Tuesday, 16 May 2017
Migrant Integration Strategy: Statements
I apologise for missing the Minister of State's speech earlier. I was in the agriculture committee dealing with legislation.
We must always remind ourselves, particularly as public representatives in these Houses, that Ireland is the only country in the world that has a population today lower than it was in the 1800s. That is our history and our reality. It is a history of emigration. In many instances - arguably, in most instances - we were not asylum seekers; we were leaving for economic reasons. We were leaving for work and new opportunities. In the recent economic crisis, the reason our unemployment statistics were not as bad as those in, for example, Spain or Greece, was the escape valve - for Government, the safety valve - of emigration. Huge numbers again emigrated to Canada, Australia, some to the United States and Britain and so on. This has been our history, and despite this history, we probably have the highest levels of emigration of any country in the world historically per capita.Despite this history, our approach to asylum seekers, people who come here in desperation from war-torn areas, has been shameful.
I do not accuse the Minister of State of this because he is someone of integrity who is trying to deal with the system. However, the former Minister of State, Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, hit the nail on the head. We have a deal with the people in the Department of Justice and Equality, who always put in one's ear the words "unintended consequences" and "the pull factor" and argue that if we put in place a humanitarian system of direct provision or whatever, huge numbers will come to Ireland. Ireland is, I think, one of only two countries in the EU that does not allow asylum seekers the right to work. Even after six months, we do not allow them to work. I think the other country in Europe that did not sign up to the EU approach actually had better practices than ours in place and it felt the EU standards were not up to its standards. We are, therefore, the worst offenders in Europe regarding the issue of the right to work, and this has not been addressed. I was Chairman of the Oireachtas Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions. The Minister of State knows that we visited asylum centres and direct provision centres, and we compiled our reports. I appreciate the Ombudsman has oversight, but so much in those reports remains to be implemented. Even the McMahon report, as the former Minister of State, Senator Ó Ríordáin, said, which represents a compromised position, remains to be implemented. We must do better than this. I will not lay into the Minister of State because he is an honourable man and he cares about this matter as much as I do. However, we must do better and show better leadership on these issues.
I know the Minister of State will meet with Places of Sanctuary Ireland tomorrow and it will make a presentation to the Houses. It has outlined a number of issues, including the right to work, State-funded third level education and the situation whereby children are left blowing in the wind after sitting the leaving certificate. We must do better. Places of Sanctuary Ireland has also identified family reunification and English language provision as issues. The latter is referred to in the Minister of State's migrant integration strategy but, again, we must do better.
I have come across an issue about which I am worried. I refer to the placement of Syrian refugees throughout the State. What is happening is that the Department of Justice and Equality is telling local authorities the number of refugees coming to their areas and that they need to house them. This will create tension unnecessarily. Everyone must work with the scheme of letting priorities - that is, the points system - that is in place. It is a fair and just system for housing allocation, and it is in place across the State. If one bypasses the system, one creates tensions unnecessarily. I urge the Minister of State to consider that the Department of Justice and Equality would have a dedicated housing section that works in co-operation with local authorities to identify properties that are available for the housing assistance payment. This would mean one would not be pitting people on the housing list who are desperate to have housing against incoming refugees. We do not need that tension. There is a way of providing secure, safe housing for refugees without pitting them against people on the housing list, and I ask the Minister of State to consider this through the Department of Justice and Equality.
This is the second time I have had a chance to engage with the Minister of State on this, and I say again that considering our history, of all the nations in the EU, we should be doing so much better and showing much more leadership on these issues.