Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 14 December 2016
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality
Immigration and Refugee Crisis: Discussion
We will now address the issues of immigration and the refugee crisis. The purpose of our second session today is a discussion on these matters with the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy David Stanton.
The joint committee identified immigration and the refugee crisis as one of its priority issues in the preparation of its work programme for 2016. The Minister of State may be aware that on 23 November the committee heard evidence from Migrant Rights Centre Ireland on immigration and from Nasc, which is based in Cork, on the refugee crisis. It is the intention of the joint committee to produce a report on these issues. We have not yet finally determined whether we will hold any further hearings, but this is a matter for address early in the new year. The format of today's meeting is that I will ask the Minister of State to make his opening remarks and then invite questions from members. As this is the Minister of State's first appearance before us as a joint committee - we have had some interesting select committee experiences in the recent past - on behalf of the committee, I welcome him back as the former Chairman of the committee and extend a welcome to his officials who have joined him. Without any further ado, I invite him to make his opening address.
I welcome the opportunity to engage with the joint committee. I know at first hand the important contribution the committee makes to the development of policy on justice issues. If I or my office can assist the Chairman and his colleagues in the committee in any way with the work they are doing, they should feel free to call on us. Furthermore, I would very much welcome the views and suggestions of members of the committee on any of the aspects for which I have responsibility. I propose to focus this morning on the refugee crisis, as the Chairman has said.
It is clear the ongoing refugee and migration crisis has tested the European Union. It has tested our capacity as 28 individual member states to respond collectively with one voice and in a coherent way. It has exposed some harsh realities, among them that the seeds of xenophobia and isolationism have begun to grow in the rhetoric of far-right parties in some parliaments across the European Union and of some media outlets. These people preach a message of hate and intolerance towards refugees and migrants which is at odds with the very principles on which the European Union is founded. As we look forward to the 60th anniversary next year of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, I ask myself whether we can really call ourselves Europeans if we do not protect the shared values embedded in the treaties: human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights. These should be the basic tenets which underpin all we do.
I am very proud that the reaction to the crisis of all political parties across both Houses of the Oireachtas and people who are not in political parties has been proactively to seek ways in which we can help. By voluntarily opting into the two Council decisions on relocation, we sent an important message of solidarity both to our member state colleagues facing severe pressure and to vulnerable people fleeing persecution and conflict.
Our course of action has always been to respond in a humanitarian way and to prevent further loss of life where possible. One of the most tangible expressions of our support has been the heroic work undertaken by our Naval Service personnel in the Mediterranean, who have rescued more than 15,400 migrants since the first deployment of the LE Eithnein May 2015 under Operation Pontus. Some members of the committee may have seen the programme "The Crossing" on RTE last Monday night. It showed the crew of the LE Samuel Beckettin the Mediterranean undertaking vital search and rescue missions in extremely challenging circumstances. I express my gratitude, and I am sure the gratitude of all present here, to all Naval Service personnel, who have been a credit to our country and the work in the Mediterranean, and I commend them on receiving the European of the Year award earlier this week. I have met many of these Naval Service personnel. Their work has had an impact on them that they will never forget, but they have done Trojan work in the Mediterranean.
The Tánaiste and I will continue to work closely with our ministerial colleagues on all issues relating to the crisis and to make our commitments a reality. As the Chairman knows, the Tánaiste and the Minister for Children only this week travelled to Greece to see how we might expedite the relocation of people there to Ireland.
As all members of the committee are aware, the main vehicle meeting the Government's humanitarian commitments in this regard is the Irish refugee protection programme. The programme was established by Government decision in September 2015 with a view to bringing the implementation of our commitments under the EU relocation decisions and our EU refugee resettlement programme activities under a single programme.
There are two distinct sub-programmes, as it were. One is resettlement, which entails taking in refugees currently living in Lebanon. This is a long-standing programme in which Ireland selects refugees for resettlement with the assistance of the UNHCR. Under the resettlement programme, 519 of our original target of 520 refugees have already arrived in the State a full year ahead of the European deadline. Initially we were asked by the European Union to take in 272, but the Government has recently decided voluntarily to double this target to 520 to help us meet our commitment to bring 4,000 people to Ireland under the IRPP. The next 260 persons to arrive under the resettlement programme are expected to come in spring 2017. The Government last month approved the decision to take a further 260 persons under this strand. A selection mission will go to Lebanon next spring to select this additional group.
The second strand we operate is that of relocation. This is an EU programme which involves bringing asylum seekers currently located in Greece and Italy to Ireland. Those eligible for relocation must come from countries with a 75% or higher rate of recognition as these persons benefit from a fast-track process to determine whether they are refugees. While the early pace of the relocation programme was frustratingly slow, 239 people will have arrived in the State by the end of this week and a further 164 have been assessed and cleared for travel in the new year. Thereafter, a schedule has been agreed with Greece which will see approximately 1,100 persons relocated from there to Ireland from now until September 2017.
Efforts are continuing to resolve issues regarding security assessments which hampered relocations from Italy. I met and engaged bilaterally with the Italian officials recently to see whether we could resolve this issue. I am sure once a resolution is found, it will greatly enhance Ireland's ability to achieve its commitments under this programme.
As we all know, the work of the programme does not stop once migrants have arrived on Irish soil. The task of providing emergency accommodation, cultural orientation, long-term housing, medical care, school placements, language training and social protection supports is complex, highly resource-heavy and requires all arms of the State and voluntary sectors to co-operate closely. The Government has established a cross-departmental task force chaired by the Tánaiste which is co-ordinating the identification of refugee needs. Bodies involved include the Red Cross, the UNHCR, the HSE, Tusla, the Departments of Education and Skills and Social Protection and so on. This task force is working actively to meet the complex needs of the refugees such as those relating to housing.
The Dáil motion on the transfer of unaccompanied minors to Ireland who had previously been living in the camp in Calais reflects a strong interest across parties and Independents in helping young people affected by the migration and refugee crisis. Officials of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the Department of Justice and Equality have been linking with the Irish NGOs active in France and with the French and UK authorities on preparations for bringing unaccompanied minors in this situation to Ireland. The Tánaiste met the French Interior Minister about this issue on 9 December. In view of the capacity demands anticipated for Tusla, it is working to see how we can meet this need. It is anticipated the minors will come to Ireland on a phased basis.
At national level we have implemented the single biggest reform to our international protection process in the past 20 years. I am pleased to say that the International Protection Act 2015 will be commenced in full on 31 December and will introduce a single application procedure to our protection process. This is a significant step forward in modernising our asylum legislation from the current cumbersome, multi-layered and sequential procedure under the Refugee Act 1996 to a single application procedure whereby an applicant will have all grounds for seeking international protection and to be permitted to remain in the State examined and determined in one process. The Department has been engaged in intensive and detailed preparations over the past year to ensure all the necessary preparations are in place to allow all applications for national protection to be processed under the new single applications procedure starting from January.
I am conscious of the misery and suffering experienced by refugees fleeing war and conflict. The Government is working actively to play its part and help those coming to Ireland to rebuild their lives here. However, the scale of the crisis requires a global response. No one country can solve the problem unilaterally. This is why Ireland is also working at UN level to develop an international response to this crucial issue.
I thank the Minister of State. He started his contribution by telling us that truly to call ourselves Europeans, we must protect and share values embedded in the treaties. We feel that Ireland has not played a very strong role. I do not think we could really call ourselves Europeans, given our approach to date, and I do not think we are alone in feeling this way.
I have a number of questions for the Minister of State. As he will probably be aware, representatives of the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland, MRCI, and the Irish Immigrant Support Centre, Nasc, appeared before the joint committee recently. They raised a few questions which I would like to put to the Minister of State. Last year, the committee made a recommendation on the regularisation of undocumented migrants. It proposed a once-off, time-bound regularisation scheme which would give undocumented migrants an opportunity to regularise their position. The committee wrote to the Minister for Justice and Equality detailing this recommendation. However, Edel McGinley of the MRCI noted in November 2016 that no response to the recommendation had been received. What is the position regarding the recommendation?
The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child made a similar recommendation and has insisted that all children be recognised and entitled to the full protection and implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, irrespective of the status of their parents. The MRCI also pointed out that it has been seeking a meeting with the Minister and Minister of State and is wondering when such a meeting will take place. It is disappointed it has not heard a response from the Ministers.
Europe has received 6% of the world’s refugee population. Given that such large numbers of the refugees arriving in Europe are from war torn countries and that Europe has been eager to support wars in many of these countries, albeit not always with military support, and given the level of destruction that has occurred in the regions in question, the notion that Europe would only take 6% of the world’s refugee population is scary.
Ireland’s response to the refugee crisis is among the worst in Europe and does not cover the country in glory. Domestically, we have been slow to address the issue of undocumented persons, of whom there are between 20,000 and 26,000. I understand that more than 80% of this group are working and most are poorly paid. What is the logic for not addressing the issue of the undocumented? The number of deportations is higher than I would like it to be. Why has the Government not responded positively on this issue?
The Minister of State referred to security assessments which have hampered relocations from Italy and indicated he has engaged bilaterally with his Italian counterparts on the matter. It appears that we are engaging in more profiling than many other countries. Are we refusing to take certain nationalities, for example, Afghans, Iraqis and Kurds? Are we allowing people from those countries to come here or are we trying to confine our efforts to Syrians? As I pointed out previously, on our visit to Calais and Dunkirk, Deputy Clare Daly and I found many Afghans and Kurds in the camps. The Syrians we met in the camps were much better off financially than most of the other refugees. There is a belief that the Syrians who have reached western Europe tend to come from better-off backgrounds. I wonder if Ireland is showing favouritism towards Syrian refugees. I ask the Minister of State to respond.
Speaking of being good Europeans, the Minister of State will probably have noticed a report in October that the European Union had struck a tentative deal with Afghanistan to return an unlimited number of Afghan asylum seekers. It is reported that the number to be returned may be as high as 80,000. One might as well throw these people under a bus as return them to Afghanistan. The Afghans we met in Calais and Dunkirk will do anything before agreeing to return to Afghanistan, which they left for good reason. More often than not, they had fallen foul of either the Taliban or ISIS. Unfortunately for some of them, their families had worked with the US security forces and military and the concept of the family in Afghanistan extends a long way. The notion that Europe would send these people back to Afghanistan is beyond belief.
I heard this morning that the European Union is in talks with the Libyans. Who could the EU talk to in Libya at the moment? Europe has played a significant part in destroying that country and the notion that people would be sent back to Libya beggars belief. I ask the Minister of State to clarify whether this morning’s report is accurate.
I thank Deputy Wallace for a comprehensive series of questions and points. As I indicated, this is a global issue. I have met people from different parts of the world, including from Central America, the African sub-continent and further afield, and this is a major issue. The Deputy is correct to describe it as global in nature.
The first point Deputy Wallace raised related to undocumented migrants. It is important to consider this issue in the wider context of Ireland’s immigration policy and migration flows. Ireland is forecast to return to net inward migration this year for the first time since 2009. This is a positive development which reflects the improving economic position. It is important, however, to be aware that the overall level of net inward migration, which is very modest and amounts to 3,100 persons, consists of three distinct underlying trends. There was a downward trend of net outward migration of Irish nationals, albeit at a lower level than in recent years. Migration of EU nationals, which tends to be closely linked to labour market opportunities, was neutral last year. These two trends were offset by the relatively strong inward migration flow from non-Irish nationals from outside the European Union. This demonstrates that, in the context of the continuing inward migration of some of our nationals, Ireland has not closed its door on the immigration of non-EEA nationals. On the contrary, we value the contribution of non-EEA nationals as part of a balanced migration strategy.
The overall goal of our immigration policy is to ensure we strike an appropriate balance between the aspirations of the applicant and ensuring the wider public interests are protected, including that the person concerned does not become a burden on the State. For this process to work effectively, it is entirely reasonable at this stage to expect that a person should abide by the conditions of the immigration permission he or she receives initially. For example, a person with a tourist permission cannot settle permanently and, with some rare exceptions, a student permission does not entitle a person to bring a child to live here during a course of study in Ireland. These conditions are transparently set out during the application process and form part of what may be described as the “immigration contract”. This does not exclude the possibility that a person may wish to change the nature of his or her permission. Procedures and guidelines are in place for what is termed “a change of status application”.
This takes me to the specific issue the Deputy raised, namely, the position of undocumented persons in Ireland, the number of whom is estimated by the NGO or non-governmental organisation community to be in the region of 26,000 persons. By definition, it is not possible to have any precision in respect of the true number of illegal immigrants. The figures I have cited are not insignificant. The Migrant Rights Council Ireland has identified that these persons fall into three broad categories, namely, visa over-stayers, migrants with unenforced deportation orders and children of undocumented migrants.
The Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, spoke about this issue in the Dáil on previous occasions and I will recall the position of the Government in that regard. As I stated, we are entitled to expect that people coming to Ireland will obey our laws, including those that relate to immigration, and the conditions that are set out as part of their permission to remain. It is open to any foreign national who finds himself or herself in an undocumented position to apply to the authorities for permission to remain. Cases are carefully considered before a decision is made and it is reasonable for the State to expect people to respect that decision.
It should also be remembered that most people become undocumented through their own conscious actions or omissions. Recognising that this may not be the case in a minority of instances, the Department has implemented a number of projects that provide a process for regularisation in certain circumstances. However, none of these processes involves automatic entitlement and all apply to a particular set of circumstances as opposed to a blanket approach. As a former Chairman of the committee and in my current capacity, I am fully aware of the proposal made by the MRCI to introduce the regularisation scheme. I am also aware that the committee met representatives of the MRCI and plans to produce a report on the matter. I look forward to examining its report when it is published.
As I indicated, it is important to examine this issue within the broader context of Ireland’s immigration policy as a whole. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the matter with the joint committee today, with a view to contributing to its ongoing contribution on this important matter.
There are no plans to introduce a general regularisation scheme for those who are currently undocumented in the State. A proposal of this nature could give rise to large, unpredictable and potentially costly impacts across a full range of public and social services.
For example, in the late 1990s the then Government allowed a limited right-to-work concession for some asylum seekers This was misrepresented, with the result that the number applying for asylum increased exponentially in a matter of months. In addition, any possible implications for the operation of the common travel area would have to be carefully considered. We are all aware and alert to the Brexit situation. Even today there have been reports that the Republic could serve as a backdoor to the UK. We must be careful in that regard because we want to protect the common travel area at all costs.
It is also important to note that there is a long-standing policy and practice whereby when an illegal immigrant comes forward and makes a reasonable case for regularisation, that case is invariably considered in a fair and humanitarian way, subject to overall public policy consideration. If Deputies and Senators are aware of such cases and want to make that fact known or if there are particular cases, they can be looked at, as happened in the past, on a case-by-case basis. I am aware of the MRCI projections. They would have to be carefully analysed and tested by relevant Departments and agencies.
On the other questions, we do not profile. What we really want to do is meet the people before they come here. We want a member of An Garda Síochána to sit across the table from them and conduct an interview. We want to ensure that whoever comes here will not cause problems and we have made that promise to the Irish people. The Italian Government has issues with that goal. It has them with every country, however, not just with Ireland. We hope to correct the situation but so far it has not been possible to do so. I have informed the Italian authorities that we are anxious to help, assist and bring people to this country.
There were bureaucratic issues in Greece. Last weekend, the Tánaiste visited the country in order to see if some of them might be resolved. We are anxious to fulfil our commitment to bring 4,000 people here. The EU quota for Ireland was 2,900 refugees but we have greatly exceeded that target and have voluntarily agreed to bring in 4,000 refugees. We have tried to be as proactive as possible. We want to bring people here and we are bringing them. Thankfully, the situation in Greece has been resolved and the situation is improving. We hope to bring in an increasing number of refugees in the next year. We hope to bring 1,100 refugees from Greece by next September. We have already doubled the EU quota a year ahead of time and taken in refugees from the Lebanon. We have doubled that figure again and we will bring in quite a lot more refugees in the coming period. We are doing what we can to bring refugees here.
How many of the 4,000 refugees have come here? I would like an update on the proposal to bring in 200 unaccompanied minors that were originally based in Calais. Last week, the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality stated that the French would identify young people as suitable to go to Ireland. What is meant by the term "suitable"?
I draw the Minister of State's attention to a comment made by Ms Fiona Finn, NASC. She said, speaking of feedback that NASC has received, that it is much easier to get a positive decision for a female, particularly a female Christian, that the cases of males are more challenging and that the majority of the decisions on new Muslim males are negative. She also said that this is never overt but, rather, covert. She claims it is a form of discrimination and that profiling is involved. I ask the Minister of State to respond to my points.
For the information of members, the next speaker will be Deputy Clare Daly and she will be followed by Senator Martin Conway. Theirs were the only hands that were held aloft. I ask members to please raise their hands if they wish to be placed on the list of speakers.
Yes. On the Calais situation, when the decision was taken in the Dáil, the French authorities had already moved people from Calais to accommodation located across France. The officials from my Department and that of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs have engaged with the NGOs who raised this matter with us. I have met some of the NGO representatives as well. We have engaged with the French authorities to see what can be done. We also want to ensure that we can look after children properly when they come here, in other words, that Tusla will have the appropriate facilities. We are talking, in the main, about providing foster care for children or minors. My Department must work with our colleagues in France, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. My Department's role is to provide a legal mechanism for children. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs and Tusla have the responsibility to look after the children when they come here and to engage with them in France. We are anxious to have proper foster homes arranged for when the children arrive.
As the Dáil motion, to which everyone agreed, outlined, we want to identify children who want to come here and stay but who do not want to go to the UK. Most of the children or young people were in Calais because they wanted to travel to the UK. That is why they were there in the first instance. There are some challenges in respect of this matter. We will bring up to 200 people here, which is what was agreed by the Dáil, and they will stay here. This will be done in co-operation with the French authorities. There is no profiling, or anything like it, involved. Ideally, we want to bring in younger people who are in their early teens or pre-teens because they are young enough to settle into families. Older teens would find it more difficult to settle. I have been informed that many of the people that were in Calais were older teens. They may not want to come to Ireland and prefer the UK.
We are trying to work through the many challenges. I will keep the committee updated on progress on these matters because I was quite involved in the negotiations and work to have the motion passed in the Dáil and agreed. We will charter a plane to bring a further 130 people to this country on Friday. Part of the challenge has been transport, particularly as Ireland is an island. It is challenging to find transport links to transfer people from Lebanon and Greece to Ireland. Sometimes getting flights can be a challenge. It is hard to secure seats on planes during the high season of tourism. We have decided to charter planes to transport people here and 130 individuals will come here on Friday. I hope I have answered the questions.
I can confirm that profiling does not take place. We must ensure, to the best of our ability, that we do not bring somebody in here who has links with well known organisations or a tendency to take a terrorism route. We would have issues with those kind of indications. That is why we want the Garda to interview people in order to ascertain whether the refugees will pose problems. In the vast majority of cases, these people pose no problem but we must make sure. We must be able to say to the people of Ireland that we have carried out a minimum of security checks on those involved. We would face challenges if we did not do so.
I am not saying that security checks should not take place. The people we met in Calais and Dunkirk ran away from militant organisations so I have no worries about them coming here. Most of the people who travelled to Calais did so with the hope of getting to the UK. Many of those we met did not have connections in England. They simply liked the idea of settling in an English-speaking country and had never heard of Ireland. When we spoke to them about Ireland, many of them became interested in coming here. Some of them remained interested in the UK but some of them were very interested in travelling to Ireland.
The Minister of State has said that various Departments would incur serious costs in order to regularise the undocumented. We have no doubt that looking after people that are most in need of our help will always cost something. There is a huge onus on us to do the right thing. We find money to do certain things and we make choices about the money available to us.
I always insist that the primary objective of a government should be to take best care of those who most need its help, and the undocumented in Ireland could do with our help, even if it does cost us a few bob.
We have been engaging with the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland on this issue and it has amended some of its original suggestions on that basis. We will continue to engage with it. If there are undocumented people of whom colleagues are aware, they can draw our attention to them on a case-by-case basis and we will examine them. If members have the names of anyone in Calais, which the Deputy spoke about, who wish to come here they should pass them on to us and we will investigate them. The issue now is to locate and identify some of the people who want to come here.
I refer to minors. The motion in the Dáil related to minors and if one brings in a person aged over 18, he or she is an adult. There are also definitions about what is an unaccompanied minor. In some places it means being without a mother or father, but in other places it means without any family member. A minor with a grandmother, older sibling or aunt might not be classified as unaccompanied, as such, so issues arise in that regard also. I welcome the suggestions made by the Deputy and the suggestions of other members present.
I wish to make a couple of brief points. First, I note the Minister of State’s comments on undocumented minors that we expect them to adhere to their original visa conditions but is there not a double standard given the approach we take to the Americans? We go cap in hand and expect the undocumented Irish in America to have their status legitimised but we do not adopt the same position with people of various nationalities who end up in Ireland. As Deputy Wallace said, most of them are not getting any benefits from the system and they are surviving on the charity or support of friends they have made along the way or primarily through working and providing a pool of cheap labour. If we were to legitimise their status, there would be a knock-on benefit in that they would contribute in terms of tax and other elements of the system. The benefit would be positive as more than 80% of such people are working here. It is not a case that if we become liberal on the issue, people would come here from all over the place.
While there must be a process, the reality is that it has been very difficult for people who perhaps have been trying to bring in a family member or for those who have developed a relationship in this country and want the opportunity to stay to further a personal relationship with a partner. It has been most difficult for people to get their status legitimised. We were not members of the previous justice committee but the Minister of State was and he probably agrees with the points we are making. The committee recommended that certain measures would be put in place to deal with the categories the Minister of State has outlined, namely, the people who are here, who are integrated. They are a reality but we just keep them hidden and do not accept them. We will return to the issue because we cannot have it both ways and argue one thing in Ireland and one thing in America. That is a very important issue the committee will pursue.
We have not spoken about direct provision but the Minister of State responded to a parliamentary question I tabled about the number of children in direct provision. I asked the question given that we are coming up to Christmas and the figures are quite shocking. More than 1,100 children are living in direct provision. A total of 425 of them are aged under five and 514 are aged under 12. The situation is very difficult and there is a need to address it and to integrate people properly into society. Parents who have been in direct provision for a long time make the point that while it is hard when the children are going to school, at least they are going to school and there is something for them to do, but when they leave school and cannot go to college they are stuck there and frustrated. Their talents are not being recognised. That is a critically important problem that needs to be addressed.
I have a couple of other very brief points to make. There is a view that while we have had a lot of talk about going way beyond what has been asked of us, we have not delivered on the refugee targets. The resettlement scheme from Lebanon is taking a long time to achieve. We have finally got some people coming here but that is a long established programme. I am keen to hear about the relocation programme of 4,000 people. Are the 630 people who have arrived under the relocation programme as distinct from the resettlement programme in Lebanon?
I welcome the fact that we are bringing in a chartered plane but it has been a long time coming. In reality, we are behind our targets of getting people on the ground. While we are talking about it, in essence, the asylum process in this country has shut down. We are refusing the highest level of asylum seekers in the EU other than refugees that we are bringing in from Turkey, Lebanon or other places. People who arrive here seeking refuge are being refused in huge numbers. More than 3,500 people were deported last year. As Deputy Wallace said, we get relatively small numbers of asylum seekers. There is a view that processes are being put in place to, in effect, shut down the appeals process for asylum seekers and it is most difficult to succeed. The EUROSTAT figures do not show Ireland in a favourable light.
My final point is on Calais. I appreciate the Minister of State's role in delivering on the motion that was before the House. I very much recognise that. It is an initiative Members on many sides of the House want to see delivered. While we feel very strongly about unaccompanied children in Calais, there are also unaccompanied children and other refugees in Greece, Italy and other places. We cannot just elevate Calais and lose sight of the bigger picture. The processes need to be in place to deal with the issue in its totality. What level of dialogue takes place with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs on the issue? I am worried that we are not sufficiently equipped to deal with the issue. We have a very poor history in terms of taking unaccompanied minors into this country and the type of accommodation they were put into. Traditionally, there has been a very low level of care. Care assessments were cursory. Many minors were housed in hostels and did not even have a social worker. That has been completely stood on its head now. On paper, we have gold-plated standards of child care but there is not enough coming through. We must examine the balance.
I do not in any way argue that we should go back to old regime. Children deserve to come and to be treated like Irish children, to be in a home environment and all the rest of it, but at the same time we must put resources into the area if we want to deliver on our commitments. We do not have sufficient resources in place. Tusla does not have sufficient staff at the coalface. Are there timelines for the delivery of some of the minors from Calais? We will take up the Minister of State’s offer of providing names to him. How much extra money is being put into this area, because it takes time to train people? Where is the public advertising campaign not just for the Calais children, but the others ones for foster parents to come forward because foster care is far cheaper than residential care and far preferable in terms of integrating people into society? There has not been any programme. Once people apply to become foster parents or to provide supported lodgings, they should be put through the mill in terms of being vetted and all the rest but the process is really off-putting and lengthy. It takes more than four months. That should not be the case. The process is completely unwieldy. What targets and measures are in place so that we can deliver on our commitments because I am worried about the issue?
I thank Deputy Daly for her questions. Before the Minister of State responds, I beg her indulgence as Senator Martin Conway must speak in the Seanad and he wishes to make a brief contribution. Would Deputy Daly mind if I take his contribution now?
I thank Deputy Clare Daly. A couple of the questions I wished to ask have now been asked by her.
I have a brief comment to make and a question to ask. The previous justice committee did a great deal of work in this area. I have been a member of the ad hoccommittee on direct provision. The situation in respect of direct provision has certainly been a very shameful for this country. I have always believed that a figure of 4,000 was not enough. During the term of the previous Seanad, I proposed that we should have been prepared to take 40,000 people in and at least give ourselves the option in this regard. Obviously, that is not the Government position and, unfortunately, I do not believe it ever will be.
How are the 230 immigrants who have come already settling in? What practical support structures are in place for them? Are they being facilitated in terms of education and proper integration? How are the children getting on? Are there many children among the 230?
It is great news that there are 120 immigrants coming this side of Christmas. My concern is that the necessary support structures are not in place to deal with those who are coming. I hope that we will achieve a great deal more in this regard in 2017. I welcome the fact that there has been an extension of an invitation to people who have been in Calais who may have names of people who want to come to Ireland. That is the type of engagement we need.
How have the people who came here in recent months settled? What support structures are in place for them? What are the lead agencies involved? Is the Minister of State's Department the lead agency? Are local authorities lead agencies? How is the system working? What is the practical structure? I apologise for the fact that I will not be here to hear the answer but I will obtain it from the report of proceedings later.
A number of issues arise. There were many questions and comments and I will probably need an hour, or perhaps more, to answer all of them.
On direct provision, most countries in the world face policy challenges posed by undocumented migrants. There is no doubt about that. We must try to do what is best for our country and for Irish citizens abroad. As I stated, there have been a number of schemes under which people have been regularised here. There have been at least four. We can send the relevant information to the secretariat rather than going through it now. It is quite detailed.
As already stated , if humanitarian cases are brought to our attention, they will certainly be examined in a fair way. There is no blanket amnesty. That is out; we are not doing that. We will certainly consider applications on a case-by-case basis.
On the issue of direct provision, I have visited most of the direct provision centres at this stage. I have not gone to all of them yet. I have visited a few twice. I will give figures to indicate the current position. At the end of November this year, there were 4,354 people residing in the 34 State-provided accommodation centres throughout the country. This number comprises 3,256 adults and 1,098 children. There were 1,194 adult females and 2,062 adult males. There were 426 children aged between zero and four years, 514 between five and 12, and 154 between 13 and 17. It is quite interesting that a total of 1,955 people left the system of State-provided accommodation between January and the end of November 2016. In the same period, 1,528 people entered the system. Therefore, there is movement of people through the accommodation centres all the time.
I was interested in the duration of stay. A total of 1,690 people, or 38%, were in direct provision for under 12 months. Over 1,000 people were in direct provision for between one and two years. Therefore, 63% of people were in direct provision for under two years. Five hundred and eight people were in accommodation for between two and three years, 283 people for between three and four years, 185 for between four and five years, 150 for between five and six years, 98 for between six and seven years, and 358 for seven years plus. Many people in the system for more than five years have actually been given some form of status here. There are a number of people involved in legal challenges. Obviously, we cannot make any decision until the courts make a decision on those cases. At least 362 children under the age of ten left the State-provided accommodation system in the 12 months from 1 December 2015 to 30 November 2016.
An issue on which Senators and Deputies might be able to help concerns the 463 persons with some form of status residing in State-provided accommodation centres at present. We are having difficulty in finding accommodation for them. Nobody is told he or she has to go when accorded status. The Reception and Integration Agency will look after them and provide accommodation.
The point about direct provision is that education, health, medical services, food, heat and light are all supplied. That is why it is called direct provision. Counselling is provided in some instances. As Deputies Wallace and Clare Daly said, some of the immigrants have been through fairly traumatic experiences. Counselling and psychiatric and health services are all provided. As one can see from the figures, there is a movement of people through the centres all the time. We are anxious to move people out.
On Senator Conway's question about resettlement, a resettlement worker is provided. These workers support refugees when they move into accommodation. I have visited people who have been resettled in houses to listen to what they have to say. I sat down to listen to what issues they had to raise. In the main, they are quite happy when resettled in houses.
We are launching a community integration fund in the new year. We are asking communities around the country to put forward ideas on how to integrate asylum seekers or refugees. If a community has an idea, it can apply for funding. Approximately €500,000 is available for that fund. It will be launched in January. We are hoping to spread the money across the country using NGOs, etc., in communities that want to do something to help integrate people and make them feel welcome. One can house people but sometimes they can feel isolated if they do not know their neighbours. I have learned from my visits that if people get to know each other and talk to each other, integration occurs and concerns diminish quickly. It is hoped the fund will continue to be available year in, year out. I ask my colleagues to spread the word among their communities that the fund will be launched in January.
Deputy Clare Daly mentioned fostering. Where a vulnerable child is brought to Ireland, it is important that he or she be placed appropriately. This committee would be really cross with us if we did not vet families properly and if they did not receive some training. We are talking about children from a different culture, not just about fostering an Irish child, so training, orientation and other steps are required. Tusla is seized of this matter and is working as hard as it can to provide appropriate accommodation for children. We do not really want to have children in institutions. We have had this experience before. Ideally, we should use fostering. If colleagues know of families that would be interested in fostering a child, perhaps a young person between 14 and 17, they should ask them to make themselves known to Tusla so we can further the process.
I wish to refer to the Minister of State's last point because it really gets to the heart of the matter. If families were to do as proposed, they would be left waiting. We have initiated the process. A number of Deputies have done as described. Cases are in the pipeline for a long time. In my case, for example, I was offered two afternoons in December for an appointment. When I tried to make arrangements for an appointment, the opportunities were gone.
The next appointment is 10 January for a process that started in October. I appreciate that people must get the training, but since the initial contact in October there has been one meeting, a huge number of forms, health screening, talking, looking at the house and so forth. After all of that there is now a meeting on 10 January, but there was nothing in December. If people were to come forward, the structure is just not in place in terms of resources. There must be more money and recruitment. That is not easy, but it must be in place. Perhaps it is something that should be teased out between the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the Department of Justice and Equality.
I wish to raise some points with the Minister. Direct provision has been raised by my colleagues. The Minister will recall that the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality responded to one of my questions a couple of weeks ago in the Dáil during Leaders' Questions, when I was asking questions for Deputy Adams. She passed the baton to the Minister of State to reply to my question. In his response, he spoke about visiting and engaging with the centres. He pointed to a number of improvements that have taken place and he reported that all were happy there. I do not have the direct quotation but that was the essence of it. Certainly, those words were in his sentence. I have no doubt there are people who are in short-term residence in direct provision centres who could say they are happy there given the improvements made and the reality of the situations they have left.
I am a resident in a town that provides direct provision and I have previously visited a number of direct provision centres along with my colleagues in the former committee on health and children. People are not happy. The primary disappointment and disgruntlement, which is understandable, is the unacceptable period of time taken to process applications. In terms of the methodology of providing for them, the Minister of State said a few minutes ago that all of their specific needs are being provided. I will set aside, for the moment, the minuscule weekly support of €19.10 and the Christmas bonus, which is embarrassing even to talk about as it was based on a percentage of what they are getting weekly. I can understand and tolerate, which is probably the best word I can use, the employment of direct provision for a limited time period for the processing of applications to stay, but I know people who have been in these settings for years. They are not just individuals but families in some instances. I have not been across the thresholds of centres in recent times but, the Minister of State's assurances of improvements aside, I have no doubt that the circumstances are unsuitable for any medium to long-term duration. This can only be acceptable for short-term provision, not medium to long-term provision. It is wrong and unacceptable. We would not want that to happen to any of our citizens and fellow nationals. In any other situation, we would be in uproar about it.
The time factor is absolutely unacceptable. Whatever about structural changes and the opportunity to prepare their own meals and so forth, the fact is that our system of processing is not functioning as it should. Regardless of the outcome and the decision that is taken, people should not have their lives suspended and be left in limbo situations indefinitely. That is the most unacceptable and disgraceful part of what we are witnessing in direct provision. It must change.
I also wish to reflect on what Deputy Wallace said. Migrant Rights Centre Ireland gave a presentation to the committee. We also had the honour to hear directly from an undocumented non-national, and the people in the Gallery that day included a member of that person's family. Those young people are making a good new life in this country. They are people who clearly have a positive contribution to make. What annoys me is the fact that we can collectively articulate a case to the Unites States for our undocumented people, who number 50,000 to 60,000 or even more. I know a significant number of them and their families personally. I share their pain and anguish at times of bereavement and during times such as now, with the advent of Christmas, at the inability of these displaced fellow Irish citizens to visit home and to be part of a family grieving or celebration, because they run the risk of losing all they have endeavoured to build during their lives in that country. We cannot politically make the case to another jurisdiction that we are not prepared to extend to people who are undocumented in our own jurisdiction.
We must lead by example. It would only enhance and improve our prospects of being listened to in a more favourable way if we were to take an international lead and demonstrate the real compassion of the Irish people. Our failure to do that is contributing, in its own way, to the difficulties our citizens are experiencing in the United States and perhaps in other jurisdictions. Whether it is a general regularisation scheme for the undocumented, we must put in place a compassionate, humanitarian opportunity for people to come forward not out of fear of an impending deportation, but in the hope that, all things being equal in their lives and in their prospects of contributing positively to Irish society, they can look forward in expectation to their cases being accepted and processed favourably. I cannot urge anything in these matters more strongly on the Minister of State in the last days before Christmas and the last week of the committee's sittings in 2016.
My final point relates to the Calais 200. On the last occasion we asked a question about this matter, although I am open to correction as it might not have been the Calais 200, one child had been provided for. I have been corrected - it was Greece. There was only one involved. The Minister of State confirmed this. What are the reasons for that?
I accept and welcome the Minister of State's invitation to those who may be able to offer detailed information regarding named individuals but it is very apparent that Tusla's role is critical.
The Minister of State tells me there is no profiling but it has already set out a profile for undocumented children in respect of age and so forth. This committee has addressed Tusla's recommendation for a cohort that could be successfully relocated here. I reject that. It is wrong but I know Tusla is unable to provide the necessary supports for its own direct project and responsibility in this jurisdiction never mind for the newly arrived children we want to welcome in our midst. I can see there is a brake on, or obstacles to, its being able to achieve what it needs to be able to do to provide the backup, continuing support and evaluation of a child newly arrived on our shores. That has to be faced up to.
It is not just the responsibility of the Department of Justice and Equality but of a compendium of Departments, Cabinet and Government to ensure Tusla is properly resourced to carry out its functions in this regard. It is imperative that is done across the board, and in the current crisis of so many thousands displaced but specifically unaccompanied children, it must be properly provisioned and resourced to accommodate the commitment we have made. How many undocumented children have we accepted? I hope it is more than we were told on the previous occasion we asked. Does the Minister of State have anything further to report from the visit by the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to Greece this week?
The Chairman has raised a lot of issues. With respect to the first point about the time spent in direct provision, I do not want to see persons residing in the State-provided accommodation for long periods. The McMahon working group did recognise that length of stay is a key challenge to be addressed in the asylum process. The implementation of the International Protection Act 2015 will see more efficient and effective case processing in decisions on protection applications. This will have a positive impact on the duration of stay in State-provided accommodation in the future. Approximately half of asylum seekers are not in State-provided accommodation. People are free to leave State-provided accommodation when they wish. People move in and out of State-provided accommodation. There are some who have leave to remain and do not want to leave the State-provided accommodation. I have met people who are happy that their needs are being met and they are grateful because many have come from appalling situations. There are people who are not happy, and the Chairman is right, because of the length of time they have had to stay there, but that is being changed. The International Protection Act 2015 will come into force at the end of this year and the intention and hope will be that, within eight to 12 months, the decision will be made that a person stays or goes.
That will address another issue that colleagues did not raise this morning, the right to work. Once people have refugee status, they have the right to work. They have virtually the same rights as an Irish citizen, except the right to vote. Ireland is a country that is open to migration. We have naturalised more than 100,000 people in the past five years to become Irish citizens. That has to be acknowledged. I am not sure whether colleagues here have been at any of the citizenship ceremonies, and if not, they might like to attend. They are amazing occasions, when people from virtually all countries of the world attend, very often in their traditional costumes. The sense of joy they have on becoming Irish citizens is amazing. I do not agree with the proposal that we are not open to migration. People come here all the time.
The McMahon working group and the single application procedure will make a huge difference and will be implemented in full from 31 December. We will see big changes there. Decisions will be made much faster and so forth.
As I have said in the Dáil, colleagues who wish to visit a direct provision centre should contact the Department and we will make arrangements. If they do visit, I would ask that they go alone. We have to respect these people's privacy. This is their home for the time being. If colleagues want to go in and meet people and chat to them, they should contact us, but they should not make it a huge media event because people might be worried and intimidated by that. If they have a suggestion following that on something they have seen or would like improved, we would be more than interested to hear from them.
I was aware of the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland, MRCI, issue and I was chairman of this committee when a report was brought forward. If there are people who through no fault of their own are undocumented and want to make representations to us, the Department will consider those cases, but there will be no blanket amnesty because each case has to be considered individually.
There are several definitions of an unaccompanied minor. The Government recognised the importance of prioritising family groups, and in addressing the position of unaccompanied children, it should be noted that a significant number who arrived to date are young children with one or two parents. I think approximately half are children we have taken in and that will continue. The Greek and Irish definitions of an unaccompanied minor differ. In Ireland an unaccompanied minor is anyone younger than 18 who is not accompanied by an adult family member, mother, father, siblings, grandparents or spouse or legally appointed guardian. In Greece, an unaccompanied minor is anyone younger than 18 not accompanied by a member of the nuclear family, mother, father or adult sibling. For example, a girl aged 17 married to a man aged 20 plus is technically an unaccompanied minor in Greece. The European Asylum Support Office uses statistics from Greece in its regular updates on the migration crisis, and recently obtained figures from Greece show that by its definition Ireland has taken in 17 unaccompanied minors whereas under the Irish definition we have taken in five.
The Tusla officials have travelled to Athens several times to interview and assess unaccompanied minors and will continue to do so in future missions. Tusla is initially committed to taking in 20 unaccompanied minors by the Irish definition during the course of the programme. The initial commitment has been increased more than tenfold with the issuing of the Government's recent commitment to identify up to 200 unaccompanied minors from former migrant camps in Calais still residing in France and who may wish to relocate to Ireland. We are anxious to do it. Deputy Daly has identified the challenges of fostering. I have taken note of what she said and will pass it on to my colleague, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs.
That addresses most of the issues the Chairman raised. I welcome any constructive criticism people may have of any of the services being provided by the State. The officials are working hard to ensure the accommodation and services provided are as good as we can make them. I know the Chairman is aware that, for instance, in Mosney and other centres, we are putting in cooking facilities for families. Many of the single men prefer to be in city centre accommodation whereas families like places like Mosney where children can play and where there is a crèche, a preschool and school bus service. Quite a few people have moved out of these centres in the past 12 months and will move out next year and more will move in.
This is the nature of it. Some people move out and stay with friends and relatives and make their own arrangements, which is fine. People are free to come and go as they wish in direct provision if they have the resources and supports outside to do so. In some instances, Irish citizens have actually made friends with people in direct provision and have assisted them to move out while they are still waiting for their asylum cases to be processed. I hope this answers the Chairman's question.
Yes. We are hoping, and trying, to up that number all the time. Tusla has gone to Athens on a number of occasions to interview them. An unaccompanied minor is a child who is totally on his or her own. Tusla has gone to the area to assess the situation and will continue to do so. We have committed to taking in 20 unaccompanied minors and we will continue to work on that. As I have already said, if Deputy Wallace or other Deputies have names of people from the Calais camps who are under the age of 18 and who want to be in Ireland, please pass them on to us and we will see if we can locate them. They may be spread across France at this stage, which presents challenges, as the committee will understand.
In bringing this session to a close, I ask the Minister of State to take on board the points made by the Deputies and Senators who contributed, and while not at all taking less notice of the fact that we are a jurisdiction that lobbies intently on behalf of our citizens overseas, that while we will not have a general regularisation scheme, to be mindful of our own displaced nationals in other settings. I remake the point to the Minister of State that we have an opportunity here to give some leadership and to demonstrate compassion and a humanitarian approach to this situation. The beneficiaries of this not only will be those who will be accommodated in Ireland, but also could very well be those we know personally and with whom we have shared many years of our lives.
As the discussion has now been completed, on behalf of the committee I thank the Minister of State and his officials for their attendance today. When the committee has completed its report, a copy will be sent to the Tánaiste and to the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton. I extend Christmas greetings to the Minister of State and his officials in attendance. We look forward to further engagements in 2017.
I thank the Chairman and the members of the committee for the constructive interaction. I reciprocate by wishing all the members the compliments of the season, a happy Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous new year. Officials in the Department work very hard and ceaselessly to try to do the best they can with regard to the issues raised. I look forward to further engagements with the committee, or at any time of the Chairman's convenience that he wishes to bring issues to my attention or to ask questions. We are here to assist, help and support in any way we can and to learn from the Chairman's words also.