The Deputy has highlighted a broad number of issues which are relevant to ongoing debate in relation to immigration in Ireland and the range of issues covered is quite broad. Civil society, and not just Government, has a role to play in responding to the issues thrown up by migration. These issues, in so far as responsibility falls to Government, span a number of Departments but I will focus here on the ones which are relevant to my Department.
The Deputy will be aware that there are several categories of immigrants to the State such as EEA-Swiss nationals, non-EEA-Swiss nationals with employment permits, work visas or work authorisations, students, refugees and asylum seekers. My Department has specific responsibilities in regard to asylum seekers and refugees, who constitute only part of the immigrant population. Migrant workers make up the greater portion of the immigrant population and they have played and continue to play an important role in contributing to sustained economic growth in Ireland.
The Reception and Integration Agency, which was established in 2001 under the aegis of my Department, is responsible for the co-ordination and implementation of integration policy in the case of persons with refugee status or with leave to remain in Ireland.
Integration measures for the agency's clients are underpinned by the following general policy objectives: to ensure the upholding of the rights of all newcomers regardless of ethnic and cultural background; to create opportunities to enable newcomers to effectively participate in the economic, social and cultural aspects of Irish society and by so doing exercise their rights and discharge their responsibilities; to promote the development of a tolerant, inclusive society in which both newcomers and host society, irrespective of background, can, over time, share and develop a sense of being Irish while respecting the cultures and practices inherent in the emergence of our new multi-cultural society and to encourage and assist the host population to understand and value the economic and social contribution of newcomers.
On the broader EU dimension, the Reception and Integration Agency is represented on the EU Immigration and Asylum Committee's National Contact Points on Integration. This group, which meets on a regular basis, was established in 2003 to exchange information and good practices in the area of integration at the European level. The group's first annual report on migration and integration in Europe is expected to be presented to the European Council in June 2004.
It is worth mentioning, that with regard to specific EU initiatives, the Reception and Integration Agency is the responsible authority in Ireland for the administration of the European Refugee Fund. The fund began operating on 1 January 2000 and will continue until 31 December 2004. The selection of suitable projects is carried out by a committee, especially appointed each year by the Reception and Integration Agency and comprises representatives from both Government and NGO sectors with experience in the fields of reception, integration and repatriation. Fifty projects in Ireland were being funded in the period 2000 to 2003 under the European Refugee Fund.
Furthermore, the Reception and Integration Agency is currently working in partnership with the Ministry of Labour in Finland on the MORE project which is targeted to develop, in trans-national co-operation, comprehensive resettlement models which can be utilised in European Union member states. There is a clear need to create models which would link together all resettlement related measures from interviews and decisions made in the first country of asylum to the local level reception and integration measures. The MORE project aims to address this need. Co-operating organisations in the project are the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, International Organisation for Migration and the European Commission for Refugees and Exiles. The project is of 18 months duration and it is co-funded by the EU Commission under the European Refugee Fund.
As the Deputy will be aware, ‘KNOW Racism', the national anti-racism awareness programme, was launched by the Taoiseach in October 2001. A core budget of €5.7 million was allocated by Government to the programme over a three-year period. The programme was implemented by a high level steering group in partnership with the equal status division of my Department. As an indication of the partnership approach which was taken to this issue, the framework for the awareness programme was drawn up by the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism, NCCRI, following a three-month consultation process with key statutory and non-statutory organisations. The programme has stimulated and supported initiatives on an ongoing basis in partnership with key organisations at national level as well as at local level. A number of events, such as International Day Against Racism on 21 March and the Anti-Racist Workplace Week in the first week in November, are now firmly established as a result. The programme touched many aspects of Irish life and it has paved the way for the national action plan against racism.
The involvement of local communities was an important component of the KNOW Racism programme and for example, in the last grant scheme administered by KNOW Racism, a total of €322,000 was allocated, in July 2003, to 87 successful applicants in 21 counties. This was the fourth phase of grants disbursed under the programme. In total, over the past three years a total of €1.29 million was allocated to 450 successful projects in 26 counties. The grants were awarded to community groups and organisations for the development of local anti-racism initiatives or projects. The aim was to support actions which stimulated public awareness of racism, helped create the conditions that make it more difficult for racism to exist and promoted an inclusive approach to minority groups.
As the Deputy may also be aware, my Department is in the process of finalising Ireland's first ever national action plan against racism. The consultation process for the plan took place between March 2002 and February 2003 and was overseen by a steering group, with representation from both Government and non-government organisations. In July 2003, I published Diverse Voices, A Summary of the Outcomes of the Consultative Process and a Proposed Framework for the National Action Plan Against Racism, which is available on my Department's website. This document outlines the five main objectives which the framework for the plan will be built around. Briefly, these objectives are protection from racism, inclusion in the socio-economic sense, equality of access to the provision of services, participation of minorities in Irish society and decision making and recognition and building respect of cultural diversity and promoting interaction and understanding.
The plan is nearing completion and we are in the process of taking on board observations which we have received from other Departments of State. When this process is completed I will bring the plan to Government.
In regard to the forthcoming local elections which will be held on 11 June, as the Deputy is well aware, it is not necessary to be an Irish citizen to vote in the elections or to stand for election. To promote the theme of participation, the NCCRI, in partnership with Integrating Ireland, ran a campaign towards the end of last year to inform members of minority ethnic groups, particularly refugees and asylum seekers, of their voting rights and to encourage them to use their franchise. Furthermore, a key tool in ensuring that the elections are kept free from racism is the anti-racism protocol for political parties, developed by NCCRI and signed up to by all political parties represented in the Oireachtas. NCCRI intends to re-launch the protocol as part of its 21 March public awareness programme.