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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 4 Feb 1998

Vol. 154 No. 1

Immigration Services.

I mean no criticism of the Minister of State but it is frustrating that whenever the treatment of immigrants and refugees is raised in the Seanad, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is not present.

He was here all day; he has just left.

It is still a source of considerable annoyance that he is not present. He is part of the problem. His Department has turned a non-crisis into a crisis and an issue which could have been resolved with humanity has been turned into one which is in danger of causing enormous embarrassment to the State, as evidenced by the appalling spectacle of the queue of people outside the Department some months ago.

I wish to raise one aspect of the Department's performance in dealing with this issue. In response to a non-crisis which was fuelled by hysteria and imagination rather than reality, a large number of gardaí were seconded to stem a non-existent wave of illegal immigrants. Regrettably, they have shown, at its kindest, a lack of sensitivity in carrying out their business. This lack of sensitivity has been reported in The Irish Times as consisting of questions such as: “Are there any blacks on this train from Belfast?”, a question which was asked of Iarnród Éireann officials at one railway station. This should never happen.

The House is entitled to know how these members of the Garda Síochána were picked and, if they were selected to undertake this duty, what training they received and what criteria they were told to use in deciding which people they would delay and perhaps detain for further information. The suspicion is that skin colour is a major criterion for selecting people to be detained. Everybody in this country who has been involved with the developing world is aware of people, who have the most eminent qualifications and who come to this country on legitimate business, being held up by the immigration service not because their documentation was incorrect but because they came from a poor country and the colour of their skin rendered them suspect.

How does the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform train the gardaí who, in response to a non-existent crisis, have been stationed at our ports, airports and in railway stations which serve trains from Northern Ireland to spot illegal immigrants? What criteria do they use? They cannot stop everybody. Northern Ireland and the Republic are free travel areas and people are not required to carry passports. What language skills do these gardaí have? Is anybody who cannot speak English immediately suspect? Do the gardaí have interpreters?

One of the reasons one might come to the conclusion that sensitivity and training are not being offered to members of the Garda Síochána is an incident which Senator Norris described in a rushed fashion during the Order of Business. He described the experience of a Sudanese doctor who was travelling on a bus along College Green. He was on his way to the mosque on South Circular Road. The doctor and an Algerian colleague were hauled off the bus by two uniformed members of the Garda Síochána, questioned about where they came from and were accused of having false documents. They were taken into custody and were required to sign a document which declared they had not been ill-treated before they were released. If that is the attitude of the Garda Síochána to people whom it suspects of being illegal immigrants, will the Minister tell the House and the public how it ensures that such people do not end up at our borders intercepting people whom they suspect are illegal immigrants? That is the reason we need to know what they are being told and how they are being trained. We do not need fuzzy answers and denials of racism but explicit and detailed accounts of the positive training which should be offered to members of the Garda if they are to be put in this most sensitive position.

I thank Senator Ryan for raising this matter on the Adjournment. I apologise for the Minister who was in the House for most of the day but who, unfortunately, had to go abroad. The Minister was anxious to be here for this Adjournment matter. I am conscious that immigration matters generally are the subject of increasing interest and, sometimes, controversy.

Members of the Garda Síochána who operate the immigration controls which travellers encounter at our ports and airports, and who attend to the registration of non-nationals and the enforcement of immigration law within the State, operate within the command structure of the Garda itself. They are answerable as is any other member of the Force to their superiors within the Garda hierarchy and ultimately to the Garda Commissioner. They are not seconded to an immigration service answerable directly or indirectly to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

It is accordingly the Garda authorities who are responsible in the first instance for the training and day to day operational criteria of members of the Garda in carrying out the functions of immigration officers. The Minister is informed by the Commissioner that training for members newly assigned to duties as immigration officers consists principally of on the job training with experienced immigration officers. In addition, in-service training courses are provided on an ongoing basis in the area of the aliens legislation and in the specialised area of detecting false and forged documents. In this connection, Irish immigration officers participate regularly in training courses for immigration control personnel organised at EU level on false document recognition, funded partly by the Commission's "Sherlock" programme.

One of the aims of this programme is to keep immigration officers up to date with advances in forgery techniques, which are generally thought to be only about six months behind the development of newer and more complex security features in genuine documents. The Minister is also aware of the regular training exchanges between our immigration officers and our nearest neighbours in the United Kingdom on false documents and other matters of common interest in the immigration area.

A particularly sensitive area of the work of immigration officers is in recognising and dealing with claims for asylum made by persons entering the State. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is the international custodian of the 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees, to which Ireland is a party. Through its offices in London, UNHCR provides a regular training programme in asylum law and practice to staff of the Department and to immigration officers.

The operational criteria for immigration officers are set out in the Aliens Act, 1935, and the series of orders made under that Act. In particular, article 5 of the Aliens Order sets out the grounds on which an immigration officer may refuse leave to land to a person arriving here. These are as follows: the person has insufficient funds; although wishing to take up employment in the State, the person has no valid work permit; the person is suffering from a specified disease or disability; the person has been convicted of an offence punishable by one year's imprisonment or more; the person is not the holder of a valid Irish visa where needed; the person is the subject of a deportation order; the person has been prohibited from landing by order of the Minister under the Aliens Act and the person is not in possession of a valid passport or other document which establishes his or her nationality and identity to the immigration officer's satisfaction.

It is the job of the immigration officer to apply these criteria to all persons arriving in the State, except those arriving from the UK. As a special facility for EU nationals, including our citizens, arriving from EU ports and airports, there is in place at most of these ports a "blue channel" where the checks on those in possession of EU passports or national identity cards need not be as rigorous, although officers need to exercise vigilance at all times to ensure that there is no abuse.

In the case of arrivals from the UK, there has been for many years a Common Travel Area arrangement between the two neighbouring states. The purpose of this arrangement is to facilitate Irish and UK citizens by relieving them of the requirement to be in possession of a passport or other travel document when moving between the two jurisdictions. It does not relieve nationals of other countries from the need to comply with the immigration criteria which I mentioned. During late 1996 and in particular the first half of 1997, it became clear that there was widespread abuse of these arrangements by persons not entitled to use them.

As a result of an amendment to the Aliens Orders at the end of June 1997, immigration officers now have power to carry out checks, applying the statutory criteria which I set out earlier, in order to detect illegal entry from the UK. Persons so detected are refused leave to enter the State and are returned to the UK. If such a person applies for asylum, however, whether the person can be returned or not depends on the application of the Dublin Convention (Implementation) Order, and the person remains in the State until those procedures, including any appeal, are completed. The sort of things being checked for are exactly the same as those on inward journeys from Paris, Zurich or New York, for example. The only difference is that on such arrivals there are systematic checks. On arrivals from UK, not everyone is checked.

It is recognised that immigration officers have a difficult job to do in implementing immigration controls. They are under instruction to carry out their task with courtesy. Members of the public are not being needlessly checked. There is an illegal immigration problem which, like other types of crime, requires at times the co-operation of law abiding members of the public. Immigration officers appreciate such co-operation and express that appreciation to individuals who, on being checked, are found to be entering the country legally. There have been a number of assertions in the media that individuals have been wrongly refused entry or otherwise and improperly dealt with. The Minister understands a very small number of such complaints have been made to the independent Garda Síochána Complaints Board. He is also aware of a small number of complaints which have been made to him. While any complaint is cause for concern, such a number is hardly indicative of the widespread or systematic abuse of their powers by immigration officers.

Having regard to the large scale movement of persons between the United Kingdom and here on a daily basis, the Garda authorities have been reminded of the need to ensure that immigration officers operating this legislation are kept aware of the need for discretion and courtesy in carrying out this difficult task. While recognising the difficulties involved for immigration officers in carrying out the important task of dealing with the serious problem of illegal immigration, the Minister is concerned generally to ensure that there should be no occasion where controls are exercised in an unreasonable discriminatory fashion or without an acceptable level of courtesy.

As regards random checks, it is a matter of regret that the Minister did not explain how they pick people who come through the "blue channel". Is skin colour one of the criteria they use? The Minister has not said so. Do I draw the obvious conclusion that it is one of the criteria?

I will convey the Senator's concerns to the Minister. I have outlined the situation comprehensively. If the Senator has particular concerns, I will relate them to the Minister or the Senator may communicate with him and he will be glad to deal with them.

The Seanad adjourned at 10 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 5 February 1998.