Dáil Éireann - Volume 504 - 13 May, 1999

Adjournment Debate. - Funds for UNHCR.

Proinsias De Rossa: The conflict in Kosovo has led to the greatest mass displacement of people in Europe since the end of the Second World War. There are now up to 750,000 refugees in the region. To put this in a familiar context, this is the equivalent of the population of Connacht-Ulster being forced to move into Leinster and Munster. Such a huge movement of people has put huge strains on countries who have received the refugees, mainly Albania and Macedonia.

It has also put a huge strain on the resources of the humanitarian organisations which have tried to ensure basic food supplies and medical care and some degree of shelter for the refugees. These bodies have performed heroically in the most difficult circumstances. Without their intervention many more of those who fled the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo would have died of hunger and disease.

While there are many humanitarian organisations in many countries doing great work, including Trócaire, Concern, Goal and others from Ireland, the UNHCR is the international body with primary responsibility for dealing with the plight of refugees. Its role is to protect and [1193] assist refugees worldwide and to try to find a solution to their plight. The UNHCR is in crisis because of the strain put on it by the scale of the exodus from Kosovo. It has spent all the cash available for the Kosovo emergency and it would be appalling if, as a result of the cash shortage, its operations in the Balkans had to be stopped or scaled down.

The UNHCR has appealed for $143 million to allow it continue its operations. So far it has received only $71 million, much of which is already spent or committed. According to a list of donations published by the UNHCR on Monday, the biggest donor has been Japan which has contributed $23.1 million. Neither Ireland nor the EU appear on the list which is surprising and shameful. When I raised this matter on the Order of Business this morning, the Taoiseach said that the EU had contributed 20 million ECU this week – £15 million. This is far short of what is needed or what the EU can afford.

This conflict is taking place in Europe, the wealthiest continent in the world, with Europeans being displaced and dying at the hands of other Europeans. The biggest response to the UNHCR has come from Japan. With the enormous resources at the EU's disposal, it must be possible for it to respond in a generous way to the appeal from the UNHCR.

Ireland is creating record wealth and the Exchequer is awash with cash. Surely it is possible for us to respond to the UNHCR and, at least, match the contribution of $3.4 million made by Denmark and the Netherlands. The Minister for Foreign Affairs should meet our obligations by making a substantial contribution to allow the UNHCR continue its work. If a Supplementary Estimate is required the Labour Party will facilitate its immediate passage through the Dáil.

There is also an obligation on those NATO countries pursuing the air war against Yugoslavia to match the money they are spending on the military campaign with similar resources for the humanitarian effort. The war has cost billions of dollars. No one other than the Governments involved know the exact amount. Each cruise missile costs about $1 million. The money sought by the UNHCR is the equivalent of 140 cruise missiles. That money must be found. The only way to ease the plight of the refugees permanently is through greater political and diplomatic efforts to secure a settlement to the conflict which will allow all refugees to return to their homes. The murderous attacks on Kosovar Albanians by Serb regular and irregular forces must stop.

It is deplorable that Slobodan Milosevic should have refused today to meet the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Mary Robinson, when she planned to meet him and present him with incontrovertible evidence of the involvement of his forces in ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Milosevic has shown once again his contempt for human rights, for civilised standards and for the United Nations. Neverthe[1194] less, we must redouble our efforts to bring an end to the conflict in the region and ensure the safe return home of the Kosovar Albanians.

Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs (Ms O'Donnell): I very much appreciate the Deputy raising this matter. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Mrs. Ogata, is very concerned that lack of funds could seriously set back efforts to assist the refugees from Kosovo. The humanitarian agencies are struggling with one of the greatest and most complex movements of people in 20th century Europe. The number of refugees and displaced people in the region is now estimated at 747,000. Conditions in the camps are not sustainable due to overcrowding, security considerations and the onset of warm weather which exacerbates water and sanitation problems.

While conscious of the need to maintain and improve the existing conditions in which the refugees are living, Mrs. Ogata's fears relate in the main to the next six months when arrangements will have to be put in place to prepare the camps in the region for very harsh winter conditions or, if there is a political settlement, to return them to their homes. In either case substantial additional funding will be required to enable the UNHCR to carry out the mandate given to it by the international community to protect and take care of the refugees. The costs to adapt the camps for winter conditions are very high and way beyond the resource capacity of the UNHCR at the moment. For example, I have been told that the cost per person for the camp facilities currently in use is US $150 approximately. This could rise to US $1,000 per person for winter accommodation. The timing is crucial. Tents and clothes have to be suitable and heating equipment and fuel provided. Procurement and logistical arrangements must be made now if the camps are to be winterised before October.

The UNHCR appealed for $143 million for its Kosovo operations and so far it has received $71 million. Mrs. Ogata criticised European governments in particular for not giving sufficient funding. EU member states have contributed US $15.5 million so far. In addition EU member states look to the European Community Humanitarian Office – ECHO – to make the major donation to the UNHCR on behalf of the EU.

As recently as last Friday, it was decided that ECHO would make a further minimum contribution of 20 million euros to the UNHCR in addition to an earlier commitment of 3.3 million euros – a total of US £24.8 million. ECHO and the UNHCR are working hard to resolve procedural constraints holding up the transfer of these funds which will help ease the cash flow problems. There is also the strong possibility of further funding from ECHO later in the year. I intend to take up the issue of funding by the EU at the EU Development Ministers' Council on Friday of next week and to press for a more flexible approach to funding.

[1195] As far as Ireland is concerned, we made a contribution of £400,000 to the UNHCR two weeks ago. Owing to an administrative error at the UNHCR our contribution was not reflected in the donor contribution charts issued. The UNHCR has apologised for our omission from the list and has now issued revised charts. This payment was part of an overall assistance package of £2.6 million agreed by the Government and channelled through the Irish non-governmental organisations, the UNHCR, the World Food Programme, UNICEF and the Irish Committee of the Red Cross. In addition we are meeting the costs of the 1,000 refugees currently on their way to Ireland – some of whom are already here – which costs are estimated to be in the region of £13 million to £14 million for a year. In that regard I have just welcomed the second group of 157 refugees to Ireland this afternoon on their way to Baltinglass and Kildare, respectively.

We are equally concerned about preparations for the months ahead, particularly the winter months, and will be carrying out a needs assessment in the coming weeks. I intend to visit Macedonia to see for myself the conditions in the camps, and I can assure the Deputy that the Government is ready to continue to respond generously, including with additional contributions to the UNHCR. I will be bringing proposals to Government in this regard in the near future.