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Statement by Minister of State,
Department of Justice & Equality, David Stanton TD
Thursday, 28th September, 2017
Joint Committee on Justice & Equality -
Report on Immigration, Asylum and the Refugee Crisis
A (Leas) Cheann Comhairle,
I am pleased to be here today to discuss this important Report. I would like to thank the members of the Committee for their careful consideration of these matters, which are critical in ensuring we respond in the most positive way to the challenges of the migration crisis. We are a welcoming and inclusive nation and we stand in solidarity with those who are most vulnerable and in genuine need of our protection. At the same time we must balance those needs with the responsibility of ensuring that we have the appropriate safeguards in place to protect the integrity of our immigration and international protection systems.
The Committee has made an important contribution to the debate on immigration generally and on international protection. I welcome that contribution as part of the ongoing policy formulation process. Departmental officials and I have carefully examined the report and my contribution will address the Committee’s recommendations.
The Report endorses a proposal to regularise the position of the undocumented in Ireland. The Minister and I have stated that a general regularisation scheme for persons residing here illegally is not under consideration for a number of reasons. Indeed, I made this position clear to the Committee, in my appearance before it.
The Minister for Justice and Equality and I have examined the Oireachtas Committee report with a view to identifying what elements, if any, of the recommendations could be acted upon in some way. We have asked officials from the Department to take forward this work. This would mean a sector by sector approach in the context of our international commitments. Any such approach would, of necessity, have to focus on those who had originally entered the State for some lawful purpose but who had fallen out of immigration permission for some reason including changes in the immigration policies or because they felt they had no alternative. Those who came to the State with the intention of staying here illegally would have a less sound basis for having their cases considered sympathetically.
A general regularisation programme, however, could have any number of unintended and expensive consequences in terms of public services. The Minister and I remain conscious that any significant departure from what is well-established policy will invariably have implications for our immigration controls and the smooth functioning of the Common Travel Area, something that is all the more pertinent in the context of the UK withdrawal from the European Union. Before any such change could be contemplated it must take account of all the pros and cons and must be consistent with existing policy priorities. In the finish, there is no gainsaying the fact that a duty of Government is the protection of our borders and any shift in Public Policy must be considered very carefully in that context.
One of the more obvious implications is that there is no reliable way of estimating the actual numbers of persons who could be involved. By its very nature irregular migration is clandestine and it is not uncommon for such persons to go to extreme lengths to avoid contact with the authorities. There is no commonly accepted methodology for calculating the numbers involved. But a European Commission-funded initiative, the Clandestino Project, concluded that there were between 1.9 million to 3.8 million undocumented persons across the European Union. This was a significant fall on previous administratively based estimates which were often in the tens of millions.
No field-work was carried out in Ireland but an estimate, of between 30,000 and 62,000 individuals, was based on the UK estimate adjusted for variations in population. The Clandestino Project itself; rated this estimate as of particularly ‘low quality’ and unreliable. More recent estimates of upwards of 26,000 suggested by the Migrant Rights Council of Ireland are based on a similar methodology based on UK-derived data. But the continued relevance of these estimates must be questioned in relation to the migration crisis affecting the Mediterranean. We are effectively blind to the numbers and circumstances of the persons involved.
At European level, Ireland, together with the other Member States of the European Union, has committed under the European Pact on Immigration and Asylum, agreed at the European Council in October 2008, to case-by-case approach as opposed to mass regularisation. While the Pact is not legally binding it is of course politically binding and we stand by the principal that you cannot legitimise the status of those unlawfully present without first examining the merits of their individual cases.
No large scale regularisation programmes have taken place in any EU Member State since the Pact despite the unprecedented recent mass movement of persons through the Mediterranean. The Common European Asylum System continues to operate on a case-by- case basis in all of the Member States affected.
We shouldn’t forget that people usually become undocumented through their own conscious actions or omissions. Such persons are subject to the rule of law in the same basis as anyone else in the State, including our own citizens. They are obliged to honour their immigration conditions and to leave the State when their permission to be here cease and they are responsible for ensuring that they have the appropriate permission from the Minister for Justice and Equality. The majority of migrants fully comply with such conditions.
Where the authorities encounter someone in an undocumented situation, which vary from person to person, it is always open to them to present their case on its individual merits. This approach has been highlighted with the non-governmental-organisations dealing with such persons. All such cases will be carefully considered, taking account all the circumstances, and it is not unreasonable for the State to expect that the affected persons would honour this decision even if that entails leaving the State voluntarily.
Relocation and Resettlement
From the outset of the migration crisis in Europe, we have demonstrated our commitment to solidarity. Ireland was not legally obliged to participate in the two EU Council Decisions on the Relocation programme, adopted in September 2015. But we believed we had a moral duty to alleviate the suffering that had developed in Europe and opted-in without delay. The All-Party support for our participation was a credit to our Parliament and to the will of the people of Ireland to offer shelter and support to persons fleeing persecution and conflict zones. We immediately established the Irish Refugee Protection Programme. Under this programme, the Government pledged to accept up to 4,000 people and we have made significant progress in meeting this commitment. 1,337 people have already been welcomed to Ireland and another 730 will arrive in the coming months.
There are two distinct strands to the Programme. Under the first Ireland works with the UNHCR to resettle refugees from the Lebanon. This strand is progressing very well with 1,040 people already arrived in Ireland. A doubling of our original commitment 520 people which we met a year ahead of schedule. Since 2015, 785 programme refugees have come to Ireland while a further 270 are due to arrive by early next year.
The other strand concerns the EU relocation mechanism under the two EU Council Decisions from 2015 where Member States agreed to relocate asylum seekers from Greece and Italy. Ireland committed to accepting approximately 2,600 people. Since 2015, 552 people have already arrived and a further 461 have been assessed for relocation, 67 of whom are due in early October.
The Council Decisions provided for the relocation of 160,000 asylum seekers from Italy and Greece. The latest figures available from the EU Commission indicate that only 35,000 persons registered and qualified for relocation – a figure much lower than originally estimated. The final transfers from Greece to Ireland are expected to take place early next year at which point we will have relocated more than 3% of the EU’s total figure. This represents a strong commitment by Ireland to EU solidarity considering we represent less than 1% of the total population. We have concentrated our relocation efforts on Greece as the Italian authorities have consistently refused to allow Member States, including Ireland, to conduct security assessments of candidates on Italian soil. Security screening is an integral element of our procedures in line with the commitment we gave at the time we opted-in. While we are not yet in a position to accept any asylum seekers from Italy our efforts to resolve this issue are ongoing.
Despite this, we are making good progress and will have fulfilled two out of our three commitments by the end of this year. All of our commitments under resettlement and also our relocation commitment to Greece. In fact we have already surpassed our commitment to relocate asylum seekers from Greece.
The Commission recognises Ireland as being one of only seven Member States to have fulfilled their resettlement pledges from July 2015. We have gone even further doubling our resettlement numbers and at the recent Commission pledging exercise have pledged to admit 600 programme refugees in 2018. ,This represents the largest commitment ever made by the State in any single year.
A Supportive Environment
People arriving in Ireland under the Irish Refugee Protection Programme are provided with a range of supports to help adapt to life here. During their initial orientation, they are accommodated in one of three Emergency Reception and Orientation Centres, while their asylum claims are processed. They have access to English language and other supports after which they are resettled in communities throughout the country and since 2015, 733 refugees have been resettled in this way. The Programme requires a high degree of co-ordination for delivery at the local level with the assistance of Resettlement Inter-Agency Working Groups.
A public response
Refugees have also been housed in accommodation generously pledged by the Irish public. Following the Government Decision in autumn 2015, the Irish Red Cross was tasked with managing all voluntary pledges of accommodation, goods and services from the Irish Public. A Register, collating the offers of housing from the public, went live on the Irish Red Cross website in late September 2015.
Funding for integration
Under the framework of the National Migrant Integration Strategy, we have committed to numerous initiatives supporting the integration of migrants over the next four years. The Strategy provides a framework for Government actions to support the integration across policy areas, including education, health, access to public services and social inclusion. Under the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund, €4.5 million has been allocated to 20 projects. Under the European Social Fund, just under €1 million has been allocated to 5 projects.
The National Integration Funding Programme has allocated almost €2 million over three years to 15 projects and the Communities Integration Fund disbursed €500,000 to 131 small scale local integration projects this year. We hope shortly, to allocate dormant accounts funding to more small projects supporting women refugees into employment. In this way we are working to meet the needs and support the integration of this vulnerable group of migrants.
We fully intend to honour all our commitment under the Irish Refugee Protection Programme and while the relocation strand has not yielded the expected numbers, the Minister and I, with Department officials, have been examining new pathways for people in need of protection following the conclusion of EU programmes. One possibility is family reunification, for which Minister Flanagan and I intend to bring forward fresh proposals in the near future. Such a programme would concentrate efforts on reunification of immediate family members specifically caught up in conflict zones, and would be in addition to those eligible under the provisions of the International Protection Act 2015.
Following the adoption of the All-Party Motion last November, on the Calais Unaccompanied Minors, we have made all concerted efforts to provide a pathway here for such unaccompanied minors who wished to come to Ireland and to stay. My colleague, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone, established the Calais Special Project within Tusla, the Child and Family Agency. Working directly with the French authorities, any unaccompanied minors who have been identified as suitable for relocation here have been accepted and provided with the appropriate supports and no unaccompanied minor who has asked to come to Ireland has been refused. In total, 26 young persons have been relocated to-date. 23 are currently in the care of Tusla and the remainder have been reunited with family members already living in Ireland. Family tracing and reunification processes are underway for those who remain unaccompanied.
In addition, Tusla, which has statutory responsibility for the care of unaccompanied minors, has agreed to take up to 20 unaccompanied minors under the EU relocation programme. To date, six unaccompanied minors, under the stricter Irish definition, have been relocated from Greece but there are relatively few unaccompanied minors available in the cohort of nationalities eligible for the relocation.
All strands of the IRPP have had a strong focus on families and children and almost half of the admissions to-date have been minors, with almost 85% of this figure aged under 12.
Direct Provision and the Protection Process
The Committee has recommended that Direct Provision should be a short-term measure. I and indeed all in Government concur with that view. But first we need to understand what we really mean by Direct Provision which is the system whereby State services are delivered directly to protection applicants through the relevant Government Department or Agency. In the case of the Department of Justice and Equality, full board accommodation is offered to applicants while their application for international protection is being processed. Not everyone seeking international protection chooses this offer of full board and many chose to live with colleagues, family or friends in the community which they are entitled to do.
If the system was simply disbanded, already vulnerable people who we are committed to protecting would join the lengthy waiting lists for social housing or enter the private rental market with little hope of finding affordable and secure accommodation. Direct Provision guarantees that anyone who walks into the International Protection Office today will have a bed, food, a shower, medical care information and access to a range of services tonight. They will not be forced onto the streets or into emergency housing. I have yet to hear a credible alternative to the current system.
Of course, no system is without room for improvement. Minister Flanagan and I are working with our Department officials to continually enhance and develop the facilities and services offered to those in our care. This includes the ongoing implementation of the recommendations in the Justice McMahon Report and the commitment in the Programme for a Partnership Government to reforming the system, with a particular focus on families and children. Three progress reports on implementation have been published the most recent of which in July which now stands at 98% implementation of all the recommendations. In addition to this achievement we remain committed to ongoing improvements in Direct Provision in the absence of any suitable alternative being proposed since it was first proposed fifteen years ago.
One of the key recommendation of the Justice McMahon Report was to address the protracted application process which led to long stays in State provided accommodation. With the commencement of the International Protection Act 2015 last December, we now have a single application procedure. This is the greatest reform to our protection process in two decades. It means that an applicant will have all aspects of their claim, refugee status, subsidiary protection status, and permission to remain, examined and determined in one process and in the shortest possible timeframe. All of the necessary resources have been put in place to facilitate this.
The Department also chairs an inter-Departmental Taskforce, established by Government, to examine the Supreme Court judgement on the right of applicants to seek employment. The Taskforce will present its report to Government very shortly. I do not wish to pre-empt the outcome of their deliberations by speculating on what they might propose at this point. Their recommendations will be carefully considered by Government before the State makes its submissions to the Court. Granting access to the labour market, could have significant repercussions for Direct Provision. If an applicant has economic security then the need to be dependent on the State will be alleviated. But rest assured that Minister Flanagan and I are committed to the aspiration of the Committee to bring about real and positive change for protection applicants.
I look forward to the contributions of Deputies to the debate on this important issue.