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.