As far back as the 17th century, when the Huguenots were fleeing France because of civil and religious persecution, Ireland was active in providing facilities for them here. Since we signed the UN Convention in 1956 successive Governments have accepted people as "programme refugees". These are people brought in by the Government in organised numbers, and State facilities were provided for them. The impression created by many Opposition speakers was that we were remiss in this regard, that we did not have due consideration for people suffering civil or ethnic difficulties in their countries and that we had been neglecting this area somehow.
Successive Governments have operated a number of schemes whereby Hungarian, Chilean, Iranian, Vietnamese and Bosnian refugees were brought to Ireland. The Bosnians brought here in 1996 were the latest; originally 180 Bosnians were brought here and facilities were provided by both Government and non-Government agencies in Cherry Orchard. At the end of 1998 that population was 868, 61 of whom were born in Ireland. It is to the credit of the volunteers and organisations that they were able to make the Bosnians' transition at a very difficult time reasonably successful.
Not only have individuals and their families been catered for, some of their relatives are looked after also. It is now normal to have two or three relatives here per refugee. Originally 212 Vietnamese refugees were brought here in 1979, and now there are more than 600 of them, 200 of whom have been born in Ireland. That was a very successful operation. I do not have the figures, but between 1994 and 1997 approximately 400 others were allowed to stay and work here. Some of them are in Shannon in my constituency, as are people from the former Yugoslavia, Cuba, Romania, Algeria, Somalia, Angola, Iraq, Libya and other countries.
An unfair impression was given that we were doing nothing in this area, that it was neglected and that we were not fully complying with the commitments we signed up for under the UN convention. I pay tribute to the Refugee Agency established in 1991 for the work it has done. Mr. John O'Neill is its chief executive, and Mr. Paddy Dillon-Malone is its chairperson. The agency's work is twofold. It works with individuals and families to ensure they have proper facilities, education, training and language skills available to them. It also works with Government Depart ments and non-governmental agencies on repatriation programmes. I dealt with this problem in Shannon when many people came off planes at a time when there was a lot of traffic between the former Soviet Union and Cuba, and in my experience they were anxious to get back to their own countries as soon as possible. Part of the Refugee Agency's work has been to try to put repatriation schemes in place which would help to repatriate these people, as has happened in many cases. One finds that even when dealing with regions which have experienced killings and ethnic cleansing, most people prefer to stay in their country of origin when it is possible to do so.
With the resources at our disposal we have undertaken some schemes, and I pay tribute to FÁS, the Irish Red Cross and other bodies who have been helping the Refugee Agency in its work. This agency operates on a very small budget of approximately £300,000. Given the amount of positive work it does, I would like more resources devoted to this area.
When I was Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs with responsibility for overseas development aid, I had a lot of contact with the Irish Refugee Council, which has given this legislation a limited welcome. The lack of clarity in the Aliens Act, 1935, meant legislation was necessary, and I compliment the Minster on the speed with which he has brought this Bill forward. However, some of the Irish Refugee Council's concerns could be dealt with on Committee Stage. I do not propose to go into detailed discussion of those now, but the council is concerned by some of the provisions in section 3 whereby a deported person may not come back to Ireland. The council would like to see an amendment which would perhaps enable people to re-enter Ireland and to have their cases re-examined.
The legislation refers to instances where persons are convicted of offences and counsel feels the gravity of the offences should be taken into account in matters like this. One might find a sentence imposed for an offence that is not too grievous, but these matters can be examined on Committee Stage. I am almost certain that the Minister has received details of the council's concerns, and these should be taken into account on Committee Stage.
The council is also concerned about the removal of people before their appeals are heard. It is only fair that if appeals procedures and mechanisms are being applied people should not be deported until the final appeal is determined. The council is concerned about notification and other minor problems that could be dealt with on Committee Stage. It is also concerned about children, many of whom may be separated from their families. Great care should be taken to ensure that people's anxieties in this matter are adequately catered for, and the council has put forward several technical amendments it sees as necessary. The provision of translation facilities is one such matter.
The Irish Refugee Council has been doing very detailed work with no State funding. Last year it dealt with approximately 3,500 people, many of whom are seeking basic information and help with their applications. To do this work the Refugee Council has four legal advisers, four research personnel, a couple of FÁS workers and a few volunteers. For whatever reason, the funding provided to the council, as distinct from the agency, was not continued. I understand the council has made a submission for additional funding and that funding should be provided.
The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform sits on an interdepartmental committee on this matter. I was always confused about the responsibilities of the Department of Foreign Affairs, to which the Refugee Agency reports, and that of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, to which the Irish Refugee Council reports. Perhaps that committee could devise a mechanism for rationalising the area and putting in place a more streamlined administrative arrangement for dealing with these issues. That would be welcome.
Apart from the programme refugees, concern has been expressed about other asylum applicants. There is a genuine feeling abroad that they have not come here because of well-founded fear of persecution on grounds of race, religion, nationality or politics, but because they were involved in criminal activities. At Shannon Airport papers were flushed down toilets or burned before immigration personnel could see them. The small minority from a criminal background have given a bad name to refugees generally and asylum seekers in particular. It is important that the agencies dealing with refugees work closely with the Departments to combat people who try to undermine the system or who come here because our social welfare payments are more generous than those in the UK or because of changes to the UK system whereby payments were substituted for credits and the mechanism was tightened up – there is some evidence of that. That was believed to be the case for some 60 people in the Shannon area – they were not here because of a fear of persecution in their countries but because they were making money.
On the other hand, some immigrants have made a big contribution in various area. Mr. Diaz, a refugee from Chile who now lives in Shannon, has made a big contribution to social and cultural life in the area. Many people who had genuine reasons for seeking asylum have now made Ireland their home. They freely admit they still think of their homeland and would like to be repatriated, but that is not possible. It would be a shame if these people were to be deprived because of a small minority who are undermining the system and have come here for ulterior motives.
I compliment the immigration authorities in Shannon Airport for the humanitarian and caring way in which they have dealt with these cases for many years. It was a sensitive and difficult job at times but the immigration personnel always handled cases delicately. Great credit is due to them, the Irish Red Cross in Ennis, and the many volunteers who have been helpful in providing much needed facilities, advice, and income to a section of the international community which has had bad experiences.
The number of refugees and asylum seekers in the world will continue to increase. Ethnic conflict in central Europe may lead to a large eruption – one need only look at Kosovo to see that. Conflict is also continuing in Zaire, Somalia, and Nigeria. It is therefore imperative that we bring our refugee and asylum legislation up to date. We had several debates about this in the past few years and it is a cause of regret that the legislation passed by the Houses has not been fully implemented, for various reasons which have been explained on numerous occasions by the Minister. Nevertheless, the speed with which he has acted in this regard is welcome and I hope he will ensure the legislation is expedited. Perhaps we can use this Bill to meet the genuine concerns expressed by the Refugee Council, which has been in the forefront of the campaign to provide better facilities, humanitarian aid, assistance, and guidance to people who have had a traumatic time.
I compliment the Minister on the Bill. I urge him to look at the amendments put forward by the council and to speed up the work of the interdepartmental committee so that a new formula can be put in place to avoid overlapping and duplication which is a waste of human and financial resources. With this legislation and new administrative arrangements, I hope Ireland can continue to show the same caring attitude as we have since we signed the UN convention.