed is solidarity. By taking this initiative, the Immigrant Council of Ireland is showing leadership and you are to be commended for that.

We are at an historic juncture, and it is useful, at the onset of this conference, to consider the scale of the current situation – or ‘crisis’ as it is often referred to. 

  • We currently have 59.5 million displaced men, women and children globally – the highest number since World War II. This includes 19.5 million refugees and 10 million stateless persons.
  • 51% of those refugees are under the age of 18.
  • 53% of refugees come from three countries: Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria. South Sudan is the fourth largest source of refugees, with significant numbers also coming from Iraq, Eritrea and the Democratic Republic of Congo. These refugees are the product of war, of the proliferation of arms, and of the failure of our diplomacy.
  • The greatest numbers of today’s refugees are hosted in countries close to their countries of origin. Turkey hosts 1.59 million refugees, and as many again other displaced persons. Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia and Jordan host the next highest numbers.
  • There are now 4.8 million Syrian Refugees, and UNHCR predict there will be 8.7 million displaced persons in Syria this year – this in a country which was, until recently, one of the largest host countries for refugees.
  • 42,500 people are becoming displaced every day, being forced from their homes by violence or disaster. UNHCR figures also show that so far this year, over 200,000 people have made the journey to seek safety in Europe – mainly to Greece, but increasingly also to Italy.
  • On May 31st of this year, the UNHCR reported that an estimated 880 people had died attempting to cross from Libya to Italy, bringing the total estimated lives lost this year to 2510, compared to 1855 for the same period last year.

These numbers are shocking, even overwhelming; however, by focusing on aggregate figures, we run the risk of losing sight of the lived experience of those displaced. Indeed, those who seek to use the crisis to promote anti-immigrant sentiment and rhetoric often try to dehumanise the refugee and migrant populations by referring to them in absolute numbers, as movements or blocks, denying the individual dignity, the human rights, of each mother, father, brother, sister or child whose life has been devastated.

Statistics are not easily available on the number of families that have been severed, on the number of children who have been denied access to school, the number of women who have been exposed to sexual violence and exploitation while in transit, on the cases of communicable diseases that have been contracted in inadequate camps, and on the prevalence of mental illness and trauma that have afflicted so many of those struggling to maintain their family in circumstances of extreme insecurity and fear. But in all of those areas, evidence is emerging that challenges us all.

It is important, then, that we confront this global humanitarian crisis by moving beyond numbers to hear the personal experience of those affected. A minority of media have taken up the responsibility of bringing the suffering of these families and individuals before us, as have the very many volunteers from across Europe who have taken their own initiative to go to help at our frontiers – and I know that many of you are here today.

Here in Ireland, we can naturally empathise with the despair of having to leave your homeland in order to survive and find a better life. Thousands departed Ireland on ships bound for America during the famine, taking the same desperate journey across the Atlantic as the thousands more who, today, are making across the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas. This human tragedy should and does affect us in a particularly poignant way.

A focus on the human dimension to the present pattern of migration and displacement was to the fore during the World Humanitarian Summit in which I participated just two weeks ago in Istanbul. That Summit, convened by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, and described as the “first” World Humanitarian Summit was aimed at responding to the Secretary General’s report Agenda for Humanity, which sets out the core responsibilities of the international community in responding to the present humanitarian situation. 

The hosting of the Summit at this critical moment was significant and the Secretary General’s report is comprehensive and well considered. It successfully identifies a broad course of action which could, if supported and resourced, frame an effective response to the human disaster we are witnessing in the Mediterranean, the Middle East and elsewhere.

Among the positive features of the Summit was a constructive and productive dialogue between humanitarianism and the protection of human rights, particularly with regard to the need to ensure that women’s rights and the prevention of gender based violence are incorporated into all stages of humanitarian planning, policy and action. 

I took part in two roundtable discussions on these themes and heard moving reports of the experiences of women and girls in the principle conflict zones, during their flight from those areas, and even in the camps and sites of final destination.  In my contributions, I highlighted the uncomfortable fact that, last year, just 0.5 of one per cent of humanitarian funding was spent on addressing gender-based violence, while only 1 per cent of all funding to fragile states in 2015 went to women’s groups or government ministries of women. Only 43 per cent of women in emergencies have access to reproductive health services, despite the fact that 60 per cent of women who die in pregnancy and childbirth are found in those crisis zones. This is simply not good enough, and the visibility afforded to women’s experiences at that Istanbul Summit was, I believe, a very welcome feature.

“Leaving no one behind” is the humanitarian imperative and the central commitment of the Sustainable Development Goals. It is also, rightly, one of the Secretary General’s five Core Responsibilities in his Agenda for Humanity. There was, at the Summit, a very positive recognition of the position of the most vulnerable groups, including those who have been displaced for many years, and those facing particular difficulties, including disabled refugees. Again, this was most welcome, and there was a concrete sense that humanitarian practice was being enhanced by opening up to the voices of those most affected by crisis situations.

A very rich discussion also took place in Istanbul on the relationship between humanitarian response and development. On the one hand there was a strong move from many of the UN Agencies to integrate humanitarian responses with long-term sustainable development efforts under the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Greater alignment in this area certainly makes sense, and presents the opportunity to move from treating emergency symptoms to strengthening States’ resilience to cope with future emergencies.

However, on the other hand, there were also some misgivings, both by those who feared that an over-emphasis on development might dilute the urgent need to resource a humanitarian response to the current crisis – and indeed there is a chronic underfunding of that response; and also from those who feared that integrating humanitarian and development efforts might inhibit necessary critical intellectual work – work of a nature to challenge existing and inadequate models of development.

I believe that radical change is necessary. To achieve the changes which the Secretary General calls forth requires much more than any re-statement of aspirations. It requires a profound and integrated rethink of international politics, and of our theory and practice of economics, development and trade; it requires a reform of the representational structures of the world’s peoples; and indeed it demands little less, I suggest, than a new paradigm of thought and action, grounded in a reconciliation between ethics, economics, ecology and cultural diversity.

I have to say that the conversation at Istanbul touched on these deeper issues at only a superficial level. It is clear that we have only begun to hear ‘proposals’ for the new international institutional architecture we need. We are left vulnerable to the new faces of an unaccountable form of financialisation of our global economy. At a very practical level we have the acquisition by some irresponsible multinational corporations of near immunity from sanctions – be it in the extractive industries located in the poorest countries, or in insider trading in the developed world. The deepening of inequality in our world is an essential context for our humanitarian crisis and we must recognise and address this reality.

On all of these points, the question of funding is key. In my Leaders Statement to the Summit, I stated:

“For too long, empty pledges and fine words have died in our mouths – now is the time to turn promises into action for this generation.”

We must acknowledge that commitments made by States have not been met and that key programmes are not being adequately resourced. In 2015, there was an assessed humanitarian global demand calculated at $40 billion, but contributions were less than  $25 billon, leaving a financing gap of $15.5 billion. 

If we take the Syrian crisis as an example, we see chronic underfunding of food, shelter and health programmes, which has devastating consequences for individuals – particularly for women and children – and which fuels the further onward flow in misery for refugees as well as contributing to regional destabilisation. The consequence of a mere 14% of what is necessary being provided means that since August 2014 food vouchers to Syrian refugees have been cut from $31 to $19, with 15% of refugees receiving nothing.

States are not meeting their own pledges. We are not providing nearly enough assistance, and the assistance we are providing is not having the impact that is needed.  The current system for resourcing and delivering assistance is not functioning effectively. In this gap, there is also a worrying shift of emphasis towards private sector funding – where serious questions of accountability and transparency arise. We now all agree that new structures for funding relief are necessary; but it does not necessarily follow that commercial funding is the most likely or most desirable way to fill that gap. 

I would suggest that other options can be explored - it is not a mere rhetorical question to ask why we cannot, for example, have a bond issue to deal with the refugee crisis. Indeed, there have been interesting proposals for such bond schemes from individual states as well as from eminent international experts.

At the political level, the absence of some key figures from the Summit sparked much comment. Certainly, when one considers the wider context of the stalled peace process in Syria, and the daunting challenges of resolving conflicts, restricting the flow of arms to war zones, and building peace in the long term, the absence of senior leaders from any of the permanent members of the Security Council was more than disappointing.

But we must keep trying. Some states are showing leadership, and I am delighted that Ireland, along with Jordan, has been selected by the Secretary General to co-host a United Nations Summit on Refugees and Migrants in September. Such an invitation recognises that, on humanitarian issues, Ireland has often taken a lead role in the international community, disproportionate to the size of our country. This reflects the generosity of spirit that the Irish people have displayed to those in need, including those most vulnerable. I look forward to the outcomes of this Summit as a key driver for change and I wish Ambassador David O’Donoghue well in his preparations for the event.

At the regional level, Chancellor Merkel was one of a small number of other EU leaders who participated, which was a positive statement of engagement. I have described the position of Europe at the present moment as being one in which it faces a great and defining moral test. I do not hesitate to describe this question as one of morality. It is, perhaps, a challenge that runs to the very core of what we mean by ‘Europe’: are we to attempt to build an impermeable and ethnically defined territory, delineated by barriers, force and exclusions; or are we to remain committed to a Europe of humanistic values?

Human rights obligations of the nature and scale of those associated with the current refugee crisis cannot be delegated. The responsibility of the prosperous – especially those who have historically prospered through colonialism and domination – cannot be traded away.

This question of how a recognised responsibility is to be dealt with is often presented as a clash between national interests and normative values. This is problematic at two levels: firstly, it is problematic as this argument sees inward migration as a cost on host societies (and always this is a cost that is deemed unaffordable); secondly, even on its own terms, this posited conflict involves a misunderstanding of what constitute our “interests”.

On the first point, there is a growing body of evidence, from the IMF and other institutions, which shows the economic benefits that can derive from inward flows of migrants when properly structured and resourced.  According to the IMF, the aggregate GDP across the 28-nation EU will rise by 0.13 percent in 2017 relative to the baseline scenario because of the current increased migration trends.[1] Beyond Europe, Canada provides an interesting example of how a positive approach to receiving refugees, delivered in an holistic fashion, with strong integration supports and proactive engagement with the host population, can assist strong and consistent growth.

On the second point, I would also suggest that, in truth, there are no isolated “national interests” when one considers the great issues facing humanity at this time. Climate change and its consequences are not delineated by political borders. If one region is to fail to respond to this challenge, all regions will be affected. If the legal framework, resources and tools are not provided to allow for a truly universal approach to this challenge the effects will be felt everywhere and soon. Therefore, the “Paris moment”, for all its imperfections, is important in that it represents a real step forward towards a global response to climate change.

The same call to overcome a narrow definition of national interests is at the heart of the challenge of poverty and unequal development. The United Nations’ Agenda 2030 sets out a universal plan of action whereby every state undertakes to work with others to achieve a sustainable model of development within 15 years – this is ambitious, but it is also wholly pragmatic when one considers the demographics of global poverty at this moment in our history. 

Global inequality is a challenge that defies geographical compartmentalisation, and its effects in terms of displacement cannot be corralled. We cannot understand or respond to human migration without addressing the context of environmental and economic forces that cause people to move. Of all continents, Africa has the highest rate of population growth. The United Nations estimates that more than half of the world’s global population growth between now and 2050 will occur in Africa, and that over the same period, the populations of 28 African countries are likely to more than double.   By 2100, ten African countries are projected to increase by at least five-fold. To put it differently, of the additional 2.4 billion people projected to be added to the global population between 2015 and 2050, 1.3 billion will be born in Africa.[2]

Such demographic dynamism holds both great opportunities and some dangers for the future of Africa. Young African people, including those from rural areas, must be enabled to make a decent living in their communities. In the absence of effective development in their home countries, assisted and supported by Europe, these young people will move first to large and unstable urban centres in Africa, and then they will move onward to Europe.

We must look for long-term, sustainable solutions to stopping people being trafficked and getting onto boats in the Mediterranean. This includes strengthening and operationalising dialogue and cooperation with countries of origin and transit, but more importantly in the long term, it requires addressing decisively the root causes of migration and displacement, in particular the abject poverty and conflicts that are forcing people to leave their homes.

In the medium term, we all know how urgent it is to step up the support we provide to countries hosting large numbers of refugees and migrants, including Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Many of those fleeing persecution and violence in Syria hope to return to their homeland once the war has ended and peace has been restored, and therefore, maintaining proximity to their country of origin is important for those currently displaced. The international community must ensure that, in the meantime, host countries are supported to provide safe and sanitary living conditions, food and healthcare for all, and access to education for children.

I welcome the Irish government’s recent commitment to providing an additional €5 million in humanitarian aid to Syria and Yemen. This brings Ireland’s total contribution to €45 million since the beginning of the conflict in Syria some six years ago. Ireland has also committed to providing multi-annual funding to the World Food Programme; some €60 million over the next three years, which is specifically targeted at refugees, and in particular Syrian refugees. Ireland can and should proactively encourage the international community to match this commitment to multi-annual funding so as to provide the organisation with greater certainty around their funding and better enable them to continue and plan ahead their vital work. 

But even if Europe and the West were to meet the immediate needs in the zones of conflict, that would not be a complete response to the reality of forced displacement – displacement that, we know, will be long-term for many. In Europe, the right to claim asylum must be guaranteed – that most fundamental principle of international law and of our human rights system cannot be diluted or derogated from. We have, in Europe, robust safeguards to guard against the short-sighted or regressive actions of individual states, and at this moment they may prove to be more important than ever.

Europe must work as a real and meaningful Union. We must put into effect our agreements on accepting applications and transfers. It is simply not acceptable that Greece, Italy and Malta should be left to face the challenge of large-scale movements of people alone; or that Germany and Sweden should be left isolated as countries of final destination. We must accept those in need and we must provide all necessary supports to allow those who arrive to our countries to live in dignity and to flourish.

Ireland’s national UNHCR-led resettlement programme has been in operation since 2000 and, since then, more than 1,400 people from 28 countries have been admitted to Ireland as programme refugees. Many of these people have suffered severe trauma, be it physical or mental, and have complex needs, requiring language training, housing and appropriate medical assistance.

Under the EU Resettlement programme of July last, Ireland pledged to resettle 520 persons over two years. To date, 273 persons have been admitted from Lebanon, and the balance has been selected following a mission by Irish officials to the Lebanon in January. I understand that all of these persons will be admitted by the end of September. This represents an important contribution by Ireland.

We must now ensure that we build welcoming communities and opportunities for integration between citizens and those newly arrived. Integration is a vital tool in assisting those newly arrived to flourish and thrive as part of our communities. Our cultures can only be enriched by the diversity of knowledge and experience that we share.

On the EU Relocation programme, which focuses on transfers between EU states, progress has been unacceptably slow across the Union. In order to alleviate the pressure on frontline Member States, it is essential that the EU come together in the spirit of solidarity upon which the Union was founded to implement the commitments made. I understand from the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, whose Department is implementing the Irish Refugee Protection Programme, that the pace of relocation is now picking up and that the Greek authorities have confirmed that they are now in a position to offer more relocation candidates to Ireland. Accordingly, further asylum seekers will be admitted very shortly to our country. This is a welcome development which will assist us in fulfilling our important obligations under the relocation decisions in a timely fashion.  

The choices for us are quite clear – we have now a good sense of what is needed, nationally, at the EU level, and internationally, in terms of finance, administration and legal provisions.  The question is whether we will embrace our historical test, or whether we will seek to shrink from it.  Whether we will allow our response to be defined by compassion and hospitality, or by barbed wire and fences.

I do not know, at this point, which path the leaders of Europe will take, but I am greatly inspired and encouraged by the response from citizens across Europe – and especially here at home.  The actions of Irish volunteers who have raised funds here, who have pledged to take in refugees in their own homes, who have gone out to Lesbos or Calais, are a source of great pride to me as President of Ireland. You are living out the very best of our values, you bring honour of the highest rank to our nation.

For you, I hope this event is of special value. By taking up the technical and legal issues that activists and agencies face on the ground, I hope that this conference can strengthen further the valuable contribution Irish men and women are making at many levels in this current crisis, and I commend the Immigrant Council for providing a much needed platform for these discussions.

We are at a critical moment in our history. The refugee and migration crisis is great in scale and is likely to remain at the centre of the EU and international agenda for several decades to come. Let us be in no doubt - the consequences for Ireland and Europe if we were to seek to avoid our responsibility to respond would be catastrophic.

The opportunity that we have to make a real difference to the future of our human family, to shape a future built on solidarity, compassion and common humanity is one that we cannot afford to refuse.




[1] IMF Staff Discussion Note, January 2016.

[2] “World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision”, United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs.