I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I find myself in the unusual situation of moving a Bill that is not mine. I cannot, unfortunately, claim the credit for it. The Bill results from the efforts and work of Senator Kelleher and her team, and indeed the Members of the Seanad Civil Engagement Group. Great credit also has to go to Nasc Ireland, Oxfam and the Irish Refugee Council. They all worked with Senator Kelleher on this Bill. It passed through the Seanad but there was no equivalent to the Civil Engagement Group in the Dáil, so the Business Committee very kindly agreed to schedule the Bill in this slot and asked me to take it forward today.
I also acknowledge the role of Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin who held a briefing on this issue earlier this afternoon and who has been incredibly supportive of its provisions. In supporting the Bill, as Senator Kelleher said when she introduced the it in the Seanad, this is really a modest proposal. It came out of a substantial and unnecessary erosion of the right to family reunification in the International Protection Act 2015. When that Act commenced, it removed the discretionary right, that had existed under the old Refugee Act 1996, to apply for extended family members to come to Ireland. It also introduced a one year time limit for refugees to submit an application for family reunification.
All this Bill does is broaden the scope of the definition of "family members" eligible to include a dependent grandparent, parent, brother, sister, child, grandchild, ward or guardian of the sponsor. It reinstates section 18(4) of the repealed Refugee Act 1996 but without the discretionary element for the Minister. It is not earth shattering. This Bill will not result in recognised refugees successfully applying to have 30 of their healthy strapping cousins, uncles, aunts or sisters coming to live with them. All it does is allow somebody who has come to Ireland, and perhaps left an elderly or disabled parent with nobody to care for them, to apply for that person to come here as well.
It would, for example, allow a Syrian mother of a 19 year old daughter, who is dependent on her, to come to Ireland. She could apply for that to happen. She cannot do that at present and that is something that would be absolutely abhorrent to most parents. As the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, pointed out at the time, the definition in section 55 of the International Protection Act 2015 of a member of family who may enter and reside in the State is far too narrow. Notably, it excludes dependents. In its recent review of the provisions of the Act, IHREC pointed out that the European Court of Human Rights, ECHR, in its jurisprudence on Article 8 of ECHR rights, has held that the right to family life extends beyond the nuclear family to relationships between grandparents and grandchildren, uncles and aunts with nieces and nephews and between adult siblings.
Bearing in mind that is Europe's highest court and it is of the view that family extends beyond nuclear, it is hardly surprising that since the 2015 Act was commenced there has been a massive upsurge in cases before the courts. Between January and June of this year, there have been 18 such cases on reunification before the courts. I put it to the Minister of State that perhaps it is time he started listening to the NGOs in this sector, to the Members of the Seanad and to these international organisations. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, for its part, has repeatedly argued for a liberal interpreting of "family" for the purpose of family reunification. As it states, the family plays an essential role to help refugees to rebuild their lives. It can also provide critical support to adapt to new and challenging circumstances.
Restoring families can also ease the sense of loss which accompanies many refugees who, in addition to family, have lost their country, networks and life as they knew it. Family support in this sense goes beyond any traditional cultural understanding of a family but will include those who rely and depend on each other. It makes sense and is so obvious that it hardly needs saying. However, sometimes when it is so obvious, we cannot see it.
The family reunification provisions under the old Refugee Act were not exactly liberal to begin with. It is shocking that the Government removed them from the International Protection Act 2015. While it might reassure the Government, the numbers involved, unfortunately, are tiny. Between 2008 and 2016, before the Irish refugee protection programme, IRPP, was set up, Ireland granted asylum to a total of 3,485 people. Add to that those who have come in under the IRPP over the past several years, the total comes to 6,000 people over ten years. Can the Government not find it in its heart to allow a tiny number of people, probably 1% of the population over a decade, apply to have their dependent parents, grown-up children or siblings join them? When the Refugee Act was in operation, the number of family members of recognised refugees who applied to come and join them was roughly two. I cannot understand the Government's resistance to it.
It is utterly appalling that we stand over a system where people can come here as unaccompanied minors, get their status after a period - for some of them it might take several years - but they cannot apply to have any family member to come and join them if they get their status after they reach the age of 18. They may have left their family when they were under 18. They may have been sent out with every penny the family had to get them to safety. They may have spent years trying to find their family members in a conflict zone. Obviously, it is not as easy as putting a stamp on a letter and hoping it will get there.
War dislocates people and separates families. It can take years to find one’s family. Take the case of people who eventually find their family and apply for them to join them. However, it is turned down because that person got his or her status when he or she was over 18. The isolation that one was sent into as a child remains into one's adult years. It is heart breaking to think that there are people in that situation. Critically, the Bill removes the time limit for the making of an application once international protection status has been granted. This is entirely sensible. As Oxfam and the Irish Refugee Council pointed out, it is not unusual for people to take a long time to find relatives. Accordingly, this is an important provision.
I pay tribute to the work put in by Róisín Hinds completing the important study into refugees’ experiences of the family reunification system since the changes were brought in with the 2015 Act. She tells of the real stories and the devastating consequences of these measures. She talked about a father who spent months frantically trying to track down his daughter, only to find out he could not apply because the 12-month limit had passed. We know of the people who spent years languishing in direct provision. If that was not bad enough, we have had the added trauma that as a consequence of the delay of those in direct provision getting their status, parents have subsequently tried to apply to get their daughters but they cannot leave. Accordingly, the parent is left here alone.
In the Seanad, we heard heart-breaking stories of elderly and sick grandmothers left in squalid conditions on the island of Lesbos. I know the Minister was at the justice committee yesterday when we discussed the conditions in Camp Moria in Lesbos. They are so bad there that children as young as ten are trying to take their own lives inside the camp. Overcrowding is so extreme that asylum seekers spend as much as 12 hours a day waiting in line for mouldy food. Up to 80 people wait for a shower and 70 people for a toilet. Workers talk about raw sewage leaking into the tents where children live. When the BBC visited the camp last summer, while it was filming, two people were stabbed to death in the queue for food. Our legislation, however, states that recognised refugees in Ireland who have a family member in that situation have to resign themselves to leaving an elderly grandmother there. It is shocking. Having one's family around one is important. We all know that instinctively.
I know the Minister will tell me that the Government recognises family reunification is important and this has been recognised in the humanitarian admission programme which is part of the Government's commitment under the Irish refugee programme. He will tell me that this has broader criteria in terms of family members than the reunification under the International Protection Act. However, it is limited to people who are currently in conflict zones and it is operated under the Minister's discretionary power. In other words, it is substantially more limited than what we are proposing here today. I know this argument was repeatedly made by the Government in the Seanad when Senator Kelleher moved her Bill. However, that argument was rejected by our colleagues in the Seanad. I trust and hope the same will happen here in the Dáil.
What the Government is attempting to stand over is a two-tier international protection system in this country. It is incredible that we have managed to designate some people fleeing from war and persecution as more deserving of care and compassion than others fleeing other wars and persecution. It is a ranking system for wars. If one is fleeing from one of the top five wars, as selected by the western powers, then one can get treated as a full human being. Having one kind of family reunification for one type of refugee and another for a different type is disgraceful in this day and age.
Ireland has one of the lowest refugee recognition rates in the world. In 2016, 65.6 million people around the world were displaced and seeking refuge. We granted refugee recognition to 646 of them, 0.0009% of the total, yet we are one of the richest countries in the world. It is a pathetic number. To quote Senator Kelleher again, what we are looking at here is a modest proposal. If the Government cannot find it in its heart to support it, I give up. I do not know what it is at. As a result of the campaign initiated by Oxfam, the Irish Refugee Council and Nasc, it was heartening to see the level of support and emails from citizens appealing to politicians at this time of year to get this Bill passed and to allow families to be reunited. It is striking that this is in some ways indicative of new politics with the Business Committee taking the decision to introduce an entirely new process in order to get this Bill, which was passed by the Seanad, into the Dáil. I thank the Ceann Comhairle and all the members of the Business Committee who came up with this creative approach to get us here today. They did not do it to have it rejected though. They got it here to undo the wrongs of the 2015 legislation. That is not speculation. It is a fact as a result of the studies done.
We also need to look at the supports for refugees under family reunification. Having dealt with many families in this situation, when they get here, there is absolutely nothing for them in many instances. This has resulted in people who fled war in Afghanistan going back there because they were homeless on our streets. That is shocking. There are no designated organisations to take up the process of family reunification in its entirety. Take the example of where the sponsor is an unaccompanied minor. Tusla may have worked with that child in care. It is then given the job to reunite the family without the resources to deal with it in a proper way. One might have a case of a young boy, separated from his family at 13 or 14 years of age, sent to the west who is now trying to bring his mother here.
His mother has not seen him since he left as a child. Now he is a man, but he is really only 17 or 18 years of age. His mother comes to Ireland with no English and never having left the country. She is more or less dumped in the care of that young man, who then must do everything - run around the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to get a PPS number; if they are lucky enough to get a house, to get bins for it; and endure the stress of rebuilding a family relationship in an alien country after having been separated for so long. The situation is so challenging anyway that we do not need to put barriers in place.
I salute Crosscare, which has done tremendous work in highlighting the shortcomings in this area. I thank Senator Kelleher and our Seanad colleagues in the Civil Engagement group. We owe them. We also owe it to the children and vulnerable families, whom I am so glad we gave refuge to, to allow them to be reunited with vulnerable family members who desperately need their help. I hope that the Minister of State reconsiders.