I call on the Chairman of the joint committee to move the motion. He has 15 minutes in which to make his contribution.
Report of Joint Committee on Justice and Equality on Immigration, Asylum and the Refugee Crisis: Motion
That Dáil Éireann shall consider the Report of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality entitled Report on Immigration, Asylum and the Refugee Crisis, copies of which were laid before Dáil Éireann on 29th June, 2017.
Gabhaim buíochas le gach duine atá i láthair inniu chun an tuairisc thábhachtach seo a phlé. I thank the Members in the Chamber for their attendance to discuss the report of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality on immigration, asylum and the refugee crisis. I extend a warm welcome to all our guests in the Visitors Gallery. They include representatives from the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland, Nasc in Cork, the Syrian community in Ireland and communities with other global places of origin. I welcome also those friends from the undocumented in our midst.
As I state in my preface to the report, Europe has in recent times been confronted with its most serious refugee crisis since the Second World War. The ongoing tragic conflict in Syria, in particular, has put enormous pressure on the asylum systems of the frontline member states which, in turn, has had repercussions for Ireland. Owing to this urgent and large-scale refugee crisis, the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality identified the issue as a priority in its 2016-17 work programme. Between October and December 2016, the committee held a number of engagements on the matter, including meetings with the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland and Nasc, the Irish Immigrant Support Centre, to gain an insight into what supports were needed for immigrants and asylum seekers in Ireland. We also met Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, Tánaiste and former Minister for Justice and Equality, and Deputy David Stanton, Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality. I thank Deputy Stanton for his attendance this evening. In the course of the evidence presented to the committee, members heard of the extent to which asylum seekers face difficulties in Ireland in seeking family reunification and living in direct provision. The committee also heard of the difficulties faced by unaccompanied minors.
There are also issues with undocumented immigrants in Ireland. The report recommends bringing these individuals out of the shadows to allow them to regularise their situations and contribute to Irish society in a meaningful way. If we, as a people, genuinely want to assist our Irish undocumented in the United States of America and elsewhere, the thing to do is the right thing: that is to extend the same accommodation, welcome and opportunity to the undocumented in our midst that we want for our own displaced kith and kin on other shores. The report also recommends putting in place the resources and processes needed to ensure that people spend no longer than is absolutely necessary in direct provision. It should only ever be a short-term measure. The committee believes that the denial of the right to seek paid employment is a serious infringement of an individual applicant's human rights. As such, I welcome the recent Supreme Court judgment on this issue.
The Government has responded to the humanitarian concerns of the Irish people, in particular as regards the ongoing Syrian crisis, by offering 4,000 places to those in need of international protection under the resettlement and relocation elements of the Irish refugee protection programme. In late 2016, the Government announced that it would increase Ireland's commitment under the resettlement programme to admit an additional 520 refugees in 2017. The committee welcomes the fact that Ireland voluntarily opted to participate in the EU's emergency response by offering over 4,000 places to those in need of international protection under resettlement and relocation programmes. Given the scale of the refugee crisis facing Europe, however, the report recommends that Ireland significantly increase its intake of asylum seekers. We must step up our game by one or even two gears. This will require greater funding and resources for Tusla and other relevant agencies. It is imperative that Ireland does its utmost to assist asylum seekers and refugees fleeing regions of conflict around the world. Likewise, I call on our fellow EU member states to facilitate the safe arrival on European soil of such migrants. I note that at the high level debate of the General Assembly of the United Nations last week, Mr. Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, underscored the need for the UN to rise to the challenge of addressing many global challenges, including the migration crisis. I encourage the Government to do the same.
It is important to highlight the positive contributions of undocumented migrants and to stress the importance of bringing these people in from the shadows by allowing them to regularise their status in Ireland. Mr. Pablo Rojas Coppari of the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland outlined to the committee the main findings of the centre's research paper, Ireland is Home 2016, which was prepared with the assistance of 1,008 undocumented migrants. According to the report, 84% of undocumented persons have been living in Ireland for five years or longer. Of these, 49% have been here for more than eight years and 21% have been here for more than ten years. The report also sets out that 89% of undocumented people are working, with 66% having held their current jobs for more than two years and 31% having held their current jobs for more than five years. Of respondents to the report, 69% are in full-time employment.
The top sectors in which people were employed were, not surprisingly, food and accommodation, domestic and care work, and cleaning and maintenance. These statistics demonstrate the admirable character of the undocumented. It would benefit everybody in the country to have them formally brought in from the cold and for many of them to reach their true potential as members of our collective workforce.
The report makes five key recommendations. On the undocumented, the committee calls on the Minister for Justice and Equality to introduce a time-bound scheme with transparent criteria to regularise the position of undocumented migrants. Such a scheme would give undocumented migrants a window of opportunity to come forward, pay a fee and regularise their situation. Given the urgency of addressing this situation, the scheme should be introduced, initially at least, on an administrative basis rather than through legislation. Applications should be administered on a case-by-case basis.
There are many potential benefits to such a scheme, allowing individuals, many of whom are already in employment and have a long-term connection to the State, to regularise their situation, pay taxes, and make a positive contribution to society, generally at a time when the country is returning to steady growth in employment opportunities and net immigration.
On family reunification, the committee wishes to see a more humanitarian approach adopted towards the plight of Syrian and other refugees who are naturalised Irish citizens but who have immediate or extended family members who are displaced or living in great danger in conflict zones. It calls on the Government to introduce a humanitarian admission programme with transparent and clearly defined criteria to deal with visa applications in a more sensitive way to offer a safe and legal route for people to flee conflict zones and be reunited with family members in Ireland. Such a programme could work in tandem with efforts to fulfil existing Government commitments under resettlement and relocation schemes. As Chairman, it is my clear understanding that it was the committee’s intention to recommend that this facilitation be extended to all who are legally resident in this State, not just those who are naturalised. I undertake to clarify this with the relevant Ministers in writing over the coming days.
On the relocation programme, while the committee welcomes the Government’s commitment to relocate 4,000 people here as part of the EU’s emergency response, it does not believe this is adequate in light of the scale of the current humanitarian crisis. Without putting an exact figure on it, the committee believes there is scope to increase this figure significantly. It believes Ireland should be proactive in making itself known as a potential location to refugees in Greece and elsewhere. Tusla and other relevant agencies should be given the funding and resources necessary to accommodate people quickly and fulfil Ireland’s commitments under the relocation programme.
On unaccompanied minors, notwithstanding the all-party motion passed in the Dáil in November 2016, committing Ireland to take 200 children from the former Calais migrant camp, the committee is strongly of the view that much more needs to be done for the specific cohort of unaccompanied minors in the broader context of the refugee protection programme. It was alarmed to hear evidence that, as of October 2016, one unaccompanied minor had been transferred from Greece. It is not just the responsibility of the Department of Justice and Equality but of a compendium of Departments and the Government to ensure Tusla is properly resourced to carry out its functions in this regard. It is imperative that this is done across the board. In the current crisis of so many thousands displaced, specifically unaccompanied children, it must be properly provisioned and resourced to accommodate the commitment we have made.
The committee is of the view that Ireland’s system of direct provision should only ever be a short-term measure. It is unacceptable for individuals to be living in the system on a long-term basis. Evidence was heard that almost 37% of people were in direct provision for more than two years. While recognising that the introduction of a new single-application procedure should help, this must be accompanied by the investment of greater resources to ensure that asylum applications are processed more quickly and efficiently. The committee is also of the view that the denial of the right to seek paid employment is a serious infringement of an individual applicant’s human rights.
I encourage all Members of the Dáil and Seanad to read this report. What progress has been made regarding our recommendations? What steps have been taken and what steps does the Minister of State now intend taking? Will he and the Government act on all the recommendations of our all-party and non-party committee? If not, why not? We want to know where our report and our recommendations stand. We are determined to continue to pursue these in the time ahead. Our visitors here this evening in the Public Gallery are equally interested in what the Minister of State will now tell us.
Go raibh maith agaibh as bhur n-aird.
I thank Deputy Ó Caoláin for his presentation and I am pleased to discuss this important report. When I chaired the committee myself, we issued a similar report. I thank the members of the committee for their careful consideration of these matters, which are critical in ensuring we respond in the most positive way to the challenges of the migration crisis.
We are a welcoming and inclusive nation. We stand in solidarity with those who are most vulnerable and in genuine need of our protection. At the same time, we must balance those needs with the responsibility of ensuring that we have the appropriate safeguards in place to protect the integrity of our immigration and international protection systems. The committee has made an important contribution to the debate on immigration generally and on international protection. I welcome that contribution as part of the ongoing policy formulation process. Departmental officials and I have carefully examined the report and my contribution will address the committee’s recommendations.
The report endorses a proposal to regularise the position of the undocumented in Ireland. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, and I have stated that a general regularisation scheme for persons residing here illegally is not under consideration for several reasons. Indeed, I made this position clear to the committee when I appeared before it.
The Minister for Justice and Equality and I have examined the Oireachtas committee report with a view to identifying what elements, if any, of the recommendations could be acted on in some way. We have asked officials from the Department to take forward this work. This would mean a sector-by-sector approach in the context of our international commitments. Any such approach would, of necessity, have to focus on those who had originally entered the State for some lawful purpose but who had fallen out of immigration permission for some reason, including changes in the immigration policies or because they felt they had no alternative. Those who came to the State with the intention of staying here illegally would have a less sound basis for having their cases considered sympathetically.
A general regularisation programme, however, could have any number of unintended and expensive consequences in terms of public services. The Minister and I remain conscious that any significant departure from what is well-established policy will invariably have implications for our immigration controls and the smooth functioning of the common travel area, something that is all the more pertinent in the context of the UK withdrawing from the European Union. Before any such change could be contemplated, it must take account of all the pros and cons, as well as being consistent with existing policy priorities.
Ultimately, there is no gainsaying the fact that a duty of the Government is the protection of our borders and any shift in public policy must be considered very carefully in that context.
One of the more obvious implications is that there is no reliable way of estimating the numbers of persons who could be involved. By its nature irregular migration is clandestine and it is not uncommon for such persons to go to extreme lengths to avoid contact with the authorities. There is no commonly accepted methodology for calculating the numbers involved. However, a European Commission funded initiative, the CLANDESTINO project, concluded that there were between 1.9 million to 3.8 million undocumented persons across the European Union. This was a significant fall on previous administratively-based estimates which were often in the tens of millions.
No fieldwork was carried out in Ireland but an estimate of between 30,000 and 62,000 individuals was based on the UK estimate, adjusted for variations in population. The CLANDESTINO project rated this estimate as of particularly "low quality" and unreliable. More recent estimates of upwards of 26,000 suggested by the Migrant Rights Council of Ireland are based on a similar methodology based on UK derived data. However, the continued relevance of these estimates must be questioned in respect of the migration crisis affecting the Mediterranean. We are effectively blind to the numbers and circumstances of the persons involved.
At European level, Ireland, together with the other member states of the European Union, has committed under the European pact on immigration and asylum, agreed at the European Council in October 2008, to a case-by-case approach as opposed to mass regularisation. While the pact is not legally binding it is politically binding and we stand by the principal that one cannot legitimise the status of those unlawfully present without first examining the merits of their individual cases. No large scale regularisation programmes have taken place in any EU member state since the pact, despite the unprecedented recent mass movement of persons through the Mediterranean. The common European asylum system continues to operate on a case-by-case basis in all the member states affected.
We should not forget that people usually become undocumented through their own conscious actions or omissions. Such persons are subject to the rule of law on the same basis as anyone else in the State, including our citizens. They are obliged to honour their immigration conditions and to leave the State when their permission to be here ceases, and they are responsible for ensuring that they have the appropriate permission from the Minister for Justice and Equality. The majority of migrants fully comply with such conditions.
Where the authorities encounter someone in an undocumented situation, which can vary from person to person, it is always open to that person to present his or her case on its individual merits. This approach has been highlighted with the non-governmental organisations dealing with such persons. All such cases will be carefully considered, taking account of all the circumstances, and it is not unreasonable for the State to expect that the affected persons would honour any decision made, even if that entails leaving the State voluntarily.
Regarding relocation and resettlement, from the outset of the migration crisis in Europe we have demonstrated our commitment to solidarity. Ireland was not legally obliged to participate in the two EU Council decisions on the relocation programme adopted in September 2015, but we believed we had a moral duty to alleviate the suffering that had developed in Europe and opted in without delay. The all-party support for our participation was a credit to our Parliament and to the will of the people of Ireland to offer shelter and support to persons fleeing persecution and conflict zones. We immediately established the Irish refugee protection programme, IRPP. Under this programme, the Government pledged to accept up to 4,000 people and we have made significant progress in meeting this commitment. Some 1,337 people have already been welcomed to Ireland and another 730 will arrive in the coming months.
There are two distinct strands to the programme. Under the first strand Ireland works with the UNHCR to resettle refugees from Lebanon. This strand is progressing very well with 1,040 people already arrived in Ireland - a doubling of our original commitment of 520 people which we met a year ahead of schedule. Since 2015, 785 programme refugees have come to Ireland while a further 270 are due to arrive by early next year.
The other strand concerns the EU relocation mechanism under the two EU Council decisions from 2015, where member states agreed to relocate asylum seekers from Greece and Italy. Ireland committed to accepting approximately 2,600 people. Since 2015, 552 people have already arrived and a further 461 have been assessed for relocation, 67 of whom are due in early October.
The Council decisions provided for the relocation of 160,000 asylum seekers from Italy and Greece. The latest figures available from the EU Commission indicate that only 35,000 persons registered and qualified for relocation, a figure much lower than originally estimated. The final transfers from Greece to Ireland are expected to take place early next year at which point we will have relocated more than 3% of the EU’s total figure. This represents a strong commitment by Ireland to EU solidarity considering we represent less than 1% of the total population.
We have concentrated our relocation efforts on Greece as the Italian authorities have consistently refused to allow member states, including Ireland, to conduct security assessments of candidates on Italian soil. Security screening is an integral element of our procedures in line with the commitment we gave at the time we opted in. While we are not yet in a position to accept any asylum seekers from Italy, our efforts to resolve this issue are ongoing. Despite this, we are making good progress and will have fulfilled two out of our three commitments by the end of this year - all of our commitments under resettlement and also our relocation commitment to Greece. In fact, we have already surpassed our commitment to relocate asylum seekers from Greece.
The Commission recognises Ireland as being one of only seven member states to have fulfilled their resettlement pledges from July 2015. We have gone even further by doubling our resettlement numbers and at the recent Commission pledging exercise we have pledged to admit 600 programme refugees in 2018. This represents the largest commitment ever made by the State in a single year.
People arriving in Ireland under the Irish refugee protection programme are provided with a range of supports to help them adapt to life here. During their initial orientation, they are accommodated in one of three emergency reception and orientation centres while their asylum claims are processed. They have access to English language and other supports, after which they are resettled in communities throughout the country. Since 2015, 733 refugees have been resettled in this way. The programme requires a high degree of co-ordination for delivery at the local level with the assistance of resettlement interagency working groups.
Refugees have also been housed in accommodation generously pledged by the Irish public. Following the Government decision in autumn 2015, the Irish Red Cross was tasked with managing all voluntary pledges of accommodation, goods and services from the Irish public. A register collating the offers of housing from the public went live on the Irish Red Cross website in late September 2015.
Under the framework of the national migrant integration strategy we have committed to numerous initiatives supporting the integration of migrants over the next four years. The strategy provides a framework for Government actions to support the integration across policy areas, including education, health, access to public services and social inclusion. Under the asylum, migration and integration fund, €4.5 million has been allocated to 20 projects. Under the European Social Fund, just under €1 million has been allocated to five projects.
The national integration funding programme has allocated almost €2 million over three years to 15 projects and the communities integration fund disbursed €500,000 to 131 small-scale local integration projects this year. We hope shortly to allocate dormant accounts funding to more small projects supporting women refugees into employment. In this way we are working to meet the needs and support the integration of this vulnerable group of migrants.
With regard to family reunification, we fully intend to honour all our commitments under the Irish refugee protection programme and while the relocation strand has not yielded the expected numbers, the Minister and I, with Department officials, have been examining new pathways for people in need of protection following the conclusion of EU programmes. One possibility is family reunification, for which the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, and I intend to bring forward fresh proposals in the near future. Such a programme would concentrate efforts on reunification of immediate family members specifically caught up in conflict zones, and would be in addition to those eligible under the provisions of the International Protection Act 2015.
Following the adoption of the all-party motion last November on the Calais unaccompanied minors, we have made all concerted efforts to provide a pathway here for such unaccompanied minors who wish to come to Ireland and to stay. My colleague, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, established the Calais special project within Tusla, the Child and Family Agency. Working with the French authorities, any unaccompanied minors who have been identified as suitable for relocation here have been accepted and provided with the appropriate supports. No unaccompanied minor who has asked to come to Ireland has been refused. In total, 26 young persons have been relocated to date. Some 23 are currently in the care of Tusla and the remainder have been reunited with family members already living in Ireland. Family tracing and reunification processes are under way for those who remain unaccompanied.
In addition, Tusla, which has statutory responsibility for the care of unaccompanied minors, has agreed to take up to 20 unaccompanied minors under the EU relocation programme. To date, six unaccompanied minors, under the stricter Irish definition, have been relocated from Greece but there are relatively few unaccompanied minors available in the cohort of nationalities eligible for the relocation. All strands of the IRPP have had a strong focus on families and children and almost half of the admissions to date have been minors, with almost 85% of this figure aged under 12 years.
Regarding the direct provision and protection process, the committee has recommended that direct provision should be a short-term measure. I and the Government concur with that view. However, first we must understand what we really mean by direct provision, which is the system whereby State services are delivered directly to protection applicants through the relevant Department or agency.
In the case of the Department of Justice and Equality, full-board accommodation is offered to applicants while their application for international protection is being processed. Not everyone seeking international protection chooses this offer of full board and many choose to live with colleagues, family or friends in the community, which they are entitled to do.
If the system was simply disbanded, already vulnerable people who we are committed to protecting would join the lengthy waiting lists for social housing or enter the private rental market with little hope of finding affordable and secure accommodation. Direct provision guarantees that anyone who walks into the International Protection Office today will have a bed, food, a shower, medical care information and access to a range of services tonight. He or she will not be forced onto the streets or into emergency housing. I have yet to hear a credible alternative to the current system.
No system is without room for improvement. The Minister and I are working continually with our officials to enhance and develop the facilities and services offered to those in our care. This includes the ongoing implementation of the recommendations in the report of Mr. Justice McMahon and the commitment in A Programme for a Partnership Government to reforming the system, with a particular focus on families and children. Three progress reports on implementation have been published. The most recent, which was published in July last, shows that implementation of the recommendations now stands at 98%. In addition to this achievement, we remain committed to ongoing improvements in direct provision in the absence of any suitable alterative being proposed since it was first proposed 15 years ago.
One of the key recommendation of Mr. Justice McMahon's report was to address the protracted application process which led to long stays in State provided accommodation. With the commencement of the International Protection Act 2015 last December, we now have a single application procedure. This is the greatest reform to our protection process in two decades. It means that an applicant will have all aspects of their claim, refugee status, subsidiary protection status and permission to remain examined and determined in one process and in the shortest possible timeframe. All necessary resources have been put in place to facilitate this.
The Department also chairs an interdepartmental task force established by the Government to examine the recent Supreme Court judgment on the right of applicants to seek employment. The task force will present its report to Government very shortly and I do not wish to pre-empt the outcome of its deliberations by speculating on what it might propose at this point. Its recommendation will be carefully considered by Government before the State makes its submissions to the court.
Granting access to the labour market could have significant repercussions for direct provision. If an applicant has economic security, the need to be dependent on the State will be alleviated. Deputies should rest assured that the Minister and I are committed to the aspiration of the joint committee to bring about real and positive change for protection applicants. I look forward to the contributions of Deputies to the debate on this important issue. I thank again members of the joint committee for the work they have done on this matter to date.
I thank the Minister of State for his contribution. I am very critical of how Ireland has dealt with refugees who are not in this country as well as those who have come to this country. I mean nothing personal as the Minister of State has shown a strong interest in this matter. However, the role of this Government and its predecessor leaves much to be desired.
Ireland reached an agreement to bring 4,000 refugees to this country. As matters stand, the refugee crisis in Europe and worldwide is probably here to stay. Those who are not fleeing climate change, conflict, torture, starvation and death today will surely flee for these reasons in the years ahead. This will be the case for as long as countries such as Ireland do next to nothing to tackle climate change at home and Ireland continues to support international warfare and destruction by allowing the US military to use Shannon Airport as a forward military base on our soil and pursues trade links with some of the most brutal, oppressive and destabilising forces in the world.
The Government speaks of Ireland's role in the resettlement and relocation programmes as if we were achieving great things for humankind. The agreement to give refuge to 4,000 people is not nearly adequate, yet we struggle even to achieve this target. Addressing the slow movement on some of our commitments, the Minister of State indicated that serious difficulties persist in the case of Italy as the Italian authorities have taken the position that they will not allow An Garda Síochána to carry out security assessments of applicants for relocation on Italian soil. That we have not been able to find a solution to this problem since the start of the programme is difficult to fathom. Other countries appear to have been able to relocate 8,500 refugees from Italy. Furthermore, the latest European Commission report on relocation and resettlement indicated that bilateral agreements can be arranged between other member states and Italy to have security checks in Italy. I do not know if such an agreement has been reached between Italy and Ireland.
The European Council on Refugees and Exiles, ECRE, recently commented that while the political and legal obstructionism of certain member states was well documented, other opaque and more subtle resistance had taken place, ranging from prohibitive preferences expressed by some member states to delays in pledging relocation places and in the processing and provision of offers by Italy and Greece. ECRE also stated that the use of unlawful refusal grounds and disproportionate security checks had contributed to the disappointing results so far. Given the severe lack of clarity and transparency from the Government about what is happening on the ground in Italy, one begins to wonder if Ireland is guilty of any of these practices.
The Minister of State indicated earlier this month that the numbers eligible for relocation from Italy and Greece are much lower than envisaged under the two Council decisions of September 2015. I am not sure this statement is fully accurate. As the European Council on Refugees and Exiles and others have documented, the pool of eligible applicants has been artificially reduced by the decision automatically to exclude persons who arrived in Greece after the start of the application of the EU-Turkey statement on 20 March 2016, regardless of the nationality of the persons in question. Statistics from the UN Human Rights Commission show that between April 2016 and July 2017, more than 11,000 Syrian and Iraqi asylum seekers arrived in Greece and these persons were eligible for relocation until the end of 2016. The decision to use 20 March 2016 as a cut-off date for relocation from Greece has no legal basis and has deprived these persons of their right to relocation. Many of them have instead been subjected to appalling reception conditions on one of the Greek islands where they remain in limbo.
That Ireland has not voiced any opposition to the EU-Turkey deal is more than regrettable. The Minister went as far as to praise Turkey's positive contribution in dealing with the refugee crisis. The Minister and Minister of State would do well to listen to refugee law scholars such as Dr. Cathryn Costello and Dr. Maria Hennessy who, with many others, have clearly laid out how Ireland and the European Union are riding roughshod over the principles of human rights law in the manner in which we have been dealing with this crisis from the beginning. The EU has very clear legal commitments to refugees, not only in international law but also in internal EU legislation. Sadly, it does not always keep these commitments.
The reference in the EU-Turkey deal to returning migrants who are not in need of international protection suggests such persons will have their protection claims examined and that decisions will be made concerning their return. The terms of the deal are unclear as to whether returns will be of people with protection needs. Moreover, the question as to whether Turkey is a safe place in a legal sense is sidetracked and, as we know only too well, Turkey is not a safe third country.
I do not have time to address all the issues. EU leaders hailed the EU-Turkey deal as a success despite the human cost of the agreement and its non-compliance with international refugee law. Now the deal is being used as a model for engagement with other countries in the European partnership framework with third countries, in other words, poor countries are bring bribed to prevent people from leaving. This is a disastrous development. The EU is outsourcing the control of migration to countries such as Libya and Niger to ensure migrants are no longer able to leave the northern shores of the African continent. Most concerning is that some countries have bolstered their domestic security spending at the expense of basic social services such as health and education.
There have been increasing reports of incidents between Libyan coast guard vessels and humanitarian rescue ships operating off the coast of north Africa. Financed, trained and equipped by Italy and the European Union, the Libyan coast guard is intercepting an increasing number of migrant boats and generally behaving like pirates. Under Operation Sofia, the Naval Service is now involved in training Libyan coast guards and, as such, we are literally training pirates.
To address briefly our problems at home, Deputy Clare Daly and I attended a forum this week at which we listened to the voices of people who are in direct provision or have just recently left it. It was amazing and, I assure the Minister of State, heart-rending to listen to their stories and first-hand experiences. Five individuals made presentations on different aspects of life in direct provision, namely, the right to work; life in direct provision and the external impact; life in direct provision and the internal impact; education; and mental health and well-being. The right to work and the refusal of the State to allow people in direct provision to work extended across all five topics. Other countries have managed to facilitate this right.
Not allowing the people in question the right to work defies rational thinking.
I will itemise a few of their points. Not having the right to work means that they lose work skills and develop a dependency on social welfare payments; they lose the opportunity to develop other skills; it kills opportunity in general; it forces women into prostitution and pregnancy; and it makes it impossible to integrate. Some of them have had educational opportunities, while others have not, but they say the lack of those opportunities leads to a lack of discipline and breeds laziness, given that there is no reason to wake up in the morning. It creates isolation, concern about the future, hopelessness and depression. They also talked about the internal problems in direct provision centres, for example, with management and staff, a lack of trust, imposition of regulations, a loss of freedom, having to share rooms with older people, with food quality and a lack of cooking facilities. They have a sense that they are not in control of their lives which instead are controlled by others. They discussed external problems, including transport issues; hostels being isolated; difficulties in going anywhere; a lack of identification; difficulties in integrating and socialising; sexual harassment; feeling cheap, afraid and unsafe; a lack of access to information and support; not knowing whom to approach for help; mental health and well-being; having no say in their living conditions; being told what to do and when to do it; having their movements monitored; difficulties in getting help; as well as having no jobs, hobbies, schools or families.
We all know that this is not good enough. We are failing these individuals. When we think of the millions of people who left this island to better themselves and get away from poverty and other problems, how, in God's name, can we treat them like this?
I will start by thanking the organisations that appeared before the justice committee and helped us in compiling the report - Nasc, the MRCI, Justice for the Undocumented - and all of the people who told us their stories. They helped to shape a report that received unanimous support, including from members of the Minister of State's party.
The five serious suggestions contained in the report are not being proposed as some pipe dream or just for the craic. Everyone who attended our meetings believed it was the right thing for the State to do. The Minister of State's reply to the report was far from satisfactory. He was previously a member of the committee and made suggestions that supported ours, but what, in God's name, does it say about a society if elected parliamentarians, including members of an all-party body, across two Dáil terms can suggest an amnesty and a regularised programme for undocumented migrants but the unelected government, the Department of Justice and Equality or whoever can long-finger it, can try to throw out red herrings as to why it would not be a good idea? I imagine that I speak for everyone on the committee when I say that is not good enough.
This is the second time one of the key programmes outlined in the report has been proposed by the justice committee, but we believe the issue of the undocumented can no longer be long-fingered. At least 20,000 undocumented individuals are living, working and raising families in Ireland, but they have been left in limbo and are unable to move on with their lives. They are the backbone of the caring sector. In many instances, they are the women who, non-regularised, are looking after old and young people. They cannot even regularise their lives for their own parents or children. It is despicable. The MRCI's proposal - a six-month scheme under which undocumented persons who have been in Ireland could become regularised for three or four reasons - is reasonable. It is not radical or scary and would not require legislation. It could be implemented without delay. I do not accept that we should delay it further. The Government's response to this proposal, that it would somehow have a "pull" factor, is ludicrous. The excuses the Minister of State made-----
I never said that.
This is not personal, as the Minister of State is here in a certain role, but the proposition made was not good enough. Many of the measures look good on paper, but that is all that they do. Let us consider the supports offered to undocumented migrants. I agree with the Minister of State that an undocumented migrant who manages to get into our system is entitled to gold-plated refugee and asylum status, but granting access to the system and putting supports in place is happening too slowly. The system is quaking. I have worked in it. I have put myself forward and spent a year waiting to be vetted as a host for an undocumented migrant. It is ridiculous and crazy that it should take so long to vet someone when there are many people who would happily such these young people into their homes.
I will not echo the points made about direct provision. We met young people who had been in the system. They are fantastic people with so much to offer our society, but that we do not give them the right to work is criminal. We know the court's view on this issue and the Minister of State has referred to an interdepartmental task force, but could the task force, please, hurry up? It is not on. The isolation and the damage being done to individuals in the direct provision system are soul-destroying.
Another key suggestion made in the report involves the introduction of a humanitarian visa scheme to allow persons legally resident in Ireland to be reunited with extended family members who are living in war zones or in danger. There should be a broad-based humanitarian visa scheme for anyone who needs asylum. It is something for which I argued wholeheartedly previously, but the committee's more limited recommendation should be implemented. I have occasionally been contacted by people who are caught up in the family reunification process. One case sticks in my mind because of the frustrating role played by the Department in preventing a young Syrian woman from being reunited with her sick mother and siblings. Over the course of 14 long months which the family spent in limbo in Greece the Department threw every trick in the book at them. At one point, it turned down the application because the Greek authorities, the first language of which was not English, had misstated that the young woman was a recognised refugee in Ireland when she was, in fact, legally resident here. I echo the Chairman's comments on the committee's feelings about such matters. It is irrelevant to a reunification request whether someone is legally resident as a recognised refugee or legally resident for any other reason. A person has a right to family reunification in these circumstances. I support the comments made by the Chairman in clarifying that point in the context of the recommendation made. For the family I mentioned, the hair splitting that continued for months, being left in limbo in Greece and having to deal with thousands more pages of paperwork - with the tolerance of the Greek authorities - were disgraceful.
That the worst named legislation ever passed, the International Protection Act 2015 - not - has closed the door on family reunification, except in limited circumstances, makes the situation even more sickening. At a time when there are record numbers of refugees, taking Nasc's proposal on board becomes all the more urgent.
We do not have to develop all the points here. However, when we focus on the recommendations, it would be wrong for us not to look at how Europe has got to this point with refugees and migrants. We should put the debate in its wider context and look at the noose Europe is tying around its borders and the security industrial complex profiting from driving migrants into the sea or back to Libya and Turkey, all fully funded and supported by European Governments. Without taking that on board we miss the real roots of the crisis and are doomed never to come up with a real and sane response to it. Let us face it, in the past four years European policymakers have been operating under some sort of mass delusion that the migrant crisis has come from somewhere unforeseen and that it is like some form of natural disaster. It is not natural at all but has been spawned by the interference in the Middle East and so on. It has been spawned by the increased securitisation of Europe's borders. It is worth remembering that the types of irregular land and sea migrations we see now did not really exist in Europe in the 1990s, in part because there was less interference in the Middle East and so on. The global wars that are under way at the moment, the Schengen Agreement, the tightening of Europe's borders and the massive profiteering arising from that are also to blame.
Europe has spent €11 billion on deportations since 2000. Frontex has seen its budget grow massively since it was founded. Between 2007 and 2013, the EU allocated 60% of its home affairs budget, which is €4 billion, to managing migration, of which half went to policing external borders, compared with the €70 million that was spent on a refugee fund. It is absolutely not good enough.
I think I speak for all of us on the committee when I say we will be actively pursuing this. We will be breathing down the necks of those in the Department to ensure all these recommendations, which are modest and urgently necessary, are implemented. I note the Department has moved on some of them but it is not quick enough and we want to see it elevated on the Department's agenda. The Minister of State has played a role in this before and we appeal for the effort to be redoubled and that we all move to end a completely unacceptable situation.
I am sharing my time with Deputy Bríd Smith. I would like to praise the Minister of State but I am disappointed by his speech. I know that on a personal level he is very sympathetic to the plight. In a previous speech, he said he was very conscious of the misery and suffering experienced by refugees. He has made many sympathetic and positive statements. However, his defence of direct provision is wrong and he has failed to grasp that the people want to be involved in the solution, for example, in the humanitarian admission programme being put forward by Nasc. It was endorsed by the committee and will get Irish people to sponsor, finance and work closely to bring people into the country. Again, they are ahead of us. In my time in politics, which is quite some time when I include my local experience, the people have always been ahead of the politicians. Our problem is that we are not listening. We are creating problems and division where there is none rather than building on the generosity of spirit of the Irish people. I fully endorse the report before us. I fully support all the recommendations and I thank the all-party committee for doing it.
I find myself in a strange position. Normally we are in here fighting to try to get results and here we have an all-party committee agreeing on everything. Where is the problem if the committee has looked at everything, listened to all the presentations and come forward with five very moderate proposals? Why is there a problem with that? I would like the Minister of State to depart from the script and look at what this all-party committee has done. It is very unusual that they are all in agreement on very modest proposals. It draws on the best of society, the voluntary groups and the groups that are in the Public Gallery who have worked hard to bring these matters to our attention.
I am quite familiar with direct provision from my work on the Committee of Public Accounts because we have had more than one report on it and it is not an efficient system. Even on a money level, it is not an efficient system. On a human level, it is inhuman. The Minister of State said people are looked after in that system and he has heard no one else come forward with a better proposal. He has admitted it was supposed to be a temporary provision, yet 17 years later we are still incarcerating people. I use the word "incarceration" because it certainly has echoes of the Magdalen laundries and the various industrial and reformatory schools. The same type of language is used, for example, that they should be happy. The Minister of State is shaking his head but that is the message, not only from the Minister of State but more generally.
With regard to direct provision, 37% of the people have been there for more than two years. I understand that one in seven of the residents have status but have no place to go so they cannot get out. Can the Minister of State imagine fleeing from war and all the other horrific conditions, being in direct provision for a very long time and then celebrating getting one's status yet having to remain in direct provision because there is no place to go? The cost of it is astronomical. The cost of direct provision in 2016 was more than €60 million. A number of small private companies make enormous profits from the misery of people who do not want to be there. They want to share in Irish society. Galway city distinguishes itself as having the highest percentage of non-Irish people. We are the multicultural capital of the country. Prior to 2016, it was almost 20% but since 2016, it has gone over 20%. We want to embrace multiculturalism and we do not want direct provision centres in our city. The one in Salthill is up for sale or has been sold and the residents there have no idea what will happen to them.
I do not have time to go through all the recommendations. I have no hesitation in supporting them.
The Minister of State disappointed me when he spoke about undocumented migrants, saying they brought this upon themselves in the sense that they broke the rules. If the Minister of State listens to some of the presentations given to the committee, he will see how they ended up as undocumented migrants. One is a mother who came here to do her masters degree. Unfortunately she failed her exams and lost her visa. She is working every God-given hour at the most basic work to bring up her children. She is an undocumented migrant. The Minister of State should read it, and if it does not move the heart of the Minister of State or the officials in the Department of Justice and Equality, I do not know what will.
Let us see if Department officials will be moved by factual figures on the impact on the economy. There are between 20,000 and 26,000 undocumented people in this country. We are only a tiny country and we have 20,000 to 26,000 undocumented, of whom between 2,000 and 5,000 are children. In a survey of 1,000, it showed 89% are in employment. They are keeping many people going in this country by being employed but they receive no benefit from it. More importantly, the State receives no benefit - 66% are in the same job for more than two years; 84% are in Ireland for over five years; and 49% for over eight years.
I could blind the Minister of State with all these statistics but the main point I make is that it does not make sense not to regularise it. There are strong economic reasons for it. They will be paying tax, PRSI and all the other payments we have to make. At a rough calculation, there is €41 million in unpaid tax. What is the cost of deporting every single undocumented migrant? I am running out of time. The Minister of State should have a look at the recommendations and take a practical human approach to the best way out so that we are not dividing and conquering. If we have learned anything from institutional care, it is not to divide and conquer.
The context is that 64 million people have been displaced in recent years, which is the greatest displacement since the Second World War.
Caithfidh mé a rá go bhfuil mé an-bhuíoch don Teachta Connolly as ucht deis a thabhairt dom páirt a ghlacadh sa díospóireacht seo ar feadh cúpla nóiméad.
I will try to make three points in three minutes, which is not easy. The first point was touched on by what Deputy Connolly just said and what Deputy Clare Daly said earlier. We need to realise that this is not an Irish issue but a global issue, the roots of which stem from vicious competition at a level of interference in other countries that is often endorsed or overlooked by our system and internationally by others.
I will just pick one country. Currently the Saudis are bombing Yemen to bits and the only news we heard about Saudi Arabia this week was that it had made some concession to women to allow them to drive. They are forcing people to remain in that country, bombing it to bits and maintaining men, women and children in famine. What is happening in Yemen is repeated in Syria, Palestine and in other countries in north Africa. That is where the influx of migrants is coming from.
I hate this expression "economic migrant", which is a nonsense. With every hungry belly comes a pair of hands. Everybody is able to make a contribution to society and nobody migrates for reasons other than that they are forced to because they have absolutely no choice. Those in the Gallery or any of the 26,000 undocumented or others who are seeking refuge in this country deserve respect and consideration. They do not deserve to be relegated to a system like direct provision which refuses to allow them carry out the most basic function of humanity, which is to work, and the second most basic function which is to use one's brain and study. What the hell is that about? By the time this country wakes up and allows them to participate, serious damage will have been done to the mental health of men, women and children who, hopefully, will continue to live in this country.
My second point relates to the undocumented themselves. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, which has just looked at the undocumented in the fishing industry. What is going on in that industry is appalling. The WRC, the instrument of the State, literally trawled the trawlers to examine what is happening. However, it was so under-resourced with a total of 50 inspectors in the entire country to look at what goes on industry that it could not get to the bottom of what was happening to, mainly, men from Egypt, Bangladesh and from across north Africa who are undocumented and are being treated cruelly on major boats owned and run in this State.
The one person the inspectors found on a trawler was immediately deported. There is no humanity shown or real consideration given to this. It needs greater resources. We have more dog wardens than labour inspectors. We need to deal with the cruelty that is being meted out to the undocumented who the Minister of State said would be dealt with humanely in each case. They are not even being spoken to. No attempt is being made to communicate with them. Unless we start to do that, the rest is all guff. We must allocate the resources to it.
I welcome all the people in the Gallery this evening. I hope they could understand the Minister of State who spoke at breakneck speed.
I wish to speak about a Syrian refugee whom I met in Mosney a couple of weeks ago. His own words can bring it home better than I can. He has been in Mosney since June 2016 even though refugees are only supposed to spend a maximum of eight months there. He has a grave injury in his right leg, having been injured in the war. He said:
I have been using crutches for four years. I am disabled. I am a burden to those around me. I am lonely, single and helpless. I need help to cook, clean shower, bathe and so on. My family in Lebanon are in a really difficult situation. They live in a camp in a caravan. It is very cold in winter, very hot in summer. [There is] no healthy water. They do not have income for their needs. I send them what I get.
This man is sending them €20 each week to assist his family. By the way, he has not had treatment for his injury. The supportive environment that the Minister of State suggests everybody gets was contradicted by what I saw.
The Minister of State asked about a credible alternative. The credible alternative is that the State would build houses so that we would not have a housing crisis and that we would let people work. Regarding the claim that we have a commitment to solidarity, the Irish State has a signpost that people really should not seek refuge in this country; that is the purpose of direct provision.
I want to put the discussion into context before going into some of the other issues. We have an increasingly unstable world where war, conflict, climate change and economic disaster are forcing millions of people to leave their homes and seek refuge elsewhere.
The UNHCR has stated that currently 65.6 million people have been forcibly displaced; 28,300 a day flee war and conflict; and 55% of all forcibly displaced people are from just three countries: Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan. It is not as if this is somehow accidental. It has been created by imperialist intervention in the Middle East. There are wars for political interest and profit. The Syrian war in particular shows us the role of imperial and regional powers which have intervened to support different sides in that barbaric conflict. The EU, the USA and Russia have all financed the war and their arms industries have made massive profits in supplying weapons. That is capitalism now generating war. However, when people flee the war fomented by imperialism, they are met with "fortress Europe".
Many undocumented live in the shadows where they are afraid to report any incident to the Garda - even serious crimes. We do not have sanctuary cities as the US does, where one can go and report without fear of being detained, but yet our politicians are beating a path wearing down the red carpet in the White House seeking solutions for our undocumented in the US. That is rank hypocrisy unless we introduce, as is advocated in this report, a regularisation scheme.
I have met undocumented people, many of whom started out being documented and became undocumented for various reasons. As the report shows 84% have lived here longer than five years and 89% are working, usually contributing to the tax system. This needs to be sorted out. Regularising these people would actually benefit all workers in this country. It does not suit any Irish worker to have people undercutting them and being used as exploited labour. Creating a legal status for them would actually benefit Irish workers as well and the trade union movement should be mindful of that. The example has been given of the fishing industry. It is not sufficient to expect an undocumented person to initiate deportation proceedings in the hope of winning an appeal on humanitarian grounds to be considered for regularisation.
Everybody knows direct provision is inhumane and barbaric and puts people in isolation. Obviously my constituency of Dublin West is very diverse. I attended an event in the constituency where I met Syrians. Actually who I met were Irish people who volunteer and help the Syrians out of the goodness of their hearts. They asked me if I would take up their issues. If we have a supportive environment why would a Deputy have to go to Mosney to talk to Syrians who were brought here on an official programme? It is not acceptable. I did not see the support the Minister of State is talking about. They should have social workers and - to use the cliché - a wraparound service so that they do not have to get on to the Syrian-Irish community or contact Deputies.
Family reunification, which is identified in the report, was the number one issue among all those whom I met in Mosney. They were very concerned about the fate of their family members who are in precarious situations, as was the case with the man I spoke about earlier. The problem lies with the Irish definition of a family. For people in Syria and other countries the extended family is the family. However, here it is narrowly classed as adult children aged under 18 and it excludes anybody who is over 18.
I met a number of people who are not allowed to bring their 19 year old or 21 year old child over here, which is splitting up the family. Neither are people allowed to bring siblings or aunts and uncles although they are part of the extended family. Particular distress was expressed by one couple who have two adult children, aged 19 and 21, in Germany. Their son who was 22 years old died during the war, and they had expected they could meet again in Europe and start to rebuild their lives but the Irish Government is not permitting that to happen.
The second issue relates to accreditation. Many of the Syrians I met were highly qualified and included lawyers and pharmacists. I met one man who has not been able to get the Pharmaceutical Society to recognise his qualification so that he can seek work. Surely if the Government brings people over on an agreed programme they should not then have to jump through hoops. Apparently he was told by the authorities here that he must get a letter from the awarding college. That is despite him having his qualification documents. We are talking about political refugees who cannot just get onto the college as they are not supporters of the regime. Could we streamline this process and allow people to take up work in this country? Could we take immediate steps to engage with all the professional bodies to ensure people do not have to go through the same ordeal as the individual to whom I referred?
The war in Syria had an impact on people's ability to complete their education so there are many young people who might not have completed primary or secondary education. We must assist people in that regard. However, there are also people who have secured places on university courses here but they have to pay the non-EEA fees. A number of colleges have agreed to take people in on a more charitable basis. I met one young woman who has a place in UCD but is going to be housed in Portlaoise. One could ask how she is to get from Portlaoise to UCD every day. That would be a four-hour round trip.
Another key problem is housing. It appears to me that no refugees are being placed in Dublin and I am not sure if anyone is going to Cork. It appears that all of the people are being sent to Sligo, Tullamore and other such places and people will generally be quite isolated. The Minister of State might say they should be grateful but we need to look at the reality of whether such people will be able to get work, have access to supports or have any connections. If a person has a place in UCD and he or she is in Sligo, how will he or she take up the place?
I thank the Deputy.
Could I just finish by asking the Minister of State-----
The Deputy's time is up. She should speak quickly.
I sent a request to the Minister of State to meet the Syrian representative groups so that we can try to iron out some of the five or six key issues and also some individual cases. Will the Minister of State agree to organise that with us because I have not got a reply back from him?
I wish to share five of my ten minutes with Deputy Anne Rabbitte.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I welcome the people who are in the Public Gallery this evening. I recognise many of them from the sittings of the committee and the hearings that took place some months ago. I welcome the publication of the report. Deputy Jack Chambers and I were the Fianna Fáil representatives on the committee and we support the report fully and would like to see it implemented.
When the history of the 21st century is written one of the earliest chapters will be on the great migration of the early 21st century. There are times in history when great migrations take place and we are living through one of those occasions at present. Deputy Coppinger referred to the war in Syria. That is one of the major reasons for the great migration we have experienced. Also, 100 years ago there was a great migration after the Russian Revolution when people left that country. These migrations happen on the occurrence of traumatic and terrible events. We experienced it ourselves in this country. The census in 1841 showed that we had a population of 8.1 million. Today we are nowhere near getting back to that, which gives an indication of the impact of the Great Famine on the people of this island.
I wish to focus on one part of the report concerning the undocumented. Sometimes when there is a discussion about migration, asylum and undocumented people it falls back to statistics and the consequences those numbers may have. The benefit of being a member of the justice committee is that we had an opportunity to hear evidence from individuals. We got away from statistical analysis. We heard individuals come before us who could give their own life story. I am pleased to note that in the appendix of one of the reports there is an account of the evidence given by Priya who is from Mauritius, who I hope is in the Gallery this evening. She gave an account of what life is like for her as a person who has been in Ireland for eight years and who has brought up two children. She gave us evidence about the lie those children must live when they go to school or are in the local clubs indicating to their friends around them that there is no issue. They appear to every person to be individuals who are as documented or as Irish as anyone else in their school or club but, unfortunately, they have to live with a terrible burden on their shoulders, namely, that they know they can be removed from their lives here at a moment. I know an application to stay on sympathetic grounds exists but nobody should be put through a life that requires them to live on tenterhooks where they realise their status within the country could be lost as a result of an executive decision.
I note what the Minister of State said in respect of the report. I am disappointed with his response in respect of the undocumented. I suspect he probably agrees with many of the findings in the report. I do not know what happens when people go into the Department of Justice and Equality but it seems to be that policy decisions seem to change from what politicians wish to do before they go in there. Ministers get an opportunity to be Ministers for a couple of years. Most of them are forgotten. It is not that they do very little but most of them do very little of long-term recognition. There is an opportunity for the Minister of State to do something that would stand to his credit and be there for many years to come.
One of the reasons the Minister of State said we cannot go down the undocumented route is because there is no reliable way of estimating the actual number of persons who could be involved. Perhaps as a method of starting a process why does the Department of Justice and Equality not begin an inquiry or survey to find out how many undocumented people there are in the country? That is a public service. It would be a benefit. When one thinks of the time we spend recording other issues of irrelevance that is something that does merit a record. Even though the Minister of State has not stated he is in favour of the recommendations in the report I urge him to go back to the Department and say that in order to resolve the issue and to deal with it adequately we need to find out exactly how many undocumented people there are in this country. Once we find that out we could start a process whereby, as Fianna Fáil put forward in 2015, we could have a regularisation scheme. People who have been here for a certain number of years could apply over a short period and it would not have the effect of opening the floodgates, as appears to be the concern in some quarters in the Government. I urge the Minister of State to consider that. I do not think it is fair on the individuals concerned. Children growing up here who are members of clubs and going to school are entitled to have their status regularised. We are doing a disservice to them if we do not. Also, there would be a great benefit in doing that. In 1841 we had 8.1 million people on this island. We need more people here.
I thank Deputy O'Callaghan for sharing his time with me. I wish to continue from where he left off in talking about numbers. I welcome the opportunity to speak here this evening and I thank the committee for giving me the opportunity to do so. I can talk numbers because I come from east Galway. The Brazilian community lives in Gort and there is a total of 526 people. The census reported that. The figures came out last week to show there are 526 undocumented Brazilian people living in east Galway. My contribution will be very parochial for the simple reason that this is my community and I am giving them a voice here this evening.
On 3 July 2017 Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland, at a Fáilte garden party in Áras an Úachtarán gave a warm welcome to the new citizens of Ireland.
Whatever the road that has brought you here, you are part of an important group who have changed our country in remarkable ways, enriched our culture and our communities, and you have enhanced all our lives. 21st century Ireland is a dynamic and cosmopolitan place, an Ireland that embraces the innovation, opportunity and creative energy that cultural diversity brings.
The President's words reflect the sentiments of many people in Gort, County Galway. Gort is nationally recognised as an example of good relations between local people and new immigrants. The contribution they have made to creativity, social capital, the economy and cultural diversity in this community is hugely appreciated. Unfortunately, because many have become undocumented there is uncertainty as to how Gort and the Brazilian community can continue to enrich each other's lives and futures.
As spokesperson for children and youth affairs for Fianna Fáil, on a regular basis at my monthly clinics in Gort I meet with these undocumented people. One of the cases that I have encountered is that of Beatrice. Beatrice is ten years of age. She is undocumented. She is terminally ill. She cannot get a medical card. I am looking for this medical card since the last day the Dáil sat before Christmas last year. The Christmas lights were about to be turned on in Gort when I spoke with the Minister, Deputy Harris, about this medical card. In fairness to him, he did all he could to help me but, regrettably, he could not jump over the hurdle of Beatrice being undocumented. We have tried three times since last Christmas to get the medical card for this child and it is not there.
Beatrice's story is in the report that has been commissioned by Annie Rosario and the Gort Resource Centre. The report states that, for the people who cannot afford to pay for doctors' fees and expensive medicines, delayed diagnosis and treatment have a negative impact on recovery from illnesses. It highlights that one family in our community with a terminally ill child does not have the means to buy medicine and has no right to a medical card because of her parents' immigrant status.
This year, ten children did their leaving certificate in Gort of whom most of the families had the wrong status on their visa. Those children do not have the opportunity to pursue third level education although they are incredibly bright. Whether it be an apprenticeship or university, why is their opportunity denied? They have attended national and secondary school and have a cohort of friends yet they could not go forward. I also met a lady who was 28 years of age who no longer wanted to work in the kitchen where she was working. She decided she would like to go back and become a beautician. Regrettably, stamp 3 means she cannot have the back to education allowance. Stamp 4 would have meant she could but she is on stamp 3. We have tried the hoops and she cannot jump through them. I am the bearer of bad news in Gort on a monthly basis because no matter what I do for these people, the system is stacked against them.
I welcome what the Minister of State has said this evening. While others might not agree, I welcome the opportunity of a case-by-case approach because I have the cases in Gort. The research is done here. The family resource centre has put in the effort. It has worked closely with the Migrant Rights Council. If the Minister of State wants to undertake a pilot project, I am offering him Gort. I reckon we can overcome some of these obstacles. The Department would be welcome to take Gort and the family resource centre as its opportunity to bring about change.
Like my colleagues on the justice committee, I support the recommendations made here. I thank and welcome the people in the Gallery, who deserve recognition and also rights. Those rights need to be properly progressed by the Government. The committee's report mirrors what the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, introduced and recommended when he was its Chairman. He probably has déjà vu. He is in a different position now, which has more authority and in which he can make a difference. I know that is a statement of pressure, but that is the reality of Government. I hope the Minister of State is not here to reiterate and regurgitate speeches we have heard from his predecessor. As a backbencher, Deputy Stanton's position mirrored that of Deputy Ó Caoláin today. Today, however, the Minister of State is reiterating and paraphrasing the words of his predecessor in the Department of Justice and Equality. That is a problem.
What we are seeing across many areas is that, despite really progressive proposals being brought through, despite engaging with the various interest groups and looking at the international picture and the various human rights aspects involved, Ministers are ignoring everything and going back to the permanent government that exists within the Departments. We can all relate to stories such as those we have heard today. The Minister of State's proposals about doing things on a case-by-case basis is code from the Department for kicking this to touch, probably for a significant period.
To quote the Minister of State, as Chairman of the justice committee he said that the committee was told the current situation could be addressed through a once-off, time-bound regularisation scheme. He said, "Our committee believes that rights of migrants must be respected." I fully believe that he still holds that view and would like to see a type of regularisation scheme. All that has changed is his ministerial position. I have absolute faith in the Minister of State as a Minister. He has a genuine interest in this area and served as Chairman of the justice committee. However, we need to see more than a once-off scheme. We need more than references to Brexit and the international climate. This has been well researched and is being strongly recommended now for a second time. While it might be a case of déjà vu for the Minister of State, it is important that we see real progress.
As other Deputies have mentioned, there is a contradiction in Government policy. We go to the US and look for similar rights for Irish citizens who left these shores. The Taoiseach has a new spokesperson with responsibility for the diaspora who wants to ensure that Irish people have rights elsewhere. It is an absolute hypocrisy that we are doing the complete opposite here. The Government cannot promote a changing of rights and status in another state when there is a completely contradictory policy at home. These people deserve regularisation. They deserve their rights and normalisation of their status. They are working and living here and their children are being educated here.
As my colleague Deputy O'Callaghan said, Fianna Fáil introduced a Bill in 2015 to try to push this forward but it was rejected by the Government. The survey by the Migrant Rights Council of Ireland, MRCI, of more than 1,000 undocumented people showed that nine out of ten were in active employment and two thirds of those had been in the same job for two years. Some 85% have been in Ireland for more than five years and half for more than eight years. We need to give the people hope, progress and, to quote the Taoiseach, opportunity in this country. A republic of opportunity means giving rights and hope to people who have come here from further shores.
As was mentioned earlier, 150 years ago there were 8 million people on this island and we are probably at half that now. The citizens of Ireland left these shores when they were dying in the Famine and due to starvation and other matters that truly affected them. We need to remember those people and the struggles they had elsewhere. Now we are a developed State that has good relative wealth, we need to ensure in respect of those who come here from really difficult scenarios, who seek asylum, who are working here, that we normalise and regularise their status. It is the least we can do for them. That is why the recommendations made by the justice committee try to give hope to those people. It is important that it is not just another report that gathers dust. The previous report from the justice committee did just that.
Now we have a Minister of State, who was the previous Chairman of the committee in question, in a position of authority. It is up to him to balance the Department. He has political responsibility and democratic accountability. He has a duty to deliver rights and regularisation for the undocumented in this country. We cannot have more of the same. The Minister of State suggested in his speech that "the recommendations could be acted on in some way". That is the definition of a generic speech written by a civil servant in order to kick a matter to touch. I do not think it is acceptable. We have a different cross-party Dáil now. The members of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality, including those from the Minister of State's party, unanimously endorsed the recommendations of the report.
We want a regularisation programme. We need to hear more than excuses and references to the potential negative effects of such an approach. We need to embrace a regularisation scheme that works. I have referred to the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland statistics that show this can be achieved. Many of those who have been here for a significant length of time are working here and have children here. All we are doing is limiting their entitlements and placing barriers in their way as they look for the rights they deserve, which should be equal to those enjoyed by citizens of this country. We are advocating for Irish citizens in similar positions across the globe. It is an absolute contradiction to be proposing something in another land or state when we are doing the complete opposite here, or at least accepting it to a degree before kicking it to touch.
Although I think the Minister of State wants to see a change here, and has tried to propose something, his speech does not give much hope to the people in the Gallery to be perfectly honest. If thousands of people are considered on a case-by-case basis, most of them will not achieve the status they should achieve. The Minister of State needs to follow the recommendations he advocated in the Dáil over a year ago when he was in a different position. Now is the time to leave a legacy in the Department. As the Minister of State knows, anyone who has the honour of serving in government, having been given a position of authority, needs to take on the people who kick proposals to touch and wait for the next Minister to come along so he or she can hear the same policy contradictions.
I absolutely support the recommendations that were agreed by committee members of all parties and none. They need to be implemented. We need to give hope, status and rights to people who have moved to Ireland because they see it as a land of opportunity. Despite the Government's rhetoric about opportunity, it is limiting opportunity by putting barriers in the way of people who want to get a better education, see progress in their lives and live and work in a safe society. We should all support such people. The next time this is brought through, I hope the Government will have changed its position. Rather than taking a case-by-case approach, the Government should put in place a potential pilot regularisation scheme, or a full regularisation scheme as we have proposed. We need to give more hope to the people in the Gallery this evening and the people out there who deserve greater protection of their status and rights in 21st century Irish society. We should not forget where Ireland was 150 years ago. We need to remember that we all have relations elsewhere who have lived that journey. When we are advocating changes elsewhere, we need to have consistency within our own island.
I commend all the members of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality for completing this comprehensive report. I refer particularly to the Chairman of the committee, my party colleague, an Teachta Ó Caoláin, who has overseen the creation of this report. I join others in welcoming the representatives of Migrant Rights Centre Ireland and Nasc Ireland who are in the Gallery. I also welcome the members of the undocumented community living here and the many people from the Syrian community who are present for this debate.
I hope this report will add significantly and positively to the debate on immigration, asylum and the refugee crisis. I welcome the recommendation in the report that a regularisation scheme for undocumented migrants in Ireland should be introduced in a timely manner. I share this view. As Sinn Féin’s spokesperson on foreign affairs, I have lobbied on behalf of thousands of undocumented Irish citizens in the US. I have been in the White House and I have been to the US Congress to meet Congressmen and Senators. I do not believe there is any contradiction in also working on behalf of the undocumented citizens of other countries who are living in Ireland. I do not see any difference in that regard. I am very proud of my involvement in both campaigns.
I commend Migrants Rights Centre Ireland on all the work it has done in this area. Those involved in the centre are probably sick of the amount of cases I have directed towards them. The reality is that many of us ask the people with the expertise to do such work. I would not like to think that I see myself as an expert in this area in any way. I thank the undocumented migrants who have shared their stories as part of the campaign for regularisation. This brave and positive move has helped to put a human face on the undocumented in Ireland.
Regularisation is not just the smart thing to do; it is also the right thing to do. No young person should have to grow up here undocumented, just as no older people should have to live here undocumented. Workers and their families should have the right to move from the shadows and into the open. The undocumented and their families should have a chance to live in dignity and safety, free from the awful worry of the unexpected knock on the door in the middle of the night that tells them they are being brought into custody with the possibility of being put on an airplane to God knows where.
I join other Deputies in commending the committee's recommendation that Ireland’s system of direct provision should not be more than a short-term measure. It is unacceptable for individuals to be living within the system on a long-term basis. I think there is collective agreement that this has to end. People should not be spending such lengthy periods of time in the system. People have been languishing in this repressive system for far too long. It is time for Ireland to abolish direct provision and replace it with a system that has human rights and the protection of human dignity at its core. It should be abolished. I am pleased that the committee is of the view that the denial of the right to seek paid employment is demeaning and is a serious infringement of the human rights of the individual applicant.
As other Deputies have said, there is an unprecedented refugee crisis across the globe. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, over 65 million people around the world have been forced to leave their homes because of war, poverty, hunger and oppression. Some of them have been displaced within their own countries and others have been forced to leave their countries over dangerous land and sea routes. Ireland has to take a leadership role in responding to the refugee crisis. Many of us on the Opposition benches and some people in Government circles believe we are falling short. Many countries with fewer resources than Ireland are playing such a role. I will mention the example of Uganda. An Irish delegation has just returned from there. Uganda has taken in 1 million refugees from South Sudan and provided them with plots of land where they can live and grow food. I could mention many other examples, including countries like Lebanon and Jordan in the Middle East.
While I welcome the reference in the committee's report to the Government's commitment to resettling 4,000 refugees in Ireland, I share the report's view that this is inadequate by comparison to the scale of the crisis. We must look at increasing this number. That is probably not a popular view in certain quarters. As a nation, we have the resources at our disposal to help these vulnerable people while tackling inequality and poverty in Ireland at the same time. Our constraints do not mean we can deal with just one of these issues. It should not be about favouring one group of people at the expense of another. People often ask "what about our own?", but I suggest that if the Government takes a smarter approach and acts on the huge level of goodwill among the population, it will realise that it is not a case of one or the other. We have the resources to look after our own homeless people and others who are living in poverty while also looking after those who have been forced from their homes.
I agree with Nasc’s campaign - I am told nasc is the Irish word for link - calling on the Government to introduce a humanitarian admission scheme to give people living in Ireland, either naturalised Irish citizens or legally resident refugees and migrants, the opportunity to sponsor family members who are currently displaced or in conflict zones and bring them here to safety.
I am conscious that many people come to us with their own private cases and I will give an example of just one of those to put a human face on some of the migrants who come here. A man and his wife came in to see me. His father had been beheaded in Mosul and his brother had been killed by ISIS in Mosul. They eventually smuggled the mother and another member of the family to Turkey and he was trying to subsidise that. He wanted to try to get the family to Ireland. He was in a very good job. He is married to a European woman. They have two children who were born in Ireland but there was a difficulty in that regard. He wanted to sponsor his own family. The stories he had to tell were horrific. He spoke about where his mother is now living in Turkey and so on and the difficulties the family are going through. He spoke about having to put on hold extending his own family and waiting in the system for the Department of Justice and Equality to respond to the possibility of bringing his family here. That is just one example, and I am talking in terms of a sponsor. All of us in this House could give such examples.
I firmly believe that members of Irish society - citizens, community and faith based groups, charities and non-governmental organisations, NGOs, business and universities - should be able to co-sponsor the application, providing financial, social and institutional backing and thus improving a person’s real life opportunities for integration, easing the financial burden on the host family in Ireland and on the Government. That is done successfully in other countries. I can give examples in Canada and so on.
It is important as part of this debate to again put on the record my complete opposition to the EU-Turkey deal on refugees. Turkey is a country with a deplorable human rights record and a history of discriminating against minorities, like the Kurds, yet in this deal it is deemed to be a safe country of origin by the European Union.
To make matters worse, we are replicating that deal with other countries. Before the Dáil went into recess for the summer, Sinn Féin spoke out and voted against the Government’s motion for Irish involvement in the EU military mission, Operation Sophia, in the Mediterranean. Operation Sophia is primarily a military response to a humanitarian problem. It responds to the symptoms and pushes people back to Libya rather than addressing the causes of the refugee and humanitarian crisis. It also involves training the Libyan coastguard, which has been accused of human rights violations, so that they can return desperate refugees to Libya where they are at the mercy of armed militias. That is what we are sending people back to.
A Médecins Sans Frontières, MSF, recent publication documents significant human rights violations in detention centres in Libya. I have seen the photographs. One would not keep an animal in the overcrowded facilities to which they are sending people. They are appalling. The EU’s policy of ring-fencing migrants in Libya must come to an end. MSF’s president has said that EU states are knowingly handing people over to criminals. I would for further than that. I would say we are handing over people to rapists, slave traders and murderers. That is the reality for many of these people.
Ireland should not have continued its purely search and rescue mission. It is commended throughout the world, but the direction we have gone on it is wrong. I again call on Ireland to remove itself from the military mission and to end these EU agreements that involve deporting vulnerable refugees back to war torn countries and appalling regimes.
Before I call the Minister of State, and there will be a further speaker after him, do I have the agreement of the House to extend the debate by three minutes to facilitate an additional speaker?
Can he speak before me so that I can hear his contribution?
No, he cannot because that would mean-----
If I may, my colleague, who is a justice spokesperson, had indicated earlier and wished to also make a brief contribution. Can the Acting Chairman accommodate him?
Yes. He is listed to speak immediately after the Minister of State. If Deputy Durkan is going to take some of the Minister of State's time-----
No. The problem is that I cannot respond to what Deputy Durkan has to say.
Can the Acting Chairman clarify that he is going to accommodate both Deputy Durkan and Deputy Ó Laoghaire?
Yes. On the list I have, Deputy Ó Laoghaire is following the Minister of State.
And that I am closing the debate on behalf of the committee.
I do not have any indication of that. We will have run out of time and I will then ask the Deputy to adjourn the debate.
That is the normal procedure that applies. The Chair of the respective committee opens the debate and has a closing slot.
For clarification, the Minister of State has a slot now and Deputy Ó Laoghaire is on my timetable to speak after him. I was then going to facilitate Deputy Durkan for three minutes and then Deputy Ó Laoghaire would close the debate.
What time will that bring us to?
My indication is that Deputy Ó Laoghaire is down to close the debate.
Why would he close the debate?
I just indicated like any other Deputy.
That you wanted to speak.
He would not be in a position to do that because he is not a member of the committee.
I thank the Deputy for that clarification.
He is a spokesperson on justice.
As indicated, Deputy Ó Laoghaire's speaking slot begins now. It will be followed by Deputy Bernard Durkan, then by the Minister of State and Deputy Ó Caoláin will close the debate.
That is fine.
Is everybody clear on that? I am sorry for the confusion.
That is a better way of operating this. First, I want to acknowledge all the groups, representatives and other people in the Gallery who have travelled here to listen to this debate. I am sure they have taken it in with interest. It is part of an ongoing dialogue.
I thank the committee for this strong report which contains reasonable recommendations that should be taken on board. I have stated previously that I do not believe the State's response to the refugee crisis has been adequate. While I am of the view that the Government could and should have committed to taking on a more substantial number of refugees, it is also the case that even with the numbers that have been committed to, the numbers that have arrived are quite paltry.
Specifically on the issue of the unaccompanied minors, on 11 November last a motion was passed by this House that was the result of a specific campaign entitled Not on My Watch, which shone a light on the issue and brought it before these Houses. It successfully highlighted the plight of unaccompanied minors in Calais particularly but also elsewhere. A motion was passed to relocate 200 of those unaccompanied minors. My understanding is that only 30% of that relatively small target has been reached.
I appreciate the briefing that was offered by the Department of Justice and Equality and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs some months ago that highlighted some of the difficulties. I recognise that it may be true that there are people who have a desire to go to Britain or Germany ahead of Ireland. That may be a real issue but, nonetheless, 30% of 200 is quite a modest number and I believe more could be done to offer people who are unaccompanied and in a very difficult situation a home in Ireland. I believe many of them would be glad to take that up.
An issue that was highlighted in the report was family reunification. I express my support for recommendation No. 2. My understanding is that there was provision for a stronger right to family reunification under the Refugee Act 1996 but that the international protection legislation of 2015 has somewhat reversed that and made it a more stringent, difficult test for people to be able to reunify with their families.
In my view, naturalised citizens who have immediate family currently living in danger and conflict zones and have family members who have been displaced should be allowed to be reunited with their loved ones. Quite often these people have left absolutely horrific situations, and there is a need to take account of the context in this regard. The following point, quoted in the report, is made by Nasc:
The ... Government's response to date, to take 4,000 refugees and asylum seekers over two years, while commendable, is simply not enough to account for the millions who are displaced worldwide, or the thousands of children that now live at risk throughout Europe. And it does not even begin to account for those who have been forced to remain in conflict zones [such as Aleppo, Mosul], Yemen, South Sudan, Eritrea.
I share that view and support the point made by Deputy Wallace that this issue is not specific to these conflicts. The issue of migrancy and refugees and how the State deals with it will be an ongoing issue politically, socially and morally for us in this State.
There is also reference in the report to the manner in which the system is administered and what might be described as a very limited used of discretion. A decision is outlined here whereby someone who was well established here and had a job received a letter from the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INIS, issued in 2015 and his application for a visa for his parents was refused, despite his father being in the later stages of Alzheimer's. The INIS letter questioned the degree of destruction in Syria, stating: "It is noted that central Damascus has been relatively unscathed by the war in Syria." I recognise that officials in the Department and in INIS are constricted by policy and that there is only so much discretion they can show. Nonetheless, I find it very difficult to understand how this description was included in correspondence sent to someone whose father was ill and living in Damascus, a place ravaged by the civil war, and how reunification was not considered in this case. The report also states there is almost an adversarial approach to the people who make an application, which is reflected in the previous quote. Ms Fiona Finn, chief executive of Nasc, is quoted in the report as saying:
The Act will mean that many refugees are going to have to move from the refugee family reunification process to the immigration framework. Under that framework, of every ten applications [submitted], eight will be refused.
There is therefore a very clear difficulty in the scope and application of family reunification as it stands and it needs to be expanded quite considerably.
The issue of the undocumented is also touched upon in the report. The Minister of State said it is difficult to account for the number of undocumented persons. Nonetheless, on the basis of his own speech, I believe we can accommodate even the upper limit. Those numbers are not that high. These are people who are already, to many varying extents, integrated into society, many of them are working, and there is no reason to believe we cannot accommodate even the upper estimate that has been outlined already. As Deputy O'Callaghan said, it is worthwhile for the Department to explore the numbers involved and try to get under way the policy of regularising the undocumented. Migrant Rights Centre Ireland has outlined that this is not an unpopular decision. In 2015, 69% of the Irish public supported regularisation of undocumented migrants, which echoes the point made by Deputy Rabbitte, that in many instances the public is ahead of public policy.
The last primary point I wish to make concerns direct provision. We had a debate on this in, I think, February, to which both the Minister of State and I contributed. Whatever the initial intentions of the policy, it has mushroomed into something quite beyond what was intended. It is a form of warehousing people. It is not a place in which it is fair to expect people to raise a family. It is certainly not fair to expect people to live there for several years with great uncertainty over their status, and it is debilitating in terms of people's sense of independence, sense of autonomy and self-esteem. I welcome the judgment that was made regarding the right to work, and I hope the Department will engage with it constructively. I believe many residents in direct provision would be very keen to engage with it. I recognise there is a housing crisis but I believe that people should have the right and entitlement to source their own accommodation if they can. Ultimately, the solution to direct provision, while people are waiting for their applications to be processed, is a life that is integrated in the community and people working, volunteering and studying in the community, providing as best as possible in their own lives for their own families.
On that specific point, I raised a further point during that debate which in some ways seems like a matter of detail, but for many residents I believe it is very important. I refer to the ability to cater for oneself. In the debate I raised with the Minister of State the fact that 128 people could be accommodated in self-catering facilities, according to the Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, statistics from January. I think he felt at the time that there had been an expansion and progress regarding the ability of people to cater for themselves. However, I checked the statistics for August just before I came down to the Chamber and there is the same number of places. Perhaps it is categorised differently - I do not know - but it certainly is not clear. What is very clear in the RIA statistics is that there are 128 self-catering accommodation places.
The recommendations that have been outlined are very reasonable, can make a substantial difference to the lives of thousands of families and individuals in Ireland who have come here seeking a better life and to that opportunity which the Government is so keen to speak about, and can offer them greater dignity.
I am glad to have the opportunity to speak and I recognise the facility the Acting Chairman has offered me. I strongly support the report of the committee on the basis that we in this country, more than any other country on the face of the earth, must know more about emigration than anyone else - both forced emigration and unforced emigration, including economic emigration.
There are two categories we should consider. I know the committee has done this already and I support its work. The first are the people who have been on stamp 4 for ten or 12 and up to 20 years in some cases, on whose behalf, unfortunately, I have had to write and raise parliamentary questions ad infinitum. The time has come to release them from stamp 4 status and give them the required citizenship. At least on stamp 4 they can work, have done so and are willing to do so. Unfortunately, and very sadly, they were precluded and excluded from third level education. It was the most ridiculous decision at the time that I have ever known to ensure they could never go beyond second level. Unfortunately, in the cases of both those on stamp 4 and undocumented children, there have been situations in which parents, to improve their children's circumstances, have borrowed money from undesirable sources to fund various third level qualifications and have paid a high price for it.
I mention very briefly the undocumented, who are a very sad group of people, some of whom, again, have worked in this country for up to 20 years, albeit unofficial or without permission. Nonetheless, they worked and paid their taxes and continue to do so, and they are not always all that well received when they make applications for regularisation, as I well know. In numerous cases they have been sent around in circles to comply with what appears to be an unending maze of bureaucracy, and I do not say that lightly as I have had, unfortunately, only too much experience of it. I have seen very sad situations of undocumented children who, with their parents, seem open to abuse and have been vulnerable and open to exploitation of various forms. It is very sad in any country, in any part of the globe, that such situations have not been addressed at this stage.
They need to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
Again, I thank the committee for the report and for bringing forward this debate. I also want to recognise the people in the Public Gallery, many of whom I know. I want to focus on the recommendations in the report, although the debate has gone far and wide into other issues, including global issues, and rightly so, and I am not being critical of that. I will go through the report's five recommendations. On the undocumented, the report states that applications should be administered on a case-by-case basis. Some colleagues criticised that, so perhaps they had not read the report. I said in my speech that we have asked officials from the Department to take forward this work and that this would mean a sector-by-sector approach in the context of our international commitments. Therefore, we have asked the officials to look at this to see what we can do.
I believe everyone would agree we need an immigration policy of some sort in the country. We just cannot open the borders and say everyone who wants to live and work here can come in. We must have an asylum policy and it has to be clear. If the committee has recommendations about how we can refine it, that is fair enough, and I would like to see that. However, I do not think anyone would disagree we need to have an immigration policy. We cannot just open the doors; no country does that.
As I said, if anyone arrives tonight at one of the ports or Dublin Airport and says he or she wants asylum, he or she will get a bed tonight, straight away, and food, heat, protection and medical assistance. I am concerned about what Deputy Coppinger said about a refugee who is not getting treatment and I would like details on that to find if we can do more on it.
With regard to family reunification, I said that we are looking at ways of increasing the number of people we can bring in. The Minister, Deputy Flanagan, and I intend to bring forward fresh proposals in the near future. We are looking at it and are committed to it. I said we would concentrate efforts on reunification of immediate family members specifically caught up in conflict zones. I heard someone say that, in different countries, families can be defined in different ways, and there may be ten or even 50, 60 or 70 people in a family. It is a question of where we draw the line. If the committee can give us guidance on that, I would be interested. Nonetheless, I have committed to change in this area.
On the Calais situation, we have been working closely with the French authorities. The figure in the motion that was agreed was "up to 200", not 200. No unaccompanied minor who has asked to come to Ireland has been refused. To give some up-to-date information, Tusla assessed and screened an additional five unaccompanied minors from Calais on 23 September, which will bring the number up to 31. The work is ongoing. While it is difficult to locate these children, we have not refused anybody who has been identified and who wants to come here from Calais, as the motion put forward. That has not been done.
Regarding relocation and resettlement, we have submitted a pledge for 600 refugees for 2018, which is the largest number we have ever put forward, and we are working hard to bring in these people. There are challenges with accommodation, as we know. At the moment there are 150 spare beds left in the direct provision centres. Colleagues come into the House and say, "Shut down direct provision". There are 4,800 people tonight who have a bed, heat and food. If Members are asking me to shut that down, where do they go? Do they end up on the streets or sleep rough? If somebody can bring forward a realistic alternative, I am all ears. I have been engaged with NGOs and community groups about community resettlement and integration with communities, which was mentioned. If, as in Canada, Britain and other places, communities want to come together and support families who want to come here as refugees, we will work with them. I have met the NGOs on a number of occasions and have asked them to come forward with proposals on that. In fairness, they are working on that and we will work with them. That is ongoing.
This debate has been extremely useful and it is very important. I am concerned about criticism of direct provision. I have visited almost all the centres and have met many of the people living there, and one will of course find some people who are disgruntled. The idea of the International Protection Act is that it will cut down the length of time people have to stay in the centres. What was happening before was that the decision process went on and on, and it could take years before the final decision was made. We now want to make that decision within nine months or a year at a maximum, so people will know where they stand at the end of that time. At the moment, there are a number of people in direct provision centres who have permission to remain and we want to encourage them to stay in Ireland and to find their own accommodation. We are working hard on that and if colleagues can assist in any way in identifying accommodation, please let us know. We also have some people in direct provision centres who have been through hoop and loop, as I would call it, in the legal system and have been told that they have not proven a right to be in Ireland. That goes back to my original point about immigration policy. They have been issued with deportation orders and they should not be here, but they are taking up space in these centres which we badly need for genuine asylum seekers. They are not asylum seekers any more; the decision has been taken and they should leave the country. The obligation is on them to leave, voluntarily, as most do when they are told their case has not been successful.
Reference was made to accreditation of qualifications. We are aware of that and are working on it but it is not an easy matter, as was outlined. We are trying to come forward with ways of making accreditation easier and faster but we must make sure we can line up the skills and qualifications people get in other countries with what is required here under law. We do not want a situation where we accredit somebody as having a professional skill but then find they do not have skills to that level. The Deputy would be the first to come after me if we did that. We are working on that under the integration strategy. We have published that integration strategy, although I am not sure if the committee has had a chance to examine it and perhaps give some indication of its views. It is quite comprehensive and a lot of work went into it.
We have looked at the right to work. As the committee knows, the Supreme Court has passed judgment and an interdepartmental task force is working on that. We are taking it very seriously and we hope in time to be in a position to respond to that, as required.
Those are the main points. I dealt with family reunification, which we will work on. We have sent people to Greece, Lebanon and Italy under our commitments, given we have voluntarily opted into these. We are on or ahead of target on some of the commitments we have entered into and we have given further commitments. The Italian situation was mentioned, perhaps by Deputy Bríd Smith. What we want is very light-touch security. We just want gardaí to sit in on the interviews with the people who want to come here to ascertain that everything is as it should be. That is our policy. We have worked very hard with the Italians to try to make that happen. They are not willing to do that but we live in hope that we can do it, given we are anxious to bring people in. In the main this involves Eritreans in Italy who are qualified under the scheme.
All of our hearts go out, given the ongoing situation across the world, to the 65 million people displaced. What is going on is appalling. We have sent our Naval Service to the Mediterranean to rescue people and try to save lives, and it has done that. I have met many Naval Service personnel and I want to commend them on the work they are doing. They have been really moved and touched by what they have seen, especially when they have had to bring dead bodies out of the water, which is really shocking.
The House should rest assured that we are working as hard as we can. I was quite moved by the debate. The Deputies who spoke did not play politics with this. They were genuine in their views and raised some very interesting questions and points, to which we listened carefully and will take on board. Again, I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for the work they have done, and I commend them on that. Let us work together to see how we can move forward with all these issues.
Go raibh maith agat. I thank all Deputies who contributed to what I hope will prove a worthwhile debate. Knowing the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, as I do, having spoken to him on this issue on a number of occasions and having listened to his closing contribution, I can only hope that his opening contribution was not of his authorship. I do not believe that it reflects the views that the Minister of State has expressed previously. In his opening contribution the Minister of State said:
The Minister for Justice and Equality and I have examined the Oireachtas committee report with a view to identifying what elements, if any, of the recommendations could be acted upon in some way. We have asked officials from the Department to take forward this work. This would mean a sector by sector approach in the context of [what the Minister of State refers to as] our international commitments.
As a committee, members were unanimous. I emphasise this because it is important that it was right across the board - Government, the Opposition, all parties and Independent voices. We unanimously indicated that these international commitments do not go far enough. We want the Government, on behalf of the Irish people, to meet our international responsibilities, which is a much different situation. The Committee on Justice and Equality wants the Government, the State apparatus and agencies to strive for and deliver our responsibilities in this regard and not our already stated commitments, which are largely unfulfilled.
In the opening contribution to the debate the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, and the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, have dismissed our recommendation urging the introduction of a structured regularisation programme for people who are undocumented. The Minister of State has come back a little bit, having listened to the contributions in the debate and he was more reflective of his own personal disposition in his closing contribution.
The Minister of State spoke in his opening remarks of "any number of unintended and expensive consequences" of such a programme. Let us be very clear. I have no reason to believe that any of the people in Ireland who are undocumented, from whatever age profile, are undesirable in any way and many of them are children. This includes Irish born children within these families. They live very sadly. As parents we must think seriously about this. They live a very shadowy life with family, with school friends and within the communities where they live. This is absolutely wrong. I want to emphasise that they too are children of our nation. In his opening contribution the Minister of State has offered them neither remedy nor hope.
With regard to the term "unintended consequences", more than two in three of these people are in full-time employment, of those who are surveyed among the undocumented population. Regularisation would offer increased contributions from PRSI and USC returns for the Exchequer, including from the employers in these instances who are using their labour to avoid making their respective contributions as Irish citizens.
What of the Irish people who are undocumented in the United States of America? The Minister of State's message in his opening contribution this evening is, I believe, a slap-down to them and to their families here at home. The Minister of State has offered them no remedy and no hope. He cannot expect others to do at his behest or bidding what he is not prepared to do himself. I remind the Minister of State that he said:
We should not forget that people usually become undocumented through their own conscious actions or omissions. Such persons are subject to the rule of law on the same basis as anyone else in the State, including our citizens. They are obliged to honour their immigration conditions and to leave the State when their permission to be here ceases, and they are responsible for ensuring that they have the appropriate permission...
The current Administration in the United States of America could not say it any differently. We need to show that we actually mean what we say. We can demonstrate that we are indeed a people who care for displaced peoples and we can demonstrate our international credentials on this issue by first extending the hand of friendship and warmth of welcome to people who are undocumented in our midst. Under Ireland's refugee protection programme, established for almost two years, we have only accommodated access to our shores for 1,337 people. This is significantly short of the 4,000 originally committed to. This does not reflect our awareness, as a people, of the crisis that exists in the lives of so many people who are fleeing conflict and the threat to their safety and their families' safety. The Irish people want us, as the Government and its agencies, to operate on their behalf to respond in a much more serious and speedy way. Two years on it is time to move up another gear in this respect.
I reiterate the clarification I advised earlier in recommendation No. 2 from the Report on Immigration, Asylum and the Refugee Crisis around family reunification. It is very important. We called on the Government to introduce a humanitarian admission programme with transparent and clearly defined criteria to deal with visa applications in a more sensitive way and to offer a safe and legal route for people to flee conflict zones and be reunited with family members in Ireland. It is very important to recognise that within that statement it was the committee's clear intention to recommend that this facilitation be extended to all people who are legally resident in the State and not just those who were naturalised, as was referenced in the first sentence of recommendation No. 2. I put the Minister of State on notice that this was the intention of the committee members and I will notify him formally in writing, on behalf of the committee, in the coming days. I ask the Minister of State to note that point.
The Minister of State made reference to the interdepartmental task force to consider the Supreme Court decision vis-à-vis the denial of the right to work to those who are in the direct provision centres. Will the Minister of State advise us in this regard? I know he will not get the chance to come back in to this debate now but maybe he will take the time to drop me a note. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality would like to know the construct of that interdepartmental task force. Who are its members? What Departments are represented? Is it at ministerial level, is it at official level or is it mixed? Will the Minister of State indicate its membership and perhaps he will be more precise around his expectation to receive the report of their consideration on the Supreme Court judgment? I believe there is a lack of certainty in the words that he has indicated to us.
For the record, with regard to the Minister of State's closing remarks, the committee did not call for the closure of the direct provision centres, although some may well indeed close.
I can assure the Minister of State that every committee member held absolutely to the recommendations put forward. Some of the centres might well deserve to be closed but we urged that their use should only be for short-stay purposes. We were quite considered in that regard. Gabhaim mo bhuíochas leis an gCathaoirleach agus le gach ball a ghlac páirt san díospóireacht tábhachtach seo.
I thank the staff for facilitating the additional time. I also thank all the visitors to the Public Gallery for observing the debate.