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 daughter 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 questionable constitutional footing and it is only a matter of time before its 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 to 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 amendments 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 at all 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.