As the Deputy will be aware, Ireland, like other countries, is obliged by EU and international law to examine the claim of any person who comes here and claims international protection under defined grounds. These grounds relate to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, nationality, religion, political opinions or membership of a particular social group or where the person would be at risk of suffering serious harm if returned to their home country.
Once a claim is made, a legal process begins and while that process is in train, we offer a range of State services to applicants without means, including accommodation, food, health services, utilities, educational provision for children, a weekly personal payment, etc. There is no obligation to accept this offer and some applicants choose to live with family or friends already in the country or to source and provide for their own accommodation if they have independent means.
The International Protection Office (IPO) of my Department is responsible for examining all applications received. The staff of the IPO (the Chief International Protection Officer and the International Protection Officers) are independent by law in the exercise of their international protection functions. There are currently 146 staff employed in the IPO. There are also a further 50 staff employed in the International Protection Appeals Tribunal, which is responsible for hearing appeals against negative first instance recommendations/decisions.
In recent years, a number of measures have been introduced aimed at reducing the time taken to determine applications. The most significant reforming measure has been the introduction of a single application procedure under the International Protection Act 2015. Under the single procedure, all elements of a person's protection claim (refugee status, subsidiary protection status and permission to remain) are considered together rather than sequentially as heretofore.
A person who applies for international protection today can expect to receive a first instance recommendation/decision on their application within approximately 15 months, provided no complications arise. Prioritised cases are currently being processed in just under 9 months. Prioritised applications include those from especially vulnerable groups of applicants, such as unaccompanied minors and applicants from refugee generating countries like Syria and Eritrea. The IPO is working hard to try to achieve a target of 9 months in the vast majority of cases while acknowledging that the processing of applications is complex and that each application deserves and receives an individual assessment.
Last month, the IPO commenced interviews by video conference with applicants based in Cork. This provides greater flexibility to meet the needs of international protection applicants nationwide and it is planned to roll out this service in other locations shortly. In addition, I sought and achieved an additional €1m in Budget 2020 under the Justice and Equality vote, which will allow for extra staffing resources to further improve processing times.
Speeding up the processing of applications has also had a positive impact on the length of time that applicants are spending in accommodation centres. At the end of October, the mean length of stay in an accommodation centre was 21.75 months, down from 38 months in 2015.
Where an applicant has been resident in a centre for many years, there are generally complex reasons involved. For example, the person may have received a negative decision on their application and is exercising their right to appeal including through the courts, which can take some time. Some of those who are longest resident in our centres have already received a status or a permission to remain and are no longer in the international protection process. There are currently around 860 people with status or permission to remain living in the centres. The Deputy will be aware of the general difficulties faced by people trying to source and secure accommodation. With the support of organisations such as DePaul Ireland, the Jesuit Refugee Service and the Peter McVerry Trust, and colleagues from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and the City and County Managers’ Association, my Department is assisting these people to transition to mainstream housing.