I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I moved this Bill some two years ago, when we were promised speedy movement on it. Not much has been done, although I will grant that a certain amount has happened. It is rather appropriate that we are discussing it today in light of the fact that, coincidentally, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has produced a report which was launched this morning at 11.30 a.m. The report contains a considerable section about refugees and asylum seekers. It points to Ireland's agreement to participate in the deal with Turkey and how it puts the whole of the European Union in danger of coming into direct conflict with the provisions of non-refoulement - that is, refusal to return people to places where they could be done harm.
There is an associated area, which I will not deal with today but I am sure will come up in Seanad Éireann, which is the existence of large numbers of undocumented migrants. There are 20,000 to 26,000 undocumented migrants in Ireland and their fate bears a direct relation to that of our own Irish people living in the USA, about whom we have argued so passionately in the past. Of these, 84% have been living here for more than five years, including 49% for more than eight years and 21% for more than ten years. This is a large body of people whose situation needs to be determined.
I am not a negative person, so I will accept that some progress has been made and that Ireland, for such a small nation, has done some wonderful and remarkable things. For example, we have sent our Naval Service to the Mediterranean Sea, where they have been involved in the rescue of significant numbers of people, and this is something of which I believe we as a nation can be justly proud. It is also important to note that Ireland has been chosen to co-facilitate the United Nations General Assembly high-level meeting in New York on refugees and migrants on 19 September 2016. Part of my motivation for tabling this Bill again in the House was to reactivate it and push to give the Minister of State support in doing what he has already started to do, but not - in my opinion - half quickly enough.
I reject the amendment. I am a political realist and I know they have done their numbers. We used to be governed by a four-person group in the previous Government and now it is down to two: Enda and Micheál. They have got together and decided to scupper the Bill. So be it, but I will still probably call a vote. They used the Brexit excuse - ho hum - and mentioned the European Union pact on migration and then the implementation of the International Protection Act 2015. I welcomed this, but perhaps the Minister of State could indicate an implementation date, particularly with regard to the single procedure. Can we please have a clear and specific date by which this valuable instrument will come into operation? There is also another piece of technical legal material, which I will leave to one side.
The Government established a working group under the distinguished former judge Dr. Bryan McMahon, who made his report. It is not entirely what I would like to see - it fails to address some significant issues - but it is extremely useful. One month ago, on 17 June 2016, Dr. McMahon said:
We recommend the Government now move to ensure the remaining measures to give effect to the recommendations are implemented so that people seeking asylum in Ireland can live with a greater degree of respect and dignity.
With regard to the asylum situation in Ireland, I have the latest figures, as far as I know. There are 35 centres with an occupancy of 4,371 people from 17 countries. One has to look at the report of the working group, because they did work very intensively and made it their business to visit many of these centres around the State. The working group discovered that only three of the centres were custom-built. The other centres were accommodation facilities that had been lying idle, such as hotels and guest houses, which had been designed essentially for quite different purposes from that of maintaining people who were seeking asylum. The working group found that the majority of families were accommodated in a sort of single unit with no separate living space. To ask someone to live in these conditions for five, six, seven, eight, nine or ten years is pretty grim when one thinks about it. Living in one room is a pretty disastrous way to live. The members of the working group described the accommodation units, and particularly those that are really just bedrooms, as cramped and cluttered with inadequate storage and unsuited to the multiple purposes that they they are required to serve. They also looked at the concerns around cooking facilities. I will not rehash that issue as two years ago I put onto the record of the Seanad the cultural need for people to be able to cook their own food; when children watch their parents preparing meals in a family environment, it consolidates the family unit.
I know the Government will say there were 173 recommendations. It has implemented 91 recommendations, many of which are associated with the legislation to which I have already referred, the International Protection Bill 2015. It has partially implemented 49 recommendations and further consideration is required on 33 of them. Therefore, approximately 50% of the recommendations have been implemented. That is not a terribly good average. It has attracted the attention, not just of Seanad Éireann, the Irish Refugee Council and the Human Rights and Equality Commission, but also of His Excellency, Uachtarán na hÉireann, President Michael D. Higgins, who, in 2014 in South Africa, said that the direct provision situation in Ireland was completely unsatisfactory. He said that the Irish system of direct provision did not address the human rights of people seeking asylum in Ireland. That was not the end of it, as he returned to this matter on 21 May 2016, questioning something that I would also question: the fact that dealing with direct provision was originally part of the agreement on the programme for Government, but then it disappeared. That must have been a specific and deliberate decision, because it was on the programme at one stage and now it is gone. Perhaps the Minister of State could clarify the reason for this.
I will return now to Dr. Bryan McMahon. In May 2016 he described the Government's treatment of asylum seekers as remaining "narrow" and "mean". These two simple words are very powerful and effective and they characterise what he sees as the approach of Government. This is the independent judge appointed by the Government to oversee this area. Dr. McMahon called for an immediate once-off amnesty for people who have been in the asylum system for five years. This is also in my Bill, but I call for an amnesty after four years. I called for this in light of the 1916 celebrations. The President also referred to the fact that the matter had fallen off the Government's agenda.
I would like to quote a direct voice from this community, a woman called Kany Kazadi. In an interview in the The Irish Times on 20 June, she said:
Integration does not happen in rural places with this system. It was clear there were two separate communities in this small town. I was always identifiable as a woman of colour walking down its main street. If I had been given the opportunity to work or to upskill, then it would have been a different experience. Direct provision has to go. We don’t want to live like prisoners, we don’t need your sympathy, we want to be understood. We have so much talent.
I refer to the provisions of the Bill I am presenting to the House today. The main section is section 7 which addresses what I think are the essential elements we are considering today. It refers to the entitlement to reside in the State, the capacity to enjoy the right to travel, the same freedom to practise religion as Irish citizens, the ability to seek and enter into employment, the right of association, which is guaranteed in the Constitution, access to the courts, which is not fully granted under the present situation, and access to education. It is ridiculous that when asylum seekers come to the end of their second level education and want to go on to third level, they are expected to scrounge around and find €10,000 to meet their fees. Section 7 also states people are entitled to receive the same medical care and services and social welfare as those to which Irish citizens are entitled. These are the essential core demands that I have put forward in my Bill.
I have the support of the Irish Refugee Council for the Bill but it is hedged with some qualifications. The council is in favour of the intention of the Bill and the general principles behind it but it is worried about some of the language used, in particular the word "regularisation." It seems to think, and it is a legitimate point of view, that the word "regularisation" suggests or implies that there is something irregular in asylum seekers' status here at the moment. In a legal sense, this may not be true but I can say with my hand on my heart that the way in which such people are treated is as sure as hell irregular. That is what needs to be addressed and we can start the process here today.
I refer to the system whereby ad hoc permission to remain is granted. I would be very glad if the Minister could address this matter. I am particularly glad the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, is here because he has been directly involved in this situation and, therefore, knows what he is talking about. Very often the people who avail of this ad hoc system do not fully understand the implications of so doing and the restrictions, for example, on their subsequent rights. I refer to the right to pursue family reunification and so on. This is a problem.
The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald, has spoken about the International Protection Act. However, in April 2016, Mr. Justice Bryan McMahon said that it was regrettable that since the working group report, there had been no improvement in the living conditions and supports for almost 5,000 people. The Jesuit Refugee Service said that huge work needed to be done. A key recommendation was that people in direct provision for more than five years should be admitted to the system. Under the working group, there was also a recommendation that we opt directly into all instruments of the Common European Asylum System, including the recast reception conditions initiative.
I will pass over what the Government said because I know it will be well able to say it again. Two years ago, the then Minister of State, Deputy Deenihan, said that it took far too long for applications to be dealt with. It is still taking too long and the process is getting longer as we speak. It has gone from 12 months to 15 months and I am not quite sure what it is now.
This country is unusual in regard to the right to work. In the United Kingdom, Malta and Bulgaria, asylum seekers can work for a year after they submit their application. In Poland, the Netherlands, Italy and Belgium, the wait is only six months and I could go on.
One of the issues at the heart of this is the length of time involved. Uncertainty overshadows the lives of people. There is also a lack of personal autonomy over the most basic aspects of their lives and daily living. I refer to cooking, going to the shops, cleaning, the lack of privacy, the challenge of sharing with strangers, the boredom and isolation, the inability of people to support themselves or their family and contribute to society in a meaningful way, the impact on children being born and-or living their formative years in an institutional setting, the impact on the capacity of parents to parent to their full potential and the loss of skills and the creation of dependency.
When I wrap up this debate, I would like to discuss the whole question of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. The people who interview them say, "You don't look gay." Well, hello. Maybe I look gay but I could not care less. The people conducting the interviews say, "You're married or you have children." Do we not know the history of this bloody country where people who were gay were forced into marriage? They had to get married in order to provide cover for themselves. I thank the Acting Chairman for his indulgence and look forward to hearing what the Minister of State has to say.