I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I too share his concerns for the Afghan people and the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. I think we all share those concerns.
In response, Ireland has acted swiftly and compassionately to demonstrate our support. While we can all be concerned, we need to show actual support and solidarity with the Afghan people. My Department continues to work closely with colleagues in the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth to ensure that a co-ordinated national response ensues.
As the Deputy will be aware, the Government has approved my Department's proposal for an additional initiative, that is, a specific Afghan admission programme, which will provide places for up to 500 Afghan family members to travel to Ireland. Each applicant will have an opportunity to nominate up to four family members who are currently residing in Afghanistan or who have fled to neighbouring territories and whose freedom or safety the applicant considers to be especially at risk. The programme, including the detailed eligibility criteria and the application process, is not open yet. My Department is finalising that process with a view to opening it for applications in the coming weeks. I appreciate the urgency with which we need to do this. Our objective is to ensure that the options considered are as inclusive as possible and that the programme is available to those who require our help the most. The clearer the application process is made at the outset, the quicker my Department will be able to process applications, which will be in the best interests of everyone concerned.
The creation of this programme, I stress, is unique to date in the EU and was welcomed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, as a very welcome commitment on the part of Ireland that will bring much-needed solace to Afghans here who are worried about their relatives abroad. I know that many are extremely worried.
In the meantime, I assure the Deputy that all current immigration avenues remain open to new applications. These include visa and family reunification applications. More than 750 Afghan nationals have been granted permission to reside in the State so far this year alone. There are, therefore, other avenues available, but I appreciate the urgency with which this scheme is required. We will set out the terms as quickly as possible and open it up to people as soon as possible.