I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am pleased to have this opportunity to introduce the International Protection Bill 2015. I look forward to engaging with Deputies as we progress the Bill through the various stages. I thank Members of both Houses who contributed to the pre-legislative scrutiny of the general scheme of the Bill as part of the work of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. The committee issued an interim report in July. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Chairman of the justice committee, Deputy David Stanton, for the amount of work the committee has done. Deputy Collins, who is present, is a member of that committee as well. The committee worked through the pre-legislative scrutiny and a range of hearings not only on this Bill but on many different Bills and legislation. The committee has heard submissions from many interested parties during the course of this Dáil.
The principal purpose of the International Protection Bill is to reform the system for determining applications for international protection in Ireland through the introduction of a single applications procedure. This delivers on the commitment from Government in the statement of Government priorities 2014-16 to legislate to reduce the length of time the asylum applicant spends in the asylum determination system and, consequently, in direct provision through the establishment of a single applications procedure. The Government and I have singled out this aspect of our immigration and asylum system. We have given it a special priority rather than waiting for the broader immigration Bill, which is certainly needed. It is important that this matter can be addressed with a specific and timely focus under today's Bill.
It is also intended that the Bill will be in compliance with the United Nations convention relating to the status of refugees and with the related EU directives on asylum procedures and qualifications - these are directives to which Ireland has opted in.
We are working on various aspects of the working group report. One of the key issues that arose during this work was the length of time people are in the direct provision system. We need to be in compliance, as it were, with all other EU countries - we are not at present - in terms of how we deal with asylum applications and the many layers in the system. This Bill is intended to address the problem.
The publication of the Bill and its early enactment and implementation was a key recommendation of the working group. Some people on the working group made a number of points about this Bill. However, this Bill was not intended to address all the recommendations of the working group. Action is being taken on various matters by different Departments and some decisions are still to be taken by Government. Anyway, we are dealing with a specific aspect of asylum. The Bill does not stray into other areas that have featured in commentary, such as direct provision. Those matters continue to be on the agenda of the Cabinet committee on social policy. Some decisions have already been taken and the process is under way.
To address the unacceptable lengthy delay in processing applications the Government is fast-tracking this Bill. This will end the experience of people who come to Ireland seeking protection and end up in a long-term limbo situation. We are all very concerned about that and we do not want it to continue under any circumstances.
This Bill responds to 26 of the 78 specific recommendations of the working group in the protection process. An analysis of the specific recommendations is available to Deputies. The Bill mitigates the causes of many other problems addressed in the report recommendations. For example, the Bill addresses the length of time in the process. It will ensure that a speedy grant of status, where merited, will address many of the demands of applicants delayed by a slow decision-making process.
Amendments were tabled in Seanad Éireann seeking for the right to work to be acknowledged after an applicant passes a period of nine months awaiting a decision. Under this Bill, when successfully implemented, the intention will be to deliver a decision within six months in the case of people who are granted the status of being allowed to work. The reality is that if applicants get through the process and are deemed to be refugees, then they can work. If we have an application system that is speedier and gives a decision within a shorter period than at present, effectively applicants will know their status and whether they are going to be allowed to remain in Ireland as refugees or whether they fail the test of who is deemed to be a refugee. If they are deemed to be refugees, they have all the rights that come with that determination. Clearly, if they are not, then they should not have been here in the first place - that is the reality.
We are fully committed to ensuring that the best interests of the child remain at the centre of our processing standards and law. We have demonstrated this clearly. I wish to draw the attention of Deputies to the Government amendment passed by Seanad Éireann which provides that Tusla should consider legal advice in assessing when a child in the care of the agency should become an applicant.
Through a referendum passed by the people, and with the support of the Deputies in this House, the Government has ensured that children now have full constitutional protection. I am obliged to point out that this Bill must be read in the context of the constitutional obligations set out in Article 42A.1. It should be read in the context of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, including Article 24.1. The charter holds that in all actions relating to children, whether taken by public authorities or private institutions, the child's best interests must be a primary consideration. The Charter of Fundamental Rights applies in specific circumstances pertaining to children as does the best practice we are embedding in this new process. We will continue to err on the side of caution where children are concerned.
The working group was unaware that Part 13 of this Bill brings in key reforms in the immigration area. The report had called for an overarching provision in the best interests of the child in the protection area, something all Members, including State representatives, agreed with. This Bill has evolved considerably since the recommendation was made and has a twofold remit: protection and immigration. Reform of our immigration and protection laws are intertwined in this Bill and it is not possible to disentangle them. This legal tension alone prevents any overarching provision in the best interests of the child from being included now.
I acknowledge the serious and helpful engagement of various Senators, including Senator Jillian van Turnhout, and the Children's Rights Alliance with my officials as well as their combined efforts to address this legal dilemma. I am pleased to confirm that I will table some amendments on Committee Stage prompted by the Senator, the Children's Rights Alliance and our further consideration. I am keen to assure everyone of our intent to place the best interests of the child at the heart of the protection process, something this Bill will do.
The recent refugee flows to and across our Continent and the life-threatening risks being taken highlight the fact that the asylum and protection process is one that has at its heart individual stories. These include stories of individual Syrians who are fleeing their homes that have been bombed and who are looking for protection now. It includes stories of Eritreans who face serious challenges in their home country. When we speak about Syrian refugees going across the Mediterranean, we are talking about men, women and children who, some weeks previously, had a home and a community. However, because of the conflict, they do not have those anymore and are looking for asylum, as the Irish did post-Famine on the coffin ships. They are looking for asylum and that is what we are trying to provide them with through the actions of our relocation and resettlement programme. I have a real sense of who we are dealing with under this Bill and why we are doing so.
I have come from the latest task force meeting, where I met all the representatives of the different organisations which will be providing services to the migrants and the people who are more than likely to be deemed refugees because of where they come from. The meeting was in preparation for the refugees who will be arriving here.
The timeframe is slower because many of the refugees are still going directly to Sweden and Germany. Sweden is establishing approximately 100 new classes a week for children as a result of the inflows into it at present. That illustrates the scale of the challenge. Ireland, of course, is in a different position for geographical reasons but our general asylum applications have increased by 120% this year. We have made a commitment under the relocation and resettlement programme, which will take longer than envisaged. We are fully committed to the numbers the Government agreed earlier this year.
A very real sense of who we are dealing with and why we are doing what we are doing under this Bill is conveyed by the fact that international protection can be secured by a person who is eligible for refugee protection on the basis of a well-founded fear of persecution in his or her country of origin or as a person who is eligible for subsidiary protection on the basis of a real risk of suffering serious harm if he or she is returned to his or her country of origin. Deputies know the very serious cases that lie at the heart of the refugee applications process.
The introduction of a new, fair and streamlined procedure will help to remove some of the human stresses and strains. We have all heard about them from those who have been in direct provision for a long period, in some cases for over three, five and nine years. I do not want to stand over that and I know Deputies in the House do not want to either. That is why we are moving from what I would describe as the cumbersome and multi-layered applications process and sequential application framework which has led to the situation. Everybody agrees that we should move to a more streamlined process. We are out of kilter with other European countries. They have the type of system towards which we are moving. It is really important to understand this because, under the Bill and its protected procedure, an applicant will make one application. All of the grounds for seeking international protection and permission to remain in the State will be examined in that one application and determined by means of one proper process.
In keeping with the Geneva Convention - I again stress that what we are doing is in line with EU, UN and Geneva Convention rules - under the Bill, persecution can arise by reason of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group. Acts of persecution are defined in the Bill as constituting a severe violation of human rights. The term "serious harm" is defined to include execution, torture and serious threat to a civilian's life in a situation of armed conflict. We can see all of this when we consider the situation in Syria. That is why the vast majority of people who leave Syria are deemed, almost automatically, to be refugees. The threshold is approximately 85% or 90% because the situation there is so serious.
The term "international protection" is defined as status in the State, either as a refugee or as a person eligible for subsidiary protection on the basis of a declaration given under the Bill. In broad terms, the introduction of a single application procedure will include certain benefits. Ireland's international protection system will be brought into line, as I have said repeatedly, with other EU member states. We are not doing something that is different from what other member states are doing. There will be speedier and proper processing of new applications for international protection and significantly reduced times for applicants in direct provision accommodation, which will, in turn, reduce costs to the State.
Section 6 of the Bill will make changes to current legislation, in particular the Refugee Act, which will be repealed. Originally enacted in 1996, Deputies will be aware that the latter has been heavily amended over the years and its provisions will be significantly updated by the Bill. The Bill will also give rise to the revocation of a number of the regulations made under the European Communities Acts 2006 to 2015 for the purpose of giving effect in Irish law to provisions of EU directives in the area of asylum. I am very pleased that the Bill provides the opportunity to have these legislative aspects consolidated in one item of legislation.
It is increasingly evident from discussions at national and EU level that we need to have a balanced migration policy. The reform to the protection system will ensure that Ireland effectively lives up to our international humanitarian obligations. The accompanying changes to immigration laws will ensure that Ireland is equally effective in enforcing deportations and border controls to prevent and tackle those wishing to enter and remain illegally in a country without proper cause. I do not think it is good enough that if a person's working visa has expired in another country, he or she should be able to come to Ireland and abuse the system here. Everybody is entitled to be assessed as to whether he or she is a refugee but there are international rules and procedures in place. There is a very clear system of assessment of whether someone is a refugee. That is not to say that Ireland does not recognise the scale of the humanitarian crisis. The EU recognises the scale of the crisis but the system must be ordered and we have to have mechanisms in place if we are to ensure that those entering, relocating to or being resettled in Europe have their fingerprints taken, are subject to proper security and vetting and are supported.
This is not for a moment to say that any migrants or refugees should not be supported in the best possible way. That is the idea behind the kind of initiative being put in place by the EU, with the development of hot-spots in Italy and Greece, something which was slower than expected for a range of reasons but which is now under way. From the discussions I had on Thursday and Friday last, it appears that those relocation initiatives will begin to work more effectively and efficiently. Changes are also necessary because of the situation in Sweden, where a large number of new classrooms have to be provided for migrant children every week. Sweden and Germany can no longer cope with the scale of what is happening.
The Bill contains important new amendments to the Immigration Acts. These relate to deportation and border controls and a number of them are aimed at improving the effectiveness of legislative provisions dealing with arrest and removal from the State, the appointment of immigration officers and the designation of an approved port for the purposes of entry into the State. A number of structural changes are being introduced in the Bill. There will be a new national international protection appeals tribunal and a new office of the refugee applications commissioner. Priority has been given to ensuring existing best practices and standards regarding the processing of asylum and subsidiary protection applications will be embedded and maintained under the new dispensation.
As the Bill will repeal the Refugee Act 1996, the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner and the Refugee Appeals Tribunal will be abolished. A new international protection appeals tribunal will replace the existing Refugee Appeals Tribunal, which will provide an effective remedy against decisions taken on applications, including a decision to refuse. The new tribunal will be independent in its functions and designed to enable the efficient conduct of its business and consistency in its decisions. The Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner will be replaced by a dedicated unit within my Department acting as the determining authority on the business about which I have spoken. The unit will be known as the protection office. Priority has been given to ensuring that existing best practices and standards for processing will be embedded and maintained under the new dispensation. Staff in the unit will be trained to UNHCR standards and transferred to the new protection office.
I will now turn to the architecture and provisions of the Bill. I will not go into detail on a section-by-section basis because information in this regard is provided in the explanatory memorandum to the Bill. Deputies may wish to consult the latter for information. The Bill consists of 17 sections, laid out in 13 Parts, and two Schedules.
Part 1 contains six sections dealing with such matters as commencement, interpretation, regulation, expenses and other aspects, Parts 2 to 10, inclusive, deal with new arrangements, Parts 11 and 12 deal with transition and miscellaneous matters, Part 13 deals with various amendments to immigration legislation, and Schedules 1 and 2 set out for ease of reference the text of the 1951 convention and the 1967 protocol relating to the status of refugees.
Part 2 deals with the qualifications for international protection and consists of sections 7 to 12, inclusive. These provisions are intended to be in compliance with the EU asylum qualification directive. The Bill is in absolute compliance with the EU and UN and with the Geneva Convention, and it is very important that we note this. It will bring Ireland into line with other European countries. The directive was adopted in 2004 and recast in 2011 to provide a uniform status in EU member states for refugees or for persons eligible for subsidiary protection. The Bill has been prepared to be in compliance with the 2011 recast. I have spoken about the definition of acts of persecution, and we also have the elaboration in the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. The Bill sets out the circumstances in which a person shall be excluded.
Part 3 deals with applications for international protection and comprises sections 13 to 25, inclusive. I will not go into detail on each of these sections but, for example, section 13 provides for the conducting of a preliminary interview with a person who may wish to apply for international protection in Ireland.
Section 14 provides for the Child and Family Agency to be notified of an unaccompanied person under the age of 18 years who seeks to make an application. As somebody who some years ago did a study of unaccompanied minors in this country and examined the circumstances of their lives, we have seen very positive changes in how we deal with unaccompanied minors in this country. When I did my original study, young unaccompanied minors were in hostels. They were seen to be very vulnerable to exploitation. We now have a situation where an unaccompanied minor who arrives in this country, and I am still amazed at some of the stories we hear and the vulnerability of these young people, is provided with foster care. It is a transformed situation in terms of the work Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, is doing with these children compared with how they were dealt with before. We are seeing unaccompanied children in the current refugee crisis.
Sections 15 to 17, inclusive, set out the procedure for making an application for international protection and giving permission to an applicant to remain in the State for the duration of the single procedure. Provision is made in section 18 to issue to an applicant a statement in writing specifying the procedures to be followed under the Bill. Section 19 provides for fingerprints to be taken. Section 20 provides for the grounds of the detention of an applicant under the supervision of the District Court. Sections 21 and 22 deal with matters relating to inadmissible applications and subsequent applications. Section 23 provides that the Minister or the international protection appeals tribunal may require examination of an applicant with regard to his or her physical or psychological health. Section 24 provides for an examination to determine the age of an applicant who is presenting as an unaccompanied minor. It was suggested in the Seanad that we should allow for a second opinion on this and I believe we can do this. Section 25 provides for the protection of the identity of an applicant whereby the Minister and the tribunal are obliged to take all practicable steps to ensure the identity of an applicant is kept confidential. This has been followed very effectively in this country to date.
Part 4 deals with the assessment of applications for international protection and comprises sections 26 to 32, inclusive. It ensures the applicant co-operates and provides the information necessary and deals with international protection needs based on events which have taken place since the applicant left his or her country of origin. Somebody could apply and the circumstances in the country of origin could change during the process while the person is here. We allow for this in both directions in the sense that there may be much greater stabilisation or the situation could have deteriorated.
In section 29 we have the important provision that actors of persecution or serious harm include a state, parties controlling a state or part of a state, or non-state actors where protection against persecution or serious harm is not provided. We have examples in some countries at present where 85% or 90% of people would be considered to be refugees because of the actions of the state. This is an important provision.
Section 30 provides that protection against persecution or serious harm can only be provided by a state or parties controlling a state or part of a state provided they are willing and able to offer protection which is effective and of a non-temporary nature. Section 31 deals with the concept of internal protection whereby a part of a country of origin is safe for an applicant.
Section 32 provides for a finding that the country of origin is safe in respect of an individual applicant. This is being examined at EU level in an attempt to get an agreement on what is considered a safe country of origin. This is important in considering refugee applications. Obviously every individual circumstance must be taken into account, but clearly there are countries that are considered safe from where we would not expect a refugee application. A list is being compiled at EU level of safe countries of origin. Obviously circumstances can change, and I appreciate that, but as a concept it is worth considering.
Part 5 deals with the examination of applications for international protection at first instance, and covers the various guarantees in the case of applicants who are unaccompanied minors. Part 6 deals with the international protection appeals tribunal.
Part 7 deals with the various outcomes. These provisions represent the watershed of the new applications procedure. In summary, in respect of an application for international protection which is admissible for processing in Ireland and is not subsequently withdrawn, the applicant concerned can have one of the following outcomes: refugee status, subsidiary protection status, permission to remain in the State, voluntary return to the country of origin or deportation order. These are outlined in various provisions.
Section 49 provides for return based on the refugee convention and the European Convention on Human Rights. Section 50 provides for the making of a deportation order. Section 51 goes into detail with regard to people excluded from, or who have ceased to be eligible for, international protection.
Part 8 deals with international protection aspects and consists of sections 52 to 57, inclusive. Section 52 provides for the extension to persons given a refugee declaration or a subsidiary declaration of rights to which Irish citizens are entitled, such as access to the labour market, health, social welfare and housing services. Sections 53 and 54 provide for the granting of permission to reside and travel documents.
Part 9 provides for the matters relating to programme refugees and the temporary protection of displaced persons. Section 58 provides for the admission to the State of persons for resettlement, which is usually in co-operation with the UNHCR. Deputies are aware a resettlement programme is being worked on at present, and already this year more than 100 refugees have arrived in the country under the resettlement programme.
Section 60 provides for the establishment of the international protection appeals tribunal, which will be independent in the performance of inspections.
Section 61 provides that the tribunal shall consist of a chairperson, not more than two deputy chairpersons and such number of other members as the Minister may appoint with the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. In the succeeding sections, we outline the details of the work that is to be done.
Part 13 reflects the requirement that an effective immigration and asylum system must ensure that those entitled to a positive decision receive it as soon as possible. At the same time, we must also provide effective safeguards for removing persons who are without sustainable grounds for remaining in Ireland. The amendments set out in this Part address, among other things, a number of gaps in the existing legislation in the area of deportation that have been identified in a whole range of court procedures.
I assure Deputies that the Bill will bring the sort of certainty to the applications process, particularly in terms of waiting times, that has been missing up to now and has led to many of the difficulties we have seen with the direct provision system. I reiterate that these provisions are in accordance with all of our human rights obligations and the requirements of the EU directive. The legislation will bring procedural and operational clarity to all stages of the protection process and bring us into line in that respect with other European countries. The new system will provide applicants with a final decision on their status in a straightforward and timely fashion and reduce the length of time people are spending in direct provision, which was the main criticism articulated by the working group. It will allow the identification at a much earlier stage of persons who have no entitlement to remain in the State and who may be safely returned to their country of origin. I accept there is more work to be done on a broader migration policy. This important Bill has a specific function, namely, to reform the protection process by streamlining asylum and protection provisions for the dignity of all concerned. I commend the Bill to the House.