Thursday, 28 September 2017
Report of Joint Committee on Justice and Equality on Immigration, Asylum and the Refugee Crisis: Motion
Again, I thank the committee for the report and for bringing forward this debate. I also want to recognise the people in the Public Gallery, many of whom I know. I want to focus on the recommendations in the report, although the debate has gone far and wide into other issues, including global issues, and rightly so, and I am not being critical of that. I will go through the report's five recommendations. On the undocumented, the report states that applications should be administered on a case-by-case basis. Some colleagues criticised that, so perhaps they had not read the report. I said in my speech that we have asked officials from the Department to take forward this work and that this would mean a sector-by-sector approach in the context of our international commitments. Therefore, we have asked the officials to look at this to see what we can do.
I believe everyone would agree we need an immigration policy of some sort in the country. We just cannot open the borders and say everyone who wants to live and work here can come in. We must have an asylum policy and it has to be clear. If the committee has recommendations about how we can refine it, that is fair enough, and I would like to see that. However, I do not think anyone would disagree we need to have an immigration policy. We cannot just open the doors; no country does that.
As I said, if anyone arrives tonight at one of the ports or Dublin Airport and says he or she wants asylum, he or she will get a bed tonight, straight away, and food, heat, protection and medical assistance. I am concerned about what Deputy Coppinger said about a refugee who is not getting treatment and I would like details on that to find if we can do more on it.
With regard to family reunification, I said that we are looking at ways of increasing the number of people we can bring in. The Minister, Deputy Flanagan, and I intend to bring forward fresh proposals in the near future. We are looking at it and are committed to it. I said we would concentrate efforts on reunification of immediate family members specifically caught up in conflict zones. I heard someone say that, in different countries, families can be defined in different ways, and there may be ten or even 50, 60 or 70 people in a family. It is a question of where we draw the line. If the committee can give us guidance on that, I would be interested. Nonetheless, I have committed to change in this area.
On the Calais situation, we have been working closely with the French authorities. The figure in the motion that was agreed was "up to 200", not 200. No unaccompanied minor who has asked to come to Ireland has been refused. To give some up-to-date information, Tusla assessed and screened an additional five unaccompanied minors from Calais on 23 September, which will bring the number up to 31. The work is ongoing. While it is difficult to locate these children, we have not refused anybody who has been identified and who wants to come here from Calais, as the motion put forward. That has not been done.
Regarding relocation and resettlement, we have submitted a pledge for 600 refugees for 2018, which is the largest number we have ever put forward, and we are working hard to bring in these people. There are challenges with accommodation, as we know. At the moment there are 150 spare beds left in the direct provision centres. Colleagues come into the House and say, "Shut down direct provision". There are 4,800 people tonight who have a bed, heat and food. If Members are asking me to shut that down, where do they go? Do they end up on the streets or sleep rough? If somebody can bring forward a realistic alternative, I am all ears. I have been engaged with NGOs and community groups about community resettlement and integration with communities, which was mentioned. If, as in Canada, Britain and other places, communities want to come together and support families who want to come here as refugees, we will work with them. I have met the NGOs on a number of occasions and have asked them to come forward with proposals on that. In fairness, they are working on that and we will work with them. That is ongoing.
This debate has been extremely useful and it is very important. I am concerned about criticism of direct provision. I have visited almost all the centres and have met many of the people living there, and one will of course find some people who are disgruntled. The idea of the International Protection Act is that it will cut down the length of time people have to stay in the centres. What was happening before was that the decision process went on and on, and it could take years before the final decision was made. We now want to make that decision within nine months or a year at a maximum, so people will know where they stand at the end of that time. At the moment, there are a number of people in direct provision centres who have permission to remain and we want to encourage them to stay in Ireland and to find their own accommodation. We are working hard on that and if colleagues can assist in any way in identifying accommodation, please let us know. We also have some people in direct provision centres who have been through hoop and loop, as I would call it, in the legal system and have been told that they have not proven a right to be in Ireland. That goes back to my original point about immigration policy. They have been issued with deportation orders and they should not be here, but they are taking up space in these centres which we badly need for genuine asylum seekers. They are not asylum seekers any more; the decision has been taken and they should leave the country. The obligation is on them to leave, voluntarily, as most do when they are told their case has not been successful.
Reference was made to accreditation of qualifications. We are aware of that and are working on it but it is not an easy matter, as was outlined. We are trying to come forward with ways of making accreditation easier and faster but we must make sure we can line up the skills and qualifications people get in other countries with what is required here under law. We do not want a situation where we accredit somebody as having a professional skill but then find they do not have skills to that level. The Deputy would be the first to come after me if we did that. We are working on that under the integration strategy. We have published that integration strategy, although I am not sure if the committee has had a chance to examine it and perhaps give some indication of its views. It is quite comprehensive and a lot of work went into it.
We have looked at the right to work. As the committee knows, the Supreme Court has passed judgment and an interdepartmental task force is working on that. We are taking it very seriously and we hope in time to be in a position to respond to that, as required.
Those are the main points. I dealt with family reunification, which we will work on. We have sent people to Greece, Lebanon and Italy under our commitments, given we have voluntarily opted into these. We are on or ahead of target on some of the commitments we have entered into and we have given further commitments. The Italian situation was mentioned, perhaps by Deputy Bríd Smith. What we want is very light-touch security. We just want gardaí to sit in on the interviews with the people who want to come here to ascertain that everything is as it should be. That is our policy. We have worked very hard with the Italians to try to make that happen. They are not willing to do that but we live in hope that we can do it, given we are anxious to bring people in. In the main this involves Eritreans in Italy who are qualified under the scheme.
All of our hearts go out, given the ongoing situation across the world, to the 65 million people displaced. What is going on is appalling. We have sent our Naval Service to the Mediterranean to rescue people and try to save lives, and it has done that. I have met many Naval Service personnel and I want to commend them on the work they are doing. They have been really moved and touched by what they have seen, especially when they have had to bring dead bodies out of the water, which is really shocking.
The House should rest assured that we are working as hard as we can. I was quite moved by the debate. The Deputies who spoke did not play politics with this. They were genuine in their views and raised some very interesting questions and points, to which we listened carefully and will take on board. Again, I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for the work they have done, and I commend them on that. Let us work together to see how we can move forward with all these issues.