International Protection Bill 2015 [Seanad]: Second Stage

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.

Fianna Fáil will support this Bill, which provides for the introduction of a single, unified procedure for international protection applications. This is very welcome as the sequential nature of the existing system has led to excessive delays in the processing of applications, resulting in asylum seekers spending many years awaiting a decision on their application. Nevertheless, from our contacts with a number of groups, including Nasc Ireland in Cork and the Irish Refugee Council, we know that while there was a broad welcome and support for the Bill, there is also some concern about and disappointment with some of the provisions. We intend to bring forward amendments on Committee Stage to address those concerns.

The Bill has just passed through the Seanad and the proceedings there last week were described by some Senators as shambolic. Indeed, the Leader of the House, Senator Maurice Cummins, criticised the Department of Justice and Equality in this regard and questioned why the Bill was published in the first place, given that 90 amendments were introduced by the Department. In the wake of the Seanad shambles, three non-governmental organisations that initially welcomed the Bill with reservations are now calling for it to be withdrawn. While I do not support that call, I share their disappointment that the Bill does not incorporate any of the amendments recommended by the working group on the protection process and by the Oireachtas justice committee in its interim report. The Irish Refugee Council has reservations that if the Bill is passed in its current form, there is a real possibility that it will lead to people in need of protection being refused that protection and being either returned to countries where they are at risk or engaged in lengthy and expensive challenges in court. That is the opposite of what the Bill is intended to achieve.

A key concern about this legislation relates to the welfare of children, with the argument being put forward that it does not go far enough in that regard. As the Irish Refugee Council has pointed out, the best interests of the child, as declared in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, are a paramount consideration for both accompanied and separated children seeking international protection. Ireland, as a state party to that convention, must honour commitments to promote and respect children's rights in a non-discriminatory manner, including in situations where children are seeking protection here, whether accompanied or separated. As it stands, however, the Bill mentions the best interests of the child principle in only a limited way and does not reflect the general principle that the best interests of the child should be a primary consideration in all actions concerning all children at every stage of the process. Only section 24, dealing with medical assessment to determine the age of unaccompanied minors, section 35, concerning unaccompanied minors, and sections 52 to 56, inclusive, which extend to qualified persons certain rights, such as permission to reside in the State, the right to travel documents and the right to family reunification, contain provisions setting down that the best interests of the child be a primary consideration.

It is essential to ensure the best interests of the child are a primary consideration in all aspects of the protection procedure. The current provision is contrary to Ireland's obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child as it only extends to children once they have been granted a protection status. In addition, there is only a limited reference to the best interests of the child in the context of the personal interview. Under Article 22 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Ireland is obliged to take appropriate measures to ensure a child who is seeking refugee status or who is considered a refugee shall, whether unaccompanied or accompanied by his or her parents or by any other person, receive appropriate protection and humanitarian assistance in the enjoyment of applicable rights set forth in the convention. Furthermore, the recast asylum procedures directive calls upon states, in assessing the best interests of the child, to take particular account of the "minor's well-being and social development, including his or her background".

We are proposing that the Bill include a definition of unaccompanied minor and separated child. This is crucial to ensure early identification of those children separated from their parents or caregivers, including those who are in the company of smugglers or traffickers. While section 14 goes some way to defining an unaccompanied minor, there is a lack of clarity on how a determination is made as to whether someone is "taking responsibility for the care and protection" of the child concerned. This is particularly concerning in the context of situations where a child is being trafficked. We are proposing to bring the Bill more in line with the Separated Children in Europe Programme, SCEP, and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, definition of separated children. Section 15 of the Bill precludes an accompanied child or a child born in Ireland from making an application for asylum independently of the accompanying adult. By amending section 15 to clearly articulate that right, it will remove any potential conflict with section 7(2)(f), which makes explicit reference to acts of persecution of a child-specific nature.

In its observations on these provisions, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission recommended that the best interests of the child should be a primary consideration in respect of all aspects of the Bill, not just in the limited context of children who have been granted refugee status or subsidiary protection status. The commission proposes that a general provision be inserted to the effect that in all decisions relating to children under the operation of the Bill, the best interests of the child be a primary consideration. This recommendation was also reflected in the interim report of the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality and in the report of the working group on the protection process.

Concerns have also been expressed that the family reunification provisions in the Bill are not in line with the existing rights of persons granted international protection in Ireland.

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission points out that the definition of a "member of family" who may enter and reside in the State in section 55 is narrow and it notably excludes dependants. The commission recommends that consideration be given to the range of family relationships to which Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights can apply in the context of this legislative proposal.

Section 55(5) permits the Minister to provide a time limit by which a family member granted family reunification must have entered the State. There is concern that the introduction of any such restrictions may not take into consideration any exceptional measures or obligations which may arise which may prevent travel. It is also worth noting that the cost of travel is usually borne entirely by the sponsor and can represent a very significant cost, particularly for those with large families. In the experience of many groups working in this area, it is common for delays to occur in family members travelling to Ireland. These may include delays in obtaining entry visas to Ireland or exit visas from the home country; difficulties in obtaining travel documents; raising the cost of travel, particularly for large families; and making arrangements for the care of any family members who may not be eligible to travel. There is concern that in some circumstances the safety of the family may be jeopardised if they are required to travel when it may not be safe to do so.

As they stand, sections 55(6) and 56(5) do not provide for any exemptions on the loss of the right to reside in the State for family members of refugees. There is concern that this may disproportionately impact on spouses or civil partners who experience domestic abuse. The experience of domestic violence organisations is that victims of domestic abuse often remain in abusive and-or dangerous relationships as they believe it may otherwise compromise their immigration status. Those who have experience in assisting family members of refugees to resolve their immigration status in the event of the death of the sponsoring refugee believe that at a time of great personal grief and hardship for the families concerned, it is important that they be able to retain their status in the State.

Section 55(8) limits the right to family reunification to the 12-month period after the sponsor has been recognised as a person in need of international protection. Current legislation does not contain this restriction. This time period should be removed as it will severely impact the most vulnerable family members who may have become separated in fleeing conflicts or who may have been imprisoned. For example, Nasc in Cork has represented a number of sponsors who have only successfully found family members years after they have been granted status. Under the proposed legislation, they would have lost their right to family reunification.

While the extension of family reunification rights to civil partners of refugees is welcome, there is concern that LGBT refugees will remain unable to realise their rights to family reunification with same-sex spouses or partners. Section 55 provides that the relationship must have been subsisting at the time of the sponsor's application for protection in Ireland, but same-sex marriages or civil partnerships are generally illegal in the top refugee-producing countries. In the majority of such countries, same-sex sexual activity is illegal. It is quite possible that a sponsor's application for international protection may have been based on the risk of persecution because of his or her sexual orientation and it would be unrealistic in these circumstances to expect couples to have married or obtained a civil partnership prior to the sponsor fleeing their country of origin.

Section 55 does not provide any means for a refugee or person eligible for subsidiary protection to apply for family reunification with other dependent family members including parents, wards, grandchildren and adult children. As outlined by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, refugee families “rarely fit neatly into preconceived notions of a nuclear family (husband, wife and minor children)... A broad definition of a family unit – what may be termed an extended family – is necessary to accommodate the peculiarities in any given refugee situation.” The Refugee Act 1996 includes the possibility for refugees to apply for dependent family members, meaning "any grandparent, parent, brother, sister, child, grandchild, ward or guardian of the refugee who is dependent on the refugee or is suffering from a mental or physical disability to such extent that it is not reasonable for him or her to maintain himself or herself fully". No similar provision is included in the Bill, so there is great concern that these provisions are inadequate and will particularly affect very vulnerable family members, including adults with disabilities and orphaned wards who have become part of the sponsor's family unit.

The Bill also does not provide for a right of appeal on a negative family reunification decision. If the sponsor wishes to challenge a decision, the only legal remedy open to him or her is judicial review proceedings. There is a strong case that judicial review is not an adequate remedy as it is not an appeal on the facts of the case and is an inefficient and costly mechanism.

Section 16(3)(b) places an outright ban on the protection applicants seeking, entering or being in employment. Ireland is now the only country in the EU, bar Lithuania, that has a blanket ban on protection applicants entering the workplace. The impact this has on the lives of protection applicants is well documented. Importantly, the working group on the protection process and direct provision recommended that protection applicants be granted the right to work if a decision on their application was not received within a nine-month period. There is great concern that, despite this, the prohibition on the right to work is restated in the current draft Bill.

The Irish Refugee Council is concerned that there are no provisions in the Bill for the training, qualification and skills of personnel engaged in the protection procedure. Although section 62 empowers the chairperson of the tribunal to convene training programmes, there is no equivalent provision for training requirements for personnel involved in the examination of international protection claims at first instance. Limited reference is made to the specific knowledge of authorised officers examining unaccompanied children but no substantive provision is included in the Bill for the comprehensive qualifications and training of personnel involved in all aspects of the protection procedure. It is essential that authorised officers, border officials, the Garda Síochána and other personnel who come into contact with persons seeking international protection have the necessary competencies, skills, knowledge, attitude and training for their respective roles.

The Irish Refugee Council is concerned that children under the age of 14 are subjected to having biometric data taken from them without their own informed consent in accordance with their age and maturity. It should also be noted that the recast Eurodac Regulation (EU) No. 603/2013 only allows for the fingerprinting of children who are 14 years or older, so the new proposal in the Bill to take the fingerprints of younger children is disproportionate to the aim to be achieved and potentially infringes their right to privacy and data protection under the European Convention on Human Rights and the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

While the Fianna Fáil Party will support this Bill and the introduction of a single or unified procedure to replace the current system, we strongly urge the Minister to take on board the concerns expressed about the Bill.

This Bill promised to ensure asylum seekers were treated with respect and humanity within a framework of more efficient immigration procedures and safeguards. While Sinn Féin welcomes these attempts, the Bill fails to achieve those aims. It fails to embed the principle of the best interests of the child and the attendant weaknesses which will potentially expose children to harm.

It fails to prevent the risk that wrong decisions will be made without adequate checks and balances and a right of redress. It fails in respecting the rights of refugees to obtain family reunification, vital if refugees are to be able to re-establish themselves in Ireland and settle in to their new communities. Sinn Féin submitted 45 amendments to the Bill in the Seanad in order to address these issues among many others, but the speed with which the Bill is being pushed through the Oireachtas does not inspire any confidence that the Government is taking the rights of the most vulnerable people seriously.

This Bill introduces a single procedure for applicants seeking international protection, but it is a single procedure that will lead to the most vulnerable failing to obtain the protections they need. Like the leading NGOs which work directly with those seeking international protection, Sinn Féin cannot support the passage of this legislation as it now stands.

There is an obsession by those who propose this legislation and are rushing it through these Houses that the introduction of a single procedure is inherently good. They have repeated it ad infinitum. However, a single procedure is only good if it is based on solid grounds that reflect international norms and the laws that are based on those norms. This Bill introduces a single procedure but it is a single procedure that can be used by the Minister for Justice and Equality to deport those most vulnerable who are in need of protection more quickly.

When asked why he wished to pass this legislation so speedily through these Houses, the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, stated that he felt fearful. The Minister of State feared that the next Government would not deal with the pressing issue of introducing an efficient procedure for those applicants seeking international protection. That fear is understandable; however, such fear leads to rushed decisions that may do more harm than good. While the Minister of State may repeat that the legislation is based on law that currently reflects protection principles, such as the best interests of the child principle, he must be aware that where legislation is not clear and does not provide certainty, it will end up being open to abuse where counsel does not bring it to the appropriate forum and where the adjudicator is unaware of its existence.

Legislation is neither effective nor efficient when it does not clarify the law and where it may lead to legal uncertainty. That is what this legislation does. Its success rests on the belief that applicants will spend a maximum of six months before their application is accepted or rejected at first instance, and yet no such timeframe is present in law.

Sinn Féin also submitted a reasonable amendment to the Bill in the Seanad that would allow personal circumstances to be taken into account in regard to reporting requirements. The Minister stated that this is, in fact, what happens in practice so there is no need to codify it in this Bill. That is astoundingly naïve. There is no valid reason that the amendment could not have been accepted by the Government. It would allow pregnant applicants to attend hospital appointments, certain in the knowledge that reporting requirements would be relaxed. It would allow children in school to freely attend sporting and educational competitions away from home without fear that such reporting requirements may prevent them doing so. That minor amendment would reduce fear in vulnerable persons seeking protection and, indeed, state what the Minister states takes place in practice. Rejection of it ensures that legal uncertainty remains for the most vulnerable of international protection applicants.

I will turn to the claim made in the Seanad on Monday last that most of civil society and the NGOs backed this legislation. Either this was intentionally misleading or, more likely, the Seanadóir concerned had not listened to what the NGOs were actually saying on the published Bill. Either way, it does not inspire confidence in how well-thought out the legislation is.

The NGOs to which the Seanadóir referred stated quite clearly that they want this legislation withdrawn. I will restate that position here so that we are all clear as to the position of Doras Luimní, the Irish Refugee Council, Migrant Rights Centre Ireland and Nasc. Those parties, which are experts in this area and have the best interests of those seeking international protection, want this legislation withdrawn. Ms Sue Conlan, CEO of the Irish Refugee Council, stated:

A single procedure will not cure the problems in the Irish asylum system unless there are proper safeguards in place which protect asylum seekers from cursory examination of their applications and a swift move towards deportation. The outcome of passage of the Bill, as it stands, will lead to people being at risk of being returned to persecution or serious harm and refugees separated from family members. This will be at the time of the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War.

Ms Fiona Finn, CEO of Nasc and a member of the Government's working group on the protection process which reported at the end of June, stated:

The Minister claims that the Bill implements the key recommendations of the Working Group, this is simply not true. With the exception of the single procedure, the Minister has cherry picked a handful of the more conservative recommendations and ignored any positive recommendations, such as the right to work, early identification of vulnerable applicants, and the application of the Best Interests of Child principle for all asylum seeking children. In addition, the Bill erodes rights to family reunification and brings in harsher detention measures. The single procedure is necessary to improve the protection system, but not at this cost.

Ms Leonie Kerins, director of Doras Luimní, stated:

We are extremely concerned with the speed at which the Bill has been progressed. We see this as a deliberate attempt to prevent proper debate on the more alarming areas of the legislation. This legislation is an opportunity to address the failures of the current system and to bring Ireland in line with international practice and the Common European Asylum System in particular.

The Government, in particular the Labour Party, should account for the blatant disregard with which it is treating the democratic structures of this State.

It claims that, "Labour has changed Ireland for the better, and has made our country a more modern, equal and progressive place for everybody". Such hypocrisy. It is an insult to introduce this Bill on Human Rights Day. Is modernity reflected in the intrusive medical examinations on children in the absence of their consent that are facilitated in this Bill? Is equality reflected in the fact that victims of domestic violence are equally fearful of reporting violence inflicted by their partner in case it removes them from basic legal protections and opens up the appalling possibility of deportation? With regard to progressivity, this Bill reflects that persons seeking protection are seeing a progressive removal of minimum humane standards of international law.

In the Statement of Government Priorities 2014-2016, the Government committed to treating asylum seekers with the humanity and respect they deserve. The speed with which this Bill is being subjected to scrutiny puts shame to that claim. It is a shame that these Houses will not be afforded the length of time needed to rectify these oversights or incorporate the expert opinions available to make a difference to individual asylum seekers.

Sinn Féin stands in solidarity with the weakest in our society. Sinn Féin concurs with the opinions expressed by the experts and the Irish Refugee Council, Nasc, Migrant Rights Centre Ireland and Spirasi. I commend these organisations in their work and recognise their input into this debate. They are part of the wider democratic process and it is a pity the submissions they made on this Bill were not used to strengthen the democratic legitimacy of our legislative process.

As I stated recently on the Garda Síochána (Policing Authority and Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2015, I believe that, historically, the Department of Justice and Equality has been a conservative Department that has been resistant to progressing change and that this issue of the need for the State to tackle the issue of direct provision centres for asylum seekers has been significantly curtailed. The issues those who hold right-wing views on asylum seekers and related matters would want addressed are speedy decision-making and deportation but those who are progressive in this State would want a supportive reaction for asylum seekers to reflect our history.

What is the history of our State? What is the history of this island? Ireland is the only country in the world that has a population lower than it was in the early 1800s.

It is due to mass emigration in the past couple of hundred years, not just during the period of the Great Famine in the mid-1800s but throughout our history up to recent times. In recent years, 500,000 residents and citizens of the State emigrated from counties such as mine and others throughout the west of Ireland to Canada, Australia and, in lesser numbers than before, Britain and America.

A famous book written in the 1980s revealed that in the 65 years following the creation of the State, half of those who survived childhood emigrated. Our history is one of mass emigration, not as asylum seekers but as economic migrants. We have heard many speeches from Deputies on all sides, and rightly so, about the undocumented Irish and the need for us to give them the right to come home for occasions such as weddings and funerals if they wish, and then return to the US to work. However, our response to people in fear of their lives coming here from countries that have been devastated by wars, dictatorships and oppressive regimes, many of which were created or supported by the interventions of the West, has not been humane and respectful but shameful.

In my capacity as Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions, I examined, along with colleagues, the direct provision system over a period of months. We visited the centres and met dozens of asylum seekers. Our report, which was endorsed by all parties, is very clear that the system is unfit for purpose and must be brought to an end. We cannot have adults and children languishing in receipt of €19 per week and €9 per week, respectively. We cannot have 4,500 applicants, of whom half are children, in the centres. Children grow up for years without being taught to cook and the basic things that happen in families are denied to them. The system is a betrayal of the otherwise decent approach of our people.

A number of years ago, Ireland made the highest per capita contribution to overseas development aid in the world. We have a proud legacy of overseas aid. Irish citizens' per capita contributions to charity organisations that work overseas is probably among the highest in the world. Irish people have a decent approach in their financial contributions, through their Government or personally, to overseas development aid in the very countries from which asylum seekers are coming. Yet our system has abandoned asylum seekers to direct provision for the past 15 years. There has been no legislation, or legislation has not been used, to address the issue. When we saw the images of the drowned child on the beach, we all said we needed to do something about it, to up our game, to step up to the plate and to honour our legacy.

The legislation is a major disappointment. The Minister should not take my word for it, given that I am far from the most important contributor on the issue. She should take the word of the NGOs that work with refugees. Those who work for the organisations in question are intelligent, thoughtful people who know our obligations under international law. They are very clear that the Bill should be withdrawn. Withdraw the Bill. The remaining Stages are scheduled to be taken next week. The Minister should take the opportunity to withdraw the Bill, take time out, return in the new year and make it a Bill worthy of the name. When she does that, she will be met with a response in kind, not just from me but from other members of the Opposition who are saying it is not good enough and that it is not the response that was demanded by the Irish people after we saw the images on the beach. I ask the Minister and her Department to reflect on what we are saying, to withdraw the Bill and bring forward a Bill worthy of the name.

I call Deputy Clare Daly. She is welcome back, as is Deputy Mick Wallace.

I thank the Acting Chairman very much. I am very happy to be here. It is a tragedy that the Taoiseach did not call an election in November. With every passing day, the Government is becoming an even bigger joke - ramming legislation through to give the illusion that it is dealing with issues and, in so doing, probably leaving behind a legacy of disaster. It is reprehensible not only that the Bill does not end direct provision and deal with the continuing human rights violations but also that it facilitates a process of keeping people in direct provision and speeding up the deportation at the end of it.

The fact that so many organisations that gave their time to the process are objecting to it should be a wake-up call. The Government's own watchdog, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, is saying the Bill should not be passed without amendments dealing with the crucial issues relating to the rights of the child. The key organisations at the coalface are saying the Bill should be withdrawn. The Minister convened a working group to engage stakeholders in pre-legislative scrutiny on the Bill but has ignored all its recommendations. The recommendations were fully costed and agreed by consensus over eight months of deliberations with members of all relevant Departments, NGOs, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, and experts in the field of asylum and refugee law. I do not understand why those recommendations have been ignored.

There is much more to direct provision than the speed at which applications are processed. The conditions in direct provision facilities have been roundly condemned by many of those who have been forced to live in them. We do not know the full cost to the taxpayer. When people asked the Minister what it cost, she was not able to tell the House due to fear of competitive scrutiny and because it was not in the public interest. The public will be very interested to know that many of the private companies which run direct provision centres are making a very nice, tidy profit from them. A company that owns a centre so awful the refugees called it "Guantanamo Bay" made €2.5 million in operating profit in 2014. As previous speakers stated, the Government rejected a range of amendments in the Seanad which would have improved the Bill. Presumably, the Minister will do the same in this House. This alone is a reason the Bill should go no further.

The Bill relates to people whose lives have been devastated in their own countries, who have given testimonies such as the following:

I left Rwanda 20 years ago. I was a refugee in the Congo. I was not in a wheelchair in the Congo, I was shot and tortured there and became paralysed.

Another testimony is as follows:

In the last incident that led me to leave Zimbabwe and come here, we were taken to a farm. We were tortured to the extent that I was unconscious. I have scars and bruises all over my body. We were beaten [...] I left for my own safety.

The conditions these people are living in are absolutely disgraceful. One of the key reasons people seek asylum is war and we are complicit in the creation of such situations by continuing to allow the US military to use Shannon Airport. Some 33 million refugees have been displaced by war. The two issues are linked.

Debate adjourned.