A key recommendation underpinning the Justice McMahon Report on improvements to the International Protection process was to address the length of time taken to process applications, which can lead to long stays in State provided accommodation.
With the commencement of the International Protection Act 2015 on 31 December 2016, we now have a single application procedure. This is the biggest reform to our protection process in two decades. It means that an applicant has all aspects of their claim (refugee status, subsidiary protection status, and permission to remain), examined and determined in one process. The aim is to provide first instance decisions in the shortest possible timeframe.
The International Protection Office (IPO) of my Department is responsible for examining all applications received. The staff of the IPO (the Chief International Protection Officer and the International Protection Officers) are independent by law in the exercise of their international protection functions.
Upon the commencement of the 2015 Act, approximately 3,500 legacy cases were carried over to be dealt with under the new single application procedure (1,500 of these cases were from the former Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner and 2,000 from the former Refugee Appeals Tribunal). A further 500 cases transitioned in the months following commencement. These cases would have been the longest in the system at the commencement of the Act.
The International Protection Office (IPO) committed to scheduling these legacy cases for interview by the end of 2018 and for completion by the end of Q2 2019, where possible.
The IPO achieved the first part of this commitment in 2018 by scheduling all transition cases for interview, where it was possible to do so. The vast majority of the legacy cases have now been processed to completion in the IPO, and the focus is now on post commencement single procedure cases.
Some legacy cases will continue to be dealt with. These include transition applicants who had not co-operated up to this point but who are now re-engaging with the process and applicants who have come back into the process through Judicial Review. These cases are prioritised and scheduled for interview at the earliest possible opportunity and are processed accordingly.
Cases processed in Q1 2020, where applications were made after the introduction of the International Protection Act 2015 (full Single Procedure cases), had a median processing time of 14.7 Months (9.7 months for priority cases) from date of application. Including the cases that came before the International Protection Act, the overall waiting time is 14.9 Months. Prioritised applications include those from especially vulnerable groups of applicants, such as unaccompanied minors and applicants from refugee generating countries like Syria and Eritrea.
However, it should be noted that at the end of February 2020, prior to the Covid-19 global pandemic, an applicant who applied for international protection at that time could have expected to receive a first instance recommendation/decision within approximately 11-12 months, with prioritised applications being processed within 8-9 months provided that no complications arose and that application figures did not rise further.
The IPO is working hard to try to achieve a target of 9 months in the vast majority of cases. However it must be acknowledged that the processing of applications is complex and that each application deserves and receives an individual assessment.
Covid-19 social distancing restrictions have impacted on the number of applications being assessed by the International Protection Office. Substantive interviews of international protection applicants have been suspended until further notice. The IPO hopes to resume interviewing shortly and is exploring options to do so in a manner which is consistent with public health advice during Covid-19. The IPO will issue notification when interviews resume. All IPO case processing teams are continuing to work remotely on processing cases during this period.
The International Protection Office (IPO) has remained open for the taking of applications for international protection and has continued working on international protection applications where interviews took place before the implementation of measures to restrict the spread of Covid-19.
The IPO has begun issuing some first instance recommendation letters to applicants in cases where their interview has previously taken place and a recommendation to grant refugee status has been made.
The Immigration Service Delivery function of my Department is continuing to process cases to the extent allowed by government restrictions to stem the spread of Covid-19 and that means that as much of the work that can be done remotely is up to date. However, the timelines for the actual issuing of the decisions have necessarily been pushed out to enable conformity with public health measures on social distancing and non-essential travel. We can, however, look at emergency cases on an individual basis and take a tailored approach to them.
Waiting times for decisions on international protection applications are not routinely published by my Department.