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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 19 Jul 2017

Vol. 253 No. 2

International Protection (Family Reunification) (Amendment) Bill 2017: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am delighted to be proposing my second item of legislation along with the five other members of the Civil Engagement group. One of the core objectives of that group is to reach out and to voice the concerns of marginalised people who often lack a political voice and to connect with them through supporting NGOs, charities and other civil society organisations. We have done that effectively with this Bill. We have worked closely and in strong partnership with Cork-based Nasc, Oxfam and the Irish Refugee Council and through them, people directly affected. I thank all three organisations for their support and assistance over the last month. I also thank the other Senators from across the House who have expressed their support for this Bill, which is very encouraging. Finally, I thank our support staff, Mr. Pádraig Rice, and Mr. Simon Murtagh from the Association of European Parliamentarians with Africa, AWEPA, who strongly encouraged me to pursue this issue when we shared an office last summer.

Let me start the debate by saying how desperate the situation is for people around the world. We are facing an unprecedented global refugee crisis, the likes of which we have not seen since the Second World War. Sixty-five million people have been forced to flee their homes due to conflict and persecution - the highest number ever recorded by the United Nations. There are currently over 22 million refugees, half of whom are children. This crisis is separating families. It is wrenching children from their parents and grandparents, dividing siblings and destroying extended family networks. The great Daniel O'Connell once said:

My sympathy with distress is not confined within the narrow bounds of my own green island. No — it extends itself to every corner of the earth. My heart walks abroad, and wherever the miserable are to be succoured, or the slave to be set free, there my spirit is at home, and I delight to dwell there.

I echo those sentiments today. As a small island nation, with a history of emigration and famine, we have a moral obligation to do what we can, when we can, wherever we can to help refugees in need and their families.

We also have a legal obligation. The right to refuge from conflict and persecution and the right to family life are enshrined in international human rights law. At a national level, the Constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann, specifically recognises the value of the family as "the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law." Despite this strong moral and legal basis, Ireland is not living up to its moral and legal obligations to protect the right to family life for refugees. Ireland is also failing to adequately share responsibility for those affected by the global displacement crisis.

Two years ago, the Government made a commitment to welcome 4,000 refugees by the end of 2017 through the Irish Refugee Protection Programme. However, thus far, we have only welcomed a total of 1,259 people, less than a third of our pledge. These figures only serve to mask the enormous human tragedy unfolding before our eyes.

The Bill before the House is a modest proposal. It is about family, what we understand to be family and how we define family. How we define family in law today affects desperate people very directly.

I ask the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, and others here to close their eyes, if they will, and think of what family means to them? Who does the Minister consider to be his family? In Ireland, we consider our nieces and nephews like our own. Our brothers and sisters are often our nearest and dearest. Our grandparents are loved, respected and adored. Modern Ireland is also home to many non-traditional families. Most recently, we saw the Irish people overwhelmingly support the right of LGBT couples to be recognised as family before the law.

I would say to anyone who asked me that I come from a big family but according to the current definition, my family would include my husband only, not my children because they are over 18, not my brothers and sisters, my lovely sisters-in-law and brother-in-law and my father-in-law, and not my 25 nieces and nephews and their 29 children, the youngest grand-nephew of whom, Conor, was born before Christmas. As the law stands, I would not be able to reach out and help many of those I consider to be part of my family even if they were depending on me for support.

Only last year my nephew took me in when I had no place to stay in Dublin. Another time, another nephew lived with me in London for six months after college and we supported him with his "start". My daughter, who is now earning, will help her brother with money, I am sure, when we go on holidays next month. Grandparents up and down the country help their sons and daughters with child care. Why? Because we are family in its widest sense. Only last Monday I heard a lovely story about brothers unexpectedly reuniting in New York city. The brothers had never met previously as the older brother, an economic migrant, left home before his younger brother was born. It is unIrish to think of the family as just one's husband or wife and children under 18. Family is rightly so much more. It is also not the way of Irish people to abdicate responsibility for family members in grave need.

The International Protection Act 2015, which we seek to amend, came into effect 31 December 2016. It has had a detrimental impact on refugee family reunification, making it difficult, and almost impossible, for family members outside of the nuclear family to reunite with their loved ones. The 2015 Act changed Ireland's family reunification policy by removing the category of dependants which existed under the original Refugee Act 1996. This narrowed the eligibility for reunification to spouses and children, if the children are under the age of 18 and unmarried, and parents and parents' minor children, if the applicant seeking reunification is under the age of 18 and unmarried.

Senior lawyers have told me that the current definition is on a questionable constitutional footing and it is only a matter of time before it is challenged in the highest courts in the land at great cost to the State. We do not need to wait for that to happen, nor leave any more families in limbo. We can fix it today. Amending the legislation on family reunification to restore the provisions of the Refugee Act 1996 not only offers Ireland an opportunity to show leadership in upholding fundamental rights but could also help meet our existing obligations under the Irish Refugee Protection Programme - a sign of good faith to the world that we want to share responsibility for those in need.

This Bill proposes to do three things. The proposed legislative amendment would enable a broader group of dependants to apply for family reunification — a wider group of people can experience the joy of living in peace with their family. The following definition is inserted into the Act, "any grandparent, parent, brother, sister, child, grandchild, ward or guardian of the sponsor who is dependent on the qualified person or is suffering from a mental or physical disability to such extent that it is not reasonable for him or her to maintain himself or herself fully."

The proposed legislative amendment restores the definition of the family to that of the Refugee Act 1996, with two exceptions. First, we have removed the Minister's discretion that was present in the 1996 Act. Given the strong legal basis for the protection of the family in Irish, European and International law, applicants for family reunification should be subject to a legal process to decide whether they meet the definition of the family in the Bill rather than the decision of an individual Minister.

Second, we have deleted the timeframe that specifies the application for family reunification must be submitted within 12 months of a person being declared a refugee or beneficiary of subsidiary protection in Ireland. In Oxfam's and the Irish Refugee Council’s experience, when families are fleeing conflict and persecution they can end up scattered across the world. They can spend significant time being moved from country to country and often lack knowledge of the whereabouts of one other. Many flee without their documents. It can therefore take longer than 12 months for family members to be located by their relatives and for an application for their reunification to be made. Passing this Bill will provide safe and legal access for the family members of refugees to a new life. We all live better when surrounded by the ones we love and the ones who love us.

This Bill gives us a chance to review and reflect on the current process. I was not a member of the previous Oireachtas but my feeling is that the International Protection Act 2015 may have been passed with haste. Its terms are too narrow and ungenerous.

Our earlier thinking, outlined in the 1996 Refugee Act, which we seek to restore, was wiser, better, broader and in tune with the Irish understanding of family.

We held a meeting on refugee family reunification yesterday at which Stephen Collins, a solicitor from the Irish Refugee Council, was present. He gave us examples of situations where people might be excluded from family reunification at the moment, perhaps as an unintended consequence of the redefinition of the family, but who may qualify for reunion if our Bill is passed.

The first is a young woman from a war-torn country in Africa. Rebels killed her parents and kidnapped her sister. This woman escaped to Ireland where she applied for protection. She initiated a Red Cross family tracing request to try to find her sister. The Minister granted her refugee status in June 2017. In July 2017, the Red Cross contacted her to say that her younger sister is in a refugee camp in Kenya. The girl is alone and dependent on the woman because their parents are dead. The woman applied for family reunification. The Minister refused, saying that minor dependent siblings do not fit the definition of family in the 2015 Act.

The second was a gay man from Zimbabwe, a country where men are sent to prison for falling in love. The man in question has been with his partner for five years. The relationship was discovered and he was outed, so he fled. When he got to Ireland, he applied for his partner, who is under risk of attack, the person he loves most and whom he is desperate to see again, to be allowed to join him. The application was refused because of the narrow definition in the current Act which does not recognise those who are not legally married. Across these Houses, today and day after day, people proclaim us to be a beacon of hope for LGBT people around the world, a beacon that beckons LGBT people to our shore. However, if we discriminate against them when they arrive, we are not showing a good example. If Senator Norris were here today, I am sure that he would say it is a disgrace. Those men are being punished twice: beaten and tortured at home and discriminated against when they flee.

The third case is that of a woman whose husband had been imprisoned arbitrarily by the military in her country. She managed to escape and was granted refugee status in Ireland. She initiated a family tracing search with the Red Cross but it could not help to find her husband. Years later she got a message online to say there was news. Her husband had been released from prison and was alive. Her application for family reunification was refused because it was past the arbitrary 12-month deadline for applications.

There are also issues around unaccompanied children. If they get refugee status on or after their 18th birthday, they cannot apply for any family members to join them. These young people need the support, guidance and love only a family can give. Their integration into Irish life would be enhanced if they had a brother, mother, father or sister by their side.

A glimpse of the good this Bill could do and the difference it would make to people's lives if passed was shown to us yesterday by Mr. Collins. He spoke of an Iraqi man whose application was successful. He spotted him walking down the North Main Street in Cork, filled with pride, pushing a buggy with his lovely young son in it. Those who oppose this Bill will say the floodgates will open and we will be overrun. Last year there were only a few hundred applications for family reunification. The Tánaiste told The Irish Times in February after a visit to Greece, a fellow EU state, that keeping child refugees in cages is unacceptable, as she witnessed. However, as Fiona Finn of NASC told us, some of those children could be out of those cages and with their wider family if this Bill passes. The Tánaiste went on to say:

The scale of the problem demands a global response. Sadly we are seeing such a disappointing and disproportionate response to the biggest challenge of our times from some quarters.

These are the Tánaiste's words, not mine. The Chief Commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, Ms Emily Logan, said in the same article that Ireland's family reunification programme is too restrictive and likely to cause considerable hardship for refugee families. This was echoed by the assistant High Commissioner of the UN refugee agency, who visited Ireland last month. Improving family reunification was also a key recommendation of a recently published Oireachtas joint committee, whose members are drawn from all sides of this House.

Passing this Bill will make real and positive change in real people's lives. If the passage of the Bill only enables one man to walk down Cork's ancient North Main Street in peace with a loved one in a buggy, it would be worth the effort. My Civil Engagement colleagues and I kindly ask the House's support to do the right thing - the family thing. I commend the Bill to the House.

I am delighted to second the Bill today and very happy to work alongside my colleague, Senator Colette Kelleher, and my Civil Engagement group colleagues on legislation that I believe can change Ireland for the better. It was a pleasure to launch the Bill on the plinth this morning. I especially thank Senator Kelleher for her hard work and I also thank her personal assistant, Pádraig Rice, and my personal assistant, Conor O'Neill. I join her in commending the Irish Refugee Council, Oxfam Ireland and Nasc on their help and dedication.

We should be clear from the start that this is not a complicated Bill. It is small, meaningful legislation that would see us treat refugees arriving in Ireland with a little more compassion, kindness and understanding. It recognises that people fare better with their family around them. It recognises that under our current system, the definition of family is just too narrow. It separates children from their parents and grandparents, divides siblings and keeps loved ones apart. This is not a humane response to the most serious humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. The best test of the fairness of such a system is to ask ourselves who we consider family. How many members of this House would include their parents or siblings in its definition? When we think of family, do we include our children aged more than 18 years? What about a grandparent, particularly someone who is older and dependent on us for care? The majority of Irish people know that this is what we mean when we say "family", and this Bill recognises it.

The age factor is also very important. In many cases, it is often more senior family members who are left behind or people who are older and infirm. I was struck by a case raised by Oxfam yesterday of an Afghan family who had fled and sought refuge in Greece. One family member was identified as vulnerable and requiring medical treatment, so they were taken to Athens. The grandmother, however, was left behind, alone and in appalling and squalid conditions on the island of Lesbos because she did not fit this narrow definition of family member. This caused huge emotional distress for the family members who were relocated as well as for the grandmother who was left behind, alone and with no support. This is an appalling situation and something we cannot stand over. I ask every Senator to take a moment to consider what that must feel like and to imagine being put in the position of having to make that kind of choice where, having been granted refugee status and safety, one knows that if one goes, one is leaving behind a grandmother or dependent loved one. It seems that in some cases our restrictive system asks people to choose between their family or their life. This is not a humane way to treat people fleeing persecution and war. This Bill seeks to change that.

It is important to note we are not pushing for something radical or new. We are asking to return to the family reunification system that operated in this country for the past 20 years or so until it was restricted quite recently. As it stands, Irish law states that refugees accepted in Ireland can apply for family members to join them. This does not mean a free pass or that it is easy. The same security checks and controls still apply. The change we are discussing today simply means that a grandmother can qualify as a member of the family. That is not moving mountains. It is basic compassion and understanding. What is important is that not only is this policy more humane, it is also the smart approach when it comes to integration. Imagine being in those shoes. If a person were to land in a new country, knowing no one and after experiencing God knows what horrors along the way, would it be easier for that person to start again with his or her family alongside him or her or for him or her to be on his or her own? How can a person focus on a new home, community and life when he or she does not know if his or her children or parents are safe from harm on the other side of the world? These people have already been through so much. It is harrowing to hear about the additional trauma, stress and anxiety caused by constant worrying about the welfare of one's loved ones.

If we are serious about integration and making a success of refugee resettlement in Ireland, we should have the sense to know that it is much easier when families are kept together to support one another. This is not only the right thing to do; it is the smart thing to do. This issue is also very important to me as a member of the Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality. We were recently asked to carry out an extensive and far-reaching review of Ireland's migration, asylum and refugee systems. It was a shocking and sometimes depressing process. It highlighted clearly the deep flaws and injustices that still exist in these systems today. I know my colleague, Senator Alice Mary Higgins, will expand on this in detail later as she is working closely on and is passionate about these issues as well. During the review we heard directly from unbelievably brave campaigners about what it is like to live as an undocumented migrant in Ireland, often confined to the shadows and margins of society. We saw the national disgrace that is the system of direct provision where asylum seekers are warehoused in for-profit centres for years on end. They are denied proper cooking facilities, real access to higher education, the right to work and basic respect for their human dignity.

It is clear there are bigger and wider questions about how we treat migrants in this country. I have raised these issues in the House before and I will continue to push to correct them. One of the five key recommendations we made in the review was to fix the system for family reunification.

It is clear this is important from talking directly with refugees and those affected, as well as from speaking with civil society and community groups working in this area. It matters to families. It is something meaningful we can do now and I hope for strong support in the Chamber today.

Yesterday we met two young men from Syria who were generous enough to come to speak about the Bill in the audio-visual room. To respect their privacy, I will not mention their names but both have refugee status and have made Ireland their home. However, while the first successfully applied to be reunited with his parents under the old definition, after years living and working in Dublin the second was told that his parents do not count as family under the new restrictive definition. That is just not right and we need to change it.

It is also important to state this is a real, tangible step we can take to help us meet our commitments in terms of refugee resettlement. As it stands, Ireland has pledged to take in just 4,000 refugees. While that is a tiny number in the midst of a global crisis, despite the extremely low bar we have taken in less than a third of the amount. Returning to a more humane, sensible system of family reunification would give us a clear path to meeting the goals we set for ourselves.

I urge Senators from across the House to support this legislation from me and the Civil Engagement group. It is a straightforward, meaningful Bill that can make people's lives a little better. Refugees in Ireland already have the right to apply for reunification with family members. We now need to be reasonable, fair and humane about what a family is.

The Minister has been in the House practically all day. That said, he is always very welcome.

I commend Senators Kelleher and Black and their colleagues on tabling what I consider to be very important legislation. Family reunification is very important to all of us. Whenever any of us are in trouble, who are the people we rely on? It is the people who are nearest and dearest to us, namely, our family members, our brothers, sisters and parents. When one moves out it is like dropping a pebble into a puddle of water. The most intensive ripples are at the very centre and as one goes out further the effect is diluted. It is the same with family. When a person faces a crisis it becomes a family crisis and the family is there to support the individual. I have always believed in the principle that if we take in a refugee then we should also be able to take in their immediate family.

I listened with great interest to Senator Black talk about the 4,000 refugees we have committed to take in this country. Personally, I think that should be 40,000 and there is a school of thought that it should be 400,000. We would be well capable of dealing with 40,000 whatever about 400,000. That said, the Government position is to take 4,000. I sincerely hope the Minister and his colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, will meet the target of 4,000 in the not-too-distant future. I commend the Minister and his officials and the people who make the targets happen on a daily basis because it is not easy. We have a housing crisis and many other crises in this country. Accommodation is considered an exceptionally important facility to be able to provide to refugees when they come to this country. The challenges are not small; they are enormous.

The Bill has been tabled by people who have a deep sense of social conscience and we need to recognise that. I said already that I personally would prefer to see the Bill move on from Second Stage to Committee Stage but I await the Minister’s decision in that regard. I suspect that will probably happen anyway, whether or not the Government supports the Bill.

This House has always been a Chamber that prided itself on championing human rights. One can look back at our proud record over many decades and point to the father of the House, Senator Norris, and the campaigning he did for something that is nearly taken for granted today. We should never lose that as a Seanad. The people voted to retain this Chamber because they saw it as one that stood up for the underprivileged, those on the margins of society and those who faced challenges. It stood up for the difference between right and wrong. I would like to think this Chamber will continue to do that.

We have debated very important legislation today in terms of the Mediation Bill and the Independent Reporting Commission structure for Northern Ireland. They are all extremely important but this is equally if not more important because we are talking about the most disenfranchised people coming from a war zone, fleeing torture and a place where human rights are not protected or respected. As such, we need to not just open our country but to open our hearts as well.

I come from a town in west Clare called Ennistymon where we welcomed nine Syrian families about three months ago. Of course there was some local unease as to how it would work and how the people would integrate but I am pleased to inform the House that those people have integrated fantastically. The local North West Clare Family Resource Centre has done enormous work in terms of making those Syrian families welcome and they are now considered part of our community.

I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about the Bill. I consider it to be very important. I commend Senators Kelleher and Black and their staff for putting the Bill together. The Bill might not be perfect but it can be made perfect on Committee Stage. If people have concerns about certain elements of the Bill they can always table amendments on Committee Stage. I would encourage people to do that. This debate allows for engagement. As far as I am concerned the Bill is about doing the right thing. I sincerely hope the Bill moves on to the next Stage.

The Minister's continued presence in the House is welcome and I thank him for that. I compliment both Senators Kelleher and Black for bringing forward this very important piece of legislation. Fianna Fáil supports the principles of the Bill which will enable, subject to certain conditions, a wider range of family members of people who have been granted protection in this country to be reunited with them. When the 2015 International Protection Bill was going through the Oireachtas, Fianna Fáil also proposed amendments to that effect.

Fianna Fáil supported the passage of the 2015 International Protection Act as it provided for the introduction of a single procedure for international protection applications, which was a key recommendation of the McMahon group on direct provision. The introduction of a single or unified procedure replaced the previous system, in which eligibility for refugee status and subsidiary protection status were considered sequentially. That was very welcome as the sequential nature of the old system led to excessive delays in the processing of applications, resulting in asylum seekers spending many years awaiting a decision on their application, at great expense also to the taxpayer.

Since the Act commenced there has, thankfully, been a considerable reduction in the time asylum seekers are spending in direct provision and that is very welcome. However, during the debate on the Bill in 2015 Fianna Fáil made clear our reservations and concerns about a number of areas in the Bill and we brought forward amendments on foot of those concerns. One of those areas was family reunification, which Senator Kelleher's Bill addresses.

As the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission pointed out, the definition in the 2015 Act of a "member of family" who may enter and reside in the State in section 55 was narrow and it notably excluded dependants. The commission recommended that consideration be given to the range of family relationships to which Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights can apply in the context of this legislative proposal. The Act does not provide any means for a refugee or person eligible for subsidiary protection to apply for family reunification with other dependent family members including parents, wards, grandchildren and other dependants.

As outlined by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, refugee families rarely fit neatly into the notion of a nuclear family, that is, husband, wife and minor child.

A broad definition of a family unit, or what might be termed an extended family, is necessary to accommodate all refugees at any given time or situation. The Refugee Act 1996 included the possibility for refugees to apply for dependent family members, meaning any grandparent, parent, brother, sister, child, grandchild, ward or guardian of the refugee who is dependent on that refugee or is suffering from a mental or physical disability to such an extent that it is unreasonable for him or her to maintain himself or herself fully.

No similar provision was included in the 2015 Act. Great concern was expressed at the time that the provisions in this Act were inadequate and would particularly affect very vulnerable family members, including adults with disabilities and orphans and wards who had become part of the sponsored family unit. The 2015 Act also permits the Minister to set a time limit within which a family member granted family reunification must enter the State. There was concern that the introduction of such restrictions might not take into consideration any exceptional measures or obligations that might arise and present travel difficulties. In the experience of many groups working in this area, it is common for delays to occur when family members travel to Ireland. Delays might arise in obtaining entry visas to Ireland or exit visas from the home country, in acquiring travel documents, in raising the cost of travel, especially for large families, and in making arrangements for the care of family members who are not eligible to travel. There is also concern that in some circumstances the safety of the family may be jeopardised if they are required to travel when it is not safe to do so.

The 2015 Act also limits the right to family reunification to the 12-month period after the sponsor has been recognised as a person in need of international protection. Previous legislation did not contain this restriction. Fianna Fáil argued in 2015 that this time period should be removed as it would have a severe impact on the most vulnerable family members who may have become separated, or even imprisoned, while fleeing conflicts.

I now come to the Fianna Fáil amendment to this Bill. We believe, just as we did in 2015, that the removal of the extended family members provision from the law was a retrograde move. We agree with extending the right to apply for family reunification to extended family members dependent on the qualified person. We also support the provision of the Refugee Act 1996, however, that allowed for ministerial discretion in its application. We have tabled an amendment to this effect for Committee Stage and hope Senator Kelleher will accept it.

The International Protection (Family Reunification) (Amendment) Bill 2017 is very important legislation. It is no harm for us to look at what this Bill is trying to do. The intention behind it is to provide refugees, or individuals eligible for protection or consideration, to apply for members of their families, including grandparents, parents, brothers, sisters, children, grandchildren, wards or guardians, to enter and reside in this State. That is fair and reasonable.

This issue concerns human dignity, human rights and human respect. I have been thinking about the old expression of "céad míle fáilte", or a hundred thousand welcomes. For so many people, however, there is no welcome and that is one of the sad realities of Irish society. Before going into the detail of this Bill, I acknowledge the enormous work put into this by the Civil Engagement group, namely, Senators Kelleher, Ruane, Black, Higgins, Dolan and O'Sullivan. From the very day these colleagues came into the House, they clearly set out the parameters of their agenda of social conscience and justice. The have very clearly demonstrated this as a group. Today, as we wrap up the last day of our current term, I want to acknowledge their enormous and consistent work in this area.

Tomorrow is the last day.

Of course it is tomorrow. I will have more to say tomorrow. I also acknowledge the enormous background work Nasc has done in preparing politicians in both Houses on issues around migrants and ethnic minorities, be it access to human rights, access to work, or the creation of a fair and just society. This Bill is about creating that fair and just society. We have frequently heard this expression being paraphrased in recent months. Many people profess to be Christians and to bring that particular ethos into their work and political life. I have always admired this and admired politicians who bring their beliefs to the heart of their political conviction rather than parking them outside the door. I am one of those politicians and I do not apologise for it.

It is important we acknowledge that there are people fleeing war, terror, anguish, and separation from their families and loved ones. Bunreacht na hÉireann defines the importance of family. This is what we live by and what we are committed to as democratic politicians. We talk about the special place that recognises and protects the family as a natural, primary and fundamental unit in our society and as a moral institution, possessing inalienable and indescribable rights. Why would we not want those rights for anyone else? We must seek these rights for citizens and open the door to other humans. This is a matter of human rights. We must afford people dignity and respect and help them get access to justice, work, inclusivity and human rights. This is only right.

I commend Senator Conway's discussion of what makes up family and the ripple effect of family. Family are the people born into our bloodline, but in the broader sense they are also the people whom we bring around us. These are our loved ones, our companions, the people who are there for us when we are in trouble and who seek to vindicate and defend our rights. These are the people we want closest to us and we need to support them.

I am not happy simply to carry on to the next Stage, which is just an exercise in political box-ticking. From the very first Stage of this process I want us to send out a clear message that we in Ireland have learned from our own experience of mass emigration. We cannot talk on the one hand about supporting and giving rights to Irish citizens living in the United States, while at the same time having a problem with giving rights to people in our own jurisdiction.

We are known worldwide as a people displaced in history and in our times of need we have yearned for support and love. Surely it is incumbent upon us, therefore, to respond to matters in our own country in a human and compassionate way. It is really important that people wishing to be reconnected with their loved ones and family members be given that right. It is not good enough to talk about the constitutional rights of Irish citizens if we cannot extend the ethos, meaning and underlying validation of those rights to others. I commend this legislation. I will support it on every Stage because it is the right, fair and just thing to do and it is, therefore, worthy of support.

Sinn Féin supports this Bill and I commend both the Civil Engagement group and the NGOs on putting it together and bringing it forward. I hope it gets cross-party support both in this House and in the Dáil and sees its passage through both Houses.

A person's tribe, clan, people, roots, history, memory-makers, traditions and very security in this world are what make up family. Last May, I ran a mental health campaign called 30 Days of May. As part of this I met many stakeholders and heard their perspectives on our mental health services. One group I remember as being particularly impressive was a group of young people who had come through the direct provision system. They outlined to me the challenges to their mental health as they tried to navigate the institutionalisation of that system. One young man gave a powerful account of what it was like to be here in Ireland without his family.

He got upset when discussing what it was like to celebrate his birthday here alone, and who he looked to for a hug when he passed his leaving certificate and there was no one there. He had no anchor. His family was far away. Nobody had his back. It is stories like that of this young man that highlight the absolute need for this Bill before the House. The current laws on family reunification for refugees leave much to be desired. One of the most shocking parts is the current reunification law that does not allow for adult children to be brought here if their parents have refugee or immigrant status. Imagine me having to leave my 18, 19 or 20-year old child in a war-torn area. Imagine making it to Europe but having been separated from one's young adult child, and being unable to be reunited for fear of deportation.

Our family is the intimate domestic group made up of people related to one another by bonds of blood and legal ties. It is a very resilient social unit that has survived and adapted through time. What do the vast majority of people in Ireland do when something traumatic or shocking happens? They gather around the kitchen table with their family and stick on the kettle. They surround themselves with their loved ones. We hold our families so dear that it is enshrined in our Constitution, and when Ireland was the first country to pass marriage equality by popular vote, we showed that we recognised and value the various types of family in modern society. Yet, currently in Ireland, refugees - those people who have suffered absolute trauma - are not allowed the same. This is a disgrace and it stains the Irish name as a place of céad míle fáilte.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, guidelines support the principle in this Bill, and if Ireland wants to be considered a leader in humanitarian response to refugee crises, then UNHCR is certainly the place to start. It argues that a refugee family is essential to ensure protection and well-being of all its individual members. It goes on to state that refugee families are often reconstructed out of the remnants of various households that depend on each other for mutual support, survival and love. These families may not fit neatly into preconceived notions of the nuclear family. The UNHCR goes on to describe how the composition of families may be influenced by the refugee experience. If the extended family survives or remains together, it becomes the immediate family. Our Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality's Report on Immigration, Asylum and the Refugee Crisis also facilitates this Bill. In a recommendation on family reunification, it calls on the Government to introduce a humanitarian admission programme to offer a safe and legal route for people to flee conflicts and be reunited with family members in Ireland.

The Bill before the House is a great way to start this more humanitarian approach and response. Not only does it fit wider policy recommendations, but it has benefits for Ireland. Separation from one's family causes strain and stress on well-being, which impacts on people's ability to connect, integrate and contribute to society. I remind this House that we committed to taking 4,000 refugees and we are falling short of the mark. Using family reunification would be a quick and effective way to reach this target in the short term. The overarching reason we should all support today's Bill is for the real people that it will directly impact. We have all seen the images and videos of the terror that is causing this crisis, and I use that term with a heavy heart, because people are not a crisis to manage. They are people to connect and share with, but the images are painful to watch. Imagine how much more painful they would be if one knew one's aunt, adult child or grandparent was stuck there, unable to join him or her in Ireland. This is a cruel and inhumane set-up. Family is everything. It is where our lives begin. It is our fundamental link to our past and a bridge to our future. It is the anchor for all of us. We have stood in this Chamber, and many more times in the Dáil, condemning the harrowing scenes that we have seen, so let us do something meaningful and pass this Bill.

I thank and congratulate the Civil Engagement group for bringing this piece of legislation before the House. I was involved in the original International Protection Act and many of these issues were raised at the time, but we were advised that all worries or concerns relating to the Bill were overstated, that this was the European norm and it had to happen and needed to be guillotined because of time sensitivity. It had to happen because of the direct provision report, and if it was passed, we would get a single procedure mechanism which every NGO and every international organisation was calling for us to have. After it was passed, the President, for the second time in his term of office, had to call the Council of State to see if it was constitutional. Now we have a situation of asylum seekers being handed 60-page documents to go through of which they have to make some kind of sense. The Seanad is now debating an amendment to the legislation in order to give justification to family rights of asylum-seekers.

I have deep reservations about the capacity of the Minister's Department to deal with this issue. Running right through his Department is a suspicion of anybody who comes to this country seeking asylum. I think there is mistrust and a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the problem. I cannot remember a single meeting that I had with a senior official in the Minister's Department when I was in it as a Minister of State, working with the then Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, where the term "pull factor" was not used. I do not think the Minister's Department has any capacity to deal with this issue. The entire area of asylum, integration and immigration needs to be taken out of it because the Department comes to this issue with a justice and defence mentality, a law and order mentality, and does not come to the issue with a sense of humanitarianism or decency. The Department sees the issue as a problem. I have come to the conclusion that the Department believes that half the people who are seeking asylum, if not more, are just liars. I have to say, reluctantly, that that is the sense I get from working in the Minister's Department.

It breaks my heart after all the time I spent in that Department and every direct provision centre I visited. I know the Minister lives close to one in Portlaoise. The parish priest there has to be greatly commended on what he has said about that direct provision centre. A group of NGOs was invited by that Department to sit around the table with Department officials to come up with a direct provision report, which was a compromise on everybody's part. On the day that the report was announced, I made the comment at the press conference that this was the report that would be implemented because the Department had signed off on it. The then Minister for Justice and Equality sat there and said that it gives food for thought. It is a disgusting disgrace that not a single letter of that report has been implemented by now.

When we had the Action Plan for Jobs, we had three-monthly or four-monthly updates, great fanfare and press conferences to say what had been achieved and which recommendations had been fulfilled. What has happened in the two years since the direct provision report was published? A couple of easy to fulfil recommendations were followed through. Every NGO that took part in that process did so with the best will in the world, and many had been mandated to call for the abolition of the process and signed away that mandate when they signed off on that document as a compromise because they thought the situation would be improved. What happened? It was not implemented in full, mainly, I believe, because the people with concerns are people who are not politically powerful.

It is a disgrace, and that is why I think the Department is completely incapable. It hurts me to say that because I know many of the people in the Department and worked very closely with them, but the ethos and sense in the Department is of no sympathy and no humanitarianism when it comes to this issue. I genuinely believe that it does not belong in the Department any more. I fully concur with what Senator Boyhan said. It is the height of hypocrisy for this independent Republic to go anywhere and talk to anybody else about immigration rights.

What a joke. What an international joke we are to end up in the White House every year asking for something to be done for the Irish abroad when we will not regularise the undocumented here in this country on the same basis and we still have one of the most restrictive asylum systems. We are one of only two European countries which does not allow asylum seekers the right to work. It is the height of hypocrisy because no European country knows what a coffin ship is like more than the Irish; no European country knows what it is like to flee a country because of violence more than the Irish; no European country knows what it is like to flee a country because of hunger more than the Irish; and no European country has a more mean-spirited asylum system than the Irish.

What I want to say on behalf of the Labour Party is that despite the fact we were involved in the original international protection Bill, and given the context at the time, we fully support this Bill. As the new Minister for Justice and Equality, the Minister has the opportunity to implement the McMahon report on direct provision. It would be a stunning legacy for him to leave behind if we were finally to put paid to all of the wrongs in the system. There are 1,500 fewer people in the system long term than there were two years ago, and I understand this and great credit should be given to the House for raising the issue consistently, but I go back to the fundamental point that this issue does not belong in the Department of Justice and Equality because it is not fit for purpose to deal with it on a humanitarian basis. Its mindset is one of security and law and order and it is not one that truly understands the nature of why people must flee their country because fundamentally the Department does not trust them.

I am very happy to welcome the new Minister for this brief to the House. I reiterate what a number of speakers have already said on the core resilience in family. All of us have an experience of family. Sadly, some people's experience is of not having a family. Thankfully, many of us have a family, whether we are well off, snug or poor. We understand the deep well of resilience that comes around people in trouble when they are part of a family. It is the first line of defence. The idea of having a shaved down definition of family, as we do in the 2015 Act, does no justice to the power and resource for good that is in family. If this definition continues, it will not serve Ireland and it certainly will not serve the people concerned, because everybody finds themselves in trouble sometimes, with health or other issues, and that person's family is the first and most potent port of call to deal with these issues. It is not this or that agency or Department; it is the family around the person who has the most positive influence. It is important for the State to have that.

I find it very difficult to find words for the idea that people with mental health or other disabilities would be excluded. Sometimes the people involved are members of the particular family and other times the people have been taken in by the family. I find it difficult to think about the idea they would be left behind in a situation like this, and certainly to countenance the idea the State would willingly participate in it.

Our reputation and global moral suasion are other issues at play. They are not a particular specific part of the Bill. We, the Department and the other Departments the Minister was in know very well the factors that force people out of their countries and into a refugee situation from states that very often have no respect for people and no respect for human rights. If Ireland, as a small nation, does what I certainly consider the right thing and the very doable thing, it can have greater moral suasion in the world context.

We have heard about floodgates over the decades every time we went to move, for example, with regard to women being able to stay in the Civil Service after they got married. There would not be a public service without them now. There is also the issue of maternity leave. We must be very careful of what I describe as a tired argument about floodgates. The key to this is that we have made a decision that people can have refugee status, and now, to artificially or in some sophistry through definitions state a family is not a family, and we have defined it by just cutting the heart and soul out of it and just a couple of people qualify if they are under 18, does not serve us. The decision that will control the numbers is the decision that has already been made on the number of refugees we are in a position and are committed to take. Going half the distance by having a cut down version of what a family is will not serve us and will not serve the people involved. I ask the Minister and the House to reflect on these points.

I commend Senator Kelleher and her colleagues on introducing this important Bill and endorse the comments made by my colleague, Senator Ó Ríordáin, in expressing the strong support of the Labour Party for the Bill. I welcome the stakeholders in the Gallery. Many of them have worked for many years on this issue and on having a more humane approach to welcoming those who come from outside these shores to Ireland. I speak as somebody who is the granddaughter of an immigrant who came here and gained asylum, and made an enormous contribution to Waterford through Waterford Glass. I was delighted to see the Minister in Waterford recently at a commemoration of a famous Waterford citizen, John Hearne.

This is an important Bill to support. I endorse absolutely what Senator Ó Ríordáin said about culture. We must be careful that we do not slip into a knee-jerk reaction when we see a Bill of this kind, and refer constantly to the language of floodgates and the pull factor, on which others have expressed eloquently. This type of language can just mask the real trauma and significant reasons people come here to seek asylum and sanctuary, and why we need to take a more generous interpretation, in particular on family reunification. I am happy to support the Bill and to endorse the comments of my Labour Party colleague.

I am very proud that the Civil Engagement group has tabled the Bill. In particular, I commend my colleague, Senator Kelleher, and her staff who have done exceptional work on it. I also commend civil society organisations such as Nasc, the Irish Refugee Council and groups such as Spirasi, which works with survivors of torture, other groups that have contacted us, and Oxfam Ireland, which has brought an important international perspective and the refugee crisis into the debate. I also thank all those who generously shared their stories with us. We have heard some of the stories, and I will not enumerate more of them. We know there are many more such stories, even among the very few applications for family reunification we have had in Ireland. Last year, we had only 288 applications. For every one of those there is a story and an often desperate and deep desire to be reunited with family. There is a story similar to those cases we have heard today. We could enumerate all of them but, as my colleague said, if even any of those cases could find satisfaction and peace of mind through this legislation it would be excellent.

Others have spoken to the Irish sense of family and our own personal interpretations of family. I would be a little more specific in terms of saying that the definition of family, as it currently stands in this legislation, goes against the spirit of our public policy, which has increasingly been moving towards recognising the diversity of households and family. We have seen in the Child and Family Relationships Act, for example, and in the referendum on marriage equality that the Irish public have a deep desire to recognise how diverse family can be and to recognise ties of love and care in all their forms. Having worked with Older and Bolder, an organisation which brings together all those in the age sector, I can testify that older people in Ireland regard that grandparents are part of a family and they regard themselves as part of a family. The understanding is there in our culture, our history and in other areas of our public policy.

The legislation we are proposing today, in restoring the Refugee Act 1996, brings us back in line with the spirit of the rest of Irish policy in this area and it also recognises that, in fact, even since 1996, Ireland has widened its understanding of family to give a deeper understanding of, for example, LGBT partnerships. As someone else eloquently said in regard to refugees in particular, it is important to recognise the diversity and interdependency of households. The concept of dependency is crucial. In this legislation, we are not simply talking of those who have a family connection but we are also talking about ties of dependency and those who rely on each other. That is very important to affirm and is at the core of the legislation we are proposing.

Recent case law at the European Court of Human Rights, for example, cases taken against the Netherlands, show that while national legislators have their subsidiary rights, they also need to be aware of human rights law and obligations in this regard. As well as the message of generosity and compassion we have heard today, there is also a duty under our international obligations because, when we offer somebody refugee status, we are not simply offering safety and sanctuary; we also take on the responsibility to be the vindicator of their rights and to protect them in the fullest sense, and to ensure they can live and be free. Part of that is vindicating their right to a relationship and to family, and to all of the benefits that flow from that.

Some of the striking arguments I have heard, as we move to develop this legislation, are those which have been eloquently put forward in regard to integration, namely, that we integrate better when we are with our family, that families are the unit on which society is often built and that by bringing people's families with them, we provide the avenues for connection and integration for those who have been afforded the right to live and stay in this State. We ensure that this living and staying, and becoming part of the fabric of this State, is made more practically possible and real by ensuring that their families are with them to engage in a new social environment. Accepting this legislation would be very much in the spirit of our current policies of integration.

I note with particular concern the position of 18-year olds, who can be very vulnerable. Under the legislation as it currently stands, 18-year olds who are not married, and who themselves have no children, have no right to anybody. They are sent on their own to Ireland and they are on their own in the world. The age of 18 is a vulnerable time. People coming out of their teenage years into their youth are in a position where they do not have an entitlement, even, for example, to have a sibling such as a 13 year old sister or brother to be with them, or an aunt or uncle. There is a real concern about people who are left as very isolated units within our society and extremely vulnerable to exploitation. We know about the exploitation of minors internationally and we have seen horrifying statistics on that across Europe.

Another very valid and important concern is in terms of targeting. When loved ones are left in another country, it is not simply that one would wish for them positive new circumstances. In many cases, people fear for them because of the circumstances of conflict or oppression which forced somebody to seek refuge while knowing that other people are in that position, which is of immense concern. We have heard terrible stories of people being shown videos of family members in great distress in their home country. That can be used as a form of exploitation, targeting and pressure. Again, the 12-month period is a real obstacle of concern. Those who have managed to escape unlawful detention may have family members who are still in unlawful detention.

This is a route to safe and legal passage, which Ireland says it wants to promote. We talked in this House just a few days ago about wanting to move against trafficking. This is a very practical, pragmatic, implementable route to safe and legal passage for the families of those who have achieved refugee status.

Ireland has a moral leadership potential in this regard. I appeal to the Minister. We heard of the concerns in the Department of Justice and Equality but I know the Minister has come from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. I hope the Minister would bring with him from that Department a real understanding of the factors which have driven the refugee crisis worldwide and an understanding of the role Ireland has played, for example, in convening a high level UN meeting on refugees. In addition, Ireland has actively sought a role in the UN Security Council and is chairing the Commission on the Status of Women, given women are often particularly vulnerable to restrictive family reunification. I urge the Minister to bring his understanding of human rights and Ireland's role on human rights into his new Department and brief, and to take that and make it a transformative force for how we deal with these issues. I had hoped to enumerate the many problems with the International Protection Act but, given the constraints on time, I will look forward to future opportunities to do so.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to address the House and to take part in this debate and engage with Senators on this important issue. The stated purpose of the Bill is to extend the scope for a refugee or a person eligible for subsidiary protection for members of their extended family to enter and reside in the State. As has been said by Senator Higgins and others, the Bill seeks to reverse some of the reforms introduced in the International Protection Act 2015, which was piloted through the House by my former ministerial colleague, Deputy Ó Ríordáin. That Act was debated at length in both Houses of the Oireachtas and was passed by the Seanad in December 2015 with widespread support, including from Fianna Fáil.

Although the Bill as set out contains a number of provisions, most of these are already in the 2015 Act, as Senator Kelleher and others will be well aware. In essence, the new elements of the Bill are as follows. It widens the scope of the definition of "member of the family" in sections 56 and 57 of the 2015 Act to provide for a refugee or a person eligible for subsidiary protection to apply for a grandparent, parent, brother, sister, child, grandchild, ward or guardian to enter and reside in the State, or where the family member is already in the State, to reside in the State. It provides for permission to enter and reside or reside in the State where these family members are dependent on the sponsor or are suffering from a mental or physical disability to such extent that it is not reasonable for him or her to maintain himself or herself. It removes the 12-month time limit introduced for a sponsor to make an application for a family member to enter and reside in the State.

It should be noted that the provisions in sections 2(a) to section 2(d) of the Private Members' Bill already exist in law under the International Protection Act 2015. There has been some confusion on that in the debate. For example, I heard reference to LGBT partnerships quoted as though in some way they were not applicable or covered by the 2015 Act, when they are and will continue to be. I heard reference also to the constitutionality of the 2015 Act. It seems bizarre to me that some Senators have neglected to refer to the fact this issue was one that was a factor in the debate at pre-enactment stage. It was reviewed by the Council of State at the invitation of the President, it was referred to the Supreme Court and there the matter lies.

The reforms introduced in the 2015 Act sought to bring Ireland closer to EU norms as provided for under the EU family reunification directive. Ireland does not participate in this directive, however, we consider it good practice to align ourselves with mainstream EU practice, although our family reunification provisions are more expansive than these norms and more expansive than the provisions of most of our EU colleagues. In the context of the UK departing from the European Union, we should not depart too significantly from the EU family reunification directive. It is very important to bear in mind that a significant expansion, which would reverse the 2015 reforms in the family reunification area, could have consequences for our efforts to protect the common travel area after Brexit, which I am sure Senators will regard as an important priority.

It is also important to consider and be mindful of the many issues faced by those in need of international protection and the challenges faced by governments who wish to stand in solidarity with refugees and asylum seekers at a time of great challenge nationally and internationally. This is a challenge across Europe and a challenge for Europe. This Government, as the House will recall, has been to the forefront of responding in solidarity with our European neighbours in ensuring that Ireland’s response to this crisis reflects the wishes of our people to offer sanctuary and protection in times of strife and difficulty, especially for those fleeing conflict. I acknowledge the role of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR’s, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Volker Türk. During his visit in June he stated that "Ireland’s comprehensive response to refugees shows a level of commitment that is urgently needed from all countries". He also stated:

Ireland’s international engagement shows the power of all countries, no matter their size, to affect real change. In practical terms, Ireland has not been found wanting - it is supporting those developing and middle income countries hosting the majority of the world’s refugees. It is also providing opportunities for some of the most vulnerable refugees to be resettled out of precarious situations so they build a future for themselves and their families. Ireland is now resettling 520 refugees a year, a figure we strongly encourage the authorities to maintain into the future.

Those are not my words; they are the words of the UN Assistant High Commissioner for Protection. I wonder whether the former Minister of State, Senator Ó Ríordáin had the opportunity to meet with Mr. Türk. I suspect he did in the context of his ministerial duties. In fact I am sure he did. If he did, I doubt he told the assistant commissioner the story which he told us this afternoon during what was a bizarre contribution for somebody who piloted legislation and supported it through the House from start to finish without casting any of the aspersions on his then Department, the Department of Justice and Equality, which we have heard this evening. I find the Senator's contribution bizarre but I will not have the opportunity to concentrate on it tonight. Perhaps in the future we might be in a position to engage on it. I find his comments, as a former Minister of State who recently left the office, to be extraordinary. I will use the word "bizarre" again because in the circumstances it might be appropriate. During his conversation with Mr. Türk I am sure the Senator will have heard his comments specifically on his analysis of Ireland's recent process on international protection in which he stated, "Recognition rates of refugees had returned to European Union averages, while crucial reforms of asylum legislation and decreases in average processing times showed that change is possible with the right levels of political commitment".

Ireland’s practical response ranges from the ongoing actions of our Naval Service in the Mediterranean, through our three-year rolling funding of food aid for Syrian refugees, to our voluntary opt-in to the European relocation and resettlements programmes - all of which have been well set out in this House. It is important to note in the course of this debate the fact that we have doubled our resettlement commitments under this programme and have worked tirelessly, with some recent success, to accelerate the intake under the relocation programme. Ireland is stepping up to the plate when it comes to assisting people in crisis. We have put considerable investment and time into supports and efforts to ensure we can offer meaningful protection to vulnerable people and we will continue to do so, which I believe reflects the will of the Irish people, who have always been generous in their response to crises and adverse and challenging humanitarian situations.

The former Minister of State, Senator Ó Ríordáin, made reference to Mr. Justice McMahon's working group. I am sure he will have been following the progress of our efforts in respect of the McMahon report. He will note that many of these recommendations have already been dealt with. I acknowledge the challenge which was put to me by the former Minister of State and others. It will be a priority for me in my Ministry to ensure that all of the recommendations of the McMahon report will be followed up on and implemented. I acknowledge the work of Mr. Justice McMahon and I will continue to engage with him.

Members will be aware that the International Protection Act 2015 commenced on 31 December last, a mere six months ago. It is a positive and comprehensive response across the board in an area which had not been reformed for decades. It is essential that the new Act be given the time to embed itself and to ensure that all of its measures are functioning properly, so that the humane and balanced single procedure process can respond more effectively to the needs of those who claim and qualify for asylum. This issue formed a major part of the debate in respect of the pre-enactment Stages in the Seanad and the Lower House.

The fact that the Government has, in its voluntary participation in the resettlement and relocation programme, prioritised families is testament to that shared concern expressed by Senators today. Similarly we have responded to the situation in Calais by bringing unaccompanied minors here under the care of Tusla. I am very reluctant, within months of the commencement of this important reforming Act, to begin to disassemble it on a piecemeal basis before the entire process has the opportunity to function fully in the reforming manner in which it was introduced and which was intended by dint of the votes of those in this House who supported it. It is important that this new legislation be allowed to deliver certainty for families far sooner in the process. We must be allowed to make real our commitments under our existing programme and must not reintroduce open-ended schemes that can only mean uncertainty, longer queues and a reduction in our capacity to plan and provide for those most in need of the protection which we will give them under the current legislation.

The House should not be blind to the proactive powers used by my predecessors and myself to respond in other ways to cases of humanitarian concern. When I talk about my predecessors I am not sure if I can include the former Minister of State, Senator Ó Ríordáin. He seems to have removed himself from the process in a way which I feel is most unfair to my Department and its hard-working officials, many of whom worked with him very recently. It is important that we fully respond to cases of humanitarian concern in respect of families and especially around vulnerability, as has been pointed out.

I am reluctantly opposing the Bill. In doing so I emphasise that existing avenues for the admission of more extended family members are already available under the provisions of the non-EEA policy document on family reunification, which allows beneficiaries of international protection and other non-EEA migrants residing lawfully in Ireland to make an application at any time. As Minister, I can and do apply this discretion as regards the economic conditions for sponsors set down in the policy document and in cases of humanitarian need. Such applications on humanitarian grounds are examined on a case-by-case basis and I intend to continue this practice. I would be very happy to report to the House on this matter from time to time as required. As outlined at the outset, I wish to realign our family reunification policies with those which exist across the European Union. The 2015 Act was written to closely align Ireland with mainstream European practice and its current provisions on family reunification are not only in line with other EU member states, but are in parts less rigid and more flexible than those which exist in other jurisdictions.

The Bill before the House seeks to amend sections 56 and 57 of the International Protection Act 2015 by reintroducing section 18(4) of the repealed Refugee Act 1996 and thus replacing subsections 56(8) and 56(9) of the 2015 Act. This removes the time limits introduced for making an application and effectively makes the application process for family reunification open-ended. The International Protection Act 2015 provides for a greatly simplified and shorter duration route to family reunification for those who are in need of it, while continuing to protect the best interests of children and spouses. Some of the key changes introduced in the 2015 Act include a new definition of a "member of the family" to align more closely with the definition in the EU family reunification directive and to include spouses, civil partners, children of the sponsor, parents and siblings of the sponsor. Under section 56 of the Act, in the case of spouse and civil partner the relationship must have been subsisting on the date the application for international protection was made.

It is important that there be time limits because they mean certainty, which, in turn, means planning and offering the best protection available. The new provisions of the International Protection Act 2015 provide specific rights for family reunification and a pathway to reunification for family members of those granted international protection that is less restrictive in terms of the application time limits and the economic conditions than in many other EU member states. Ireland does not apply any economic conditions for eligible family members under sections 56 and 57 of the 2015 Act and it provides a more generous time limit of 12 months from the date when the grant of international protection is provided for beneficiaries to apply for family members to enter the State. In the circumstances, this is sufficient to deal with the majority of cases.

The 2015 Act was drafted to strike a fair balance between maximising the number of new persons the State can accommodate under the programmes, coupled with a fair and reasonable approach to family reunification, which is in line with, and indeed is more liberal than, the norms in other EU member states. This is not just a question of more resources but of real and practical limitations, all of which are well known to Senators from debates that we hold on a daily basis.

I am also mindful that there are already individuals and families in Greece waiting to come to Ireland under our existing relocation programme. Ireland will meet its relocation commitment to Greece in full, with 459 persons of the allocation of 1,089 people already in the State and the balance to come here by the end of the year. These people must be our priority now and each of those persons will have an entitlement to apply for family reunification. We plan for each person granted status to apply for an average of four family members under the current programmes. This is a major challenge and places significant demand on our services. The proposed Bill renders accurate planning almost impossible and, with an open-ended process as proposed, this would make capacity planning for new intakes under resettlement and relocation even more difficult than the challenges we now face.

The Joint Committee on Justice and Equality recently issued a report on immigration, asylum and the refugee crisis which examines the issue of family reunification. I daresay there are Members of this House who are also members of that committee. It did not recommend widening the scope of the definition of "member of the family" in sections 56 and 57 of the International Protection Act 2015 or the removal of the 12-month time limit for a sponsor to make an application for a family member to enter and reside in the State. I acknowledge, in particular, the contribution of members of the Fianna Fáil Party. They, having made valuable contributions to the debate on the 2015 Act, are now supporting this Bill. They also made valuable contributions to the work of the committee but they did not raise any of the points that now seem to be issues of priority. Six months after the enactment of the 2015 Act, it is timely that we have an opportunity to discuss the Act, the process relating to it and the issues with which we are dealing this evening. It is important to continue to review the practices and procedures under the 2015 Act. In the meantime and while we do so, I regret that, on behalf of the Government and for the reasons outlined, I cannot agree to this Bill.