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Speech by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Charlie Flanagan TD 

 

19 July 2017 

 

Cathaoirleach, Senators, 

I am pleased to address the House this evening and to take part in this debate and hear the views of Senators.  

The stated purpose of the Bill is to extend the scope for a refugee or a person eligible for subsidiary protection for members of their extended family to enter and reside in the State. It seeks to reverse some of the reforms introduced in the International Protection Act 2015. That Act was debated at length in both Houses of the Oireachtas. It was passed by the Seanad in December 2015 – with widespread support. 

 

Key Elements of the Private Members’ Bill
 

Although the Bill as set out contains a number of provisions, most of these are already in the 2015 Act and in essence the new elements in the Bill are as follows:  

 

· it widens the scope of the definition of ‘member of the family’ in Section 56 and 57 of the International Protection Act 2015 to provide for a refugee or a person eligible for subsidiary protection to apply for a grandparent, parent, brother, sister, child, grandchild, ward or guardian to enter and reside in the State or where the family member is already in the State, to reside in the State; 

· it provides for permission to enter and reside or reside in the State where these family members are dependent on the sponsor or are suffering from a mental or physical disability to such extent that it is not reasonable for him or her to maintain himself or herself; 

· it removes the 12 month time limit introduced for a sponsor to make an application for a family member to enter and reside in the State. 

It should be noted that the provisions in section 2(a)-2(d) of the Private Members' Bill already exist in law under the 2015 International Protection Act.  

Reasons for opposing the Bill  

 

The reforms introduced in 2015 sought to bring Ireland closer to EU norms as provided for under the EU Family Reunification Directive. Ireland does not participate in this Directive however, we consider it good practice to align ourselves with mainstream EU practice – although our family reunification provisions are more expansive than these norms. In the context of the UK departing from the EU I believe we should not depart too significantly from the EU Family Reunification Directive. And it is very important to bear in mind that a significant expansion that would reverse the 2015 reforms in the family reunification area could have ramifications for our efforts to protect the Common Travel Area. 

 

Before getting into the details of the Bill it is important to consider and be mindful of the many issues faced by those in need of international protection and the challenges faced by Governments who wish to stand in solidarity with refugees and asylum seekers at a time of great challenge in Europe. The Government, as this House will recall, has been to the forefront of responding in solidarity with our European neighbours in ensuring Ireland’s response to this crisis reflects the wishes of our people to offer sanctuary and protection in times of strife, especially for those fleeing conflict.  

 

UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Volker Turk stated during his visit in June that ‘Ireland’s comprehensive response to refugees shows a level of commitment that is urgently needed from all countries’. He stated: 

“Ireland’s international engagement shows the power of all countries, no matter their size, to affect real change. In practical terms, Ireland has not been found wanting - it is supporting those developing and middle income countries hosting the majority of the world’s refugees. It is also providing opportunities for some of the most vulnerable refugees to be resettled out of precarious situations so they build a future for themselves and their families. Ireland is now resettling 520 refugees a year, a figure we strongly encourage the authorities to maintain into the future.” 

In 2015 we undertook to resettle 520 people within two years – we reached that target a full year ahead of schedule and committed to resettle double that number of people, that is 1,040 people within the two years. I am pleased to confirm we will reach that new target on time. Though we often rightly hold different views in our debates here, it is important to reflect on the up to date situation in Ireland as a result of the major reform programme undertaken in recent years.  

 

I refer also to Mr. Turk’s comments specifically on his analysis of our recent process on International Protection when he stated ‘recognition rates of refugees had returned to European Union averages, while crucial reforms of asylum legislation and decreases in average processing times showed that change is possible with the right levels of political commitment’.  

Ireland’s practical response ranges from the ongoing service of our Navy in the Mediterranean, though our three year rolling funding of food aid for Syrian refugees, to our voluntary opt-in to the European relocation and resettlements programmes - all of which have been well set out in this House. The fact that we have doubled our resettlement commitments under this programme and have worked tirelessly with more recent success, to accelerate the intake under the relocation programme is important to note at the start of this debate. Ireland is stepping up to the plate when it comes to assisting people in crisis. We have put in considerable investment in time, supports and efforts to ensure we can offer meaningful protection to vulnerable people and we will continue to do so, as I believe it reflects the will of the Irish people, who have always been generous in their response to crisis humanitarian situations.  

A key recommendation of the Justice McMahon Working Group was to improve the protection process that had evolved over time to a multi-level sequential process with too many opportunities for delay, both on the decision making side and the side of the applicant. The introduction of the new single application procedure under the 2015 Act reforms that cumbersome multi-layered process and when fully functioning, will deliver certainty at a much earlier stage for those who qualify for protection here in Ireland. This in turn will bring certainty much earlier for their dependent family members. The International Protection Act was commenced on December 31st last. It is a comprehensive response across the board that had not been reformed for decades. It is essential that it be given the time to embed itself and to getting all of its measures functioning, so that the humane and balanced single procedure process can respond more efficiently to the needs of those who claim and qualify for asylum.  

The fact that the Government has, in its voluntary participation in the resettlement and relocation programme, prioritised families is testament to that shared concern expressed by Senators today. Similarly we have responded to the situation in Calais by bringing unaccompanied minors here under the care of TUSLA. I am very reluctant however, within months of the commencement of this important reforming Act, to start to disassemble it on a piecemeal basis, before the entire process has the opportunity to function fully in the reforming manner in which it was introduced. I believe strongly that this new Act must be allowed to deliver certainty for families much sooner in the process. We must be allowed to make real our commitments under our existing programme and must not re-introduce open ended schemes that can only mean longer queues and reduce our capacity to plan and provide for those in need of protection.  

The House should not be blind to the proactive powers used by my predecessors and myself to respond in other ways to cases of humanitarian concern in relation to families, especially around vulnerability. In opposing the Bill, it must be emphasised that existing avenues for the admission of more extended family members are already available under the provisions of the Non-EEA Policy Document on Family Reunification, which allows beneficiaries of international protection and other Non-EEA migrants residing lawfully in Ireland to make an application. As Minister, I can and do apply this discretion as regards the economic conditions for sponsors set down in the Policy Document and in cases of humanitarian need. Such applications on humanitarian grounds are examined on a case-by-case basis and I intend to continue this practice. 

As outlined at the outset, I want to return to our alignment of Family Reunification with that which exists across the EU. The International Protection Act 2015 was written to closely align Ireland with mainstream European practice and its current provisions on family reunification are not only in line with other EU Member States, but are in parts less rigid and more flexible than exist in other countries. The Bill being debated this evening seeks to amend Sections 56 and 57 of the International Protection Act 2015 by reintroducing Section 18(4) of the repealed Refugee Act 1996 thus replacing subsections 56(8) and 56(9) of the 2015 Act. This removes the time limits introduced for making an application and effectively makes the application process for family reunification open-ended.  

The International Protection Act 2015 provides for a greatly simplified and shorter duration route to family reunification, for those who are in need of it, while continuing to protect the best interests of children in the process. Some of the key changes introduced in the 2015 Act include: 

· A new definition of a ‘member of the family’ to align more closely with the definition in the EU Family Reunification Directive – spouses, civil partners, children of the sponsor (if they are under the age of 18), parents and siblings of the sponsor (if the sponsor and siblings are under the age of 18); 

· In the case of spouses/civil partners, the relationship must have been subsisting on the date the application for international protection was made (section 56 only);  

 

And the Bill introduces Time limits –  

o Applications for family reunification must be made within 12 months of the granting of a declaration for international protection; and 

o A permission for family reunification will cease to be valid if the person does not enter the State by the date specified by the Minister when giving the permission (section 56 only). 

The new provisions of the International Protection Act 2015 provide specific rights for family reunification and a pathway to reunification for family members of those granted international protection, which is less restrictive in terms of both the application time limits and the economic conditions than in many other EU Member States. The provisions of the EU Family Reunification Directive (2003/86/EC) bind the other EU Member States, with the exception of Ireland, the UK and Denmark. The Directive does provide for a similar definition of eligible family members as is currently found in the International Protection Act 2015. 

However, the Directive applies to all third country nationals residing lawfully in the Member State, not just to beneficiaries of international protection. Persons granted subsidiary protection status (as opposed to refugee status) are excluded from the right to family reunification under the Directive. This is not the case in Ireland where those granted Subsidiary Protection are treated in the same way as those with refugee status.  

Under the Directive, Member States may require the sponsor to provide evidence that they have accommodation for the family members in the same region. They may also require that the sponsor has health insurance for the family members and sufficient and regular resources to support them without recourse to the social assistance system of the Member State concerned, so that they do not become a burden on the State. Persons granted refugee status are generally exempt from these provisions. However, the Directive does provide that Member States may require evidence that a refugee fulfils these requirements where family reunification is possible in a third country with which the refugee or his or her family members have special links, or where the reunification application is not made within three months of the granting of refugee status. Again, Ireland does not impose these conditions.  

In summary, firstly, Ireland does not apply any economic conditions for eligible family members under Sections 56 and 57 of the International Protection Act 2015. Secondly, Ireland provides a more generous time limit of 12 months from the date of the grant of international protection is provided for beneficiaries to apply for family members to enter and reside in the State and thirdly, family reunification provisions in Ireland apply equally for both beneficiaries of refugee status and subsidiary protection status.  

Any fair analysis will conclude that we have not unduly restricted access to family reunification in the International Protection Act 2015, and that we compare very favourably to the EU norms, coupled with the major reforms arising from the new single applications procedure. The fact that people seeking protection in the State can expect to have a quicker decision under the new single application procedure as it comes on stream will ensure that applications for family reunification are dealt with in a timely manner, bringing certainty to this previously open-ended process.  

Senators are aware of the challenges in the housing area at this time and that cannot be discounted in the context of debating the proposals in this Bill. At this time, communities around Ireland are welcoming families in need of protection and helping them to build new lives in their town or village. The open-ended and widely extended family reunification process that this Bill would provide for, would put a serious strain on limited local resources and services in the many rural towns. This is not hypothetical. Before the new Act was introduced, we frequently found ourselves not just trying to house one family locally, but at a later date having to accommodate the much wider extended family in the same locality, which limited our options and further slowed our ability to find suitable placements.  

The existing Act was drafted to strike a fair balance between maximising the number of new persons the State can accommodate under the Programmes coupled with a very fair and reasonable approach to family reunification, which is in line with and indeed is more liberal than the norms in other EU Member States. Obviously, if there is a major readjustment to the family reunification rules now this will upset that balance in favour of those already here limiting our capacity to reach out to those without protection in foreign camps for long periods of time. It is not just a question of more resources, it's a question of real and practical limitations, including the shortage of housing, extending the period of time persons spend in Direct Provision, access to specialist medical services, child welfare and education and it will impact on how quickly Programme refugees move out of Emergency Reception and Orientation Centres.  

Taking the abolition of timelines which this Bill proposes into account, this Bill would allow applications to be made many years later, our choice of locating services would be confined to the original location for meaningful reunification, which could render the integration process and the availability of finite accommodation and services in communities almost impossible. This would be a very undesirable start to the purpose and intent of our newly commenced legislation.  

In reality, notwithstanding the huge efforts put in my all participants in the Irish Refugee Protect Programme taskforce, we already face significant challenges in moving beneficiaries from the Emergency Reception and Orientation Centres (EROCs) or indeed from the Direct Provision System into permanent housing in the community. I am also mindful that we already have individuals and families in Greece waiting to come to Ireland under our existing relocation programme. Ireland will meet in full its relocation commitment to Greece with 459 persons of the allocation of 1,089 people already in the State and the balance to come here by the end of the year. These people must be our priority now and each of those persons will have an entitlement to apply for family reunification. We plan for each person granted status to apply for an average of four family members under the current programmes. This is in itself a major challenge and places significant demand on services. The proposed Bill renders accurate planning almost impossible and with an open ended process as proposed, this would make capacity planning for new intakes under resettlement and relocation even more difficult. The impact on our ability to respond further to those in need of relocation and resettlement could be serious in the absence of such certainty.  

And while I appreciate the motivations of those who published this Bill, I would point to its brevity and the absence of an accompanying analysis of the practical and cost implications of its proposals. 

Under the provisions of the Refugee Act 1996 which previously applied, which this Bill seeks to reinstate, some beneficiaries were applying for significant numbers of their extended family with the average of over 20 family members and from time to time some multiples of that. The International Protection Act is aimed at being equitable and fair to everyone in need of protection and is particularly geared at those in most need.  

The operation of the provisions in the proposed Bill in Ireland today would create a situation where Ireland would stand-apart from the rest of the EU and in particular to the UK. The introduction of the Bill could act as a potential pull-factor and undermine the integrity of the Common Travel Area at a time of sensitive discussions on shaping the post-BREXIT environment. These are the broader considerations which as a responsible Government, we have to take full account of. 

Finally, I would mention the recently published Report of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality which examined the issue of family reunification in their Report on Immigration, Asylum and the Refugee Crisis. The Committee did not recommend widening the scope of the definition of member of the family in section 56 and 57 of the International Protection Act or the removal of the 12 month time limit for a sponsor to make an application for a family member to enter and reside in the State. That debate took place when the 2015 Act was before these Houses and the well-grounded policy reasons for our reforms were well aired at that time. Nonetheless, I thank Senators for the opportunity to discuss these issues this evening. 

I regret that on behalf of the Government, for the important reasons outlined, we can not agree to this Bill.