Adjournment Debate. - Political Asylum for Soviet Citizens.

Tuesday, 12 June 1984

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 351 No. 6

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An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick  Zoom on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick  Deputy Taylor has been given permission to raise on the Adjournment the matter of Soviet citizens [831] seeking political asylum in Ireland. Deputy Woods also raised the matter and sought to raise it on the Adjournment. I understand Deputy Taylor has agreed to give some of his time to Deputy Woods.

Mr. Taylor: Information on Mervyn Taylor  Zoom on Mervyn Taylor  I wish to express my appreciation to the Chair for allowing me to raise this matter on the Adjournment and to indicate that I propose to divide the time with Deputy Woods who also wishes to raise the matter.

Considerable disquiet was caused in the country during the weekend at the knowledge that a person who sought asylum at Shannon Airport was bundled back onto the Soviet plane on Sunday and returned to the Soviet Union. We are aware that the Soviet Union is not a country whose citizens can leave at will and that from time to time people who find themselves out of that country seek asylum in western countries. I think that a person who seeks asylum in this country or in the West should be given every sympathy and every opportunity to consider his position and to consult with embassies of western countries or whoever he or she might wish to consult with and that a reasonable time should elapse before such person is put back on the plane and sent back to the Soviet Union.

Last Monday evening the Evening Herald carried a lead story to the effect that Valerij Agapov, a 35-year old Russian, was returned to the Soviet Union on account of what it described as an unwritten agreement between the Irish and the Soviet Governments. In a later statement the Taoiseach denied there was any agreement with the Soviet Union to that effect but nevertheless there is a feeling of unease about what happened. One can visualise the situation when the Aeroflot agreement was being negotiated that the Soviet Government would have had concern about people wishing to defect at stop-overs at Shannon Airport and it does not stretch the imagination unduly to think the matter was discussed. There is a nagging feeling, notwithstanding the Taoiseach's statement, that the matter was discussed and that there was some [832] kind of understanding. This was not the first time such an incident happened. It happened with a number of Afghanistan citizens and with Soviet citizens on quite a number of occasions before, and it seems remarkable to me that on each occasion the person concerned changed his mind and decided to go back to the Soviet Union. That is a matter that strains credulity to some extent.

According to reports in this instance, the 35-year old Russian indicated he wanted a visa for the United States but it appears from the reports that, notwithstanding his request to that effect, the US embassy in Dublin was not contacted at any time, nor were they given any opportunity to be advised on the situation or to interview the man to consider whether they would be prepared to grant him asylum in the United States. I have the feeling that the Government are extending themselves rather too much not to offend the Soviet Union and I think they have gone too far in that respect. I can understand the wish to have a commercial set-up operate with Aeroflot at Shannon. That is all very fine but I think the basic principles of international law should be regarded with the greatest care, and the rights of a person in the free world, in which this country is included, seeking asylum is a matter that should have a consideration equally strong, if not stronger, than those pertaining to commercial matters. For instance, I have not seen where the Government have made any strong representations in connection with Andrei Sakharov and his wife, who are seriously ill on hunger strike. On occasions in this House the Minister for Foreign Affairs has indicated his preference to make representations quietly rather than in the open where matters regarding the Soviet Union are concerned. Personally I do not agree with that approach. If representations need to be made they should be made openly and in public and if disapproval is felt it should be stated openly.

Another aspect also causes concern. Apparently it is the position that the people who were normally used as interpreters when these situations arise were [833] not called in and they expressed some surprise that they were not called on this occasion. Instead, a woman who apparently lived in the Soviet Union for 20 years was called in to have discussions with Mr. Valerij Agapov. At the end of it all, her comment was that she was dissatisfied with what had happened and was upset by the episode. I find it calls for some explanation as to why she was dissatisfied with what happened and I wish to know what was it about the episode that upset her. There is the suggestion, which needs clarification, that in the intervening period when this man sought asylum and freedom in this country, pressures of some description were brought to bear upon him, as a result of which he changed his mind.

There is a parallel situation with previous would-be defectors. I refer to an article in The Irish Times of today's date recalling a previous case where a would-be defector was interviewed on a Monday morning and where the interpreter stated:

He was pretty terrified when I saw him first. He was terrified most that there might be Russians in the police station. He absolutely did not want to go back to the Soviet Union. He was insistent on that.

The reporter said the man stated that if he was sent back he would be imprisoned or worse. Notwithstanding that statement, later in the day he changed his mind. The combination of circumstances and the similarity of the situations whereby a series of would-be defectors from the Soviet Union and Afghanistan sought asylum but at the end of the day did not stay on or were not given the appropriate facilities to meet with US embassy staff or other staff, calls the whole matter into question.

Some questions here call for answer. Why was the US embassy not contacted? Why was an opportunity not given to staff from that embassy to meet this man, as he asked, and to have an interpreter or someone from the embassy present who spoke his language? Why was it that the interpreter who spoke to him on this occasion was dissatisfied? Why is there [834] no procedure laid down to allow a reasonable time, say, a week, during which the person concerned could be given a reasonable opportunity to settle his mind and to meet the people he would need to meet? Then it could be seen quite clearly that the matter was dealt with in an open and proper manner. In my view, it is essential that in such a situation justice not only be done but also be seen to be done. In this case I cannot say whether or not justice was done although I have the gravest doubts in that regard. However, justice did not seem to be done having regard to the way the matter was handled. I should like to elaborate further but I agreed to share the time with my colleague.

Dr. Woods: Information on Michael J. Woods  Zoom on Michael J. Woods  I join with Deputy Taylor in expressing the widespread public concern which exists in relation to the treatment which apparently was given to this man who appears to have sought asylum here. The Irish Times of Monday, 11 June 1984 said:

... Mr. Agapov was refused admission to Ireland under Article Five of the 1946 amended Aliens Order. Reliable sources said last night that the Taoiseach, Dr. Fitzgerald, was consulted about what should be done with Mr. Agapov. It is understood that the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Barry, and the Minister for Justice, Mr. Noonan, were involved in taking decisions on the case. Problems with aliens come within the remit of the Department of Justice.

In today's edition of the Cork Examiner, a Government spokesman flatly denied any Government involvement in the deportation decision and said that the aliens section of the Department of Justice had wide ranging autonomous powers to decide on immigration matters. He added that the decision in the Agapov case was not one for the Government to take. Conflicting views have been expressed in the media and we are not aware of all the facts. I appreciate that the Government have difficulties in relation to decisions taken in this area and I made that clear at the outset when I was [835] asked about the case. I also felt that the international convention should be fully examined and considered as I fear for Mr. Agapov's future when he goes back to Russia. I should like the Minister to express that fear on our behalf and to register our concern which might be very helpful to Mr. Agapov.

I tried to raise this by way of a Private Notice Question today but it was ruled out of order on the grounds that it was not urgent and also because it was a fait accompli. However, it is still necessary to express our views and concern in relation to this young man who, quite obviously, sought asylum. He is reported to have indicated that he wanted to go to the United States. I should like the Minister to say if Mr. Agapov sought political asylum because we are led to believe that he was quite happy to leave and that he brushed off immigration officers on his way. This was after a decision had been made and he had to accept it and be as cheerful as possible about it. Information since then seems to indicate that he may not have been happy with the decision. Did the Minister or the Department of Justice refuse his admission to Ireland under Article 5 of the 1946 amended Aliens Order, or on any other basis? If he was leaving of his own free will, why was it necessary to make the order, if the order was made?

It has also been alleged that the Minister for Foreign Affairs was annoyed because he was not consulted before Mr. Agapov was sent back to the Soviet Union. Perhaps the Minister would comment on that aspect of the affair. One gets a picture of a man who escaped from this aeroplane, wandered into the local area and was sitting on a bridge when a passing garda saw him. That freedom does not come as easily behind the Iron Curtain. I spent some time there as a scientist and I am very conscious of what freedom means and of the constraints on individuals there. On that basis, I am particularly concerned that the Minister for Foreign Affairs should express his anxieties about this man's future in the Soviet Union.

One of the things mentioned was that [836] there was a final check with him on the aeroplane and the same news report in The Irish Times said:

... officials went on board and spoke again with Mr. Agapov. According to sources, Mr. Agapov again indicated freely that he wished to return to Moscow. ...Mr. Agapov was apparently smiling and saying that he just wanted to get back to his home in Moscow.... Mr. Agapov confirmed his intentions and the flight took off.

The environment within which that check took place is very hostile as far as the individual is concerned and it would be very hard for him to say that he wanted to get off the plane. An attempt has been made to give a number of false impressions in relation to this incident and it would be valuable if the Minister would clarify the position and take note of the concern which has been expressed.

Minister for Justice (Mr. Noonan,: Information on Michael Noonan  Zoom on Michael Noonan  Limerick East): Aeroflot flights between Russia and Cuba stop daily at Shannon Airport to refuel. During stop over, passengers are allowed to get off the aeroplane and to go to the duty free area in the airport. On the morning of Saturday last, 9 June 1984, one passenger was reported missing when passengers reembarked on the flight to Moscow. A search was started immediately but the passenger could not be located. The aeroplane departed for Moscow at approximately 9.45 a.m. without the missing passenger. There was no further news of the missing passenger until 3.40 p.m. approximately on Saturday afternoon when an immigration officer at Shannon Airport was told that a man had turned up at Shannon Garda station. The immigration officer went to the Garda station to interview him. As, apparently, the man spoke no English it was arranged that an interpreter would speak to him by telephone. As a result of three separate conversations between him and the interpreter, it was established beyond doubt that he was not an applicant for political asylum in any recognised sense of that term. He made it quite clear that it was a matter of thinking that he would be better off in [837] the United States. That, I need hardly say, is not the same as having a case for political asylum. Accordingly, he was told that he would not be allowed to stay. On Sunday morning I gave instructions that the man's position should be double checked. As he had already boarded the aeroplane the immigration official spoke to him there. He indicated that he wished to return to Moscow and the immigration officer was satisfied that the man had enough knowledge of English to be able to understand the gist of what was said by the immigration officer. Moreover, the officer was satisfied, from the man's demeanour, that he was not in any fear.

I should now like to say a few words about the general question of passengers on Aeroflot flights indicating that they do not wish to continue their journey. Records in my Department show that in the past four years, ten persons came to the notice of the immigration staff as having deliberately separated themselves from other persons transiting Shannon on planes going to or from Moscow or Warsaw. Three were USSR citizens, five were Cubans and two were from Afghanistan. Of these, only three sought refuge of any kind here or in the USA. The rest were quickly identified as simply wishing to find better living conditions elsewhere than in the countries to which they were travelling. It would not be in the interests of these persons to go into further details about individuals, but of the ten, three were sent onwards, two changed their minds and the rest were seen to be and were treated as ordinary aliens who did not qualify for leave to land and who therefore were sent back on the next suitable plane.

I wish to refer to one other aspect of the recent case, namely some of the statements which appeared in the media. I will confine myself to two points. It alleged that the alien was escorted to the plane on Sunday morning by armed detectives. This is simply not true. The man walked with just one immigration officer to the embarkation point for the Aeroflot plane. There was no escort, armed or otherwise. There was also a report that the person who acted as interpreter was concerned at the way the case was being [838] handled. The person in question has stated categorically that the report is without foundation and that she had said nothing to any reporter to justify such a statement. She has further given her consent to my quoting her as having made this denial.

Deputy Taylor began by saying that this Russian gentleman sought asylum here. That is not true. Secondly, he said that this gentleman was bundled back on the plane. That is not true. He quoted the Evening Herald statement that there was an unwritten agreement between Ireland and the Soviet government on the treatment of passengers at Shannon Airport. There is no such agreement, written or unwritten. Of ten individuals who separated themselves from their fellow passengers over the past four years, three were given refuge.

Deputy Taylor also said that we would have to stretch our imaginations to see people changing their minds on each and every occasion. There was not a question of people changing their minds on every occasion. As I have said, two of the ten changed their minds, three were kept here and five were treated as aliens who were refused admission on the same basis that in any country a person without appropriate papers would be refused admission. We must distinguish between refugees or people who are looking for political asylum. I am sure there are vast numbers of people in Eastern bloc countries who are very unhappy with the circumstances in which they find themselves and who would desire to be living in the West.

Deputy Taylor said there was great concern on the part of the Government not to offend the Societ Union. I would draw the Deputy's attention to two incidents which have occurred since this Government came into power. Firstly, there was the expulsion of certain Russian diplomats which did not indicate any reluctance to take action which might offend the Soviet Union. Secondly, we played our part in the same way as any other country in connection with the shooting down of a particular plane over Korea.

Deputy Taylor spoke about the normal [839] people used as interpreters not being contacted on this occasion. Of the ten people who were involved in toto five were citizens of Cuba and two from Afghanistan. There were three Russians over the period of four years and there is not a Russian interpreter on the staff in Shannon. People are used as the need arises. I think Deputy Taylor was commenting on an article in The Irish Times this morning about a woman who acted as interpreter on a previous occasion. If he had continued the quotation it would have transpired that the woman was quite satisfied that the man changed his mind. He referred to the comment of the lady who spoke to this gentleman on the phone and said she expressed herself as being dissatisfied. I would refer the Deputy to my statement that she categorically denies this and states that the report is without foundation. She said nothing to any reporter to justify such a statement and furthermore, has given her consent to my quoting her in this denial.

Deputy Taylor raised the point about people being given a reasonable time. The policy is and will continue to be that if there is a prima facie case of somebody seeking political asylum — the term “refugee” is almost synonmous with a person seeking political asylum — the case will be examined thoroughly. The experience over the past four years is that three people out of ten were not returned.

Deputy Woods raised a number of points which I have dealt with. He said it [840] was quite obvious that the gentleman sought political asylum. He did not. I do not have the personal experience of the Eastern bloc which Deputy Woods has but it is generally accepted that there are limitations on personal freedom, that the standard of living in Eastern bloc countries is much lower than in the West and that many people there would like to live in the West. There are many people in Ireland who would like to live in America but they cannot get in.

Deputy Woods asked whether this man was refused admission under the Act which he quoted. That is the only basis on which anybody could be refused admission. He was refused on that basis but no order was made under the Act.

If any future case arises where there is a prima facie case that a person is seeking political asylum, it will be examined thoroughly and dealt with appropriately. On this occasion the case was dealt with in accordance with the policy laid down, under which the ten other people at the same airport coming off Moscow or Warsaw flights were dealt with in the past. I do not envisage any change of policy because the policy is adequate. I am glad to have been able to state the full facts in so far as they are available to me. I agree with both Deputies that there was public concern.

The Dáil adjourned at 7.30 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 13 June 1984.

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