Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 26 April 2022
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence
Barriers Facing Those Returning to Live in Ireland: Discussion
We will take the minutes and other items on the agenda later. Today, we are meeting with representatives of the Coalition of Irish Immigration Centers, CIIC, and the Crosscare Migrant Project to discuss issues and barriers facing members of the Irish diaspora when returning to live in Ireland. From the CIIC, I welcome Aileen Leonard Dibra, executive director, joining us remotely from New York, along with her colleagues, Celine Kennelly, chair of the CIIC's board of directors and executive director of the Irish Immigration Pastoral Center, IIPC, in San Francisco, and Ciaran Staunton, from the Irish Lobby for Immigration, ILI, who is also joining us from New York. From Crosscare, we are joined by Richard King, project leader, along with his colleagues, Sarah Owen, Irish abroad networking officer, and Niall Foster, information and advocacy officer.
The format of the meeting is that we will hear the witnesses opening statements and that will be followed by questions and answers with members of the committee. I ask members to be concise in their questions to allow everyone an opportunity to participate. Members will have a second opportunity to ask questions later, if they so desire.
I remind witnesses of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make that person in any way identifiable, or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of that person or entity. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory regarding an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that any such direction is complied with. For witnesses attending remotely from outside the Leinster House campus there are some limitations to parliamentary privilege and, as such, they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a witness physically present in our meeting room does.
I thank all the witnesses for making themselves available to us today to inform our members of the issues encountered on the ground and to respond to those aspects we have asked them to address. I call Ms Leonard Dibra to deliver her opening statement
Ms Aileen Leonard Dibra:
I thank the committee for the invitation to address it on the matter of Irish citizens returning to live in Ireland. My colleagues have already been introduced. The Coalition of Irish Immigration Centers was established in 1996 to promote the welfare of Irish immigrants and to serve as the umbrella organisation for Irish immigration centres throughout the US. The coalition is a strong, cohesive and representative voice for the needs of its membership, of which there are currently eleven centres from coast to coast, and in turn the Irish diaspora at large. The coalition examines the needs of the Irish diaspora and supports its membership to enhance their direct service work by focusing on organisational and programmatic best practice, information sharing, data collection, national reporting and the distribution of current, accurate and reliable information on topics pertinent to the Irish community. These include, but are not limited to, US immigration policy, various social services and professional learning and thought leadership. The coalition diligently cultivates and strengthens relationships within the global Irish community, and values the opportunity to share information, perspective and collaborative opportunities in support of the Irish diaspora. We are thrilled to be here today with our colleagues from the Crosscare Migrant Project. It is a long-time diaspora partner of the coalition, with which we have collaborated on numerous times to ensure our information is current regarding policies and procedures for individuals and families intending to return to live in Ireland and making the transition home as smooth and streamlined as possible.
Coalition member centres provide an array of culturally competent and confidential services, outreach and assistance to Irish immigrants throughout the US. Though immigration may be the presenting problem for an individual, it is often coupled with a plethora of other challenges, including mental health and wellness concerns, community connection and, in some cases, planning a return to live in Ireland. The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated issues faced by the whole Irish community as individuals and families lost employment, and travel restrictions caused increased concern for loved ones abroad due to forced separation of families. These challenges were particularly harsh for the undocumented community, with many employed in industries that were shut first and remained closed the longest, including construction, hospitality and other service-oriented professions. The pandemic and associated year-long shutdown resulted in loss of employment, diminished savings and crisis situations for these individuals, who were also ineligible to receive US Government benefits, such as unemployment stipends and federal pandemic relief moneys. Within this context, centres reported an increase in crisis returns, particularly from undocumented individuals and families looking to return to Ireland to live as a last resort. The pandemic became the last straw for many.
In recent months, a general sense of relief has been felt throughout the Irish community as the US reopens and resumes more typical modes of operation in all sectors. Requests for financial support related to Covid's impact appear to have largely ceased cross-country. Irish community members, however, are still recovering from unemployment and underemployment. In some cases, this has resulted in housing insecurity. The number of inquiries related to returning to live in Ireland has stabilised, though centres do report clients considering a planned return. These are mostly related to a desire to be closer to family and the availability of additional support at home.
Coalition members support individuals and families thinking of returning to live in Ireland in a variety of ways, including with information and resource sharing, case management and referral to other agencies, such as to our colleagues in the Crosscare Migrant Project. Additionally, several centres continue to provide services to their clients post return to assess well-being, provide case management and-or simply check-in. These ongoing interactions highlight the challenges for Irish citizens upon their return. These include aspects such as: difficulty adjusting to living in Ireland again; obtaining medical insurance; accessing health care; acquiring a driver's licence; obtaining car insurance; securing housing and sourcing employment; and sorting out registration for non-Irish family members for services, such as for children or spouses who are US citizens. Several areas of particular concern relate to converting professional certificates, such as nursing credentials, as well as medical repatriation for individuals in health crises in the US who would benefit from healing or long-term care close to family members in Ireland. The overall bureaucracy involved in these types of situations is challenging.
The coalition is thankful for the ongoing and generous support received through the emigrant support programme of the Government of Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs. We also value the strong partnership we share with Ambassador Dan Mulhall and the staff of the Irish Embassy in Washington, DC, as well as with those in the consular offices across the US and other Irish Government posts. Once again, the coalition thanks the committee for this opportunity to meet with its members. We look forward to a robust conversation on the topic at hand. We are happy to answer any questions the members may have and to provide any additional information they might find helpful following the call.
Mr. Richard King:
I thank the committee members for inviting us to speak about the barriers and issues facing Irish emigrants returning home. Crosscare Migrant Project is funded by the emigrant support programme, ESP, in the Department of Foreign Affairs. We provide an information and advocacy service that supports Irish citizens who are leaving and returning to Ireland. We have more than 20 years’ experience doing that work and we work closely with Irish consular services and missions as well as Irish organisations around the world, including our colleagues in the Coalition of Irish Immigration Centers, CIIC.
The Central Statistics Office has shown a steady increase in Irish people returning to Ireland in recent years, rising to in excess 30,000 in 2021. The profile of people returning is varied, ranging from individuals to couples and families with children to retirees and pensioners. The circumstances of their return are also varied. Some come back in a very planned fashion, with jobs and accommodation arranged. Others come back out of necessity to look after family members or because they have no legal options to stay in the country to which they emigrated. Others come back in crisis due to various reasons, including deportation, homelessness and mental or physical health problems. The Covid-19 pandemic has increased the numbers of people returning or planning to return and we believe this trend will continue.
Our core focus is on those who are vulnerable or marginalised and who are lacking family or other support networks in Ireland on which so many returning emigrants rely. These are people who are most in need of support during the critical period of arriving and post arrival. We do a lot of work with Irish groups and Irish consular services, and we engage with key agencies in Ireland. We have identified three main areas where issues arise and we have done a considerable amount of work in these areas over the years. Those areas are access to social protection, access to emergency accommodation or shelter, and visa or immigration issues.
I am sure members of the committee are aware of issues around social protection. One of the main barriers is the issue of access to social protection and the habitual residence condition, HRC. The HRC has been an issue for more than 15 years. We successfully advocated for changes to the HRC guidelines that adopted specific recognition of returning Irish citizens in 2010. The situation improved, but more than a decade later, it has become evident that issues with the HRC are again adversely affecting people returning to live in Ireland today. In the majority of the cases we deal with, the individuals are in very vulnerable situations such as homelessness or at risk of homelessness, with no income or support networks. Some have children or further health and social care support needs.
Key issues include a lack of understanding of how the five factors of HRC can be applied to returning emigrants, which is most likely due to lack of specific training. There is sometimes a default to refusals where the deciding officer effectively defers a decision to the appeals office, which causes delays. There is a disparity in the treatment of Irish citizens from minority ethnic backgrounds, particularly those who have naturalised. The traditional routes for interim payments, such as supplementary welfare assistance, take as long to process as standard payments, which negates their effectiveness. Our 2018 report, A Hundred Thousand Welcomes?, outlined these issues. Our work over the past four years has shown those issues still exist.
Housing and homelessness are major issues facing many people in Ireland today but there are specific needs for emigrants returning into homelessness. These people often return at short notice, in some cases assisted by our consular services, and with a wide range of needs on return. We have identified a critical period of the 72 hours after landing and an urgent period of ten days following that where better systems need to be in place to support these people. To access homeless emergency accommodation, people need to engage with the relevant local authority to have their needs assessed. This usually requires the submission of a social housing application to undergo a housing needs assessment, and that takes time. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee the person will be placed in emergency accommodation while this assessment takes place, which means he or she could be left with nowhere to sleep. In our experience, there can be reluctance on the part of some local authorities to provide emergency accommodation where a person does not have a recent Irish address, even if he or she has an obvious local connection to the area.
Interestingly, the public health response to the Covid-19 pandemic has shown us a model on how such cases could be handled. The HSE set up self-isolation facilities for vulnerable people that we were able to utilise for crisis returnees until those facilities closed in September 2021. We were able to make referrals that effectively ensured two weeks of accommodation for returning emigrants on their arrival home. This allowed us, and on-site staff, to engage with the local authorities, the Department of Social Protection and other services. It created a buffer period that took the immediate risk out of returning home in crisis. It allowed essential and wrap-around supports to be put in place, giving time to secure further temporary homeless accommodation following the two-week period.
An increasing number of people are returning with non-EU family members, mainly spouses and partners but also in some cases children or other dependants. The major concern for such family units is the system of applying for immigration permission for the non-EU family member. Different rules apply to different categories of people. A 2018 report was commissioned by the then Minister with responsibility for the diaspora and carried out by Indecon. The report identified de facto partners as a distinct group where there were issues involved. A system of pre-clearance was implemented following that report. That system, in general, works well as it gives assurances to applicants they will be able to register to live and work in Ireland on arrival. However, the downside is the processing times, which are variable and recently jumped from three months to six months, with the potential for longer delays.
Non-visa required spouses and children can enter Ireland easily and, in general, can register with immigration with few difficulties. However, visa-required spouses and children have to submit a visa application prior to returning, and while such an application can be processed via the Dublin office in three to four months, it can in some cases take up to 12 months. We have seen appeal periods adding two years to the processing time. We are also receiving reports of delays in the foreign birth registration process. The timeframe involved now stands at approximately two years. That is a barrier for some people who wish to return with Irish children who have Irish passports.
The impacts of these delays are most immediately obvious in situations of crisis returns, where there is a chance of the family being split up for long periods of time. Uncertain processing times can also make planning more difficult. We support planned returns because they are in the best interests of everyone involved.
Solutions can be found for all of the issues I have outlined. Some solutions can be implemented within existing structures, for example, specific training on HRC could be made mandatory for social protection deciding officers. Shortened processing times and an emergency processing system for visas could also be implemented. Other solutions can be found by looking at best practice and developing new processes. For example, we propose a protocol that would allow immediate accommodation of Irish citizens and their families returning in crisis, which would be put in place by all local authorities.
Ireland’s diaspora strategy for 2020 to 2025 clearly focuses on a number of areas relevant to today’s discussion. One of the key areas is the welfare of the Irish abroad, which by extension must include those returning. Another important area is the diverse nature of our diaspora. Those are two areas where we are focussing our work.
We have initiated a piece of research into the experiences of Irish emigrants from minority ethnic backgrounds, a group that has traditionally been little recognised but that is increasingly becoming a feature of our diaspora. We earlier referenced the disparity in treatment some Irish citizens from minority ethnic backgrounds have received upon returning to Ireland, and we hope our research will help to inform and educate about this specific group.
With a view to supporting Irish community and welfare organisations post pandemic, we carried out a piece of research in the middle of the pandemic, which was published in 2021 under the title Ní Neart Go Cur Le Chéile. It showed how Irish organisations around the world rallied to provide essential supports. Their ability to do this was in large part due to the ongoing investment by Ireland in the ESP, which provides core funding to organisations such as Crosscare, the CIIC and hundreds of others, and is essential to maintaining and developing the support our diaspora needs, especially those who are at risk or vulnerable. ESP-funded organisations on the ground around the world, working in partnership with Irish missions and each other, are uniquely placed to provide the bespoke assistance and help that makes the commitments in Ireland’s diaspora strategy a reality. ESP funding should be increased to offer more support and opportunities for development to existing and potential recipients.
I will also make a point about The Inter-Departmental Committee on the Irish Abroad.
That committee cuts across all Departments and should provide an opportunity for them to contribute to efforts to support our diaspora, specifically those who are returning. The remit of all these Departments is foreign affairs in Ireland. However, that committee does not have the weight or authority of an Oireachtas committee or subcommittee. A dedicated subcommittee of this committee should be established to oversee these efforts.
I thank members for their interest and we are happy to answer any questions they have.
I thank both contributors for their presentations. We extend our appreciation and thanks for the work they do and the manner in which they assist Irish citizens. We note primarily the issues and concerns around those who return out of necessity, as Mr. King said, or who are in crisis relating to deportation or health matters and, ultimately, are vulnerable people. We note the various recommendations and solutions the witnesses have presented and thank them for those.
I thank the witnesses for coming before us this afternoon - or in the morning, as it may be in some cases - and for their useful presentations. It is something of which I have some experience. In the previous Dáil, I sat on the social protection committee and we had some of the witnesses' colleagues from Crosscare before us highlighting some of the major challenges, similar to those outlined today. Unfortunately, the issues returning Irish immigrants experience remain broadly the same.
I note the figure of more than 30,000 returning in 2021. That is a huge number. How does it compare with previous years? Covid has had some impact, as was outlined in the presentation from the Coalition of Irish Immigration Centers, particularly regarding the undocumented. Do we have figures for the undocumented? How many are estimated to be contained in that figure of 30,000? Do we have an accurate picture of where these emigrants are coming from? Is it predominantly the US, Canada or Australia? Have we any indication around that?
The HRC is an issue of major concern. I have come across it. A number of people have been in touch with me concerning setting up bank accounts, registering with local authorities on housing lists and accessing basic essentials, including social protection. What has been outlined is similar if not the same in terms of providing solutions. What engagement have the witnesses had with the relevant Minister on that? Is there any movement to provide HRC training for staff? It is a basic and simple ask that could easily be taken up and implemented.
The foreign birth registration, FBR, process was raised and over the past two years I have taken it up with the Minister on a number of occasions in committee and the Chamber. It has been a major concern. The witnesses are probably aware the process was closed during Covid and staff were pulled from registering FBRs, which had a major impact. We have been told additional staff will be put in to deal with it, but there is still a two-year delay, which is concerning. Will the witnesses paint a picture of how that has a direct impact on someone? The Minister will say that, in emergency situations, they will process applications. How does the delay have an impact in real terms on people who have been in touch with the witnesses?
I join the Chair and others in welcoming our guests and thanking them for their interesting and timely presentation. Reference was made to three groups who return to Ireland: those who come through planned methods, those who come through necessity and those who come through crisis. Will the witnesses give us a pen-picture of the breakdown percentage-wise with respect to those three groups? That might be difficult.
On planned returns, when people go abroad, put down roots and have children who go to school and so on, it is harder to come back. From my trips to various places, I have noted there is a window after a number of years when people make that decision, before their roots go down. After that happens, it is harder to come back and they build up friends and relationships. Will the witnesses comment on that?
Deputy Brady has covered much of the practical stuff and we should follow up with respect to the HRC and all that. I am interested in the converting of professional certificates and it would be interesting to get some detail on which are the most difficult and numerous the witnesses are coming across. We have all come across people trying to come here, whether pharmacists, doctors, nurses or whatever else, who find they cannot practice even though they have qualifications from other jurisdictions. More detail on that would be interesting.
A point was made on the difficulty in adjusting to living in Ireland again, socially and emotionally. I am interested in that. Are the witnesses saying somebody coming here is coming to a strange place even though they came from here originally? Do they come back and find they are in a different country? Will the witnesses flesh that out? We can probably tackle head on the practical stuff Deputy Brady mentioned but the social and emotional bit causes me some concern.
Ms Aileen Leonard Dibra:
I will ask my colleagues, Mr. Staunton and Ms Kennelly, to come in also. I will answer with regard to breaking down the number of people coming back and the question on how many are undocumented and where they are coming from. The Irish community tends to be in the urban hubs here for the most part. That is not to say they are not elsewhere, but where our centres are located, there are large numbers of Irish immigrants who seek support from them in those areas. That is one thing I would focus on. Does Ms Kennelly agree with that? Centres reach out in smaller numbers to larger geographic areas, usually based on consular region, to support others not in those direct areas.
Ms Celine Kennelly:
I agree with that. The larger communities are based in urban areas. We are lucky that in most of those urban areas, one of our coalition member partners is based in the cities. Each centre covers a larger geographic area outside its physical city presence. We cover northern California, part of Washington state and part of Oregon-----
Ms Celine Kennelly:
Sure, no problem.
It is correct to say the Irish communities are broadly centred in urban areas. We are lucky, in terms of the membership of the coalition, that we too are generally based in urban areas, so we are very much at the coalface of our communities and can support them in that regard. The centres have a broader remit. In recent years, certainly in California, in economic terms a lot of our community have moved out of cities because of inflation and rising housing prices and education costs to further flung areas outside of, for example, my city, San Francisco. All the centres are continuing to provide services to those immigrants. In our case, we deal with west of the Rocky Mountains, while the Chicago centre comes down the middle through Texas, and the centres on the eastern coast come all the way down the eastern seaboard. We are making sure any immigrant who is looking for a service and assistance can get it.
One issue we saw earlier during the Covid pandemic, which touches on the question as to the difference between the undocumented and the documented population, relates to the number of people who were in the US as part of inter-company transfers on work visas, where the visas had expired and they were unable to return to Ireland to renew them. The US embassy in Dublin was closed and they, effectively, became trapped within the US. Quite a number of people decided this life was not for them, because they were used to-----
Ms Aileen Leonard Dibra:
I might pick up there while Ms Kennelly is reconnecting to the meeting. There were people here working on visas who were then trapped, and we are still seeing those delays even as the US embassy in Dublin has reopened. People are still here, to a certain extent, who have lived out this two-year process of not being able to return because they could not secure an appointment.
Ms Celine Kennelly:
I thank Ms Leonard Dibra and apologise for the interruption. Our little madra had something to say about the issue.
Many people decided this was not the life for them anymore and left. They have returned to Ireland and taken their families with them. We were all in a position whereby we were away from family and there was concern in that regard, and that distance became very real and difficult for many of our immigrant population. It also gave them a clear understanding of and appreciation for the life of the undocumented immigrant because they too found themselves in a position whereby they could not leave or return. The past two years has caused us to look at this differently. It has given a different face to returning to Ireland by the immigrant population. I am curious to know whether Crosscare has anything to say about the variation on figures because I think that is something we do not have. I refer to the 30,000 number that was mentioned for 2021 and what that looked like previously.
Ms Sarah Owen:
The CSO statistics that are available show that 30,200 people returned in the year to April 2021. Prior to that, the figure for the previous year was 28,900, and for the year before that, 26,900. The figures fluctuate, but the pandemic has meant more people have returned. By contrast, the number of people who left to go abroad in that same period, when 30,200 returned, was 22,800, a significant difference. Even so, the year was 2021, so people were not going many places.
There are limitations to these statistics. They come from the Central Statistics Office and are quite broad. It is very difficult to break them down and get figures for people who are returning and are undocumented. The figures do not go into that level of detail. Through the emigrant support programme and all the groups engaging with individuals abroad, numbers are available through reporting we all carry out biannually but, again, that can be difficult to pinpoint. What we do know is that, earlier during the pandemic, people who came back were coming back in much more vulnerable circumstances because the pandemic, ultimately, was a push factor. They had got to the point where they had exhausted their avenues of support and, therefore, they had no choice but to return. It is not just that people return in a planned way or during a crisis. Sometimes it depends on whether they have a choice about whether to return or whether they just have to return.
I might mention the emotional and psychological impact of return and address that point. In 2016, we published a report, Home for Good?, in which we asked 400 Irish emigrants about their experiences of returning home in the five years prior to that. A stark 20% of respondents stated the unexpected emotional costs of return were something they were really surprised by, meaning they had thought they were going home but did not always factor in the fact that, because they may have left when they were in their early 20s and were then coming back with a new family and children, and because their families had got older, their old networks in Ireland would not have been the same as when they had left, which obviously had an emotional impact on them. There were also some contributions from respondents who stated they were starting every sentence with "When I lived in Australia" or "When I lived in the States", and they were often then shut down by friends and family who had heard quite enough of that. All of that contributed to the idea that there is a period of adjustment and that return is not for everyone. Sometimes people return to Ireland only to find they were happier in the US, the UK, Australia, Namibia or wherever they were living. That is important to note because it will allow people to have that choice and to make migratory decisions that suit them. We approach our work in such a way that we work with people in vulnerable circumstances and that is the focus of what we do, but we neither promote nor dissuade return. We try to help people make informed decisions about their migration that are right for them.
Turning to the HRC, it sounds as though many of the committee members are well versed on this. It has been around, unfortunately, for quite a long time. Improvements have been made to the condition but we believe it still affects people who are in the most vulnerable circumstances, such as people coming back in destitution, with no income whatsoever. They might be being deported, with only the shirt on their back, and it can be difficult for someone in those circumstances to provide documentary evidence to show they have returned to Ireland for good and are resuming their residence here, or that they have maintained their residence here. They may not have links with their family members or might be estranged. They are certainly not going back into a tenancy, opening a bank account or taking the steps that would show, very effectively, that they are resuming their residence here. Nevertheless, we always make the argument that in the case of someone who is coming back and has had no option but to do so, their centre of interest can only be in Ireland for the purposes of this condition, and we are successful at taking cases on appeal and overturning negative decisions. We believe that with additional training for front-line deciding officers, this issue could be lessened. The understanding of the vulnerable circumstances in which people come back, and some acceptance of the fact they will not always be able to show they have resumed their residence here, would be quite helpful.
Moreover, collecting numbers at a social welfare appeals office level on the number of decisions for Irish citizens that have been overturned would be useful. Those figures, which are not currently published, would help to form a picture of the number of people who have been and continue to be affected by this issue because they apply to most payments where somebody is means tested. As my colleague Mr. King said, we sometimes find a person will apply for, say, a jobseeker's payment and a decision on that will not be made quickly. He or she may have applied for an interim payment such as the supplementary welfare allowance, and a decision on that will not be made until the primary payment has been refused. Fundamentally, that leaves the person without access to any sort of income support, which can be very challenging at that critical moment and can serve to make a difficult situation worse.
I thank the witnesses for their time and sharing their expertise. I am very disappointed to see that the habitual residence condition is still such an issue. To be blunt, it has broken my heart in my constituency office on occasion. I am speaking specifically of a woman and two children who left a domestic violence situation and landed in to me literally with just the clothes on their backs. The main barrier for them was the habitual residence condition. It added a level of trauma to what was already a traumatic situation and should never have occurred.
I am interested in the social housing assessment regulations. There are two local authorities in my constituency and I have noticed that there is not a standardised approach. Depending on where it is that people are returning to, the criteria used in their cases can differ from those used in other local authority areas. This does not create the level playing field that those who are returning home should have.
An issue that arises time and again is that something cannot be done until people get here. There is a certain amount that people can do when there is a planned return, but there is a substantial amount that they cannot until they are physically standing in the country. This creates barriers.
Deputy Brady has touched on the issue of engagement with the Department regarding the habitual residence condition. Have the witnesses' organisations had any engagement with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage on the lack of a level playing field, for want of a better term, in accessing social housing supports?
Ms Owen referred to an engagement Crosscare had had with people who had returned after a number of years. What other questions does it ask them? These people are the experts. They are the ones who have left. Let us be honest: it is easy to leave but not so easy to come back. These are the people with the lived experience of that. What other questions does Crosscare ask them? What impact does it have on them emotionally, psychologically and logistically to be unable to find adequate supports when they come back? Are they primarily returning to their areas of origin or are there factors pulling them to other areas?
There is something in the wrap-around support system Mr. King mentioned. If it was possible to put it in place during Covid, particularly for those returning who had few resources to their name, were destitute or needed to come back due to an emergency, we should consider the matter in more detail. There could be an argument that it could work in situations other than a pandemic.
I wish to touch on foreign birth registrations. The committee received a briefing recently. Additional staff are due to be acquired. Disappointingly and frustratingly, though, I do not believe this will solve the backlog in the short term.
Regarding people returning and accessing PPS numbers, Revenue certificates and so on, do the witnesses' organisations have any engagement with the Revenue Commissioners on how that process can be streamlined and made more user-friendly?
Over the considerable period for which the organisations have been in existence, how have the challenges that people face changed? There is a housing crisis at the moment and, obviously, it is a factor. What about accessing schools, GPs and dental services, which many of us take for granted in our communities? Has there been a change in those challenges?
Mr. Richard King:
The Deputy asked a good number of questions that are relevant to our work. I might refer certain of them to my colleagues.
Like Deputy Clarke, Deputy Brady spoke about the FBR. The impact is mainly on planning and the delays to which that can lead. It links to the visa and pre-clearance issues, as it all gets bundled up into the uncertain period of time before people have the citizenship they feel they need to return to the country. This is an important distinction because it is not necessarily a requirement. Someone does not have to have an Irish passport for his or her child to return to Ireland. If people are coming back from a country like Australia, it is fine because there is no visa required and it will not cause an issue. All of this builds into a picture. We have seen in practice that there are real barriers and perceptual barriers, and all of these issues get jumbled up and dispersed around Facebook groups, sites and discussions. For example, we heard it being said over and over for years that, due to the HRC, people could not get anything until they had been home for two years. I believe this myth or misinformation has been put to bed to some extent, but such beliefs can have an impact.
The delays are mainly found in planning the return. When people have families and are trying to arrange schools or when they are returning for their jobs, they need to know they can have a flight on this or that date because everything else will move on from there. We have encountered a few cases of delays in pre-clearance and people's de facto partners having to wait behind for a couple of months. It does not sound like the biggest deal in the world, but those people have to maintain two households - renting two apartments, for example - without having all of the supports they need to get their stuff over, take their flights etc. Planned returns are important because they make people more comfortable and leave them feeling like they can return home, which feeds into Deputy Stanton's point. The social and emotional adjustment is a large part of it.
Deputy Stanton was right in that people tend to come home at key times, for example, before their kids start school or when their kids are going to college. Their returns are bookended by big life events where people need stability. The other side of that is where people do not have an option other than to return in the middle of those periods. That can cause a large problem.
It is sometimes difficult to discuss some of the barriers because many of them are wrapped up in issues that everyone experiences, for example, housing. It is difficult to get somewhere to rent. The fix for some of these issues is the fix for everyone, so these issues do not just affect returning emigrants, but they add an extra layer of complication and concern. All of these issues go into the pot of what people add up to make the right decision for them and their families.
Deputy Clarke made a key point about taking care of matters in advance. During Covid, we have seen the movement of many statutory bodies to online application processes. There is no reason many of these steps could not be taken prior to returning. Why not take care of the steps that are easy to take – PPS numbers, visas etc. – in advance? It is a statement that people are planning on returning and that they want to get these matters sorted. This is more difficult to do when it comes to, for example, housing supports and social protection where there are means assessments. In such cases, we would err on the side of increasing awareness and understanding of the rules and how they might apply to returning emigrants. This should speed up processing.
In crisis returns and where people are coming back into homelessness, we would like to see guaranteed shelter of two weeks. Currently, people who return have to present in person for that to happen. This is problematic. They only comprise a small group, but theirs is a very high-need group. We focus on and put a great deal of effort into them and are in a good position to assist in their situations. However, the whole focus could be on identifying what could be done across statutory agencies and Departments in advance. It is more difficult to control what the private sector does, but there is no reason it cannot be done. The interdepartmental committee could play a role.
Some of these issues were identified in the Indecon report; some were fixed and some continue. Definitely, some revitalisation of that, with key action points, would be very useful.
On the point regarding professional certificates and things that convert back or not, it is very hard for us to pin those down. We work with people coming from every area and every region. Top countries of return are top countries of destination by default, such as America, Australia and England. Increasingly, people are going to and coming back from all parts of the world. Numbers from the Middle East have definitely increased in the past while, but we are also dealing with people coming back from south-east Asia, Latin America and Africa.
Countries that have similar systems to ours traditionally tend to be fine. Our colleagues in the US refer to driving licences as being a very difficult matter. A driving licence from the US cannot be exchanged whereas one from Australia can be. Certain things make it easier for people from certain destinations, just by default, while others are more difficult. It is also extremely difficult to get percentages of where people are coming from and so on.
We have had engagement regarding local authority areas and housing assessments. I am struggling to recall exactly when because it was a while back but my colleague, Mr. Foster, works in this area a lot. He sees, practically speaking, the disparity between treatment in local areas. If he will cover one or two areas, that would be great.
Mr. Niall Foster:
To begin with people who land in Ireland, whether through crisis or otherwise, the first point of engagement if someone is homeless is to present to his or her local authority for a homeless assessment. In our experience, what is happening across all local authorities at present is the conflation of a homeless assessment with a housing assessment. If someone is not eligible for social housing at that time and does not have a payment in place, there is a delay in that person accessing homeless accommodation. That has been a real issue for us. Whether it is families or single persons coming in, people have a window where they need support and accommodation. They will have to go through the process of trying to get a payment and producing documents to be able to get on the housing list just to access homeless accommodation. That is the first point regarding what we have experienced across the board.
On the level playing field and what we have experienced in respect of differences between the local authorities, we can all appreciate that Dublin has the highest number of homeless cases. It has a lot of experience dealing with those cases in comparison with other local authorities, but we have noticed that if someone is coming back to Ireland and he or she has to present to a local authority outside Dublin, there are cases where that person is sent back to Dublin to get homeless accommodation. If someone is coming into Ireland and getting a bus to Cork or Galway - this is not being specific to any local authority - in general that person is sent back to Dublin because he or she might not have had an address in that area for four, five, ten or 15 years. That local area is where the person would have last had an address and where he or she might have established ties, or not, in some cases, but the treatment of people is that they have to go to Dublin to be looked after because there are not enough homeless services or the resources to look after them.
We have a case example involving a family who emigrated in 2015 and arrived back to Ireland in 2020. Their business abroad had failed due to Covid and their last address was in a county council area in a Border county just outside Dublin. They were told that because they had not been made homeless in that county, they needed to find their own accommodation. In this case, it was lucky the family came back with savings allowing them to support their accommodation. It took 18 days for that family to be offered accommodation by the council after numerous efforts and advocacy by us. When they returned, the family was told they were not habitually resident and could not access homeless accommodation because they had lived abroad for five years. As we know, the habitual residency condition is part of social welfare legislation. I was not sure why that was applied in this situation, but it was a term that was used. Again, it was said that since the family did not become homeless in that local authority area, despite having lived there previously, they were not entitled to accommodation. It took a very long time. A self-accommodation option was given to them for a two-week period. The local authority paid for it for that two-week period and then told the family they had to move out because it could not afford to keep them in that accommodation. We had to continue advocacy. The family ran out of resources but eventually we got them assessed for homeless accommodation and it was given to them.
That was a lucky case for that family because they had the resources to be able to support themselves for the three or four weeks they were not provided with accommodation, but that will not be the case for many people, especially those returning in crisis. That is something we have experienced. There is a lot of pressure on the Dublin local authorities to accommodate people. The central placement service, despite that family technically not being its responsibility, facilitated them for a few nights just to get them over the hill. There is definitely a disparity in the treatment of families presenting as homeless when they return to Ireland.
Mr. Ciarán Staunton:
I have met with most members in the past regarding the undocumented issue. As they will imagine, nothing is going on at present in respect of it. Ms Kennelly and Ms Leonard Dibra will back me up in that we do not see anything coming down the pipeline on the issue, not under this Administration. We do not see much hope for a future Administration because it now looks like the other party could take over both Houses. In the context of that issue and with Covid, we see more people returning home.
One of the major issues is that of the driver's licence. We know there are others but this is one that is Government-resolved. We see what it has done in respect of seven provinces in Canada, where the Irish Government has been bilateral. It could start that process in the United States by picking New York, California, Pennsylvania or Illinois and doing some of those. Most of the people returning from the US are not dependent on the Government but they need drivers' licences and the independence to get around. Most of them are going home with some money. We have seen in the past that it has been a priority with regard to other countries. There are about a dozen bilateral agreements right now. We think this should be looked into.
I also echo what was said about the matter of returning Irish emigrants being dealt with by a permanent subcommittee of this committee. It would be very important because emigrants are coming now and the issue is being dealt with by various committees. We know an interdepartmental committee was set up and we know about the Indecon 2018 report. We believe we should get to a situation where emigrants are tied in tighter so that, when they return, they do not do so not knowing what Department to go to. I would like to see that.
If there are any questions on the issue of the undocumented, both Ms Leonard Dibra and Ms Kennelly will answer them. Unfortunately, I have to run to catch a flight. There is no white smoke coming from Washington on this issue, not now or in the not-so-distant future, unfortunately for us. That will put more pressure on more people who are going back. As I said, the driver's licence is one of the major issues. I thank everyone very much.
I wish to pick up on the points Mr. Staunton made about the undocumented and no movement on it whatsoever. It is very disappointing to hear that, particularly given the focus on President Biden and his roots in, and connections to, Ireland. It is also really disappointing given the broader politics at play within the US, as Mr. Staunton outlined. It is something on which the Irish Government and this committee need to keep the pressure and focus, but it has to be said it is disappointing. To pick up on another point, a multi-departmental approach is critical and badly needed. It is something this committee can pick up.
To go back to the Indecon report in 2018, and this is probably a broader question, there were 30 recommendations in that report. How many of the 30 recommendations, if any, have been implemented in part or in full? At this point, four years after that report, are there new additions that could be included? Looking at the recommendations, everything from the motor driving Mr. Staunton mentioned and social welfare benefits and housing that have been referred to today is contained in a report that was commissioned by the Minister four years ago, yet here we are still having the same conversations when the solutions were provided. That is the general question.
Ms Aileen Leonard Dibra:
Mr. Staunton had to leave because he is catching a flight. The Indecon report was published and we read it. There was a laundry list of things to be addressed and we are still discussing some of those things, as Mr. Staunton would highlight were he here. The main thing is the planned return. Our colleagues at Crosscare Migrant Project referred to this strongly and we would agree. Not everybody can be a planned return, but what can be done ahead of time to make that as seamless as possible? The overall theme that I pick up, and Ms Kennelly, being the executive director, ED, of one of the centres would agree, is that it is much easier to handle things upfront and ahead of time as much as possible to make the transition back seamless. There is the emotional side of it, which Deputy Stanton was very keen to discuss further and on which our friends at Crosscare Migrant Project have done some research, and we see it regularly through our centres to keep in touch with people who have come home. It is a case of what we can do ahead of time and those lists of things so that it is a planned and seamless return. That will alleviate some of the social and emotional things, or at least ease them. Does Ms Kennelly agree? Would she like to comment?
Ms Celine Kennelly:
I would. I will come back to something mentioned previously, and Deputy Clarke highlighted it, which is the wrap-around services that were put in place during Covid. That is what we provide as immigration centres. We provide wrap-around services when any member of the public comes to us in crisis. Many of our immigrant population do, especially the undocumented, those with mental health difficulties and struggles and those with drug and alcohol abuse. Their success depends on wrap-around services. It depends on dealing with the housing, the medical issues and immigration issues, and giving them the tools to get back on their feet. For many of them there has been a blip and they have found themselves unable to get over that blip and sinking further and further. We should look to the Covid model. It is something municipalities are doing across the US and governments are doing. We were able to pivot quickly and provide service to our most vulnerable members of the community during Covid, and I strongly believe we should be able to learn from that.
In terms of people coming, as Mr. Staunton said, we do not see anything happening on the immigration front. We see an undocumented community that continues to be further marginalised because, the longer those people are there, the fewer safety supports they have in place as they age. One of the populations that has become a concern to many centres, and it was highlighted by the Aisling Irish Community Center in New York, is construction workers as they start to come to retirement age and are no longer able physically to perform the work they have done throughout their lives, the only work that is open to them. What happens to them? There is no health insurance, no retirement plan and no pension. It is whatever they have put away. They were living on their weekly wage and some were more successful than others in putting money away. Many of them are single. It is very reminiscent of what we have seen happen in the UK, where there are older Irishmen who find themselves very quickly, sometimes because of injury but certainly because of approaching retirement age, without any support systems and no longer able to support themselves. What happens to them?
In terms of what can happen to address the issue of the undocumented, it must be a Government-wide continued focus beyond St. Patrick's Day. Every Deputy, Senator and Minister who comes to the United States must speak to the leadership he or she meets to examine how we can resolve this problem based on the amazing, one-to-one relationship that exists between Ireland and the United States. It is a relationship of migrancy. We come and we go. People from the US who are non-Irish citizens and non-Irish heritage citizens would love the opportunity to come to Ireland, but it is not that easy for them to come to Ireland either. We would love to see a model created on the Irish side that creates that level of goodwill and gives something that would give the government agencies in the US a goal to work towards. There is a broad concern among the GAA, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, AOH, and in local and national civic engagement about the influence of Irish America because, as it stands, Irish America is shrinking. We do not have a new population coming. We would love to see a model set in Ireland for US citizens to come there because many of them might have Irish heritage going back generations but they cannot easily come to Ireland and work. That would give us a model to present on the US side.
I will be brief. I join Deputy Brady in expressing my disappointment at the lack of movement on the status of the undocumented. I agree with speakers that we should focus quite a lot on that. Perhaps we have been neglectful there recently with everything that has been happening, but it is no harm to get back on this. I have a question related to that, which is the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, and the deportation of Irish people. I have encountered a few cases of that in the past, although not so many recently. The witnesses might comment on what is going on there. Is it up or down? What is the current position?
Ms Aileen Leonard Dibra:
I am sorry to say that I do not have the numbers we have with me. We will get them. With regard to deportations, they have been down in recent years. I wish my immigration analyst was here because he would know off the top of his head, but I believe there were 26 or 27 instances of Irish people being deported from the United States in the previous fiscal year, so the numbers are low. The interesting thing about the undocumented community currently in the United States, and Ms Kennelly touched on this, is the fact it is further withdrawn than it has ever been.
Right before Covid-19, we were in the midst of the previous Administration where there was very harsh rhetoric with regard to immigration and the undocumented in particular. Therefore, we already had people pulling back. Then we went right into the pandemic during which there were questions about what services and supports people would have, and US policies on things such as the public charge rule etc. very much compounded the fear that people who should be reaching out were not. We even saw that a little bit over the past couple of years with people seeking services through their immigration centres, which were still there and still supporting people on the front line. There was an anxiety there, however. We have, therefore, a population of people who have been battered down over the past six years and who are now just trying to figure out where they are going and what they are going to do.
Over the past couple of years, we saw what we had hoped would be congressional movement with a new Administration, which just got watered down, from what would at least have been the ideal pathway for people, down to a say on deportation and possible work authorisation, down to nothing. Our undocumented population here are always vulnerable. They are more vulnerable than ever at the moment in the sense of disappointment and ongoing fear and anxiety that has happened over recent years.
I thank Ms Leonard Dibra. That probably deals with members' questions. I will turn to Mr. King and maybe seek a closing comment. I thank him for his earlier submission. Apologies for not being here myself but I am most grateful indeed for the documentation he furnished along with his oral presentation. It seems quite clear to me we have work to do. We would be keen to do what was mentioned by Deputies Brady and Stanton. Some of the issues raised are new and many have been around for many years in terms of access to healthcare, insurance, driving licences, housing, employment, the recognition or otherwise of professional certificates and qualifications and, more recently, a greater diversity within the Irish diaspora.
I want to comment on what Deputies Brady and Stanton said in respect of the Indecon report. We should see whether we can do an evaluation or can have one done on that in order that we can not only attend to ourselves but also transmit to Government a request that a greater level of focus from Government is needed towards many of these recommendations and in terms of gaps that might appear in the multi-departmental approach.
I acknowledge the importance of the emigrant support programme and the work our officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs do on the ground, not only here in Ireland but more particularly across our network of consulates in the United States, which continues to grow in response to the Irish community and level of business that is appropriate to such offices. We very much acknowledge the programme workers and the fact that just under €1 million is made available from the Department of Foreign Affairs annually, and specifically within that is a tailored diaspora fund.
There is a body of work for us to do, however. Our meeting is, therefore, timely as well as being important. This is an area to which we shall return, certainly before the end of the year. I will call Mr. King for a final word and then maybe wrap up with Ms Leonard Dibra, Ms Kennelly and Mr. Staunton. I acknowledge the importance of our meeting.
Mr. Richard King:
I thank the committee for the invitation today and the opportunity to speak. Ms Kennelly very much raised the point about the wrap-around supports and what we offer. We collectively offer help on how we are going to support funded organisations and consular services both in Dublin and worldwide. We can certainly attest to the phenomenal work by consular services abroad. We have a very close relationship with the office in Dublin. We do much work on very intense and difficult cases that come from an embassy or mission to Dublin and to us. We then engage with the service here. It is amazing and a model other countries look to and of which they would be envious.
In terms of what we need to be doing, sometimes it is easy to look for very big asks. People say things like we should have a one-stop shop or have some legislative change. By way of illustration, when we were lobbying around the habitual residence scheme, when we actually got a change in the wording implemented, it had a great effect. We saw an improvement in how people were being treated and dealt with. Organically over the years, with the moving of staff and the issue maybe becoming less recognised, some of the old problems are creeping back in.
The point I am trying to make is that it is a body of work across multiple agencies and some of the work is bureaucratic. It is around constant things. It is around training and small changes. There may not be a super big thing we can do that generates all that attention, but there is so much expertise, energy and intelligence contained within the organisations and the services. I think we can very easily collectively look at applying ourselves to these issues. We can absolutely identify the ones that are consistent or new and that might need to be addressed.
We, the CIIC and all the other groups are funded to provide support. We are here and this is what we do; we work with the people. These days it is almost a luxury to have a bespoke service where a person can talk to someone face to face. It is absolutely what people coming back deserve, however, and especially those in crisis. We are here to do that. We are not necessarily expecting that every Department will put in place a returning emigrant-specific group or assign people, but we need them to work with us to address those gaps and blocks we can see appear in that work, whether it is access to health service, getting PPS numbers long before people come back home, or driving licences. We just need to apply ourselves and work through those things.
Certainly from our side, and I think we can speak for all the agencies and groups we work with in the emigrant support programme, we would be very much on board with doing that collegially and critically, if needs be, but in a very positive and constructive way. We would like to second our own proposal in terms of a subcommittee or someone to look after the interdepartmental committee. If we can just get the right people on board and people in those Departments who can implement change, we can make positive changes. They will trickle down and out and that will send a message that helps address some of those perceptual barriers and helps people on return. We would be very happy to help in any way we can.
I thank Mr. King. I do not wish to go over ground that has been covered already by Ms Leonard Dibra and Mr. Staunton but this was mentioned earlier. Did the witnesses find in the United States that Covid-19 changed people's views of emigration? Many Irish people returned as a result of Covid-19. Would the witnesses see Covid-19 as being in some way responsible for a lifestyle change that has resulted in people deciding to return from America to Ireland? Is that an issue? If that has not been dealt with already, the witnesses might make mention of it and then provide us with their final message. I thank them both.
Ms Aileen Leonard Dibra:
We briefly touched on it.
When people, whether documented or undocumented, were stuck here, the typical trip home during the summer or holidays did not happen. I am referring to the idea of not being able to get to loved ones. The diaspora here is a transient one and its members go home, see family and make visits over the summer. That all stopped. On the mindset change of people who had the ability to travel but who could not, the resources of people who were undocumented were so limited. People who had lived here for many years undocumented and did quite well were cut off at the knees to a certain extent in that they were blowing through savings, their businesses were shut down and there was no social network here financially helping them. Many thanks are due to the Irish Government for the critical supports it put in place to help those particular people. This really gave a number of the undocumented population a lifeline when no one else was giving it. Well done to the Irish Government on that. I thank it for that added support we got.
I agree there was a change in mindset. I believe this mindset still features. Crosscare Migrant Project and the Coalition of Irish Immigration Centers have spoken about this. Even though things are opening up and sectors across the board are doing much better here, albeit with the inflation that is occurring worldwide, people still ask whether they want to be back with family and in circumstances again in which they cannot get home if they need or want to. It is in this context we are receiving at the centres some of these inquiries regarding planned returns. Again, there has been a levelling off but the thinking still features and is still part of the mindset of many of our community members.
On behalf of Mr. Staunton, who had to leave early, Ms Kennelly and myself, I must add it is always a pleasure to speak to all the committee members and present information we gather at national level from our membership, which works non-stop to provide supports to the Irish diaspora – Irish immigrants here in the United States – providing holistic and really culturally competent support. The immigrants know they can come to our centres and be in a safe place with people who understand them and the nuances of language. It is a matter of sitting down, having a cup of tea and discussing the issues at hand, no matter what they might be. Part of that is the process of returning home. We are thrilled to have this ongoing and long-term partnership and collaboration with our friends at Crosscare Migrant Project, and that is part of the wrap-around service so many of the Deputies have brought up. In the context of starting here in the US and transitioning back to Ireland, we have colleagues we can rely on, and they know they have colleagues here they can rely on to share the relevant information and to be as up to date as possible to help with the transitions, which only makes things more smooth.
We are happy to provide any additional information that may be helpful to the committee as it moves forward with its work, and we would very much value and love further engagement and discussion as these things move forward. As Mr. King said, we are thankful for the funding and happy to put as much value on the investment as we possibly can for the committee members, the Irish Government in general and, most important, the Irish diaspora or community members we all serve here in the US.
Ms Celine Kennelly:
Again, I thank the members for the opportunity to be with them. We have always had amazing leadership from the Irish Government on foreign affairs and the Irish diaspora, no more so than under the leadership of the Chairman, Deputy Flanagan, when he was Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, as it was then. We thank all the members of the committee for the platform to share this information. We very much appreciate and value the relationship we have with the Irish Government and its representatives abroad. Certainly across the United States, because that is our wheelhouse, but also across the globe, there is not a mission where the Irish diaspora and its individual members are not at the forefront of the minds of the consular corps. I give a huge shout-out to them given the relationship we have. I very much look forward to continuing to work with the members on these issues and to being part of the wrap-around services to care for people.
On behalf of the joint committee members, I thank all our guests for meeting us this afternoon and dealing with members' questions in the manner they have. I now propose to go into private session, if members agree. Agreed.