I thank the Minister of State for taking time out of his busy schedule to deal with this matter. Over the past number of months, I have come across a number of cases of people working in our health service, in some cases for quite a period of time, who have applied or had members of their families apply for visas to come to Ireland. Recently I dealt with a case where the person is now working in Ireland and has a full-time job here as a doctor but had to wait quite a long period of time before his spouse could get a visa to come here. The second case was of a family where one member is on the specialist register for paediatrics, which is not an easy position to get. It is an area she wants to specialise in. Her husband has been in permanent employment as a doctor in the HSE for the past ten years. They had a difficulty where her father had applied for a visa through the embassy in Mumbai and it took 14 months for the application to be considered. There was clear evidence he had sufficient financial support and would not be reliant on the State but after 14 months the application was refused. This is a couple with a young family. I am a bit concerned that quite a number of our hospitals outside the main centres of Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford are finding it quite difficult to get medical doctors and nurses to take up positions. When they come here they are finding there are quite a number of hurdles they have to jump to get members of their immediate family into the country. We have a significant shortage of nurses and doctors. In some of our smaller hospitals up to 70% to 80% of doctors are from non-EU countries. The retention of doctors here is another challenge we have to face. It is an immediate challenge. There should be a process put in place to deal with visa applications where a member of the family is working here in a medical capacity either as a doctor or nurse. I am asking that the present procedure be reviewed.
The Minister has asked me to thank Senator Colm Burke for raising this matter which I know is very important to so many people who have come from abroad to work within our healthcare system. Their contribution to our healthcare system and the services they provide is much valued and appreciated. The Minister fully understands how important it is for them to be accompanied by their family. In that context, it is appropriate that our immigration system should seek to ensure visa applications are processed as quickly as possible bearing in mind the time needed to ensure all appropriate checks and assessments are undertaken.
The Minister is mindful that Ireland’s economic interests require that our immigration system be competitive in its dealings with sought-after, highly-skilled migrants, such as medical and nursing practitioners. However, as with any immigration system worldwide, there is also an obligation on us to balance those interests and ensure that any sponsor has a proven and sustained capacity to earn sufficient income to provide for the needs of his or her dependants.
There are essentially two forms of "join family" visa. The first relates in the main to family members of an Irish citizen. This process requires that the Irish family member sponsoring the applicant must demonstrate he or she can support the applicant without undue recourse to public resources or services. The policy document on non-EEA family reunification first published in December 2013, and subsequently updated in December 2016, contains a stated business target that such visa applications to join Irish citizens should be dealt with within a period of six months from the date of the application. At present, such applications are being dealt with within four months in our Dublin visa office.
The second form of application relates to family members of non-EEA national sponsors seeking to join the sponsor in Ireland. Based on what the Senator has said I assume the applicant is in this category. Non-EEA national sponsors are divided into a number of individual categories under the policy document on family reunification I mentioned already. Sponsors who fall under category A include, for example, critical-skill employment permit holders, researchers and full-time, non-locum doctors. Category B sponsors include general employment permit holders.
Category A sponsors are eligible to sponsor applications for immediate family reunification, including being accompanied by family members on arrival in the State. Applications of this type are processed on an expedited basis in our visa offices, in as far as volumes of applications allow. Persons who fall under category B are eligible to sponsor applications for family reunification after 12 months. Although processed on an expedited basis, the business target for category A and Irish citizen sponsors for applications to be decided is within six months, while a 12-month processing target applies in respect of category B applications from the point of receipt.
The Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INIS, of the Department of Justice and Equality received in excess of 125,000 entry visa applications in 2017, with almost 8,000 of this total being applications from persons seeking to join and reside with family members in the State. In India, for example, there was an exponential increase this year in the number of "join family" applications received at our New Delhi visa office from spouses and family members of persons granted work permits in Ireland. Approximately 50% of these applications are from persons entitled to apply for immediate family reunification. Additional staffing was assigned to that office during the year to increase the processing work there. I understand almost 90% of such applications are granted.
I understand too that category A applications are currently being processed within six months in that office, including critical-skills applications within four weeks. Steps have also been taken to streamline category B processing which currently stands at around 15 months so that the processing time will be brought back within the 12-month target as quickly as possible.
More generally, INIS has advised that the visa service is currently experiencing an increase in the number of visa applications across most categories of persons wishing to come to Ireland for a variety of purposes and in line with increased economic activity generally. Notwithstanding, processing times are on a par and in many cases have been significantly improved upon compared with those at the corresponding date last year.
The central concern, as with all visa services worldwide, in deciding on visa applications, is to strike an appropriate balance between protecting the country’s vital national interests by maintaining an effective immigration regime while at the same time facilitating travel for those who meet the criteria. Each visa application is therefore decided on its own merits taking all factors into account.
On behalf of the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, I again thank the Senator for the opportunity to speak on this matter and I hope this brings some clarity for the people involved,
That was a very comprehensive response for Senator Burke.
I thank the Minister of State. The answer confirms what I had been told. I had understood it was Mumbai, but the office is in New Delhi. I understand some of the processing of these applications was transferred back to Dublin for a period of time. It is a problem because in the particular family referred to, both adults are highly skilled and work in the medical services in Ireland. They have a young family with one party living in Dublin and the other in Cork. They were looking for help from their own family and that visa was refused. That is what I do not understand. My request is to put people with medical qualifications in a particular category. We should try to expedite the process.
I again thank the Senator for raising this important matter. The Minister greatly values and appreciates the contribution of so many people from abroad who come to Ireland to work in our healthcare system and in all sectors of the economy generally.
This of itself is a measure of the success the Government has had in managing our economy and putting it right, to the point where Ireland is now an attractive location for persons willing to come to work here. I agree fully this can only benefit our healthcare system and will add to it.
I have listened to what the Senator has had to say and I hope I have addressed his concerns as far as I can. I assure him that INIS, through its visa offices in Dublin and abroad, will continue to apply as many resources as possible to ensure applications for joint family visas to enter Ireland are dealt with as expeditiously as possible. On behalf of the Minister I assure the House it is not the intention of the family reunification policy to keep families apart, rather that resources are maximised so visa applications for family reunification are processed as quickly as possible, thus ensuring families are reunited without undue delay. The Senator can be reassured that every effort is being made to keep processing times to a minimum and a number of measures have been put in place generally to deal with the current caseload. This includes assigning additional staff to help process applications and, more generally, the streamlining of visa processing where possible. In any event, I am sure the Minister will ask INIS to continue to keep the position under review and do what it can to process such applications as quickly as possible. Each application is dealt with individually on a case by case basis.