The comments referred to by the Deputy were made in a document entitled Review of Some Refugee Issues in 2003 issued by the Irish Refugee Council. I do not agree with the view that a new underclass may develop if current policies on asylum seekers and refugees are not changed.
The Government has a wide-ranging strategy for meeting its obligations under the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. In so far as asylum seekers are concerned, a comprehensive infrastructure has been provided in the form of the office of the refugee applications commissioner and the refugee appeals tribunal to process asylum applications fairly. These offices are processing applications much more speedily than in the past. Accommodation and other support services such as health care education services and legal aid are also provided to asylum seekers. In 2002 some €340 million was spent on service provision to asylum seekers. While a figure for 2003 is not yet available, my Department alone will provide some €120 million for asylum processing, accommodation, legal aid to asylum seekers and related immigration services in 2004.
In response to specific points made in the IRC review, the Government does not intend to change the present policy on access to work by asylum seekers. As I have pointed out several times in reply to parliamentary questions, there are many reasons why the present policy of not allowing asylum seekers to take up paid employment should not be changed. It would not be possible under current legislation and would have a major negative impact on the Government's asylum strategy; be a major pull factor leading to a large increase in asylum applications; undermine the present legitimate entry process for immigration and employment; have potential implications for trafficking; have a negative impact on our ability to accommodate asylum applicants and provide them with a reasonable level of State services.
The IRC review also referred to the implications of placing asylum seekers in accommodation centres under direct provision arrangements. Great care is taken to ensure that these centres operate to the highest standard and all asylum seekers have full access to health and child education services. I am not convinced that the present legislative provision in the Refugee Act 1996 provides a suitable framework in which to move forward. Accordingly, I am considering whether an alternative framework might be available which would be capable of making a value-added contribution to asylum and refugee matters and, in particular, be of benefit to those genuinely in need of protection.
I am committed to the integration of refugees in Ireland. One of the key responsibilities of the reception and integration agency, which operates under the aegis of my Department, is to co-ordinate the implementation of integration policy for all refugees and persons who, though not refugees, are granted leave to remain in the State. The agency continuously helps refugees by providing information, support and advice and this support is particularly intensive for refugees who are being resettled in Ireland as part of a Government decision.
At a policy level, the agency has now concluded a series of intensive consultations with non-Governmental organisations and service providers working with refugees and asylum seekers. As well as hosting the integration forum referred to in the IRC's review, the agency recently concluded a conference on the strategic use of the European Refugee Fund. The agency is the responsible authority for the administration of the fund in Ireland.
The agency, which has representatives from key Departments, recently hosted five regional conferences for asylum support groups with a view to developing common agendas for action. The outcome of these meetings will underpin a range of agency initiatives addressing co-ordination by all key partners, including support groups, non-Governmental organisations and service providers. The agency also operates a small grants scheme for the activities of asylum support groups, with an annual fund of €140,000.
The national anti-racism awareness programme, which operated under the aegis of my Department, co-produced a leaflet entitled Myths and Misinformation about Asylum Seekers. Against a background of these initiatives and the agency's ongoing focus on integration, I am committed to ensuring that no underclass emerges in Irish society. The forthcoming publication of the National Action Plan Against Racism will cover a wide range of integration measures and will aim to address issues of social inclusion and cultural diversity.