Seanad debates

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Visa Applications

2:30 pm

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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I raise two cases which are separate but similar to those I raised on the Order of Business on 2 and 17 April.

The issue is the treatment of two Irish families - the Suhinthan and Hyde families - at the hands of the immigration authorities of New Zealand and Australia, respectively. Ms Nilani Suhinthan, an IT consultant, was headhunted for a job in New Zealand and her husband and family decided to move there. The New Zealand authorities have issued residency permits to Nilhani, her husband and two of their three daughters - Tanya, who is 19, and Saumia, who is 14. However, they have refused a permit to their third daughter, Bumikka, who is 15. Shockingly, the reason for this seems to be that Bumikka has Down's syndrome.

The New Zealand authorities have told the family that she does not have an acceptable standard of health and would place demands on the health and education systems there. The family has made it clear that they do not expect the New Zealand state to fund any special health treatment or educational support for their daughter and have offered to fund this themselves since they have well-paid jobs. Their appeal has been refused and they are in limbo with their family separated.

The Hyde family face a somewhat similar injustice in Australia. Anthony and Christine Hyde moved from Dublin to Victoria in 2009. Anthony works as a bus driver and Christine is a teacher and assistant principal in a local primary school. Their son Darragh was born there is 2015 and has never been outside Australia.

The family applied for permanent residency in Australia and, in the course of the application, their son was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, CF. Incredibly, this diagnosis led to the family's application being rejected due to the potential cost of the treatment of CF.

An administrative appeals tribunal has refused the family's application and they can now make a final appeal to Australia's immigration Minister, but they face possible deportation within a month.

Australia and New Zealand are saying that skilled Irish people and their families are perfectly welcome so long as none of them has a condition such as those I have described. If this is happening, families who have children with these diagnoses are stigmatised and refused entry. I hope we, in Ireland, would never be so heartless. I cannot imagine a situation whereby a family from Australia or New Zealand would be turned away from Ireland on the grounds that one of their children was born with a manageable medical or genetic condition.

There has been an almost total blackout of media coverage on these cases in Ireland. One can easily imagine that if Donald Trump, or his United States, had denied visas to children with Down's syndrome or cystic fibrosis, there would be media outrage and extensive coverage.We would ask where our moral values were. We would ask where our civilisation and the leader of the free world were at. One can imagine the rhetoric in the media but there has been no such comment or even questioning in the case of supposedly tolerant and liberal countries such as New Zealand and Australia. What does this say about the world we are in? I have been reading a lot about the controversy about Viktor Orbán's Hungary and his coining of the phrase "illiberal democracy". When I read about countries we regard as being, or supposedly being, in the vanguard of best practice in terms of human rights and civil liberties, I must ask whether this is liberal or illiberal democracy. Is it governance without morality? Is it conceivable that in modern democracies, the legitimate management of public finance allows such blatant and unjust discrimination against the most vulnerable? These situations disclose something very scandalous in places where one would not expect to find it yet I am not entirely sure about what would happen in this country in similar circumstances.

I know the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, is carrying the brief today for the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. Is the Government aware of these cases? Is the relevant Department, presumably the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, doing anything to assist either of these families? In the case of the Hyde family where an appeal is still possible if there is a process, can the Minister intervene and make representations to the Australian immigration minister? Can the Minister of State confirm that no such grounds would ever be used to deny a child a visa to enter Ireland with his or her family, all other things being equal?

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs sends his apologies to the House. He is unable to be here so he asked me to address the matter. The Tánaiste thanks the Senator for bringing these cases to his attention. This is clearly a very difficult time for the families concerned. I commend the Senator for raising the matter in the way he did. Unfortunately, the Tánaiste is not in a position to comment on either case. As the Senator will appreciate, the question of obtaining visas for New Zealand or Australia is a matter for the relevant authorities in New Zealand and Australia. The Tánaiste understands that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has not been asked by the families concerned to raise their cases with the governments of New Zealand and Australia.

All countries establish their own procedures and criteria for assessing such applications and there can be broad similarities of approach between like-minded countries. All visa applications in Ireland are considered on their own merits taking into account all matters brought to the attention of the visa deciding officer. If an applicant for a visa declared something that could be a burden on the costs of the State such as a medical condition, this would form part of the consideration of the application but it would not mean that it would automatically lead to a refusal. Non-EEA nationals who register in the State require full medical insurance, which would be expected to cover all current medical conditions.

It can be assumed that similar considerations are taken into account by authorities in Australia and New Zealand. While recognising the difficulties faced by the families, I hope the Senator can appreciate that it is not possible for the Tánaiste or me to comment on their specific cases or pass comment on the visa procedures applied by other sovereign states.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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I am disappointed by the response. If the notion that we cannot comment because this is a matter for another state was to be followed in all situations where something so blatantly unjust and cruel was to be disclosed, we would have zero international engagement. The reason we have a Ministry for foreign affairs is to conduct relations with certain states. According to my recollection, Ireland has always seen itself as a country with a moral voice and perspective on world affairs. What I am hearing from the Minister of State's reply is a "hear no evil, see no evil" approach. I am not at all reassured that there is also not a "do no evil" commitment because it is unclear from the reply that the Irish authorities would not take a similar cruel approach. I hoped that the Government's reply would at least have stated that these situations ought to make us think and review our policies just to see whether there could be unintended consequences of such magnitude.While I accept, as the Minister of State said, that this has not been taken up, I question whether the Government ought to wait to be approached when such troubling cases as these have come to public notice.

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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I again thank the Senator for raising these two cases. I recognise they are very upsetting for the families and I am sorry about that. It is usual that such families would approach the Minister and the Department to make representations. That has not happened to the best of my knowledge. I believe I heard the Senator say that there would be no cost involved to the states concerned because of the medical conditions of the children involved. If something similar happens here and such people came to work in Ireland they would be required to register for residence permission and the same criteria would apply with regard to their ability to support themselves and have adequate medical insurance.

We are not really in a position to comment on the visa application processes of other states.