The median processing time to a final decision on an asylum application in 2013 was 36 weeks. Some cases can take significantly longer to complete due to, for example, delays arising from medical issues or because of judicial review proceedings. All asylum applications and appeals are processed in accordance with the Refugee Act 1996 and other relevant statutory provisions. High quality and fair decision-making in all cases continues to be a key priority at all stages of the asylum process.
Persons who are refused refugee status are notified of their entitlement to apply for subsidiary protection. This is separate to the asylum or refugee status determination process. This is invariably followed by the so-called leave to remain process. Each of these processes which determine whether an applicant can remain in the State are hugely complex and subject to oversight by the courts and have to be examined in accordance with a large body of Irish and international law. There are no shortcuts as the outcomes can lead to the most fundamental life-changing event for the applicants.
As the Deputy may be aware I made new Regulations last year governing the investigation and determination of applications for subsidiary protection in the State. The European Union (Subsidiary Protection) Regulations 2013, which came into effect on 14 November 2013, were made to address certain matters which arose from the judgment of the High Court in January 2013 in the MM case.
Under the new Regulations, responsibility for the processing of applications for subsidiary protection was transferred from my Department to the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner with appeals to be dealt with by the Refugee Appeals Tribunal. Both of these bodies are independent in the exercise of their statutory functions and they have substantial experience in the area of asylum investigations and appeals, respectively. Once the new arrangements have bedded down, my aim is for applications currently on hand to be processed to finality by the statutory bodies concerned in the shortest possible timeframe consistent with quality and fair assessment of all cases and of course, subject to the cooperation of applicants and no further legal impediments arising.
Legislative reform in the area of protection remains a key priority. Work on a new Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill, which remains part of the Government's Legislative Programme, is being advanced to enable publication later this year. The Bill will provide, inter alia, for the introduction of a single application procedure for the investigation of all grounds for protection and any other grounds presented by applicants seeking to remain in the State. This re-organisation of the protection application processing framework should substantially simplify and streamline the existing arrangements by removing the current multi-layered and sequential processes and provide applicants with a final decision on their application in a more ‘straight forward’ and timely fashion.
The Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) of my Department is responsible for the accommodation of protection applicants in accordance with the Government policy of direct provision and dispersal. Direct provision provides for full board accommodation supports while a final decision is awaited by a person on their protection or any related leave to remain application.
The operation of the Direct Provision system is kept under review and I have consistently acknowledged that the length of time that residents spend in Direct Provision is an issue to be addressed. I have no desire for applicants to remain in the protection system any longer than the minimum period it takes to process their case. The Direct Provision system is not ideal but it is a system which facilitates the State in providing a roof over the head of those seeking asylum or seeking to be allowed, on humanitarian grounds, to stay in the State. It allows the State to do it in a manner that facilitates resources being used economically in circumstances where the State is under financial difficulty.
The numbers of asylum seekers residing in direct provision has reduced significantly over the last five years. At the end of December 2013 there were 4,360 residents in direct provision compared with 6,494 at the end of December 2009. This represents a reduction of 2,134, or 33%, in the number of residents in direct provision in that period. Compared to the numbers residing in direct provision at its highest point in April, 2005 (8,080), there has been a reduction of 46% or 3,720 persons in the intervening nine years.
A comprehensive review of the operation of the asylum seeker accommodation programme was carried out and the subsequent report - "Value for Money and Policy Review - Asylum Seeker Accommodation Programme" - which was published in May 2010, found that there are no cheaper alternatives to the Direct Provision system. No Government can afford to ignore the likely consequences of any change to the Direct Provision system. The system cannot exist solely in its own context. It is inextricably linked to the surrounding international protection process. By its very nature, the processing of applications for international protection is a solemn and complex task which does not always lend itself to achieving speedy outcomes. The time needed to determine the outcome of any legal proceedings also impacts on the length of the process. A substantial proportion of cases in the High Court relate to judicial review proceedings taken or decisions reached in the international protection arena.
In relation to the right to work, there are no plans to review the prohibition on the right to work for asylum seekers. Section 9(4)(b) of the Refugee Act 1996 provides that applicants for international protection shall not seek or enter employment or carry on any business, trade or profession during the period before the final determination of their application. The key concern in the light of past experience is that both the asylum process and the wider immigration system could be undermined by giving immigrants who secure entry to the State, on foot of claims to asylum, the same access to employment as immigrants who follow the lawful route to employment. There is an effective immigration and visa system in place for those who wish to lawfully migrate to the State for employment purposes.
In terms of access to training, eligibility for former FÁS training programmes provided through the Education and Training Boards, under the auspices of SOLAS, is a matter for the Department of Social Protection. However, it should be noted that currently asylum seekers who do not have an entitlement to work are entitled to free access to adult literacy, English language and mother culture supports only.