Tuesday, 13 June 2017
Refugee Resettlement Programme
I welcome the Minister. I will get straight to the point. The Government made a commitment in respect of the matter I am raising. Commitments are about honour and delivering something. The commitment to which I refer has been restated by the Minister and her colleagues in government. I attended a conference last week at which I heard the stories of many people who have experienced issues in terms of direct provision. I also heard about families that need to be reconnected and other matters. We need to challenge the myth that Ireland is the country of a thousand welcomes. That notion needs to be re-evaluated.
It is important that we stand in solidarity with people in need and that we honour our commitment to take 4,000 individuals into our country. While we face other issues and challenges, this matter is about our tradition as a country which, historically, has known emigration and our people's need to flee and find refuge in other places. This issue resonates in the hearts and the minds of Irish people generally. There is a good spirit about that and an openness, acceptance and firm belief that diversity, difference, culture and background enliven and enrich our society. There is general acceptance of that and it is a great thing to be able to say that in a true republic and to mean it.
What is the Government's plan to fulfil the commitment made in this regard, which was agreed with our European counterparts? I acknowledge that there are difficulties involved but perhaps the Minister might, with the aid of her script, outline that plan. I appreciate that she has a job to do. I want to keep this matter on the agenda, maintain the focus on it and see how we can get back on track and deliver on our commitment to those 4,000 people.
I thank the Senator for raising this matter and I am responding to it on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, although, obviously, this is a matter with which I am engaged in my Ministry.
To reflect the will of the people of Ireland to assist those most vulnerable who are fleeing conflict and persecution, the Government established the Irish refugee protection programme in September 2015. Under that programme, the Government pledged to accept up to 4,000 persons overall into the State by the end of 2017 under the EU relocation and resettlement programme. Under the programme, people have been arriving in Ireland since January 2016.
Ireland has an established national resettlement programme under the UNHCR-led scheme and our past successes in implementing this programme have greatly assisted in a successful delivery of our commitments under the EU programme. We were one of the first EU member states to fulfil our pledge under the July 2015 agreement, a full year ahead of schedule. As a result, we doubled our quota in terms of resettling people from Lebanon, from 520 to 1,040. A total of 779 people have been resettled thus far and the remainder have been selected and will be brought to Ireland by the end of the year. It is likely that further resettlement missions will be undertaken to Lebanon to bring more people to Ireland under the resettlement programme post-2017.
The relocation programme has been more challenging. An EU-wide solidarity mechanism on this scale is unprecedented. Our voluntary opt-in to the programme was warmly appreciated by our EU partners. Naturally, there have been some difficulties in establishing the necessary infrastructure and standard operating procedures at Union level, particularly given the very challenging environment of the island hot spots. In total, just over 20,000 people have been relocated across the EU member states to date. We have relocated 459 asylum seekers from Greece and a further 320 people in Greece have been assessed and cleared for travel. By September, we will have relocated just under 1,100 asylum seekers from Greece.
Relocation from Italy has not yet been possible because the authorities there have not allowed the law enforcement authorities of other member states to conduct security assessments of candidates on Italian soil. We have made repeated efforts at all levels, including at senior ministerial level, to resolve this issue and the European Commission has called on Italy to show greater flexibility in this regard. If an acceptable solution is found, we can commence relocating eligible candidates from Italy.
The Deputy should also be aware that the number of asylum seekers who have been registered in Italy and Greece and who are eligible for the relocation programme falls well short, at present, of the 160,000 originally envisaged in the context of the two EU Council decisions. A concerted effort by all member states between now and the end of September could ensure that all those eligible are relocated.
Ireland is doing everything it can to give effect to its commitments. The intensive efforts and resources that the Department has invested in the relocation programme should not be underestimated. In a further gesture of humanitarian assistance towards the most vulnerable people caught up in the migration crisis and following a debate in the Dáil, the Government also committed to taking up to 200 unaccompanied minors from France who were previously resident in the migrant camp at Calais.All unaccompanied minors who have been referred to us by the French authorities have been admitted to Ireland. These unaccompanied minors have programme refugee status on arrival, the highest form of protection the State can offer. Should it be the case that despite all Ireland's efforts, the relocation mechanism does not permit Ireland to take in sufficient numbers of asylum seekers under relocation, the Government commitment to take in 4,000 people remains and Ireland will take in these numbers through other mechanisms, should this prove necessary.
As the Senator is aware, the conflict in Syria and the tragic scenes emerging almost daily are rarely out of the media these days. Consequently, and rightly so, the Government's efforts to provide a humanitarian response to the European Union migrant crisis resulting from this and other conflicts is subject to intense scrutiny by the non-governmental organisation community, the media and Irish society in general. However, more important than being able to satisfy this level of scrutiny is the need to ensure those most vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers arriving under the programme are fully supported. The support of our local communities is key to this success, and the people of Ballaghaderreen have provided a model of support that can be replicated in other localities. Should it be the case that, despite all our efforts, the relocation mechanism does not permit Ireland to take in sufficient numbers of asylum seekers under the programme, the Government commitment to take in these 4,000 people remains and Ireland will take in these numbers through other mechanisms, should this prove necessary.
I thank the Minister. It is to be welcomed that there is no question of reneging on the commitment to take in 4,000 people. That may happen through other mechanisms, systems and channels, and we can accept that as fair enough. I thank the Minister for the comprehensive reply. I draw the attention of the Minister to the third paragraph of her reply, as it states "Deputies" should be aware and I suppose it should read "Senators". I hope the Minister and her colleagues around the Cabinet table will keep this issue on the agenda. It is my intention, as long as I am here, that I will keep this as one of approximately six issues that I will bring to the fore as it is important we do it. I thank the Minister for coming here and giving the response.
It is important the Senator continues to raise the issue. Having participated in one aspect of the initiatives through the Department of Justice and Equality - my Department was involved with the matter of unaccompanied minors - I saw at first hand the complexity of the issues involved to do what we want, particularly in terms of working closely with another country. Italy is a case in point as it will not allow us to bring law enforcement people into the country to provide checks there. It is part of the mechanism for relocation. I am heartened to know, and I will work with them in this regard, that should we not be able to accept those numbers, it is the intent of the Department of Justice and Equality to find other mechanisms. With the Calais issue, for example, it was our intention to accept up to 200 unaccompanied minors, but it was very difficult to find the 20 that have come in. As they become available, effectively we have accepted them. It seems to be the case with the other programmes that as people are made available to us through mechanisms, we accept them.