Wednesday, 9 December 2020
Deportation Moratorium (Covid-19) Bill 2020: Second Stage
I welcome the Minister to the House and congratulate her on her personal news. I am glad that I had the opportunity to congratulate her personally. I note that my former Labour Party colleague, Niamh Bhreathnach, writing in today's edition of The Irish Times, has pointed out the need for a debate on supports for women in public office. I was first elected when I was pregnant with my second daughter, and I know how glad I was that there were female Oireachtas Members before me who had fought for an Oireachtas crèche and for recognition of the need to accommodate women and men with small children in the Oireachtas.
I thank Senators Higgins and Ruane for putting forward this Bill, and on behalf of the Labour Party, I am delighted to support it very strongly. They have taken a very positive initiative, and it compliments the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Bill 2018 and the Born Here, Belong Here campaign that I have been strongly involved in with Labour Youth and the Labour Party. I thank the Minister for her engagement with me and the Labour Party on that Bill, and I am glad to be meeting with her officials next week.
I welcome many aspects of the Minister's speech and the Government's approach, particularly the Minister's assurance to those who undertake vaccination as part of the vaccination programme that no information gathered as part of that process will be passed on to the immigration authorities. That is an important assurance, given that we have just received such positive news on vaccines. I am also glad that the Minister is engaging with the recommendation of the Catherine Day advisory group to extend the period for people to come back on the voluntary return issue from five days to 30 days.
I am very pleased to hear of the Minister's commitment to the scheme to regularise the position of undocumented migrants, and of her offer to set a process in train for a pathway to legal residency and ultimately to the privilege of citizenship. In our Irish Nationality and Citizenship Bill, we were seeking to ensure that people living here and who have a stake here in Ireland, but who have this dreadful fear hanging over them and face uncertainty around their legal status, would have a pathway to citizenship. I am really glad that we are going to see that scheme announced in the coming weeks and that it will be as broad as possible to cover every eligible undocumented person and his or her family members. I hope that in the course of the introduction of that scheme we will be able to discuss the issue of citizenship fees, which remain very high relative to other EU countries, and, more importantly, we will able to see a good, robust pathway to citizenship for people here and to fulfil the motivations in our Bill.
Having welcomed those aspects of the Bill, I regret that the Government is seeking to deny this Bill a Second Reading. We will be opposing the Government's amendment. We do not think it is good enough to say that our approach relies on pragmatism and that that is enough for the many people who face the fear of deportation.In many other instances Private Members' Bills whose intentions have attracted general support have been subject to amendment by agreement with the proposer. I am sure the proposing Members will also be open to amendment in this case. The Bill is modest enough in that it only seeks to tie discretion for a temporary emergency period. That seems very reasonable to me.
I note the figures other Members have pointed out. I am glad to hear that only four people have been removed from the State since St. Patrick's Day. That reflects a compassionate approach. However, 469 deportation orders were issued between the outbreak of the pandemic and the end of October. Every one of the 469 recipients will have experienced a great deal of stress, anxiety and insecurity as a result of these orders, even it has not translated into actual deportation in his or her case. This does not reflect the number of persons who have taken the option of voluntary return, which can sometimes be less than voluntary. The figures mask this issue, as well as the stress and fear involved. Perhaps the Minister could comment on that.
Many of us have been contacted by individuals who have received deportation orders, especially this year. I have written to the Minister on behalf of several people, particularly Mr. Benjamin Akhile, who has been resident in the country for 14 years. He fled Sierra Leone many years ago. His partner has been an activist for many years. A good deal has been written in the press about him, including in Hot Press. He has been received a deportation order and has been ordered to leave the country by 10 December. A petition calling for revocation of this order has more than 21,000 signatures. This is one person who has been subject to real fear, substantive uncertainty, stress and pressure as a result of the receipt of a deportation order. Many others will also have experienced the same things.
During the course of the pandemic there have been real concerns about threats of deportation of front-line healthcare workers. In November approximately 160 people in direct provision were working in the healthcare system. We must be conscious of the fact that sectors which are significantly populated by migrant workers, including undocumented migrants and asylum seekers, have carried extremely high levels of risk during the pandemic. In November, two healthcare workers working in nursing homes were instructed to return to Zimbabwe. While the number of actual deportations has been low, people on the front line in healthcare have received deportation orders, which cause such uncertainty and stress. In May, my Dáil colleague, Deputy Sean Sherlock, called on the Government to regularise the status of all undocumented front-line workers during the Covid-19 crisis. I wish to repeat his call. At a minimum we should make a commitment not to deport those working on the front line in this way.
Regarding the Government position, I wish to refer to pragmatism. It is not enough for someone who has been working on the front line and has received a deportation order to be told that a pragmatic approach is being taken. In comments in the Dáil on 18 November, the Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, expressed his surprise at hearing about people being deported during the pandemic. He stated the view that persons should not be deported to countries with a high incidence of Covid-19. I understand that some removals from the State this year were to Brazil, where in some regions extremely high numbers of people have contracted the virus. Many of those issued with deportation orders since the start of the pandemic come from other countries with very high levels of transmission. In May, the United Nations Network on Migration, endorsed by the United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, called on all states to suspend forced returns during the pandemic. The appeal stated that such removals increase the exposure of very vulnerable populations and place additional strain on countries of return. It noted that at a humanitarian level, such returns exacerbate trauma and oppression. It is well worth emphasising that message.
Some commentary has suggested that a more generous approach to citizenship, the suspension of deportations and so on might be open to abuse. The figures on naturalisation and citizenship applications remind us that the scaremongering about abuse which we saw at the time of the 2004 referendum is not borne out by the reality. In my office, Ms Chloe Manahan has found the data on naturalisation of minors which was not available to us during last week's debate on the Irish Nationality and Citizenship (Naturalisation of Minors Born in Ireland) Bill 2018. The number of people applying for citizenship through naturalisation has declined steadily since 2012. The share of EU nationals among new Irish citizens has increased from 4% in 2011 to 49% in 2018. The number of applicants from the UK has increased sevenfold since the Brexit vote. These figures show how immigration debates in Ireland are distorted by those who might prefer to be ungenerous in our approach to immigration. Research by the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, shows that there were only 76 applications for citizenship by naturalisation on the grounds of birth in 2018. We need to be cognisant of the real figures when we speak about issues pertaining to citizenship and migration. I know that many people who are very vocal on this issue are, unfortunately, very ungenerous. We need to challenge their views.
I will finish by appealing to the Minister. In light of humanitarian considerations, the common good and international imperatives around Covid-19, it would be intuitive and sensible to bring in a temporary ban in line with the Bill proposed by Senators Higgins and Ruane for the duration of the pandemic. I look forward to engaging with the Minister and her Department on citizenship issues and pathways for undocumented people.