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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 16 Nov 1999

Vol. 510 No. 6

Adjournment Debate. - Immigration Policy Review.

Speaking in the Dáil in November 1995, the then Fianna Fáil spokesperson on Justice, Deputy O'Donoghue, said that the status of refugees was an issue which should strike a chord with every man, woman and child here who has any grasp of Irish history, as Irish history books were littered with the names and deeds of those driven from our country by fear of prosecution.

The same Deputy is now the Minister who must take primary responsibility for a policy on dealing with asylum seekers which has accurately been described by the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy O'Donnell, as a doom-laden, ad hoc policy, as chaos and a shambles.

The Irish are a predominantly humane and tolerant people and the great majority have been shocked, not just by the appalling scenes we witnessed at the Refugee Applications Centre in Mount Street in the past two weeks, but also at the increasingly harsh and intolerant tones that have come to characterise public pronouncements on this issue by senior Government Ministers. No matter what a person's economic status, nationality, skin colour or ethnic background is, that person is entitled to be treated by the institutions of this State with courtesy, respect and dignity. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has failed to ensure that asylum seekers in this State are treated in an acceptable manner.

I do not blame the staff at the Refugee Applications Centre, who have been working in intolerable conditions for some time. In many respects, the staff's decision to take action finally forced the Minister to move to acquire additional accommodation as well as extra space and staff.

However, the Minister must take responsibility for allowing last week's situation to develop. It besmirched the good name of this country. He has been in office since July 1997 and it is time he stopped blaming the previous Administration and accepted that he has failed utterly to do what is needed after two and a half years in office, promising he would deal with delays in processing asylum applications. We have had the appalling spectacle of men, women and children queuing from as early as 5 a.m. They queue for hours with nowhere to sit, no shelter from the weather and without even the most basic toilet facilities. They queue for hours only to be turned away and told no service is to be available at the office. If those scenes were not bad enough, the atmosphere has been further inflamed by a series of harsh and intolerant pronouncements by Government Ministers. In a phrase that would be music to the minority of racists in the country, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform talked on RTE of the country being swamped by asylum seekers. Last night the Minister for Finance suggested the problem had been solved in June and July and blamed the Government decision to allow employers to seek permits to employ some asylum seekers for acting as a pull to bring more asylum seekers into the country.

Since the Government decision in July, just 15 work permits have been issued for the thousands of asylum seekers here. The Government is clearly divided on the issue. As the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donnell, acknowledged, Government policy is a shambles, but far from trying to deal with the problem identified by her, senior Fianna Fáil Ministers have, on television, poured scorn on her. Surprisingly – or perhaps not – the Tánaiste has failed to come to the defence of her colleague and has implicitly taken the side of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Immigration into this country from outside the EU is a fact of life with which we will have to live. We have two choices – we can see it, as the Minister does, as a problem to be dealt with through restrictions, harsh measures, legal sanctions and deportations or as a potentially positive development which provides us with an opportunity to promote diversity in Irish society and to meet the labour shortages already identified. The most immediate priority should be to put in place facilities that will ensure that all applicants are dealt with promptly and efficiently. That is the demand of the people of Ireland to which the Minister and the Government must respond without further delay.

I agree that the situation which has obtained in the Refugee Applications Centre for the past number of weeks and in particular the past week is not satisfactory. In so far as this Department is concerned a full service has been provided for all applicants at all times. The difficulties arose as a result of the Eastern Health Board being unable to provide an adequate response to demands for services from clients. Additional staff, accommodation and extended outreach clinics are being put in place by the Eastern Health Board and these measures should solve the current problem. Already six clinics are in operation and it is hoped to more than double this number. Approximately 160 people visited the Eastern Health Board at the centre today and all have been accommodated.

The numbers applying for asylum during 1999 increased from 234 in January to 453 in June but jumped dramatically from 571 in July to 962 in August and 938 in September and over 1,000 in October. Nobody could have possibly predicted and it is unrealistic to think that any Department or indeed Government could have foreseen such an unprecedented increase in numbers. It is no coincidence that the recent announcement on entitlement to work, which the Minister believes has been deliberately misinterpreted abroad by those trafficking in asylum seekers as a general entitlement, is a factor which may have influenced the current rate of arrivals. That, together with the public debate concerning the introduction in the UK early next year of providing for asylum seekers' needs by direct provision with minimal cash rather than cash based welfare benefits has clearly contributed to the current increase in applicants.

As I have stated, in so far as my Department is concerned, a full service has been provided for all applicants at all times. The measures introduced in early 1998 had begun to produce results with the task force dealing with new and old applications simultaneously. At the rate of progress in relation to processing cases at first instance based on application figures up to July of this year, it was intended that the task force would have dealt with the entire backlog of applications by July 2000 and from that date would be processing applications within weeks of arrival. The target was to reach a stage where an applicant would be interviewed within weeks of arrival, notified of the decision as soon as possible thereafter so that an applicant would complete the entire application process in six to seven months. Because of the dramatic increase in new applications in recent months, additional resources will be needed to achieve this target. The Minister will not be found wanting in providing those resources, as he has not been found wanting since entering office.

From May 1998, the starting point from which we began to fully address the backlog, to 31 October 1999 a total of 6,332 interviews were scheduled from which 4,113 interviews were completed. During this period there were 1,794 persons who did not attend for interview and 2,000 were deemed abandoned for a number of reasons. My Department's officials are committed to processing applications for refugee status in accordance with our international obligations and domestic rules and procedures with a view to providing the best possible service for all applicants. Applicants for asylum are treated with courtesy and professionalism by all members of staff from reception to the final stage of the process. All staff working in the asylum division, including the reception and interviewing personnel, have completed appropriate training courses and have received on the job experience of interviews and assessments. The training programmes were agreed with the UNHCR and delivered by a combination of this Department's own experienced personnel, UNHCR training specialists and the UNHCR's full-time official here and includes the necessary training for dealing with sensitive matters such as gender issues and victims of trauma and violence.

The significant increase in the number of persons applying for refugee status has given rise to a very acute shortage of accommodation. The Eastern Health Board refugee unit has, as I outlined, put a number of measures in place to address this problem and the Government has accordingly decided that asylum seekers should be dispersed to locations around the country. At its meeting on 9 November the Government again considered the situation which has arisen as a result of the unprecedented increase in asylum applications. The Government decided that a central directorate unit should be established immediately to deal with matters relating to the dispersal of asylum seekers throughout the country and the preparation of plans for a system of direct provision of housing and welfare needs of applicants. My Department is now faced with new challenges and the Government is fully supportive of the resources required to meet these challenges. In relation to immigration policy and a review of same, I must state that the immigration policy and procedures operated by my Department are summarised in a series of public information leaflets, which I recently placed in the Oireachtas Library for the information of Deputies.

As I have indicated in the past, the Minister is prepared to consider new arrangements, including a quota system to facilitate immigration to Ireland to alleviate labour shortages. The press statement which was issued to announce the Government's decision allowing a certain group of asylum seekers to work also stated that we would issue visas on a limited basis to persons from non-EU countries to enable them to take up unfilled employment opportunities in Ireland and that the interdepartmental committee on immigration matters would be reconvened to decide the precise methodology to apply to the new arrangements. However, when the matter was discussed at the interdepartmental committee, I understand that the prevailing view was that the existing work permit system was operating well and responding satisfactorily to the emerging labour market needs of the economy. The position continues to be that the Minister is open to considering any proposed change to present arrangements.