Seanad debates

Wednesday, 9 December 2020

Deportation Moratorium (Covid-19) Bill 2020: Second Stage


10:30 am

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

Thank you. I thank Senators Higgins and Ruane for proposing and seconding the Bill, as well as Senators Flynn and Black, who are also supporting the legislation. I fully agree with and support the overall aim of this Bill that compassion is shown to those issued with deportation orders for the duration of the pandemic. The need to show compassion during this extraordinary time is one we all share across all Government and Opposition parties.

The Government has tabled a reasoned amendment in response to the Bill, which outlines the pragmatic and compassionate approach that is being taken. I take the point that perhaps we have not expanded on that enough and I certainly intend to elaborate on our intention and some of the policy areas I am looking to develop. We have tried to focus on the approach that has been taken by my Department and the Garda National Immigration Bureau since the onset of Covid-19.

As Minister for Justice, I assure the House that I have addressed the concerns reflected in the Senators' Bill on an administrative basis and will continue to do so until this pandemic is over. We do not know when that will be but we hope it will be soon. I assure Senators I will continue to apply this approach until that time comes. I hope to provide reassurance to those who may be personally affected by what we are discussing today and who may be watching. I will speak in more detail on that shortly but it is perhaps important that I first outline the considerations taken into account as part of the permission to remain process.

Each case is examined in detail on its individual merits, considering all factors, such as humanitarian factors and employment. Private and family rights are also fully considered in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights. For those who are in the international protection process, our objective is of course to have decisions made on their applications and permission to remain considerations as soon as possible. This ensures that those who are found to be in need of our protection can receive it quickly and begin rebuilding their lives here with a sense of safety and security.

For those found not to be in need of international protection, a full consideration of all aspects of their case is given before a deportation order is made. When a person receives a letter informing him or her of a negative international protection decision and that the person no longer has permission to remain in the State, that person is required to confirm within five days if he or she will accept the option of voluntary return, for which the Department will provide assistance.

I wish to be clear on this as I often get a sense that the feeling is that people must leave within five days. The person is not required to remove himself or herself from the State within five days but he or she is required to confirm within five days if the option of voluntary return, for which the Department will provide assistance, will be accepted.

Both Senators referred to the Catherine Day advisory group on the provision of supports, including accommodation to persons in the international protection process. The group has recommended that the five-day period for deciding whether to accept voluntary return should be extended to 30 days and children and students be allowed to finish the school year before departure. This, along with other recommendations, is being actively examined by my Department. I support this and am actively considering the matter in a very positive way.

The concept of voluntary return is actively encouraged prior to a deportation order being made, as demonstrated by the letter which an applicant receives at this point in the process. The time taken for relevant voluntary return arrangements to be made will also take into account all factors, including Covid-19 restrictions and the limitations to travel this has created. If a deportation order is subsequently made, it can be amended or revoked by making a request to the Minister for Justice. This is an outline of the general process and not specifically related to the issue under discussion. I encourage people to be as detailed as possible in their representations to me and my Department so that fully informed decisions can be taken at the appropriate time.

It is also worth emphasising that the process whereby those who have been served with deportation orders are required to periodically register with the authorities, does not mean that a deportation itself is imminent. That question was raised with the Taoiseach on Leaders' Questions because people had received letters. I stress again that this is only to keep the State authorities up to date and informed of the status of those who have been served with deportation orders. It does not relate to any intention for these people to be deported.

With that said, I welcome the opportunity to outline to the House today the compassionate and pragmatic approach being taken as we deal with the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic. This approach is reflected in the fact that there have only been four deportations since March 2020 and that three of these applied to deportation orders that were issued before March.

No deportations have occurred since March in respect of persons who were unsuccessful in their application for international protection in the State. The low number of deportations since March reflects that the discretionary approach I am applying on an administrative basis is working effectively.

During the level 5 Covid-19 restrictions, I also asked my officials to review the issuing of these letters and no refusal letters or letters enclosing a deportation order, have issued to anyone in the international protection process since. I am very conscious of the 469 cases that have been mentioned and to those who may have received deportation orders since the start of the pandemic but before this review, please be assured that we will continue to apply the same pragmatic approach I have just outlined and this will continue throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

I am also conscious that we are about to embark on a vaccination programme for Covid-19. l strongly advise anyone in this country, regardless of their current status, to come forward to receive a vaccine when it is made available to them. I can give a commitment today that no information gathered as part of that process will be passed to the immigration authorities. It is worth stressing that we will continue the pragmatic, compassionate approach shown by the Department of Justice and the Garda National Immigration Bureau since the onset of the pandemic.

The Bill would, unfortunately, by implication prevent those who wish to consent to voluntary return from doing so. I cannot imagine that this was the intended purpose as it would neither be in the State's nor the individual's interest to suspend such returns. The current practice, on the other hand, already allows for discretion and flexibility. I, as Minister for Justice, and An Garda Síochána must have the discretion to remove those who may be a threat to national security and whose presence in Ireland would be contrary to the public interest but that discretion is used in the rarest of circumstances and only when absolutely necessary. Such cases arise where there are valid reasons in the interests of public security and the common good.

I will now move to the proposal in the Bill to suspend leave to land. Leave to land may be refused for a number of reasons crucial to maintaining the integrity of the immigration system and protecting the fundamental interests of the State concerning public order, public security and the integrity of the immigration system. Whereas the Bill provides that persons who are refused leave to land cannot be returned until three months after the expiration of the "emergency period", it does not elaborate on what is to happen to these persons prior to removal and while the suspension is in effect. The State would not be in a position to pursue such persons as there would be no prospect of returning them in the immediate future under the proposed amendment in the Bill. This would have the net effect that persons who would not normally be admitted into the country for very valid reasons, including reasons of national security, would have to be allowed to proceed out of the port of entry without being detained or removed.It is also important to recognise that it is essential that the State can maintain its duty to protect its internal borders from a domestic and EU perspective. This is the case for all sovereign states and in this regard applies to the integrity of our immigration policy and practice. As Senators will know, we also have obligations to uphold as part of the common travel area with the United Kingdom.

Along with the Department, I am currently considering a number of policy changes which I am sure Senators will welcome, and I will briefly outline now. I have already mentioned the Catherine Day advisory group recommendation on the provision of supports, including accommodation, to persons in the international protection process. A number of its recommendations fall under my remit with the Department of Justice, ranging from trying to reduce the overall times people have to wait for their response to moving to an online system to providing legal aid, legal support and other types of assistance. The departmental group that has been established in my Department is already working to assess and implement some of these recommendations. This work is feeding into the work of the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, who will publish the White Paper before the end of the year. Other recommendations from the Catherine Day group which are relevant to the work of the Department of Justice are being actively pursued separate to the White Paper. As I said, we are already engaging on these proposals.

I am also considering a scheme to regularise the position of undocumented migrants and their dependants, which is a fulfilment of a programme for Government commitment. My intention is that the scheme will allow for long-term undocumented persons to apply for an immigration permission from my Department. As I outlined to the House last week, my Department's information from the Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland, which I have met, is that this could be relevant to approximately 17,000 people, which could also include up to 3,000 young people or children. I have received a report in my Department on a potential approach to such a scheme and based on its recommendations, we will set in train a process for a pathway to legal residency, and ultimately to the privilege of citizenship, for the undocumented. Without pre-empting the report, because it has not been published yet, the most straightforward option is to adopt a programme which would apply under the executive power of the Minister for Justice. This approach has been taken in the past, for example, under a special scheme for non-European Economic Area nationals who held a student permission in the State. This happened in recent years and was very successful. It is a very positive way to deal with the issue. As I am sure the House will acknowledge, and as I have already noted, the executive power of the Minister for Justice regarding immigration matters is required for a number of reasons. This potentially includes our planned scheme to regularise the status of many undocumented here in Ireland.

We are all aware of the huge efforts to regularise the status of undocumented Irish immigrants in countries all over the world, particularly the United States. As a country, we have asked for generosity and have received such generosity for many years from other countries which welcomed Irish people to their shores. I believe it is our moral duty to treat those from elsewhere who seek to make Ireland their home with the same generosity and understanding others have shown to us. It is, therefore, my hope that our undocumented scheme will be as broad as possible to cover every eligible undocumented person and their family members living in the country. It is my intention to be in a position to outline precise details in the coming weeks.

While I support the good and humane motivations that are evident in this Bill, I believe the administrative approach I am already taking is achieving the compassionate outcome desired by the Senators. However, for the reasons I have outlined, this Bill would have other consequences. It is important that, as Minister for Justice, I am allowed to continue to have flexibility where there is a requirement or a need to apply a deportation order, in particular in regard to State security and where there are challenging issues arising. It is for all of these reasons that I consider that Seanad Éireann should decline to give the Bill a Second Reading. I hope that, irrespective of the differences raised here today, a united message goes out from this House to those who find themselves in uncertain and difficult circumstances during Covid-19. That message is that they will be treated with compassion here in Ireland. The Government and I, as Minster for Justice, are clear that our compassionate and pragmatic approach will continue throughout the pandemic. I hope this provides some reassurance to those who are listening in today.


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