Thursday, 25 November 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
125. To ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality if she will provide an update on the Afghan admission programme; the number of applications that have been received; the timeline for dealing with such applications; if her attention has been drawn to the urgency of many of the cases; if applications are being streamlined according to urgency; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [57812/21]
I seek an update on the Afghan admission programme, the number of applications that have been received, the timeline for dealing with such applications and whether the Minister's attention has been drawn to the fact that many of these cases are urgent. It is important that we remember what happened in Afghanistan and that we do everything we can to facilitate people who want to come to this country.
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I too share his concerns for the Afghan people and the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. I think we all share those concerns.
In response, Ireland has acted swiftly and compassionately to demonstrate our support. While we can all be concerned, we need to show actual support and solidarity with the Afghan people. My Department continues to work closely with colleagues in the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth to ensure that a co-ordinated national response ensues.
As the Deputy will be aware, the Government has approved my Department's proposal for an additional initiative, that is, a specific Afghan admission programme, which will provide places for up to 500 Afghan family members to travel to Ireland. Each applicant will have an opportunity to nominate up to four family members who are currently residing in Afghanistan or who have fled to neighbouring territories and whose freedom or safety the applicant considers to be especially at risk. The programme, including the detailed eligibility criteria and the application process, is not open yet. My Department is finalising that process with a view to opening it for applications in the coming weeks. I appreciate the urgency with which we need to do this. Our objective is to ensure that the options considered are as inclusive as possible and that the programme is available to those who require our help the most. The clearer the application process is made at the outset, the quicker my Department will be able to process applications, which will be in the best interests of everyone concerned.
The creation of this programme, I stress, is unique to date in the EU and was welcomed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, as a very welcome commitment on the part of Ireland that will bring much-needed solace to Afghans here who are worried about their relatives abroad. I know that many are extremely worried.
In the meantime, I assure the Deputy that all current immigration avenues remain open to new applications. These include visa and family reunification applications. More than 750 Afghan nationals have been granted permission to reside in the State so far this year alone. There are, therefore, other avenues available, but I appreciate the urgency with which this scheme is required. We will set out the terms as quickly as possible and open it up to people as soon as possible.
I commend the Minister and her Department on setting up the scheme. It is not only humanitarian but also reflects our own history and the fact that when we were in trouble we found it hard to go to other countries. It is important we take that on board. I understand that the scheme is unique and has to be done properly in order that, when it is put in place, it actually works and does not just become a bureaucratic nightmare for the applicants trying to get there. I also acknowledge the input of the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth in all this. It is important we do this right. That may be why it is taking time, but I urge that the scheme be put in place as quickly as possible. The fact that 750 Afghans have been successful in their applications through other channels this year is also welcome news.
The Deputy is right that, as a nation, we have travelled to every corner of the world and understand how important it is to be welcomed when we go to another country. We are trying to make sure that this process is as easy and as straightforward as possible, that those who need it the most can apply and that their family members can apply on their behalf. We do not want families to be split up so we will make sure that that does not happen. The Deputy asked how we can prioritise those who are most at risk. We know there are certain groups of people, in particular women and children, who are more at risk. That said, if a family comprises a father, mother and children, obviously they will not be separated. We need to balance a speedy application process with the need to make sure that we have robust measures in place and that we can establish the beneficiaries and their relationship with the sponsoring family here in Ireland. That is very clear. We have to balance the need for this to be done quickly and as easily and as openly as possible for people with, obviously, the regulations that need to be put in place. I assure the Deputy that the timeline we are aiming for is mid-December, which is not too far away. I will provide the Deputy with details of the programme as soon as I can.
I thank the Minister for her response. I welcome the fact that she hopes to have the scheme in place before the Dáil recess. It is also important we understand there are Afghan people living in this country - especially, as the Minister said, women and children - who have family members in the homeland and who are seriously concerned and stressed out about what will happen to them. I therefore welcome the fact that this is being finalised now and hope that when it does open, it will run efficiently, taking into account all the constraints that have to be dealt with and the security issues surrounding all this. It is great that this is being done. As the Minister said, it is unique and sets a standard for other countries to do the same thing. I again compliment the Minister on that. I look forward to seeing the detail of the scheme when it is published in the coming weeks.
I thank the Deputy for his comments. I hope we will see something similar replicated across other member states. Other countries are doing their bit as well and trying to ensure that Afghan nationals, in particular those at risk, are protected. The scheme will essentially provide lawful residence on a temporary basis for up to two years, but it is important to add that it may be possible to renew the permission after that period or to apply for different immigration permission. The time people have spent in Ireland will be considered as reckonable residence for the purpose of making a citizenship application. Not only are we trying to take people out of danger; if people come here and make a new life, as so often is the case, and contribute to our society, we are trying to ensure there is a clear path for them to be able to settle down and become citizens of this country. It is really important that they see this not just as a stopgap but that it has the potential to lead to something really secure and safe for them and their families into the future.