Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 1 Dec 1998

Vol. 157 No. 9

Refugee Resettlement Programme.

I welcome the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to the House. I am very grateful he has taken the time to respond to this motion, which is somewhat timely in light of the media coverage in recent days of refugee problems. As I have often said in the House, a clear distinction must be made between illegal immigrants who attempt to illegally enter this country and those who are legitimately seeking political refugee status or are effectively running for their lives from their countries of origin. It is in that context that I tabled this matter.

As a member of the sub-committee on human rights of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, I had the privilege in recent weeks of visiting Geneva and meeting the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mrs, Robinson, and many other officials involved in this complex area. Arising out of those discussions, it came to my attention that a number of EU member states and others are operating what is called a specific resettlement programme. Those countries are Australia, which takes in 4,000 refugees per year; Canada; Denmark, which is a country of similar size to Ireland and takes in 500 refugees per year; Finland; the Netherlands; New Zealand, which takes in 750 refugees; Norway, which takes in 1,500 refugees; Sweden, which takes in 1,800 refugees; Switzerland, which takes in 50 refugees; and the United States, which — although it hardly bears comparison in the context of this debate — takes in 83,000 refugees. These refugees are taken in under the resettlement programme, according to the criteria laid down by the UNHCR.

Another aspect of this proposal is what the UNHCR refers to as the "20 or more plan" for refugees with special medical needs and emergency cases. This plan is implemented by Denmark and Norway. Statistics from UNHCR field offices for up to 31 May 1998 show that 12,250 refugees were resettled under UNHCR auspices. Another 3,100 cases, representing 9,630 persons, have been submitted and are awaiting decisions from resettlement countries. A further 1,600 cases, representing 4,920 persons, will be submitted or resubmitted by the UNHCR to the relevant member states for resettlement.

In 1997 more than 380 persons, including dependants, were resettled as women at risk cases. The fact that another 1,000, including dependants, await decisions from resettlement countries or are under active consideration by the UNHCR gives an idea of the scope of the problem. These special needs refugees, referred by the UNHCR within the limits of special programmes already in existence, generally receive favourable consideration from the participating countries — what one might term a fast track approach.

The UNHCR has also appealed to all states which are members of the UN to consider the provision, where relevant, of resettlement opportunities, particularly for refugees with special needs which otherwise cannot be adequately addressed. The phrase "cannot be adequately addressed under current procedures" is particularly important in the context of Ireland. Examples of special needs refugees include women, children, unaccompanied or separated minors, those with medical needs, survivors of violence and torture and the elderly.

Resettlement functions as an urgent protection measure in individual cases and ensures the survival of refugees with special needs in safety and dignity. The link between resettlement and refugee protection has been recognised in practice both by those states which operate such a programme and the UNHCR. It is also an important exercise in burden sharing between those states which can do so.

We have an impressive record in human rights and I strongly urge the Government to give particular consideration to how resettlement places may be made available to respond to urgent protection cases. I particularly request that Ireland provide resettlement opportunities combined with accelerated processing procedures under UNHCR's mandate for refugee women who are in dangerous and precarious situations and also for minors where local solutions are not available and immediate resettlement may be the only practical means to guarantee their protection.

I acknowledge the contribution Ireland has made in the past to resettle victims of human rights violations, for example, the Vietnamese boat people who have successfully integrated into Irish society and who have made a valuable contribution to it. Bosnian war victims have also been welcomed here. I am strongly of the opinion that Ireland should adopt a quota system along the lines I have outlined in order to respond immediately to UNHCR requests whenever they arise.

I also acknowledge the compassionate approach which the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy O'Donoghue, has taken. I have had personal experience of his compassion and quick response to cases brought to his attention which involved a threat to life if people were returned under certain existing procedures or where there was a genuine need among the people involved.

I am grateful to the Minister for coming to the House to respond to this matter.

I thank Senator Mooney for raising this important matter. In keeping with Ireland's long and honourable tradition in the asylum area, my Department accepts applications for refugee status from persons of many different countries of origin. All applications are processed in accordance with the 1951 Geneva Convention and people entitled to protection are given protection. I do not envisage introducing a quota system to the determination process. However, I emphasise that people entitled to protection pursuant to the convention are given protection.

Each application is individually examined and it is only after such examination is completed that a decision on its well-foundedness can be taken. All these applications are examined in accordance with the terms of the Dublin Convention to determine if Ireland is the appropriate State to consider the applications. Following this examination, the applications are considered in accordance with the definition of a refugee as set out in section 2 of the Refugee Act, 1996. This section defines a refugee as someone who, owing to wellfounded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it. An applicant must establish a well-founded fear of persecution and where it is established that such a fear does not exist the application will be rejected and the applicant refused refugee status in the State.

International experience is that there is an increasing tendency by individuals to intentionally misuse asylum procedures for illegal immigration purposes. Last year I attended an international conference with almost 40 other Ministers and representatives of international institutions which examined the worldwide problem of illegal immigration. At that conference I was interested to hear the UNHCR's own representative speak on the necessity to discourage the abuse of asylum procedures. He said that a number of migrants seeking employment rather than protection from persecution circumvent legal immigration regulations and request asylum. He emphasised, and I agree wholeheartedly with him, that attempts to obtain asylum by people with no valid claim to international protection take advantage of asylum procedures and create serious problems by clogging those procedures. He went on to say that, moreover, such abusive claims have greatly contributed to the confusion between refugees and illegal migrants and in turn reflect negatively on the asylum institution and hence on bona fide refugees.

The UNHCR also underlined another major concern of states and the UNHCR alike, namely, the phenomenon of asylum seekers who leave countries in which they have found or could have found protection in order to seek asylum elsewhere. Movements of this kind have a destabilising effect on international efforts aimed at finding durable solutions for refugees.

While recognising that there is a serious problem with abuse of asylum procedures as a means of facilitating illegal immigration, it is nevertheless critically important that we do not prejudge cases, that each application is fully and fairly considered and that each applicant has access to an independent appeals system. These are the principles by which I am operating and will continue to operate.

The position of asylum seekers has acquired an increased significance in the Department with the increase in the number of asylum claims in recent years which has challenged the structures in the Department and focused attention on procedures and resources. In 1993 there were only 91 applications for asylum. By the end of October this year over 4,000 applications had been recorded. In 1997, prior to this Government taking up office, 22 staff in the Department were assigned to this work. The staff in the area will shortly be close to 200. I have also arranged for a refugee legal service to be established which will be independent of the Department.

The Legal Aid Board has agreed to provide a comprehensive legal service and legal aid for asylum seekers. It will assist asylum seekers in exercising their legal rights in all aspects of the Irish asylum procedure. The new legal service will be based at the "one-stop-shop" centre at Timberley House, Lower Mount Street, Dublin, and it is my intention that it will be fully operational by the end of February 1999.

I would like to refer also to a separate issue, that is the suggestion which is made from time to time that we should operate an immigration quota under which a fixed number of people could relocate to Ireland each year to seek employment. At present, when an employer can show that a particular vacancy cannot be filled by an Irish or other EU national, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment will grant them a work permit to employ a third country national. The person in respect of whom this work permit is issued will be admitted to the State to take up this post. This is the approach I favour in preference to a quota system, because it responds to proven skills shortages, it is flexible in meeting economic needs as they arise and it avoids the arbitrary element that must of necessity be involved in the setting of quotas.

I am pleased to inform the House that the Government recently decided to enter into an informal agreement with the UNHCR which will admit up to ten vulnerable persons and their immediate families on an annual basis as part of the UNHCR's resettlement programme for vulnerable persons. To give effect to this Government decision on vulnerable persons, an agreement will be drawn up with the UNHCR in early 1999.

I again thank Senator Mooney for raising this important matter.

I thank the Minister for his very comprehensive reply. I hope that what he referred to in his reply, particularly the work of the Legal Aid Board and the one-stop-shop, which has been called for in this House and elsewhere, will be publicly acknowledged and I wish it well. As the cliché goes, the devil is in the detail in that having listened attentively and with interest to the Minister's speech, the last paragraph contains the specific request I raised with him. I am particularly pleased that the Government, through the Minister, has agreed to enter negotiations with the UNHCR and that there will now be a specific quota allocation in place for those who are at risk, be they women, children, elderly people or those subjected to violence through torture or abuse. This is a watershed. It is an important and significant development and I praise the Minister for his initiative. I wish the programme well.

The Seanad adjourned at 6.35 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 2 December 1998.