Before calling on Senator Higgins I wish to congratulate the Minister, Deputy McEntee, on her great news. I hope that all Senators have wished her well. I am sure she can expect a lot of gifts from the Seanad.
Deportation Moratorium (Covid-19) Bill 2020: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
As the Minister will be aware, we have very recently discussed issues related to this Bill in debates on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2020. I appreciated our engagement on wider issues concerning our international protection and immigration system and the reforms that are needed. I know the Minister is very much aware of the need for those reforms and is looking with great interest at the Day report. I really welcomed the indication she gave at the weekend that she would look at regularisation for those who are undocumented in Ireland. This is appropriate, particularly in light of our own history of migration.
This Bill deals with a very specific concern. It comes at a time of unprecedented international emergency in the form of a global pandemic. As of August 2020, 79 million people worldwide had been displaced because of the pandemic. The International Organization for Migration and the UN World Food Programme report that the pandemic is taking an immense social and economic toll everywhere. This could create uncertainty in public health systems and difficulties for those who are displaced. As a country in a position to do so, it is important that Ireland demonstrates public health best practice and solidarity with those worst affected by the pandemic. We should take public policy decisions which protect the health, human rights and well-being of individuals, and demonstrate best practice in international public health and migration policy.
The Bill we are proposing today would amend three Acts, the International Protection Act 2015, the Immigration Act 1999 and the Immigration Act 2003. Each would be amended by the insertion of a new section which would place a moratorium on the issuing of deportation or return orders, or the legal effect of such orders, during the period when powers granted to the Minister for Health under section 31A of the Health Act 1947 are in effect. This would effectively ensure that there would be no further issuing or execution of deportation orders during the period for which the State has recognised that we are in a health emergency, as set out in our own Covid-19 legislation. Our definition of the emergency period has a built-in sunset clause which is specified within the Bill. The proposed prohibition of the deportation of persons and the issuing of such orders will expire when our emergency Covid-19 legislation expires. The two provisions are tied together. As the Minister will be aware, that legislation currently extends until June.
I have previously had some engagement on this issue with the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, on a Commencement matter. He noted that there was initially a policy of ensuring that only positive decisions would be issued. Only persons receiving a positive decision were informed so they could make relevant arrangements. Negative decisions, including deportation orders, were not issued in the early part of the pandemic. The issuing of such orders then resumed. As the Minister will be aware, we know from responses to parliamentary questions that 469 people have been issued with deportation orders since March.
It is very important that we review this and return to the question of positive decisions. Our legislation would resume this policy. It is a fundamental point that we should not issue such deportation letters. We also spoke in previous debates about the impact of these deportation orders. Their language is very clear and very hard. They state that a recipient is to present for deportation at a specific date. We know that people have even been asked to present for deportation this month, just before Christmas. The Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, have previously stated that a pragmatic approach is taken. However, orders requiring persons to present for deportation are being issued. Some 469 persons have been issued with such orders. If the Minister is not in a position to accept this Bill, as indicated by her motion, I urge her to indicate how she will move towards a position of issuing positive decisions only through policy, and how she will ensure that the 469 persons who have already received such letters can know that they are safe for the period of the pandemic.
From speaking to Members of the Oireachtas of all parties and none I know that many in the Dáil and Seanad are working with their local communities. Many are aware of the situation of individuals who are deeply embedded in their community. They will be aware that when deportation orders arrive at a time of great collective distress, the distress and fear is not confined to the recipients. There is a huge ripple effect on their colleagues, communities and in some cases partners. Some of the recipients of deportation orders have long-term partners here in Ireland. It is not just the fact of deportation that has a negative effect, but the very fact of such letters and the distress associated with them. They create situations where people want to gather to support somebody who they feel is under threat. People travel all the way to Dublin to sign in with the Garda National Immigration Bureau, not knowing if this will be the last time. They do not know if they will ever go back to their places of residence or if they will be deported at that point.
Some of my colleagues will be speaking about specific cases we have heard about, including health workers, arts workers, key community volunteers and people who have been playing very active roles in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Some people in our immigration system have done extraordinary work in this regard. This is not confined to front-line health work, but also includes social work and community work.
As I have said before, I welcome the Minister's indication that she is looking at the process of issuing residency permits for the 17,000 undocumented migrants in Ireland. It is a sensible decision that will address some of the problems stored up in the past. It is a chance for us to move to something like a new page in our approach to these issues. Our modest proposal would be complementary to that. It would allow space for real consideration of the process of regularisation and the many other recommendations made in the report of Dr. Catherine Day. The Minister will be aware of those recommendations. The Day report is quite clear on the problems with the International Protection Office, IPO, initiatives, the questions in the interview process and the periods allowed for people to respond to various issues. This was one of my concerns about the Minister's motion. It is procedurally a little strange for a Government to respond to a Bill with a motion. Normally a Government would simply support a Bill, decline to support it or defer. The motion includes several pieces of text about the reasons the Minister feels she cannot support the Bill. Unfortunately it does not contain assurances about the actions she will take. It is really important that she gives those assurances today.
One of the aspects of the amendment about which I have particular concern is that it seems to reinforce the issue of the five days. Persons receive letters telling them they have five days in which to indicate that they will voluntarily leave the State and that they may face deportation if they do not. The Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, previously indicated that the Government was looking at the possibility of a 30-day period, which was a recommendation in Dr. Catherine Day's report. Such a period of time would allow people to seek legal advice, to talk to communities and to see what the situation would be if they were to leave voluntarily. It is a more appropriate period of time. I hope the fact the five-day period is mentioned in the amendment does not mean that the Minister is not looking at the question of a 30-day period for such notifications, as I believed she was.
My colleague and others will talk about the global situation. We cannot say that countries around the world are safe at this time when we are facing a global pandemic. The principle of non-refoulement referred to in Article 33(1) of the 1951 convention is very clear. It states that nobody should be sent to a territory in which their life or freedom will be threatened on the basis of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. As I said before, it is not simply a question of whether people may be persecuted on those bases but of whether they may be less able to access essential and necessary health services at a time of general danger based on these criteria. There is a real case to be made that the State has a duty of care and protection. It is also the case that international travel in itself, which we discourage except where essential, creates danger.
If the Minister cannot accept our Bill today, and it seems she cannot, will she tell us what we can tell the 469 persons who have already received deportation orders? Can she give them assurance that they will not be deported while the pandemic is under way? Is she moving back towards a position of making positive decisions with regard to the issuing of any further letters? Crucially, can we ensure that persons are not required to travel to Dublin to check in with the Garda National Immigration Bureau with letters that tell them they are going to be deported, because that is a real concern? I hope the Minister will indicate that she will use this time, when deportation is inappropriate due to the pandemic, to address the wider issues, to implement some of the positive recommendations in the Day report and to move those who have been here for eight or 12 years and who are deeply involved in their communities towards a position of regularisation over those six months.
I thank the Minister for being in the Chamber this afternoon. I support the Deportation Moratorium (Covid-19) Bill 2020. I am proud to be a co-sponsor of this important emergency legislation in the midst of a global pandemic. Our call is simple. We seek to amend our immigration and asylum laws so that, as long as the Government restricts travel and movement into, within and out of the State to combat the spread of the Covid-19 virus, there will be consistency in how the State treats vulnerable migrants and refugees in need of our protection. Such individuals should not be forced to leave the island and must be granted safe refuge in and until the pandemic abates.
It is the second time in a week that important issues relating to migration and legal statuses have been debated in this House, which is no coincidence. The Covid-19 pandemic has forced us to reflect on what it means to be safe and secure in one's own home and in one's own community as we are forced to rely on the physical structures around us, like the bricks and mortar of our own houses, and the social networks of our communities for protection, security and support. The pandemic has starkly lit up our own vulnerabilities and it has been sometimes scary to witness the intense fragility of the support systems around us. We must, therefore, always be conscious that the experience of this pandemic of those without such protections has been made impossibly harder.
However, in many areas, our communities and our policymakers have moved quickly to react to the pandemic's effects. We have introduced an emergency ban on evictions, an emergency social welfare payment, an emergency wage support system for small businesses and emergency restrictions on travel, socialising and public gatherings. In each area, we have identified the vulnerable person in need of support from the State and acted. This legislation must be seen in that same vein and as the latest in the suite of measures needed to protect the marginalised peoples who have borne the brunt of the impact of the virus, which includes refugees and migrants more than most.
The most fundamental principle of our migration and asylum systems must be that, where people cannot safely return to their homes due to threats to their safety, they will be granted refuge in Ireland while the threat still exists. With everything that we know about the role of international travel in the spread of the virus and the deteriorating situation in many other countries, how can we possibly justify forcing migrants to leave a current place of refuge to go to a place of uncertainty when their own health and, indeed, the health of others may be at risk from such travel? The safest and fairest course of action is to halt all deportations from Ireland until there is a stabilisation of the global public health situation, which looks more and more likely in light of the speed at which vaccines are being developed and distributed.
We are not alone in making this call. In May of this year, the United Nations Network on Migration said that states must "suspend forced returns during the pandemic, in order to protect the health of migrants and communities, and uphold the human rights of all migrants, regardless of status". It went on to say, "Forced returns can intensify serious public health risks for everyone - migrants, public officials, health workers, social workers and both host and origin communities."
In November, the Taoiseach stated in the Dáil, in response to an account of two Zimbabwean healthcare workers being issued with deportation orders, that he did "not believe that people should be deported in the context of Covid-19 to red zone areas or where the virus is in a much worse situation than is now the case here." In light of Ireland's strong performance in international terms on the reduction of case numbers, such a policy would essentially preclude the making of any deportation order whatsoever.
I am disappointed that the Government is opposing a second reading of the Bill. I note that, in its countermotion, the Government states that only four deportations have been carried out since March while neglecting to mention the 469 orders that have been issued by the Department in that time. The motion also mentions the welcome decision of the Minister for Justice not to issue orders while level 5 restrictions are in place. Our ask is that such a policy be extended to all five levels for the duration of the pandemic. I ask the Minister to commit to such a policy on the record today. Every deportation order issued has the power to change an individual's life. It can challenge the foundations of his or her world and tear his or her community here apart.
Over the summer, I became much more acutely aware of the situation of migrants while working on a helpline during the first lockdown. As I triaged many members of our homeless and migrant communities before they were assessed to see if they needed to be tested for Covid, I became very aware that it was primarily people of migrant background who were testing positive for Covid-19 both in the homeless sector and in the community.
Somebody who rang had found one woman, who will remain anonymous but to whom I will be writing in the coming weeks, on the side of a road. She had been here two years and had been kept as a domestic slave. She did not even know where to go when she was thrown out of the house for contracting Covid-19, which must have been brought into the house by another as she did not have the luxury of ever leaving. Rather than being deported and not being able to go through the necessary process to seek asylum, her problem is that, although she has been granted leave to remain for the moment, she may now be put into a direct provision centre despite having been here two years and living under threat. Even in our domestic decisions, as opposed to our global decisions, we are putting someone who has been held as a slave in a home in Ireland into a direct provision, where she will be at further risk.
The Government amendment does not really tell us what positive actions the Department will be taking. As such, it is important that the Minister, in her response, tells us that these 469 people will be communicated with and will not be deported during the pandemic. That must be made clear to them so that when they have to check in or present themselves, they do not have to do so in fear or with the consistent threat of deportation.
This should not have to happen with the fear or consistent threat of deportation and they should be safe for the duration of the pandemic.
I would also like to hear the Minister's comments on the recommendations from the Day report relating to regularisation, which seem to be positive, although I have not read the report fully. We are doing considerably better than other countries, which indicates a person deported to any other country, no matter where that is, would be worse off than if that person stayed here. Given our numbers and how we have dealt with the Covid-19 crisis, we know we are the safest refuge for people until we see improvements around the world.
My colleague, Senator Higgins, has indicated that we have seen threats of violence in other countries, including political persecution, but right now somebody returning to a home country, possibly to no home and without money because of an inability to earn money here, would leave that person further under threat when it comes to health services. We need to acknowledge a threat to health as a threat to life if people leave this country. As Senator Higgins also mentioned, I would also like to hear a comment on the change of the five-day period to 30 days. Senator Higgins spoke about what it would take for somebody to make that decision in Ireland but could we imagine how a person would think if he or she had nothing or nobody in the country to which he or she was being deported? A person's decisions must also be based on whether people can put structures in place in the country they are returning to. These people should be able to reach out to the country to where they are being deported if they go along with the deportation. Five days is an incredibly short period for a person to process that level of information.
I welcome the Minister and congratulate her on the good news we saw reported recently in the media.
Thank you. I thank Senators Higgins and Ruane for proposing and seconding the Bill, as well as Senators Flynn and Black, who are also supporting the legislation. I fully agree with and support the overall aim of this Bill that compassion is shown to those issued with deportation orders for the duration of the pandemic. The need to show compassion during this extraordinary time is one we all share across all Government and Opposition parties.
The Government has tabled a reasoned amendment in response to the Bill, which outlines the pragmatic and compassionate approach that is being taken. I take the point that perhaps we have not expanded on that enough and I certainly intend to elaborate on our intention and some of the policy areas I am looking to develop. We have tried to focus on the approach that has been taken by my Department and the Garda National Immigration Bureau since the onset of Covid-19.
As Minister for Justice, I assure the House that I have addressed the concerns reflected in the Senators' Bill on an administrative basis and will continue to do so until this pandemic is over. We do not know when that will be but we hope it will be soon. I assure Senators I will continue to apply this approach until that time comes. I hope to provide reassurance to those who may be personally affected by what we are discussing today and who may be watching. I will speak in more detail on that shortly but it is perhaps important that I first outline the considerations taken into account as part of the permission to remain process.
Each case is examined in detail on its individual merits, considering all factors, such as humanitarian factors and employment. Private and family rights are also fully considered in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights. For those who are in the international protection process, our objective is of course to have decisions made on their applications and permission to remain considerations as soon as possible. This ensures that those who are found to be in need of our protection can receive it quickly and begin rebuilding their lives here with a sense of safety and security.
For those found not to be in need of international protection, a full consideration of all aspects of their case is given before a deportation order is made. When a person receives a letter informing him or her of a negative international protection decision and that the person no longer has permission to remain in the State, that person is required to confirm within five days if he or she will accept the option of voluntary return, for which the Department will provide assistance.
I wish to be clear on this as I often get a sense that the feeling is that people must leave within five days. The person is not required to remove himself or herself from the State within five days but he or she is required to confirm within five days if the option of voluntary return, for which the Department will provide assistance, will be accepted.
Both Senators referred to the Catherine Day advisory group on the provision of supports, including accommodation to persons in the international protection process. The group has recommended that the five-day period for deciding whether to accept voluntary return should be extended to 30 days and children and students be allowed to finish the school year before departure. This, along with other recommendations, is being actively examined by my Department. I support this and am actively considering the matter in a very positive way.
The concept of voluntary return is actively encouraged prior to a deportation order being made, as demonstrated by the letter which an applicant receives at this point in the process. The time taken for relevant voluntary return arrangements to be made will also take into account all factors, including Covid-19 restrictions and the limitations to travel this has created. If a deportation order is subsequently made, it can be amended or revoked by making a request to the Minister for Justice. This is an outline of the general process and not specifically related to the issue under discussion. I encourage people to be as detailed as possible in their representations to me and my Department so that fully informed decisions can be taken at the appropriate time.
It is also worth emphasising that the process whereby those who have been served with deportation orders are required to periodically register with the authorities, does not mean that a deportation itself is imminent. That question was raised with the Taoiseach on Leaders' Questions because people had received letters. I stress again that this is only to keep the State authorities up to date and informed of the status of those who have been served with deportation orders. It does not relate to any intention for these people to be deported.
With that said, I welcome the opportunity to outline to the House today the compassionate and pragmatic approach being taken as we deal with the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic. This approach is reflected in the fact that there have only been four deportations since March 2020 and that three of these applied to deportation orders that were issued before March.
No deportations have occurred since March in respect of persons who were unsuccessful in their application for international protection in the State. The low number of deportations since March reflects that the discretionary approach I am applying on an administrative basis is working effectively.
During the level 5 Covid-19 restrictions, I also asked my officials to review the issuing of these letters and no refusal letters or letters enclosing a deportation order, have issued to anyone in the international protection process since. I am very conscious of the 469 cases that have been mentioned and to those who may have received deportation orders since the start of the pandemic but before this review, please be assured that we will continue to apply the same pragmatic approach I have just outlined and this will continue throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.
I am also conscious that we are about to embark on a vaccination programme for Covid-19. l strongly advise anyone in this country, regardless of their current status, to come forward to receive a vaccine when it is made available to them. I can give a commitment today that no information gathered as part of that process will be passed to the immigration authorities. It is worth stressing that we will continue the pragmatic, compassionate approach shown by the Department of Justice and the Garda National Immigration Bureau since the onset of the pandemic.
The Bill would, unfortunately, by implication prevent those who wish to consent to voluntary return from doing so. I cannot imagine that this was the intended purpose as it would neither be in the State's nor the individual's interest to suspend such returns. The current practice, on the other hand, already allows for discretion and flexibility. I, as Minister for Justice, and An Garda Síochána must have the discretion to remove those who may be a threat to national security and whose presence in Ireland would be contrary to the public interest but that discretion is used in the rarest of circumstances and only when absolutely necessary. Such cases arise where there are valid reasons in the interests of public security and the common good.
I will now move to the proposal in the Bill to suspend leave to land. Leave to land may be refused for a number of reasons crucial to maintaining the integrity of the immigration system and protecting the fundamental interests of the State concerning public order, public security and the integrity of the immigration system. Whereas the Bill provides that persons who are refused leave to land cannot be returned until three months after the expiration of the "emergency period", it does not elaborate on what is to happen to these persons prior to removal and while the suspension is in effect. The State would not be in a position to pursue such persons as there would be no prospect of returning them in the immediate future under the proposed amendment in the Bill. This would have the net effect that persons who would not normally be admitted into the country for very valid reasons, including reasons of national security, would have to be allowed to proceed out of the port of entry without being detained or removed.
It is also important to recognise that it is essential that the State can maintain its duty to protect its internal borders from a domestic and EU perspective. This is the case for all sovereign states and in this regard applies to the integrity of our immigration policy and practice. As Senators will know, we also have obligations to uphold as part of the common travel area with the United Kingdom.
Along with the Department, I am currently considering a number of policy changes which I am sure Senators will welcome, and I will briefly outline now. I have already mentioned the Catherine Day advisory group recommendation on the provision of supports, including accommodation, to persons in the international protection process. A number of its recommendations fall under my remit with the Department of Justice, ranging from trying to reduce the overall times people have to wait for their response to moving to an online system to providing legal aid, legal support and other types of assistance. The departmental group that has been established in my Department is already working to assess and implement some of these recommendations. This work is feeding into the work of the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, who will publish the White Paper before the end of the year. Other recommendations from the Catherine Day group which are relevant to the work of the Department of Justice are being actively pursued separate to the White Paper. As I said, we are already engaging on these proposals.
I am also considering a scheme to regularise the position of undocumented migrants and their dependants, which is a fulfilment of a programme for Government commitment. My intention is that the scheme will allow for long-term undocumented persons to apply for an immigration permission from my Department. As I outlined to the House last week, my Department's information from the Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland, which I have met, is that this could be relevant to approximately 17,000 people, which could also include up to 3,000 young people or children. I have received a report in my Department on a potential approach to such a scheme and based on its recommendations, we will set in train a process for a pathway to legal residency, and ultimately to the privilege of citizenship, for the undocumented. Without pre-empting the report, because it has not been published yet, the most straightforward option is to adopt a programme which would apply under the executive power of the Minister for Justice. This approach has been taken in the past, for example, under a special scheme for non-European Economic Area nationals who held a student permission in the State. This happened in recent years and was very successful. It is a very positive way to deal with the issue. As I am sure the House will acknowledge, and as I have already noted, the executive power of the Minister for Justice regarding immigration matters is required for a number of reasons. This potentially includes our planned scheme to regularise the status of many undocumented here in Ireland.
We are all aware of the huge efforts to regularise the status of undocumented Irish immigrants in countries all over the world, particularly the United States. As a country, we have asked for generosity and have received such generosity for many years from other countries which welcomed Irish people to their shores. I believe it is our moral duty to treat those from elsewhere who seek to make Ireland their home with the same generosity and understanding others have shown to us. It is, therefore, my hope that our undocumented scheme will be as broad as possible to cover every eligible undocumented person and their family members living in the country. It is my intention to be in a position to outline precise details in the coming weeks.
While I support the good and humane motivations that are evident in this Bill, I believe the administrative approach I am already taking is achieving the compassionate outcome desired by the Senators. However, for the reasons I have outlined, this Bill would have other consequences. It is important that, as Minister for Justice, I am allowed to continue to have flexibility where there is a requirement or a need to apply a deportation order, in particular in regard to State security and where there are challenging issues arising. It is for all of these reasons that I consider that Seanad Éireann should decline to give the Bill a Second Reading. I hope that, irrespective of the differences raised here today, a united message goes out from this House to those who find themselves in uncertain and difficult circumstances during Covid-19. That message is that they will be treated with compassion here in Ireland. The Government and I, as Minster for Justice, are clear that our compassionate and pragmatic approach will continue throughout the pandemic. I hope this provides some reassurance to those who are listening in today.
I remind Senators that they have eight minutes to make their contribution.
I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after “That” and substitute the following:
“Seanad Éireann declines to give the Bill a second reading in view of the fact that:
- recognises that both the Department of Justice and the Garda National Immigration Bureau (GNIB) are taking a pragmatic approach to Deportation Orders in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic;
- notes that the Minister for Justice can and has addressed this issue effectively on an administrative basis, and will continue to do so;
- notes that the pragmatic approach to Deportation Orders will continue for the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic;
- acknowledges this is demonstrated by the fact that since the outbreak of Covid-19 in March 2020, there have only been four cases where a person was deported from the State; and that three of those arose from Deportation Orders issued prior to March 2020;
- recognises that a detailed consideration of all aspects of a person's case is carried out before a decision is made to make a Deportation Order, including a full consideration of private and family rights in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as consideration of their work situation and humanitarian and other issues;
- notes that if a Deportation Order is made, the Order can be amended or revoked by way of a request to the Minister for Justice;
- acknowledges that, for those who are in the international protection process, the objective is to have decisions made on their applications and permission to remain considerations as soon as possible;
- considers that for those not found to be in need of international protection, that when such a person receives a letter informing them that they no longer have permission to remain in the State, they are required to confirm within five days if they will accept the option of voluntary return, for which the Department of Justice will provide assistance;
- further notes that upon receiving a letter, the person is not required to remove themselves from the State within five days – they are merely required to give an indication of their intentions;
- notes that the concept of voluntary return is actively encouraged prior to a Deportation Order being made;
- recognises that time taken for relevant voluntary return arrangements to be made will take into account all factors, including Covid-19 restrictions and limitations to travel this has created;
- acknowledges that for the duration of Level 5 Covid-19 restrictions, the Minister of Justice asked her officials to review the issuing of these letters and no refusal letters, or letters enclosing a Deportation Order, have issued to anyone who have not been granted permission to remain since;
- considers that a properly functioning deportation and returns process is necessary for the integrity of any international protection and immigration system and for the policing of the State’s external borders, which are also part of the external borders of the European Union; and that such a process is also important for the functioning of the Common Travel Area;
- acknowledges that the Minister for Justice requires discretion for the removal of non-nationals from the State, particularly where the removal of a person is in the interest of national security or in the public interest;
- notes that the Bill does not take into consideration the fact that a person may wish to return and has consented to the making of the Deportation Order and is cooperating with the GNIB with regards to their return."
I join with others in congratulating the Minister on her great personal news. I wish her well going forward.
Fianna Fåil will support the Government amendment to the Second Reading of the Bill. I commend those who brought forward the Bill, the purpose of which is to provide for a moratorium on deportations from Ireland for the duration of the Covid-19 emergency and for three months following the end of the emergency. While we accept that the Bill seeks to address a genuine issue, the problems it seeks to address would be better dealt with outside of legislation on an administrative basis, as is currently the case and as the Minister outlined.
Between March and October 2020, four people were deported from this country. In each case, the person was deported during a period of low-level restrictions. This demonstrates that the current approach adopted by the authorities on a discretionary basis is being operated with due regard to compassionate considerations in light of the current public health crisis arising from Covid-19 compared with usual levels of deportations for the same period in a given year.
During early March 2020 and in August, September and October 2020, a total of 469 deportation orders were issued, including deportation orders under section 51 of the International Protection Act and deportation orders for those who were otherwise illegal in the State. Of the 469 deportation orders issued during this time, one person was repatriated to their country of origin.
Our objective is to have decisions on international protection applications and permissions to remain considered as quickly as possible. During the early stages of the pandemic, it was decided to issue positive recommendations from the International Protection Office only. This was to ensure that applicants with negative recommendations were not disadvantaged by the time limits set out in the legislation within which to make an appeal or to request a review of a refusal of a permission to remain. As substantive processing and appeal hearings recommenced in more recent months, so too did the issuing of negative decisions. While the number of negative decisions has not increased, there has been a build-up in the issuing of such decisions, with a higher volume than normal issuing in recent weeks.
Ireland provides protection to those seeking refuge from conflict and persecution, as is required under international law. The current system needs to change. We are committed to ending the direct provision system and will replace it with a new international protection accommodation policy, centred on a not-for-profit approach. With 7,700 people in the current system, this cannot happen overnight and will take time to achieve. While we dismantle the current system, we will work to make improvements to the lives of the people living in it. In the short term, the Government has committed to act on interim recommendations from the chair of the expert group to improve conditions for asylum seekers currently living in the system. This includes vulnerability assessments, the right to work, the ability to apply for driver licences and bank accounts, an independent inspection process, measures to reduce the length of time in processing decisions, which is vital, mental health services and the training of managers of direct provision centres.
The five-day timeline set out in legislation must be referenced in correspondence but a pragmatic approach is being taken in this regard, as the Minister highlighted. Furthermore, we note the recommendations of the Day report with regard to extending that period in the context of the ongoing development of a White Paper, which will be produced by the end of the year.
We broadly support the need to suspend deportation for humanitarian reasons during the pandemic, but a blanket suspension would be inappropriate. It could have implications for the common travel area in the context of Brexit, which could impact on relations at a crucial time. In the context of the discretion which is already being applied, this would be unnecessary. It would also remove the right of the State to refuse entry and return immediately or detain for a short period in the interest of the security of the State.
I am heartened by the Minister's comments that the compassionate stance already being adopted by the Department will continue. I welcome the enhanced measures that she talked about introducing to help those who need it.
I second the amendment. The words "compassion" and "discretion" have featured particularly in this debate. That is the most important way we can approach this very sensitive issue. In that regard, I fully support the Bill's aims. It is an entirely meritorious matter to bring before the House. I understand the circumstances behind the Senators' decision to sponsor this important Bill.
Regarding compassion, Senators Higgins and Ruane mentioned a number of cases. Any one of those cases would cause anybody to think twice over whether we should deport anybody from this country. The process involved causes hurt, upset and anguish among the people subject to deportation. It causes harm to those people. However, it does not mean we should never deport people and I do not think the Senators are saying that either. Of courses, in some cases it is necessary to carry out deportations and remove people from the State, even in circumstances where there is an emotional and, on the face of it, good reason it should not happen. It is important to take into account what the Minister said about compassion.
The Government amendment uses the word "pragmatic". It is important to apply the compassion in a pragmatic fashion if the system is to function at all. As we debate this issue, we know there are major flaws in the system. For a migrant worker, somebody seeking international protection in this country under the International Protection Office, or people coming here under other circumstances, officialdom is a difficult hurdle for them to negotiate. I have been contacted by a number of people who have been delayed, especially because of Covid, in getting their stamps, visas or work permits renewed. It is a problem across the system.
In contemplation of this debate, I contacted someone who lives not far away from where I live, Órlaith Ní Mhadagáin, who is engaged to a foreign national, Jatinder Singh. She contacted me a number of months ago. He was the subject of a deportation order which he had appealed. They contacted me to ascertain when a decision would be made by the Minister's office on that order. I contacted Órlaith to ask if I could mention her name in the House today. I received the very happy news that they had received an email from their solicitor that the appeal has been successful, and the deportation order has been lifted. I express my thanks to the Minister in that regard.
I hope that is also indicative of the approach her office takes to these issues. A functional, employed, decent person from another country has come here and put down roots, built a relationship with an Irish national and wants to stay here. It is entirely appropriate that he should be allowed to, even if there are good reasons he might be otherwise deported. I hope the Minister's stepping in to revoke the deportation is an indication of the approach her office takes to these matters. That is also indicated by what she has said in her contribution to today's debate.
Compassion is a very important element of the aspect of this. With compassion, we must also remember that hard cases make bad law. We cannot make decisions on whether deportations should take place on the basis of the cases where they probably should not. I think it is reasonable to suggest that the cases that have been outlined are definitely cases where a question mark arises. I encourage the Minister, as I know she will, to look at them with a kind compassionate eye, the very one she has been speaking about in her contribution.
The pragmatism and the discretion that these Houses afford to the Minister for Justice of the day to make these orders is very important. The Houses of the Oireachtas have delegated to the Minister for Justice the function of making the decision in respect of deportation orders with good reason. It would be entirely impractical for these Houses to make a decision on any individual application. Nobody is suggesting we should, both from an administrative perspective and simply because these matters should be outside the realm of politics and judged on their merits. The same compassion we have discussed should be applied to them.
However, notwithstanding the good intentions of the Bill, I have a problem with removing that discretion from the Minister. It is important that we afford the Minister the trust and confidence of the Oireachtas in allowing her to exercise her discretion to make these orders where it is appropriate and where the compassion in the situation has not overcome the reason behind the deportation order. Regarding this Bill, I have great confidence that the Minister, Deputy McEntee, has the capacity, compassion and understanding to make the right decisions on those matters when the time comes.
Section 5 provides that the ban would also be in place for three months after the emergency period. There is a difficulty with not just the removal of discretion but the removal of the discretion after we have come out of the Covid pandemic, and we all look forward to that day. That is not the stumbling block to which I draw the House's attention. The removal of the discretion is a stumbling block for me. Passing the Bill would indicate that we no longer trust the Minister to have discretion in these matters.
One of my councillor colleagues, Baby Pereppadan, has brought to my attention a number of cases of people who are waiting for the Garda National Immigration Bureau to renew stamps and things like that. Many foreign nationals have been greatly delayed in progressing these applications. I have already brought many of these to the Minister's attention. That is also a problem with the process. In the context of those applications, it would be a mistake to remove the discretion from the Minister.
The Immigration Act and the other legislation that have delegated this function must remain in place. I come back to what I said at the start. The two governing principles in this must be compassion and discretion. We have heard about compassion. In her opening contribution on the Bill, Senator Higgins expressed concern that she did not have assurances from the Minister in respect of this. I hope she has now received them. They cannot be binding assurances because that would be another way to remove the discretion from the Minister. What the Minister said in her speech indicates that she understands the importance of taking a discretionary approach to these matters. She looks at the appeals and orders she is asked to make. She outlined the criteria that are considered by her office. I have confidence that the compassion is there. I also say that discretion must be there.
The Government amendment mentions that a number of deportations have not been effected in recent months. For all the reasons that have been outlined by other Senators, we need to consider that. That discretion is very important because it cuts both ways. It is not just a discretion to deport, it is also a discretion not to deport. We must trust that the Minister will have that compassion and we must trust the Minister sufficiently to give her that discretion.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I listened carefully to her and find myself in agreement with everything she said. Having been in her position for five years between 2002 and 2007, I understand completely the significant difference, as Senator Ward said, between what is available as a statutory power and the discretion as to whether it is used in any particular circumstance. I am sure things have improved since my day, but even back then the voluntary departure regime was ingrained into the system and involuntary deportation was very much a last resort. Every opportunity was given to people to make a case against deportation on compassionate and similar grounds.
If we put into law a prohibition - even a temporary one - on the right of immigration officials to refuse the right to land in Ireland, it would endanger the common travel area and would be the subject of major political criticism to the effect that we were effectively jamming open a back door into Britain across the Border. We must be practical about this. As Senator Ward has said, discretion is the crucial issue here because nobody is obliged to be cruel or lacking in compassion. There is an abundance of compassion for those who are genuinely and bona fide in difficult situations. My experience is that an inflexible iron rule is not applied on the whole question of immigration, the right to remain, the issuing of stamps and the like. There must be an orderly legal process in place and it has to be humanely operated.
I welcome the Minister's comments on the subject of undocumented people in Ireland. It seems inherently undesirable that over an extended period of time, people should live in a society where they are afraid of a guillotine falling on them many years after they ceased to be documented or came to the country in dubious circumstances. The Minister has indicated that 17,000 people could be in such situations, and this may be right or it may be wrong. I encourage the Minister by mentioning that in the 2002 to 2007 period, people availed of a similar scheme, approved by the Cabinet at the time, to get onto a path towards citizenship. I am not exaggerating when I say that virtually every week, a person who was in that category approaches me on the street, in a taxi or just out of the blue, to express their thanks for what that Government did when it provided a pathway so that their situation could be regularised. Although the circumstances were slightly different then - the country was completely unprepared for refugee applications in the volume that existed then - a similar situation had arisen in that there was very significant backlog of seriously compelling cases and the State was simply never going to get to grips with it.
We cannot preach to the Americans about undocumented Irish people in the US and at the same time take a totally contrary approach to undocumented people here. I am not suggesting that anyone who wants to go to the US should be free to migrate just because they are Irish, or vice versa. I am saying that there are people in the US - and it is not just the Irish, because there are more Hispanic people who came up from Central America and Latin America - who live in a total shadow world. I thank God that we are nearing the end of the Trump Administration and the way it exaggerated the sense of fear among those people, many years after they commenced their residence in the US. The notion that people should live in fear, darkness and in the shadows of society for an extended period is repugnant in many ways. I stand for a workable migration system, policy and series of laws on immigration, and an effective system. As I mentioned the other day in respect of Senator Higgins's amendment to the Brexit Bill, which dealt with a similar line of country to her Bill today, when all of this messing in Brussels and London is over, I am confident that there will be an agreement. There has to be, because there is a logic to it. The common travel area is a matter of huge importance to us. Those who think we can have a policy concerning migration and immigration which is radically out of kilter with the maintenance of the common travel area are deluding themselves. We will have to live with the fact that there will have to be not an uncritical alignment of laws between Dublin and London, but an approximation of practice in the future, if the common travel area is not to become a serious political problem in the UK and for Irish-UK relations.
I also want to pay tribute to the proposers of this Bill and their obvious compassion, as shown in the cases they have mentioned in the course of this debate. I fully support the Minister's approach, which seeks to preserve the Executive's discretion within a statutory framework, and not to create a situation which I think we would regret. To say, for instance, that leave to land in Ireland should be guaranteed to everybody who claims international protection, and that this should take place for three months after the end of the Covid crisis, is simply to go too far, and to reduce a Minister's discretion in a manner which would most certainly be abused, if it became internationally known that that was the state of Irish law. I support the Minister's proposal.
I welcome the Minister to the House and congratulate her on her personal news. I am glad that I had the opportunity to congratulate her personally. I note that my former Labour Party colleague, Niamh Bhreathnach, writing in today's edition of The Irish Times, has pointed out the need for a debate on supports for women in public office. I was first elected when I was pregnant with my second daughter, and I know how glad I was that there were female Oireachtas Members before me who had fought for an Oireachtas crèche and for recognition of the need to accommodate women and men with small children in the Oireachtas.
I thank Senators Higgins and Ruane for putting forward this Bill, and on behalf of the Labour Party, I am delighted to support it very strongly. They have taken a very positive initiative, and it compliments the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Bill 2018 and the Born Here, Belong Here campaign that I have been strongly involved in with Labour Youth and the Labour Party. I thank the Minister for her engagement with me and the Labour Party on that Bill, and I am glad to be meeting with her officials next week.
I welcome many aspects of the Minister's speech and the Government's approach, particularly the Minister's assurance to those who undertake vaccination as part of the vaccination programme that no information gathered as part of that process will be passed on to the immigration authorities. That is an important assurance, given that we have just received such positive news on vaccines. I am also glad that the Minister is engaging with the recommendation of the Catherine Day advisory group to extend the period for people to come back on the voluntary return issue from five days to 30 days.
I am very pleased to hear of the Minister's commitment to the scheme to regularise the position of undocumented migrants, and of her offer to set a process in train for a pathway to legal residency and ultimately to the privilege of citizenship. In our Irish Nationality and Citizenship Bill, we were seeking to ensure that people living here and who have a stake here in Ireland, but who have this dreadful fear hanging over them and face uncertainty around their legal status, would have a pathway to citizenship. I am really glad that we are going to see that scheme announced in the coming weeks and that it will be as broad as possible to cover every eligible undocumented person and his or her family members. I hope that in the course of the introduction of that scheme we will be able to discuss the issue of citizenship fees, which remain very high relative to other EU countries, and, more importantly, we will able to see a good, robust pathway to citizenship for people here and to fulfil the motivations in our Bill.
Having welcomed those aspects of the Bill, I regret that the Government is seeking to deny this Bill a Second Reading. We will be opposing the Government's amendment. We do not think it is good enough to say that our approach relies on pragmatism and that that is enough for the many people who face the fear of deportation.
In many other instances Private Members' Bills whose intentions have attracted general support have been subject to amendment by agreement with the proposer. I am sure the proposing Members will also be open to amendment in this case. The Bill is modest enough in that it only seeks to tie discretion for a temporary emergency period. That seems very reasonable to me.
I note the figures other Members have pointed out. I am glad to hear that only four people have been removed from the State since St. Patrick's Day. That reflects a compassionate approach. However, 469 deportation orders were issued between the outbreak of the pandemic and the end of October. Every one of the 469 recipients will have experienced a great deal of stress, anxiety and insecurity as a result of these orders, even it has not translated into actual deportation in his or her case. This does not reflect the number of persons who have taken the option of voluntary return, which can sometimes be less than voluntary. The figures mask this issue, as well as the stress and fear involved. Perhaps the Minister could comment on that.
Many of us have been contacted by individuals who have received deportation orders, especially this year. I have written to the Minister on behalf of several people, particularly Mr. Benjamin Akhile, who has been resident in the country for 14 years. He fled Sierra Leone many years ago. His partner has been an activist for many years. A good deal has been written in the press about him, including in Hot Press. He has been received a deportation order and has been ordered to leave the country by 10 December. A petition calling for revocation of this order has more than 21,000 signatures. This is one person who has been subject to real fear, substantive uncertainty, stress and pressure as a result of the receipt of a deportation order. Many others will also have experienced the same things.
During the course of the pandemic there have been real concerns about threats of deportation of front-line healthcare workers. In November approximately 160 people in direct provision were working in the healthcare system. We must be conscious of the fact that sectors which are significantly populated by migrant workers, including undocumented migrants and asylum seekers, have carried extremely high levels of risk during the pandemic. In November, two healthcare workers working in nursing homes were instructed to return to Zimbabwe. While the number of actual deportations has been low, people on the front line in healthcare have received deportation orders, which cause such uncertainty and stress. In May, my Dáil colleague, Deputy Sean Sherlock, called on the Government to regularise the status of all undocumented front-line workers during the Covid-19 crisis. I wish to repeat his call. At a minimum we should make a commitment not to deport those working on the front line in this way.
Regarding the Government position, I wish to refer to pragmatism. It is not enough for someone who has been working on the front line and has received a deportation order to be told that a pragmatic approach is being taken. In comments in the Dáil on 18 November, the Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, expressed his surprise at hearing about people being deported during the pandemic. He stated the view that persons should not be deported to countries with a high incidence of Covid-19. I understand that some removals from the State this year were to Brazil, where in some regions extremely high numbers of people have contracted the virus. Many of those issued with deportation orders since the start of the pandemic come from other countries with very high levels of transmission. In May, the United Nations Network on Migration, endorsed by the United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, called on all states to suspend forced returns during the pandemic. The appeal stated that such removals increase the exposure of very vulnerable populations and place additional strain on countries of return. It noted that at a humanitarian level, such returns exacerbate trauma and oppression. It is well worth emphasising that message.
Some commentary has suggested that a more generous approach to citizenship, the suspension of deportations and so on might be open to abuse. The figures on naturalisation and citizenship applications remind us that the scaremongering about abuse which we saw at the time of the 2004 referendum is not borne out by the reality. In my office, Ms Chloe Manahan has found the data on naturalisation of minors which was not available to us during last week's debate on the Irish Nationality and Citizenship (Naturalisation of Minors Born in Ireland) Bill 2018. The number of people applying for citizenship through naturalisation has declined steadily since 2012. The share of EU nationals among new Irish citizens has increased from 4% in 2011 to 49% in 2018. The number of applicants from the UK has increased sevenfold since the Brexit vote. These figures show how immigration debates in Ireland are distorted by those who might prefer to be ungenerous in our approach to immigration. Research by the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, shows that there were only 76 applications for citizenship by naturalisation on the grounds of birth in 2018. We need to be cognisant of the real figures when we speak about issues pertaining to citizenship and migration. I know that many people who are very vocal on this issue are, unfortunately, very ungenerous. We need to challenge their views.
I will finish by appealing to the Minister. In light of humanitarian considerations, the common good and international imperatives around Covid-19, it would be intuitive and sensible to bring in a temporary ban in line with the Bill proposed by Senators Higgins and Ruane for the duration of the pandemic. I look forward to engaging with the Minister and her Department on citizenship issues and pathways for undocumented people.
I welcome the Minister and congratulate her on her recent personal news.
I am sure the Minister will concede that it is very unusual for us to debate an amendment to legislation, especially such a significant and substantial amendment, on Second Stage. I do not question the Minister's personal bona fides on this issue for one second. However, like other colleagues I think that engaging with the proposers of this Bill and allowing it to progress to the next Stage would have been a much more positive and collaborative approach.
Sinn Féin will be supporting the Bill proposed by Senators Higgins and Ruane. The people of Ireland, North and South, have a good idea of what it feels like to live in a state of fear for one's life and the lives of family and friends. It is fair to say that we have all been living in very uncertain times. We have been uncertain about our health, our financial security and our futures. All of this is a result of the impact of Covid-19 on each of us personally and on our families and communities. The majority of the people in this uncertain state come from settled backgrounds and have an array of support mechanisms and resources. State, family and friends are available to soften the impact of the virus on us. Even with this welcome and necessary support, we are still on edge. Can the Minister imagine having to deal with all this pressure as a foreign national, perhaps unable to speak English fluently, trying to adjust one's day-to-day life to the streets of an Irish town hundreds or even thousands of miles away from home? That is the reality for many of the people this Bill seeks to protect and help. Those of us in this Chamber must remember when we comment on this Bill one way or the other that we are dealing with the lives of people just like us. That sentiment has been reflected in the debate thus far.
It is important that in our overarching approach to this we remember the human stories and get to know the human faces. Many of those whom this legislation seeks to protect are undocumented. Many are working on our front line, assisting in the Irish effort to combat the pandemic. They are assisting people here. They are seeking to make Ireland home and to contribute, add and give. We rightly want our own undocumented throughout the world to be protected and defended. We correctly laud the value the undocumented Irish bring to their new homes. That is precisely why as elected politicians, we argue, campaign and lobby for them to be allowed to stay where they are.
The Minister has said that her Department and An Garda are taking a pragmatic approach to the enforcement of deportation orders during the pandemic. I am glad that deportations have almost stopped during the pandemic and I acknowledge this step on the part of the Department. However, as other Members have noted, four people were deported to Brazil, a country with quite stark levels of Covid-19 infection. Almost 500 deportation orders have been issued during this pandemic. Those people with deportation orders hanging over them are in a very distressed state.
Like us all, they are managing the threat that Covid-19 poses to them and their families, and we all know the mental pressure that brings. In addition, they are also dealing with the pressure of facing deportation. The Minister should ensure that the Department adopts not only a pragmatic approach to this issue, but also a humane one. For the duration of the pandemic, the Department of Justice should stop issuing deportation orders and no one should face deportation. This emergency situation requires understanding, compassion and solidarity. Having reflected on some of the contributions thus far from across the Chamber, there have been instances here where we have had no problem in pushing emergency legislation, which may have repercussions later, through all Stages in this House because we acknowledged this is an emergency situation and we are in exceptional times.
We have all taken decisions and voted for legislation and proposals which have come before us, which in any other circumstances we would have preferred to have approached in a much more nuanced, detailed and comprehensive way. Given that the proposal outlined by Senators Higgins and Ruane is a temporary moratorium, it should be adopted and adhered to by the Government. That is not to dismiss anything which my colleagues opposite have said regarding the Minister's discretion. These are exceptional times, we all acknowledge that, and they require exceptional decisions. Implementing this legislation would be a clear and sure way for this Government to show the understanding, compassion and solidarity to which I referred earlier. Tacaím leis an mBille atá leagtha os ár gcomhair ag na Seanadóirí Higgins agus Ruane. I support the Bill.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House and I congratulate her on her good news. I commend the Civil Engagement Group for tabling this Private Members' legislation. It is probably one of the first times we have had the start of a meaningful debate on immigration in this House and we must have many more debates like it. I refer to immigration and its impact on us as an island and a member of the European Union.
Most of us are familiar with the asylum process and the subsidiary protection process. We all also know that deportation orders are issued as a last resort, after leave to remain is refused. As the Minister pointed out, leave to remain continues, even when a deportation order is hanging over someone's head. Many of us, however, have people ringing us when a deportation order is served on then, and they are often in major distress. A gentleman rang me to say he had been served with a deportation order. On the basis of being served with the order, he was not returning to the place where he was living. He was not going to return to the reception centre because he had witnessed scenes which may not have stemmed from the issuing of a deportation order. I refer to members of An Garda Síochána being present to deport someone. The man who spoke to me, with his lack of English, thought that receiving a deportation order was going to result in him being immediately deported.
I am glad, therefore, to have heard the Minister intimate that she might change the language of the form so that it is clearer for people and that the recommendation from Catherine Day would be taken on board to extend the process for voluntary leave from five to 30 days. We may need to consider how deportation orders are couched and the language used in such orders, and put more supports in place for people issued with a deportation order. I state that because many people when served with such an order go off the radar. I do not like to use this term, but if they are caught up with, that goes against them. It is unfair and people are only acting in that way because they are scared.
I commend the Minister. All last term, I was jumping up and down here regarding the failure of the Burgh Quay offices of the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INIS. On several occasions, I mentioned that bots were used to block-buy appointments on the Internet and those appointments were then resold to vulnerable immigrants. I am glad, therefore, that the Department is going to put major investment into the online services in Burgh Quay. Anecdotally, we are already hearing that there have been large reductions in applications for visas, stamp 5 certifications and citizenship. People no longer have to queue for days outside Burgh Quay because of what I thought was some sort of administrative racism. I refer to people being on the streets queuing when their visas were up. It was very unfair and we would not have treated our citizens like that, so I am really glad that we are getting ahead of ourselves regarding the upgrading and extensions of the Burgh Quay offices.
I presume that for all of us here, it is great to hear that the Minister is putting a programme in place to legalise 17,000 migrants. The Minister must be commended on this radical step. Websites on the right, such as Gript.ie, have been appalled by this move, but it is very much the right thing to do. As Senator McDowell said, if we talk about undocumented Irish migrants in the United States, we must put our money where our mouth is and follow suit in dealing with this issue. I was delighted, therefore, when I saw that this action was going to be taken.
I also agree with my colleagues regarding the vaccination programmes. Portugal has granted immigrants full citizenship rights during the pandemic, which allowed them access to healthcare and other rights to which citizens are entitled. I do not know if this is something the Minister's Department has considered, but I would know if it has been. I thank the Minister. I will not be supporting this Bill. I will be supporting our amendment instead, but I thank the Civil Engagement Group for bringing the legislation before the House.
I will be supporting this legislation. I congratulate the Minister and Paul on their great news. My issue concerns the roughly 200 unaccompanied minors who come into the country every year. What happens to them? I am not sure what we can do about this situation, but I sometimes have the privilege of looking after these children when they arrive at Dublin Airport. They come into my home. Hearing a child who is arriving without a parent in a strange country and into a strange house, wailing and crying for his or her parent or parents and other loved ones they have left behind in another country is possibly the saddest thing anyone can ever go through.
What happens to those children then is that they end up being taken by Tusla into the care system. Some of those children may stay in the care system, even without having any legal status, when they turn 18 years old and go into direct provision. Some social workers do take out international protection orders for the children but some do not. My concern is for those children and to be a voice for those children who are basically without any status here, despite having been here for perhaps the last ten or 12 years. They might have come here when they were four or five years old, having been put on a plane that arrived here. That is despite the fact that we have no direct flights to anywhere in Africa. When those children turn 18 years old here they do not have any status. That is an issue the Minister might need to look at during her time in office and I would like her to look after those children who have no status.
I will be sharing my time with Senator Flynn, if the House agrees.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I welcome the Minister to the House and I also congratulate her on her wonderful news. I am very proud today to co-sign this legislation with my colleagues from the Civil Engagement Group. This Bill provides proportionate protection to the 469 people who have received deportation letters in the midst of this Covid-19 crisis. This legislation accurately recognises the threat of Covid-19 to the most vulnerable members of society, which undoubtedly include those 469 people who are subject to deportation.
In the current climate, it is accurate to state that the forcible removal of persons residing in the State to foreign jurisdictions has the potential to be detrimental to global public health. There are compelling public interest reasons to discourage the unnecessary movement of people to outside the State insofar as possible in order to reduce the spread of this virus. In unprecedented times, we must embrace emergency change. We have no choice about it. There is no doubt that it is an emergency period. This is terrain we have never before crossed and it does require an emergency response.
The amendments to the Acts mentioned in the Bill are absolutely necessary to attune to the current global state of health. The amendment to section 51 of the International Protection Act 2015 through the insertion of section 51A as proposed in the Bill is a reasonable response to the emergency. It proposes an extension to the current requirements such that the Minister shall not make a deportation order under section 50, which deals with the prohibition of refoulement. The amendment is essential as it recognises the severe risk Covid-19 poses to the life and freedom of persons subject to deportation, making it reasonable grounds for prohibition of refoulement.
Aside from all of that, there is a need for these legislative amendments on a more human level which all speakers have addressed. I too have received many letters on the matter, particularly given my work as a therapist. One tends to get phone calls from people who are in unbelievably stressful situations. They have made lives here for themselves and are absolutely terrified of being separated from their family. That fear which keeps them from sleeping at night is just beyond anything anyone in this Chamber could ever comprehend. I shudder to think of that experience in the face of the global pandemic in addition to the obvious risk inherent in the movement of people to outside the State.
The Bill follows a necessary route of compassion and understanding and would mean that nobody should have to experience deportation at a time when travel seems so deeply unsafe and threatening. We must have regard for the constitutional duty of the State to respect, defend and vindicate the rights of persons to life and bodily integrity. That said, I believe the Bill is a proportionate response to extraordinary times and will act to prevent, minimise or reduce the risks of persons being infected with Covid-19.
I thank the Minister for addressing the House. Although many Senators congratulated her on her pregnancy, I did not hear any of them using the word "pregnancy" in so doing. I offer her a big congratulations.
I listened to the Minister and certain Senators speaking about the risk of supporting the Bill. I am everything but naive; I understand the risks in this area. For me, the Civil Engagement Group is not seeking to address those risks in the Bill. What we are asking is that, in these horrible and nasty times, kind measures be put in place for undocumented people such that they will not be faced with deportation orders. There have already been 469 people issued with deportation papers since March. We are seeking to prevent that from happening. There is enough going on for people at present, especially migrants.
We must remember that when we talk about deportation we are talking about people with lives, families, hopes and dreams. We must also remember that we are still in the grip of a global pandemic. The Government is forcing these people to leave and to travel during a pandemic. We must remember the terrible incident about which other Senators have spoken, that is, the two women healthcare workers who got deportation letters. For the information of the Minister, the deportation letters state that one must present oneself to the centre. I hope we are all clear on that. Many Senators spoke out against the injustice of those two healthcare workers being sent letters of deportation.
I hope we can count on the Government to stand with us. We are all clear that it is not supporting the Bill as it stands, but I hope it can look at this not on a political level, but on a human level in terms of asking people to travel outside the country. The Government tells me not to travel from Donegal to Dublin, yet it is expecting people to travel to other parts of the world. If we are serious about stamping out this global pandemic, we must look at deportation. There is no reason deportation cannot be suspended during the pandemic and for three months thereafter. It would be the right thing to do. The Civil Engagement Group, and Senators Ruane, Higgins and Black in particular, put this Bill forward because it is the right thing to do.
Senator Ruane spoke about a woman living in dire accommodation and going through a horrible experience in the middle of Irish society. That is not acceptable. We have to show a sense of solidarity with the thousands of undocumented healthcare workers who have given their services to us daily during the pandemic. The least we can do is to stop issuing deportation papers during the crisis and for three months thereafter.
It is good to see the Minister. I wish her well. I wish to speak on the Bill because I feel quite passionately about it. It is a terrific initiative on behalf of the Civil Engagement Group and it deserves our support. It shows the flexibility and agility that we need to employ in these very precarious times. The intent of the Bill is to bring some compassion into how we treat migrants while the globe is in the middle of a once in 1,000 years pandemic. The Bill is compassionate, it respects health protection measures and it is practical. It is not intended as a long-term policy change to immigration legislation, it is simply putting protections in place that will last only for as long as the emergency legislation dealing with the pandemic is in place. It recognises the worldwide situation we are in. These unprecedented times require us to approach things differently and, most importantly, to treat people differently. The Taoiseach stated in the Dáil last month that he would not like to see anyone deported to countries that are badly affected by Covid-19.
Looking at the matter from the perspective of health protection for all those involved, continuing deportation orders does not make any sense. The current Government policy is that we should not undertake any unnecessary travel because travel is deemed a risk. That being so, why would we consider putting migrants at risk at this time? The Bill wishes to put a legal protection in place where there is none.
If a deportation order is issued, the only appeal mechanism currently available is that of judicial review. My understanding is that no legal aid is available in that regard at the moment. Asylum seekers have 28 days to take a challenge through a judicial review, which is a very limited time.
The Minister asked her officials to review the practice of issuing negative international protection decisions. The response of the Government to the Bill is to make a statement that the Department is taking a pragmatic approach and that deportations are very few. That is acknowledged, but it is an informal arrangement with no legal basis. This situation could change any day or hour. If the Government really wants to do this, it should support the Bill and amend it if necessary on Committee Stage. The Bill will give legal security and certainty for immigrants facing deportation during these difficult and uncertain times. It will allow us to treat people with compassion in unprecedented times.
In my work as a representative of Sinn Féin on the Council of Europe, I have been faced directly with the horrendous migration crisis right across Europe and the horrendous response to it in many cases across the European Union.
We hear so much in this Chamber about European values. That is not what I witness when I attend Council of Europe meetings when it comes to issues of migration, the behaviour of Frontex in getting involved in illegal pushbacks, which has been well documented at this point, or the immigration detention of children. I myself saw first-hand children in cages in Hungary two years ago. There are the horrendous deals done with Turkey. Europe is literally turning itself into a fortress.
I ask the House to think for a second of the signifying power of our Government saying we will not deport anyone during this crisis. I ask the House to think of the opportunity to send a signal to Europe to raise its standards and to do more. This Government and previous Governments need to do more because our record on bringing in migrants in terms of numbers is just not good enough. I know it may not be politically popular to say that, but it is important we all say it and recognise it. I ask the House to consider the crisis in Greece and the crises in other countries throughout Europe and the huge numbers of desperate people in the most desperate of circumstances. This country has not responded sufficiently in that regard. We could, however, send a powerful signal today, just as migrants are being treated appallingly across the borders of Europe, to say we will not deport anyone during this crisis. It is in the Minister's power, and I appeal to her to think again. I recognise the good things she said in her speech, in particular her point about the 17,000 people who, it is hoped, the Department will regularise. That is very significant and needs to be recognised, but we need to do more. The Minister has the opportunity to do more today because of this Bill, and I urge her and her colleagues to think again.
Senator Gavan has made a very strong point. This is an opportunity to send a very strong and positive signal that we are listening to the message from the UN, as discussed earlier, that there should not be forced returns during this time. It is an opportunity to send a signal of intent as regards best practice which, it is hoped, would have effects elsewhere and internationally.
Returning to Ireland and the situation here, it was mentioned that hard cases make bad law. I always refer to the alternative formulation, "bad law makes hard cases". There are a lot of problems with our law. The Immigration Act and the International Protection Act both have significant issues. There are huge problems at a European level with some of the practices we have condoned and our relationships with various countries as regards immigration control agreements. Much needs to be done as far as the undocumented and unaccompanied minors are concerned, as others have discussed during the debate. All these issues really need to be addressed, and I hope we will be able to address them robustly.
The issue before us now, particularly as it relates to deportations during Covid-19, needs to be very robustly addressed. The Minister indicated that she hopes a strong and unified message will go out. I will be clear. I would like the language in the Government amendment to be stronger. I heard the points she made in her speech. It would be good, aside from those points, if there were some other way a public message, signal or statement might be made. While the word "compassion" was used in the debate, it is not in the Government amendment. The word in the Government amendment is "pragmatic", which does not give assurance to people when we consider the case, referred to by Senators, of somebody who is due to report tomorrow. I am aware of that case too. People have referred to other cases. I have written to the Minister about particular people - artists, dancers and others - who have been directly affected. To be told, "Do not worry, we will deal with you pragmatically", does not give a sufficient sense of satisfaction. I hope the Minister will indicate that she will exercise the powers she mentions in her motion - for example, her powers to revoke or amend deportation orders. It is really important that people get letters. Those 469 people have received letters - and they are letters, let us be clear. They do not read "please check in". They read:
For the purpose of ensuring your Deportation from the state pursuant to the Immigration Act 1999 as amended. You are now required to present yourself ... [to the GNIB].
The letters also state that if the recipient does not comply, he or she may be arrested and detained without warrant. That is the concern people have. These are the letters they have received. They need really clear communication. We might be satisfied to hear there may be a pragmatic approach, and we might read into that what we will and hope it will mean what we wish it to mean, but it needs to be very clear. I note at the very end of the Minister's speech that she mentions that deportations would be carried out only in exceptional circumstances such as situations involving the security of the State and so forth. I really hope, however, that this could be conveyed even more firmly.
Could we also have clarity on the policy of only positive decisions being issued? Again, I believe that is the Minister's intent and, from engaging with her on this process, I think that is where she is going. I note, however, that the language of the amendment, and even some of the language in the Minister's speech, does not quite give us as much as we should have on this. I want this to be clear to people, and I would like the Minister's clarity and the compassion she clearly has to be reflected on paper, even in the communications received by those facing deportation orders. They should get a reassurance and a signal in that regard.
Members have spoken about the suspension of deportations for three months. This was to allow for the fact that while we might move out of a health emergency, other countries may still be in one. We have seen, unfortunately, that the roll-out of the vaccine may not be equal in every other part of the world. The suspension is to allow for a period for principles such as non-refoulement to be reconsidered if necessary in the context of the global pandemic. That is why we had left a lagging period while still ensuring there is a sunset clause.
I hope Members will consider supporting Second Stage of the Bill and again appeal to them to do so. Of course, we would always be open to amending the Bill as it progresses. If not, and if the Minister must - and perhaps she must - move forward with the Government amendment, I hope she might be able to give us some supplementary and further supports. I hear her and understand from what she says that she does not intend to issue more deportation orders or to deport persons except in exceptional circumstances. That is my understanding from what I have heard from her. Again, perhaps we could find ways to make sure that this is conveyed to the people who matter most and the people most affected.
- Ahearn, Garret.
- Ardagh, Catherine.
- Blaney, Niall.
- Burke, Paddy.
- Byrne, Malcolm.
- Carrigy, Micheál.
- Casey, Pat.
- Cassells, Shane.
- Crowe, Ollie.
- Currie, Emer.
- Daly, Paul.
- Dolan, Aisling.
- Dooley, Timmy.
- Fitzpatrick, Mary.
- Gallagher, Robbie.
- Garvey, Róisín.
- Keogan, Sharon.
- Kyne, Seán.
- Lombard, Tim.
- Martin, Vincent P.
- McDowell, Michael.
- McGahon, John.
- McGreehan, Erin.
- Murphy, Eugene.
- O'Reilly, Joe.
- O'Reilly, Pauline.
- O'Sullivan, Ned.
- Seery Kearney, Mary.
- Ward, Barry.
- Wilson, Diarmuid.
- Bacik, Ivana.
- Black, Frances.
- Boylan, Lynn.
- Flynn, Eileen.
- Gavan, Paul.
- Higgins, Alice-Mary.
- Hoey, Annie.
- Moynihan, Rebecca.
- Ó Donnghaile, Niall.
- Ruane, Lynn.
- Sherlock, Marie.
- Wall, Mark.
- Warfield, Fintan.