Seanad debates

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Commencement Matters

Family Reunification Policy

10:30 am

Photo of Colette KelleherColette Kelleher (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. She covers many bases much of the time. I know this is not in her Department's specific remit, but it is good to have her here. I ask if she would be able to endorse the goals of the safe passage campaign and introduce a humanitarian admission programme supported by a community sponsorship scheme, to create a new safe and legal migration route for people fleeing conflict who have a family member living in Ireland already.

As the Minister of State knows, we are currently experiencing the largest global humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Ireland has stepped up to the mark time and time again to help solve global issues in any way we can. People around the country were very proud in 2015 when we promised to welcome 4,000 refugees and asylum seekers by September 2017. So far, we have only accepted 1,238 of the promised 4,000, and I and many others are very disappointed that we are likely to miss the promised target for September of 4,000 people coming into our country. We know that many people already legally resident in Ireland are desperately seeking to bring family members out of conflict zones and have the resources to do so.

The safe passage campaign is a scheme proposed and developed by a very fine NGO called Nasc, based in Cork. It would go some way to help us regain some of the last ground. The Nasc scheme would introduce a humanitarian admissions programme for Irish citizens, beneficiaries of international protection and legal residents to apply for family reunification for extended family members fleeing conflict zones, similar to the Syrian humanitarian admission programme, SHAP, introduced for a limited time in 2014. The scheme would also allow members of society to co-sponsor family reunification applications. This can be a citizen, community group, faith-based groups, charity, business or university. The co-sponsor would provide financial, social and institutional backing and thus improve a person's opportunities for integration, easing the financial burden on the host family in Ireland and on Government. The Nasc chief executive, Ms Fiona Finn, said the proposed safe passage scheme would allow people to bypass the terrible use of traffickers and smugglers that particularly affects children coming into the country and the reliance on dangerous boat crossings, providing a safe and legal channel for Syrians to join their loved ones here in Ireland.

The scheme would help people like Mr. Amjad Shaaban. Amjad left Syria in 2005, became an EU citizen, and in 2011, he moved to Cork. Earlier this year, Amjad applied for his father and brothers to join him here. Three days after he discovered his application had been refused, his father died of a stroke. His appeal for his brothers to join him was also refused.Amjad said:

My two brothers are older, they’re single and don’t have families. I’m capable of hosting them, I have a decent salary plus I own a flat in Cork. I’m contributing to this society and all I ask for in return is a safe place for my brothers. Just consider that we are human beings. Imagine if this happened to your own family. I’ve lost my mother and my father. I only have two brothers, I don’t have anyone else.

Why can we not let Amjad welcome his brothers to Cork?

There would be a number of benefits to the proposed scheme. It is a pragmatic, cost effective and an efficient solution that would ensure the safety of those who flee conflict, while also promoting integration and the reuniting of families. Schemes such as this lead to faster, safer and more positive integration opportunities and outcomes. If developed, Ireland will be a leader in promoting humanitarian initiatives to manage the resettlement and relocation crisis in Europe.

There are significant international precedents for introducing such a scheme. The proposal is modelled on humanitarian admission programmes and private sponsorship schemes which are working very well in countries such as Canada, Germany and, most recently, the United Kingdom. The proposal was developed in consultation with members of communities which had been impacted on and has the support of the Irish UNHCR office, as well as official endorsement by ActionAid, Barnardos, the Crosscare Migrant Project, the Immigrant Council of Ireland, Doras Luimni and ADT Ireland.

I call on the Minister of State to listen to the chorus of people calling on us to do more. Will she endorse the safe passage proposal? Will she make it easier for families fleeing conflict to be reunited? Will she ensure we will do more in order that we can come close to meeting our target of welcoming and giving refuge to 4,000 desperate people?

Photo of Catherine ByrneCatherine Byrne (Dublin South Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for her proposal. I will read the prepared statement from the Minister's office and then reflect on some of the issues raised by the Senator.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue and creating a further opportunity for us to discuss Ireland's ongoing response to people and their families in need of international protection. The House will recall that in order to reflect the proper response of the people of Ireland to the needs of those fleeing conflict zones, we have responded in a number of strategically important ways to offer our assistance to those most in need. Ireland is one of the few EU countries that has maintained a naval service vessel in the Mediterranean since the beginning of the crisis in order to save lives. We are sending a further vessel this week.

We have committed to guaranteeing funds for food aid for Syrian families under a three-year rolling programme instead of on an annual basis to allow for greater certainty of funding for the World Food Programme. Ireland introduced a Syrian humanitarian admissions programme in 2014 and we continue to facilitate legal migration in a variety of ways through our regular immigration processes, including taking into account humanitarian needs, as appropriate.

We voluntarily opted into the EU relocation programme set up to assist Italy and Greece to respond to the needs of 160,000 people arriving in those countries in need of protection. We have offered protection to up to 4,000 people under the Irish refugee protection programme, IRPP. In meeting our response to this pledge the Tánaiste has doubled our commitment to resettle 520 people by 2017 to 1,040 by the end of this year. We have redoubled our efforts to process approximately 100 people per month from those available and registered in Greece under the relocation programme. We continue to work with all concerned to resolve issues to enable relocation to commence from Italy.

To provide the best possible services on arrival in the State, we recently opened our third emergency reception and orientation centre in Ballaghaderreen, alongside Clonea Strand, and in Monasterevin under the Irish refugee protection programme. Under the Irish refugee protection programme, all offers from the community are welcomed and have been assessed and processed by the Irish Red Cross. Both the Tánaiste and I commend the generosity and willingness of people to assist us in integrating those in need of protection.

The Government also agreed, following an all-party Dáil motion, to offer protection to unaccompanied minors previously living in the Calais camps who wished to come to Ireland. The Tánaiste is pleased to state every young person who has been identified to date, in consultation with the French authorities, as wanting to come to Ireland has either arrived here or is in the process of doing so. The rights being offered to those under the resettlement and relocation programme or the minors from Calais are significantly superior to those under the previous humanitarian admissions programme. The Government is fully committed to vindicating this higher standard of rights.

The Tánaiste greatly appreciates the spirit behind this discussion and would welcome specific practical proposals from the non-governmental organisation, NGO, sector that would help to progress the Irish refugee protection programme. Despite the merits of the proposal, however, adding further new programmes, while working flat out to fulfil our existing targets, would not be useful or helpful at this time, particularly when there is sufficient capacity still to be filled under the existing programmes. The creation of additional schemes would only lead to a dilution of resources and be counterproductive. Offering protection to people fleeing conflict under the Irish refugee protection programme is the priority. The Tánaiste believes that, by September this year, our efforts will not only have made a difference to a significant number of vulnerable people but will stand up well to scrutiny when compared to those of other countries across Europe. We remain fully committed to reaching the targets agreed under the Irish refugee protection programme.

Photo of Colette KelleherColette Kelleher (Independent)
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I thank the Minister of State for being here on behalf of the Tánaiste. I welcome the reference in her response to the Syrian humanitarian admissions programme in 2014. The safe passage proposal is modelled on it and asks us to reconsider it in the light of the ever-increasing numbers of desperate people fleeing conflict. It is a practical and sensible proposal which is based on family members living in this country or other citizens who familes have grown up who have spare capacity and spare rooms. People like us are willing to extend the hand of friendship. Rather than diluting existing schemes, as referred to in the proposal, it is adding something, including from family members of persons who are fleeing war. I ask the Minister of State to extend to the Tánaiste, and her officials, an invitation to attend a briefing I am organising on 13 June and follow up on the NASC proposal that will be outlined.

Photo of Catherine ByrneCatherine Byrne (Dublin South Central, Fine Gael)
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I again thank the Senator. I will not read the other part of the response because it follows on from what has been said. I will raise the Senator's concerns with the Tánaiste. Nobody in this Chamber cannot but be moved by the pictures he or she has seen on television of men, women and children, including the very old, fleeing their homes across the world. It is an awful predicament to be in when one has to leave one's country because of conflict. However, Ireland has done very well in facilitating many people who have come here during the years. The programme in place extends a further opportunity to facilitate them. I understand the Senator's concerns. I hear them in my clinic from people who have been here a long time and want to bring family members here. It is difficult to obtain visas for them. I will raise the Senator's concerns with the Tánaiste and bring the model of the safe passage scheme to her attention in the coming days. I will also mention the briefing to be given on 13 June.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State and the Senator.