I thank the Chairman and the committee for making time for detailed scrutiny of the Bill. I thank Senator Frances Black, my co-sponsor of the Bill who is sitting at the other side of the table, for being a very supportive person, along with other members of the Civil Engagement group.
There is much common ground regarding the importance of family reunification and where we differ with the Government, it is more about the means than the end. I recognise the actions of the Government and the Department of Justice and Equality in support of refugees and their families, including the introduction last year of a temporary Irish humanitarian admission programme, IHAP. The Minister and I are united in what we intend to achieve in this area.
I also recognise the work of Nasc, which is a wonderful organisation doing great work in Cork, as well as the Irish Refugee Council and Oxfam Ireland and I say a big "Thank you" to Dr. Róisín Hinds, who is in the Gallery. I thank the people who have shared their stories with us, those directly affected by the law. The statement by lzzeddeen Alkarajeh outlines the struggles he is experiencing as he tries to reunite with his mother. It is an important story because it shows that there are human beings at the heart of all of this. Those stories have driven us to keep going, even in the face of Government opposition. There has been significant political support in the Seanad and the Dáil for the Bill.
The scale of the human catastrophe that is unfolding around the world is unprecedented. The UN Refugee Agency identified that, by the end of 2017, more than 68.5 million people were forced to flee, 25.4 million of whom crossed borders in the search of safety. The scale of the response in Ireland and elsewhere has to be commensurate with this. The Government states that it is doing a lot, and this is true, but it has to match the scale of the catastrophe. There are 5.6 million people seeking safety in Turkey. In South Sudan, there are 2 million internally displaced people, while hundreds of pregnant women, unaccompanied children and survivors of torture are being abandoned in refugee camps on the Greek islands. It is unimaginable. Some 2,275 people died or went missing in the Mediterranean Sea, an average of six deaths a day. Approximately 84% of displaced people live in low-income countries, where some of the poorest communities in the world are providing refuge. I was in Beirut when my son lived there. A total of 1 million people have travelled from Syria to Lebanon, which is the size of Munster. We need to measure our response against what some very poor countries are doing.
A common thread that unites the experiences of all refugees is family separation. In the desperate search for safety, families can become separated and scattered, forced to follow different routes as they flee. When a person reaches safety, finding and reuniting with their loved ones is often their number one priority. Each one of us who has a family will understand that. The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights has identified family reunification for refugees as a "pressing human rights issue". Members will be able to imagine the anxiety of refugees. How can one possibly settle, knowing that loved ones are in danger or under threat? The lack of family reunification has an impact on people's ability to get on with their lives.
My current studies in family therapy reaffirm what I expect we all know to be true, that is, the centrality of family in people's well-being and ability to live well in the world. Family reunification, which is what this Bill is all about, will put that on a firmer footing in order that people can have their families by their side. This is a modest proposal. When it was debated in the Dáil, it was criticised by Deputy Clare Daly, who moved it, for being too modest and she was right in many ways. I would have liked the Bill to go further. It puts the right to apply to reunite with dependent family members on a statutory basis. It proposes to revert to the definition of "family" that existed under the Refugee Act 1996, and it gives applicants a more realistic timeframe to apply for family reunification. The legislation also provides for it to come into force three months following the date of legislative approval.
There is substantial political support for the Bill and it enjoyed substantial majorities in the Seanad and Dáil. The small changes represented by the Bill are necessary because of restrictions introduced in the International Protection Act 2015, which mean that refugees, or persons with subsidiary protection, currently have a statutory right to apply to reunite with a very restricted category of family members. The 12-month time limit is also posing major difficulties and Nasc and the Irish Refugee Council will be able to elaborate upon that.
When we think of our children, who here believes that they are fully independent of us at 18? I have a 28 year old daughter and we are about to put her on our insurance. My son is studying and we are still helping him out. I am sure that we all know of parents who rely financially on their adult children. Do we know of elder brothers and sisters who, through circumstances and chance, are the carers of their younger siblings? Relationships of dependency do not fit into the neat confines of the 2015 Act. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, supports our view and, in its comprehensive analysis, it describes the removal of the right to apply for family reunification for extended family members and the introduction of a statutory time limit as a "retrogressive measures". Our Bill is in line with the recommendations of IHREC's report of last year.
I have heard the Minister's arguments that our Bill would deny discretion but we do not believe this. Our Bill sits well alongside discretionary programmes, such as IHAP, and it does not in any way preclude them. Reliance on discretion alone creates uncertainty for refugees and for their family members and that is why we make the proposals that are in the Bill. This is not an either-or situation. There can be rights and discretionary programmes but they are not counter to each other. I would welcome a broadening of IHAP but it has critical limitations. It is a temporary scheme and is only applicable to people coming from ten countries.
A major concern, which was introduced into the debate on later Stages by the Minister, was that moves on migration were problematic per se. I want to challenge arguments that migration and diversity are problematic per se, and that they are divisive. Specifically, I challenge the suggestion made by the Minister in the debates on the Bill that the arrival of more refugees to Ireland could provoke a political and social backlash similar to what we have witnessed in some European countries. My own lived experience challenges that. I was an emigrant in London for 17 years and I was a net contributor. I signed on at the beginning but I paid far more taxes in the long run. My children went to a state primary school in not-very-affluent Tottenham. Some 31 languages were spoken at the school that my children attended. The children, including my own, had parents from, and with roots in, all parts of the world.
We were people escaping danger, poverty or mass unemployment in my case. As we discovered, Ms Finn and I lived in a similar part of London.
I recall with real fondness my children's friends and schoolmates, all learning and playing together. Crowland primary school was the London borough of Haringey at its best. Our home and school were in a constituency which, although poor, voted overwhelmingly to 'remain' in the Brexit referendum. The notion, therefore, that diversity and migration automatically cause people to pull up the drawbridge is not the case in that situation. Government action in doing all that is possible to respond to refugees and their families in a generous and welcoming way, as the International Protection (Family Reunification)(Amendment) Bill 2017 proposes, is the strong and the moral thing to do.
It can also be the popular thing to do. Some 70% of those surveyed in research by the Social Change Initiative agreed with the statement "If I were from another country and fleeing terrible circumstances I would want Ireland to offer me protection" and only 7% disagreed. We need to challenge and not follow the dog whistle often used in conversations about refugees and migration. I was very surprised and disappointed by the Government's decision to deny a money message for this legislation, particularly as it came so early into the legislative process, in October 2017 as I recall. I hope the Government has now given this Bill due consideration and has listened to the debate. The Bill does not appropriate public funds, does not compel the Government to make expenditure and does not set up a new Government agency or create a new body.
I have heard this Bill described as "openended" and that it will "open the floodgates" but that is a fundamental misunderstanding of the legislation. This Bill does not give people an automatic entitlement to bring dependent family members to Ireland. As was also pointed out to me, Standing Order 179(1) states a Bill cannot be initiated and taken to Second Stage if it appropriates revenue in the most meaningful sense of the words "significant charges". Standing Order 179(2) then states a Bill cannot go forward to Committee Stage if it includes incidental expenses beyond this. By letting this Bill take Second Stage the Bills Office, therefore, has already accepted the Bill does not involve the appropriation of revenue as dealt with in Standing Order 179(1) and the only cost issues here have to be incidental, such as administration. That tallies with the argument that an increased administrative burden for the Department of Justice and Equality is the real issue here.
The Bill changes existing regulations. It gives refugees and people with subsidiary protection a statutory right to apply to reunite with dependent family members. Applicants must still comply with the rigorous requirements of the application. The Department of Justice and Equality will still have control of accepting or rejecting applications. This is a managed system. My colleagues from the Irish Refugee Council, IRC, will be able to speak further on this. Any costs related to this Bill would clearly be incidental. Should this Bill require a money message, it is difficult to think of a piece of legislation that would not.
The International Protection (Family Reunification) (Amendment) Bill 2017 is a timely, humane and modest piece of legislation which falls well within the resources the Government has available to it. I am thankful to Members of both Houses for their continued and overwhelming support for this legislation. I am hopeful we can resolve the money message issue as soon as possible and enact the urgent change so desperately needed for refugee families. I thank the committee for hearing me.