Tuesday, 27 January 2004

Questions (730)

Conor Lenihan


852 Mr. C. Lenihan asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the reduction in the number of asylum seekers in 2003 and the reasons for this reduction in applications. [1239/04]

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Written answers (Question to Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform)

The number of asylum applications received in 2003 was 7,900 which represented a fall of some 32% compared to 2002 when 11,634 asylum applications were received. Excluding reapplications, the total number of applications for asylum received in 2003 was 7,483, a decrease of some 36% on 2002. While it is not possible to be absolutely certain in relation to all of the factors involved in the reduction in asylum numbers in 2003, it is possible to say that the fall in applications was influenced by a combination of factors and strategies.

The Government now has in place a comprehensive strategy for dealing with asylum claims comprising, for example, a strengthened infrastructural and statutory framework for processing applications fairly and within shorter timescales to ensure that those in need of refugee protection receive that protection more speedily. The infrastructural framework, as the Deputy will be aware, is made up to two independent agencies, namely, the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner, ORAC, and the Refugee Appeals Tribunal, RAT, which have been highly resourceful over recent years a situation that has resulted in the speedier processing of asylum applications by both offices. It is a well-known fact that slow decision/making in a refugee determination process often gives rise to high numbers of unfounded applications being received. Enhancing the processing capacity of our refugee determination process so as to speed up decision/making without compromising fairness has certainly, in my opinion, had an important impact on numbers.

The strengthening of processing and the shortening of timescales for decisions has been supported by the enhancement of our legislative base for dealing with asylum applications in the form, for example, of amendments to the Refugee Act 1996 by the Immigration Act 2003 which came into effect on 15 September 2003. These amendments were,inter alia, aimed at ensuring that asylum applicants participate more actively in the determination process and failure, for example, to co-operate with the asylum process can result in the rejection of an application. The Immigration Act 2003 also contains provisions for the accelerated processing of asylum applications, including prioritisation of certain claims; strengthened credibility provisions; greater use of appeals on the papers alone; designation of States as safe countries of origin and streamlined operation of the Dublin Convention and safe third country processes. All of the relevant amendments in the 2003 Act were based on the experience of operating the Refugee Act 1996 over the past few years.

Central to the integrity of any asylum process is the ability to return persons found not be in need of refugee protection, and who have no other protection needs, to their countries of origin. In this regard, we are continuing to maintain the number of deportations being effected, with some 590 persons deported in 2003 and some 762 voluntary returns also taking place during this period. As the Deputy will be aware, in the region of 90% of asylum applications received in the State are rejected on the basis that they do not meet the criteria for the award of refugee status as contained in section 2 of the Refugee Act 1996 and in the 1951 Geneva Convention.

I am also of the view that the Supreme Court judgment in January 2003 in the case ofLobe and Osayande has also had an impact on the number of unfounded asylum applications being received in the State. The Deputy will be aware that this case dealt with the residency status of parents of an Irish-born child.

There is clear evidence to show that our asylum determination process is being abused by criminal elements whose activities have clear implications for the security and authority of the State itself and the general economic welfare of its citizens. These activities also have implications for the preservation of the integrity and effectiveness of the asylum system as it operates in Ireland for those that are genuinely in need of protection. For the purpose of dealing with illegal immigration, the Government has provided increased resources to the Garda National Immigration Bureau. The bureau itself has also strengthened its international liaison arrangements with immigration authorities in both the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland and France, which are major transit points for illegal immigration into the State, with a particular focus on trafficking activity.

Amendments contained in the Immigration Act 2003 designed to strengthen our immigration procedures have also provided an enhanced legislative framework for the Garda to carry out more effective immigration controls. The 2003 Act makes provision for the introduction of carrier liability which obliges carriers bringing non-nationals into Ireland to satisfy themselves that the passengers whom they take on board at the point of departure have the correct documentation to allow them to disembark here. The provision, which operates in respect of traffic coming from outside the common travel area, is having a major deterrent effect on illegal immigration.

While the Government will continue to meet its obligations under the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the status of refugees, I am sure that the Deputy will agree that with over €340 million spent on the asylum and related immigration process, including on the provision of support services to asylum seekers in 2002 — a final figure is not yet available for 2003 — it is incumbent on the Government to ensure that we have a fair and efficient asylum process in place which will tackle abusive applications as well as ensuring that those in genuine need of protection receive that protection as quickly as possible.

I recognise that the issue of asylum is complex and presents many challengers for all the agencies involved in the asylum and immigration process. However, I am convinced that the policies being pursued are the right ones, as evidenced in particular by the results I have highlighted in reply to the Deputy.