Ladies and Gentlemen, fellow Deputies,
I am delighted to be here this evening to mark World Refugee Day in the international calendar.
I would like to especially thank UNHCR for inviting me here today to share in these celebrations. I want to commend them for their work in reminding us of the poignant reality of the plight of refugees worldwide.
The UNHCR has a very important role in supporting and advocating on behalf of asylum seekers and refugees. While there are times that we may not always agree, I would like to acknowledge the positive relationship and co-operation that exists between the UNHCR and the Irish State and, in particular, my own Department.
The continued efforts of the UNHCR to support the 10.5 million refugees under their remit worldwide should be remembered and applauded. Add to that some 15 million internally displaced persons and it will give you an idea of the challenges that the UNHCR and receiving States face.
We regularly read about a revolution or a fight for democracy. We must remember that during revolutions and conflicts people die, families are separated, home and business and livelihoods are destroyed and millions of people are displaced, often forever. We need days like today to remind us and to keep the plight of these displaced people to the forefront of our minds.
I congratulate UNHCR on the series of events that they have organised to mark this day including this evening’s screening of the documentary film "Moving to Mars".
I am also reminded of a very special day in Ireland’s sporting calendar on Sunday last, 17th June, when the Annual World Refugee Day "Fair Play Cup" competition was held in Blackhall place. Teams from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, SARI’s own team of young players, teams from the media, NGO’s and Government Officials played in this important challenge.
I believe that staff from my own Department and, indeed my own Office, were narrowly beaten by the team from Crosscare following a tense penalty shoot out. Congratulations to the worthy winners. Congratulations also to the SARI ladies who were winners of the ladies tournament.
Today, our thoughts go to refugees worldwide. We celebrate the courage, inner strength and dignity of those who seek protection. We think of those who must start again in a new country, with a new culture and language in very unfamiliar surroundings. This film captures that experience.
Ireland has a long history of resettlement. While we joined the official UNHCR resettlement quota programme following a Government Decision in 1998, we have, in fact, been offering protection and resettlement to refugees since as early as 1956 when 53 Hungarian refugees arrived in Ireland. Ireland also accepted refugees for resettlement from Vietnam, Iran and from the former Yugoslavia. More recently, we have resettled families from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Burma.
Without wishing to exclude anyone, but because of the content of tonight’s film and the visit by Aung San Suu Kyi to Ireland earlier this week, I will make particular reference to the Burmese Karen community who have travelled from Ballina and Castlebar in County Mayo to attend this event. The Burmese Karen were welcomed to Ireland as part of the resettlement programme which has resettled 994 refuges from 27 different countries (mostly from Asia and North Africa) since 2000. In 2007, 97 members of the Karen community were resettled from a Refugee Camp in Thailand located deep in the jungle where they had lived for more than ten years and resettled in Castlebar and Ballina, Co. Mayo. I have no doubt that tonight’s film will remind the community of their own experiences.
Of course, the Karen community are not the only Burmese community in Ireland and I am delighted to welcome also those who work with the Burmese Rohingya community who arrived just over a year later, in 2009, and are now resettled in Carlow. They, too, have settled in well having come here from Refugee camps in Bangladesh. I understand that they launched a display of their own paintings in Carlow recently, once again working towards their integration into society. These supporting receiving communities are an invaluable resource and I thank them for their efforts.
I understand that both of the Burmese communities were in Dublin on Monday evening to welcome and entertain Aung San Suu Kyi. I hope they enjoyed their visit.
It is a pleasure to see so many people here this evening who are involved in supporting these vulnerable communities in various different forms. I am also pleased to greet representatives from the Embassies of Argentina, Chile, Japan, Norway and New Zealand who are here with us tonight and whose Governments are also involved in resettlement and protection activities. Indeed, we were very pleased to welcome a delegation from Japan to Ireland recently to observe the Irish Resettlement Programme.
At a meeting with the UNHCR in December, I restated the Irish Governments commitment to continuing to support the very worthwhile UNHCR resettlement programme. In fact, my staff are currently organising the transfer of five medical cases to Ireland, whose medical needs could not be met except through resettlement.
I have also agreed to relocate a further 10 persons from Malta to Ireland for resettlement. This is in addition to the three families (also 10 persons) that were relocated from Malta in 2011. This action is a gesture of support at a time of exceptional migratory pressure on our Maltese colleagues.
As Minister for Justice and Equality, I am, in law, given the duty of deciding who should be awarded the privilege of citizenship. I had the pleasure of attending a citizenship ceremony last Thursday where 4,000 new citizens celebrated their new citizenship. When the Government came into office 15 months ago on 9th March 2011, there was an enormous backlog of approximately 22,000 citizenship applications awaiting decision. Approximately 17,000 of these had been waiting in a barely moving queue for in excess of 6 months with an average waiting time in excess of two years. Some, indeed, had waited 3 to 4 years. I am proud that, since I came to Office, I have made decisions on nearly 28,000 applications for citizenship. 55 of these were members of the Burmese Karen community who took the oath of fidelity to our nation and were awarded citizenship.
This Government is also committed, under the Programme for National Recovery to
"Introduce comprehensive reforms of the immigration, residency and asylum systems in Ireland, which will include a statutory appeals system and set out rights and obligations in a transparent way".
It is from this policy perspective that work on the details of the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill 2010, inherited from the last Government, is ongoing at my Department.
In the course of dealing with this Bill while in opposition, and latterly, in dealing with it as the Minister responsible, it has become clear that, in addition to the large number of technical amendments required, a number of other enhancements to the Bill will be necessary to reflect current Government policy. I have therefore, been considering how best to progress these matters including in cooperation with the Offices of Parliamentary Counsel and of the Attorney General.
It remains my considered view that, instead of engaging in the extremely cumbersome process of tabling hundreds of amendments to the 2010 Bill, it would be much more efficient to publish a new and enhanced one incorporating anticipated amendments and addressing key outstanding issues, several of which have been of concern from both the political and advocacy perspectives.
It remains my objective under this new approach and mindful of the competing legislative demands of our EU/IMF/ECB Programme commitments, to be in a position to bring the new Bill to Government for approval and publication later this year.
Notwithstanding the protracted history of this piece of legislation to date, this pragmatic approach to re-framing and perfecting the Bill has been broadly welcomed, including by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. Having invested no small amount of effort and time in the development of policy in this area during much of my political career, I am determined to see the reforms driving the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill through to fruition and enactment so that we will have a lasting, comprehensive, transparent statutory framework for the implementation of Government immigration, residence and asylum policies.
Finally, can I take this opportunity to thank all of you who offer support and guidance to refugees, both those who come through the asylum process and those admitted through the resettlement programme.
I look forward to continued cooperation with the UNHCR and I thank you all for attending. I hope you enjoy the film. It reminds us all of the incredible journey that refugees make and their courage in establishing new lives to ensure that their children enjoy a future of freedom and peace.