Other Questions. - Refugee Status Applications.

Michael McDowell

Question:

7 Mr. M. McDowell asked the Minister for Justice the reason for the delay in processing an application for asylum by a person (details supplied) in Dublin 8; the reason that one year and three months after the arrival of this person in Ireland she is still awaiting a decision; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [9203/97]

It is not the practice to comment publicly on individual applicants for refugee status having regard to the fact that applications by their nature are made in confidence with an expectation by applicants that such confidence will be preserved.

However, the person to whom the Deputy refers entered the State on 26 December 1995 and applied to my Department for refugee status on 2 January 1996 under the terms of the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, amended by the 1967 New York Protocol. I expect a decision on the application will be made in the near future and this decision will be conveyed to the applicant. The Deputy should note there has been a huge increase in the numbers seeking asylum here which is putting great strain on the process and resulting in long delays.

I thank the Minister for her reply. I will say nothing that will identify the applicant. I am sure she will be pleased there will soon be a determination of her application for asylum given that she has a very sound case.

On the general point, the Minister said there has been an increase in the number of applications for asylum. I understand that 1,700 cases are awaiting determination. In the light of the growing numbers of applicants and the number of people awaiting determination of their applications, will the Minister of State comment on recent criticism by the agencies involved and by applicants that the new and updated provisions of our new law, the Refugee Act, which was introduced in June 1996, have not yet been brought into effect and that because of this there is concern that the samead hoc incomplete resources and conditions for determination of appeals still apply even though we have on the Statute Book new provisions to provide for appeals, etc.? Can the Minister of State give an assurance that these delays will be alleviated if she ensures that all of the new provisions which will greatly improve the situation for asylum seekers are brought into effect? What is the reason for the long delay in bringing into effect these much needed provisions of the Refugee Act?

I am happy to tell the Deputy that arrangements are under way to implement the Act. A series of regulations, including the Dublin Convention, have had to go to the Attorney General's office and also to come before this House. Work is almost complete, but it is quite a complex and technical piece of work and has taken a considerable amount of time. During the debates on the Refugee Act in this House I made a commitment to come back and have it debated in the House. I expect it to come before the House next month.

Regarding the increase in the number of applications, in 1992 there were 39 applications for refugee status, in 1995 there were 400 applications, in 1996 there were 1,100 applications and this year there have already been 677 applications. That is a phenomenal increase. Work is under way at the moment to establish the various offices under the Refugee Act. In particular, the post of refugee appeals commissioner has been publicly advertised and the interview process for that is under way at the moment under the control of the Civil Service Appointments Commission. We decided to make that appointment by public open competition. This was done to ensure that all qualified applicants who wished to apply would have access and that it would not be a post by appointment. I am sure the Deputy welcomes the fact that we have done that, but it does take more time.

As to the other matters, the Office of Public Works is currently obtaining a premises and negotiations are under way with the Department of Finance on the detail of staffing requirements. The phenomenal increase in the numbers applying for refugee status has changed the planning in terms of the number of people required. In the past six months we have given additional resources to the UNHCR to cope with the backlog. Under the arrangements of a legal case going back to 1985 all asylum refugee applications in Ireland are referred for their expert advice to the UNHCR under the Geneva Convention. We have given additional resources to the UNHCR in London to assist in their examination process. Already this year more than 160 asylum applications have been dealt with, whereas two years ago the Department of Justice dealt with fewer than 25 cases a year, and less than ten in some years. The Deputy should appreciate, therefore, that there has been a huge additional demand for a variety of reasons including the fact that our economy is so successful, making us more attractive to asylum seekers, the international profile of President Robinson, the international profile of Ireland and the fact that in the post-Cold War era there are civil conflicts in many countries as a consequence of which many more people are seeking asylum than was the case ten or 15 years ago. Inevitably we have to cope with the consequences of that.

Would the Minister not agree that given such an increase in the numbers of people seeking asylum — the 1997 figures indicate about 200 a month — it is vital that we should have our procedures in order to process those applications. Otherwise we will have a backlog of people awaiting a determination of their applications. This is distressing for the applicants because they are in a limbo while awaiting determination of their cases. Also there is a significant cost on the State because during the period of waiting, which at the moment is very long, there is a cost of about £500,000 per 100 asylum seekers per annum, according to a reply given by the Minister to a parliamentary question. Apart from the humanitarian aspect of providing for a speedy process, there is the cost element of which the Minister cannot be unaware. Given the increase in the numbers, it is very important to get our procedures in order at the earliest possible opportunity.

The number of applicants at end March this year is 677 which is a considerable increase even on last year. The cost is substantial, but it will continue to be substantial whether or not a determination is made. I hope there is no implication in the Deputy's remarks that the determination of an application would result in the person being thrown out of the country and that there would be an end to the cost for the State, because there is an appeals procedure and most applicants choose to exercise their options under it. The various organisations dealing with refugees have recognised that this State tries to meet its obligations to people who seek asylum here, that we give asylum seekers access to social welfare and the children access to education and health benefits on the same basis as citizens of this State, and that we have introduced what is a fairly compassionate Refugee Act implementing the Geneva Convention. I have had discussions with individual refugees and their representatives and, although they come from distressing circumstances and are understandably anxious, there is general recognition that the treatment they receive from officials of the Department of Justice and other agencies dealing with refugees is extremely generous in comparison to many countries.