I welcome the Bill. The House will recall that I have spoken on all immigration Bills since entering Dáil Éireann in 1997. The new Bill represents a further development and enhancement of the provisions contained in the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill 2008 and takes into accounts concerns and Committee Stage amendments tabled by the Opposition. The Government also tabled substantial amendments. The Bill was withdrawn and a new one produced.
As we know, it is a fundamental principle of immigration law that a foreign national has no right as such to enter or to be in Ireland. Considerable jurisprudential authority makes it clear that not only does the State have the power — mainly used by the Minister for Justice and Law Reform — to manage the entry, presence and removal from the State of non-nationals, but has a duty to do so to protect the interests of Irish society.
The main purpose of the new Bill remains the same as that of the 2008 Bill, namely, to provide a modern legislative framework for managing migration that will provide a fair and transparent set of procedures for the day-to-day implementation of Government policies in respect of immigration and protection. It will ensure that the State's immigration and protection system complies with our international obligations in this regard. As we know, the Bill repeals and re-enacts, with substantial amendments, the current body of immigration and protection legislation dating back to the Aliens Act 1935. In particular, it restates the principles enshrined in the Refugee Act 1996 in a way that integrates the State's protection system into the mainstream of immigration law with a view to making the system more efficient and effective.
I shall return to the main aims proposed in the Bill but refer first to 2002. Every time I make a contribution on an immigration Bill Members on the opposite side of the House show different views and attitudes. I, too, am entitled to express my views in the House. On 24 January 2002 I made a statement about an incident involving asylum seekers in Cork who were seeking a greater degree of protection and more facilities. In my statement, carried in The Irish Times and other newspapers, I stated that I believed some asylum seekers were spongers and freeloaders, and were screwing the system. That was in 2002. Of course, that statement opened a Pandora’s box in this House when I raised the matter on 31 January 2002. I was leaped on by members of the Opposition and by the media who followed me, hanging on my every word, all the time throwing around the accusation that I was a racist. In this very Chamber, a number of Deputies on the opposite side called me a racist. The Deputy who was very strong in expressing these views was not re-elected in 2002 but I am glad to see the same Deputy was back in the House after the 2007 election.
The media were the not only group to throw that accusation around. For example, Amnesty International made a complaint to the Garda which carried out an investigation and took a statement from me. It was found I had no case to answer when this was sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions. That was a difficult time for me, being hounded by the media when all I was doing was expressing the point of view of my constituents regarding the difficulties they had with criminality and anti-social behaviour on the part of some asylum seekers. They came to this country seeking asylum and one would have expected them to obey the laws of this country and behave properly. At that time there was great concern among the people of Cork North Central.
An interesting statistic from 2008 is that non-Irish nationals account for 30% for all committals to prison. This figure included all nationalities present in the country, both EU nationals and nationals from all over the world.
Members may recall that in 2004, the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Michael McDowell, introduced the Citizen Referendum Bill which changed the format relating to citizenship. During the debate on this issue, Mr. McDowell used the word "conmen" in regard to some asylum seekers but the media did not hound him and said nothing about him. He was the Minister so he could use the word "conman" but Deputy Noel O'Flynn could not use a similar word in the same vein. Nor did they accuse him of racism.
However, since 2002 things have improved dramatically in regard to this issue. It is important to put on the record of this House that over the years I have worked with asylum seekers and helped them with their applications. I have also witnessed and commended the involvement of the new Irish in our country, especially in my own city where we have our St. Patrick's Day parade every year. People from many different nationalities have settled in now and become part of Cork society. We have seen them and their culture and have enjoyed it. It has enriched our society.
I am still concerned about direct provision for asylum seekers which they receive in accommodation, food and a small allowance. They may be living in such accommodation for many years. That is wrong. Their applications must be dealt with speedily and decisions must be made. If they are to be granted asylum let it be given to them and, eventually, citizenship but it is wrong to have the process drawn out and delayed. There must be a better way and I see that way in this Bill.
Since 2004 I have welcomed to Ireland people from the new eastern European states that joined the EU. Some have settled and made homes for themselves among us. For many years, these men and women have been valuable assets to our economy and have contributed greatly. I am glad that Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Latvians and Estonians have come to Ireland and worked hard here because these are people who suffered long under the yoke of Soviet imperialism.
I welcome, therefore, a Bill that seeks to have fast track applications for all asylum seekers and proposes that, following rejection of an application, only one recourse will be open to appeal rather than the four or five stages people were taking in order to exhaust the legal process until a decision was eventually made either to deport them or to grant asylum. We all know who the winners are in this — the barristers and solicitors in the Law Courts in Dublin and elsewhere.
I do not know whether the Minister mentioned it in his speech today but he has estimated that 95% of asylum seekers are economic migrants. In 2002, I estimated that 80% of applicants in this country were not fleeing tyranny or oppression in their own countries. The Minister's figures are startling. I hope we can speed up the asylum process, granting asylum to genuine cases and returning non-genuine applicants to their country of origin.
I will refer to statistics presently but first will refer to an important issue which I hope the House and the Department officials will take note of, namely, the students who come to this country to study in our universities and colleges on a student visa. They are very welcome to Ireland and I commend the Government on prioritising overseas student accommodation and training in Ireland. This is something I asked the Government to provide two years ago when I discovered there were nine Taiwanese students studying in Ireland and 15,000 students from Taiwan studying in the UK. I could not understand why we should not have more students coming to Ireland from those types of countries. As Members know, in the past year we gave free visa entry to people from Taiwan and I hope we will see many more students from that country coming to study and receive their education here. Students from outside the EU spend an average of €25,000 – €35,000 per year on fees, accommodation and upkeep. We want to see many more students coming to Ireland as this will boost our colleges and our economy.
There is an important related point. Under the regulations, students are allowed to work 20 hours per week and this must be re-examined in light of our own economic downturn. Many of our own students cannot get work because positions are filled by students from overseas, etc. I am also aware there are overseas students who are not studying in any school or college but are working, which is in breach of regulations. I am advised that in some cases false documents are being used to secure visas from the Department of Justice and Law Reform and from our embassies. Applicants receive a PPS number and some students have two such numbers. They have an identification which may have been given to them by people who have left the country, leaving them documents which may have been falsified. This means that such individuals can work not only for 20 hours a week but can work for 40 hours because they have two identities. I am asking Department of Justice and Law Reform officials to look at that because I believe this is an area we need to tighten up on and support genuine students, while removing those who are using the study visa to work in Ireland only.
The Bill refers to marriages of convenience and that action is being taken on this aspect. It is now well known that a number of EU nationals are coming to Ireland and marrying non-EU nationals not for love, but for money. I am pleased the Department has made reference to that in the Bill, it is a matter about which the Minister is also very concerned.
With regard to the number of asylum seekers in Ireland, I am advised that 2,689 asylum applications were received in 2009, representing a welcome 30.5% decrease on the corresponding figure for 2008, which was 3,866. Of that number, 65% were male and the rest female. The top five sources of applications for 2009 were: Nigeria, with 569 — 21%; Pakistan — 9%; China — 7.2%; Democratic Republic of Congo — 3.8%; and Zimbabwe — 3.4%. Nigeria and Pakistan were the largest and second largest sources, respectively, nationally, while China was the fifth largest nationality.
When I raised these matters in 2002, we had 11,634 applicants for asylum in that year. I am pleased that the number of asylum seekers has fallen continuously, with the fall in applications in 2009 being the third largest in percentage terms. I have looked through the entire list over the years and have one before me. What has helped significantly is that we passed the referendum on citizenship in 2004, which was introduced by Deputy Michael McDowell, the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, something for which I commend him. He was a very brave man and I am pleased that it was part of the programme for Government. It removed the automatic right of a child born in Ireland of foreign parents to citizenship and helped to stop many of the asylum shoppers from coming here to have children and use the system in that manner.
I am pleased too, to read from the document circulated by the Minister earlier this year, that we have had 236 deportation orders to non-EU countries with regard to failed asylum seekers, again representing an increase of 83% on 2008. We had 243 transfer orders to other European states under the Dublin II regulation, where a person is discovered to have made an application for asylum in another EU country but has come here to make a second application. The legislation we have passed down the years, including the finger printing of asylum seekers, has helped significantly in this because we are sharing this information with other jurisdictions which has helped identify people who were registering twice. Again, I said in 2002 that people were screwing the system in this country, and this has been borne out in the figures that were subsequently published over the years after that.
An additional 202 failed asylum seekers have been returned and removed from the State voluntarily and with assistance, and I commend the Department of Justice and Law Reform, officials in the different immigration front line services and the Garda for the work they have done over the last number of years to implement legislation which has been passed by the Oireachtas.
I also welcome the provisions on human trafficking. I spoke on the Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) Bill 2007 in this House and I was pleased to see at the time that when the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill was to be introduced, part of it provided for help for victims, whereby a victim of trafficking could be afforded an immediate period for recovery and reflection as well as facilitating him or her to participate in any criminal proceedings arising. A further period of residence is provided for in the Bill in this regard.
I welcome, too, the section about residents whereby various categories of people who have lived here in various forms of temporary accommodation could well be moved, being treated as a different class. I do not believe it is right to have people cluttered up in this manner in hotels rooms or other accommodation for long periods without their cases being decided.
I welcome the very strong provisions in regard to removing people from the State who are here unlawfully. I hope that with the provisions of the Bill we can again streamline the immigration and asylum systems while being able to expedite any legal redress by asylum seekers in such a way as to facilitate more quickly decisions made by the courts. I have always accepted that where a person has been granted asylum, he or she should stay here. However, if he or she is not granted asylum, then in my view he or she should be removed from the State.