Tuesday, 1 October 2019
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Family Reunification Policy
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, to the House and thank him for dealing with this matter, which calls on the Minister for Justice and Equality to provide information concerning persons in respect of whom he has given permission to come to Ireland from Syria as part of the Irish refugee protection programme humanitarian admission programme, IHAP, but whose access to travel documents has been impeded by the conflict and the relevant authorities, and to make information available regarding a procedure for assisting persons to travel here urgently, as their lives are in many cases in serious danger in Syria.
As the Minister of State will be well aware, the Minister announced the IHAP last year to provide a pathway for eligible family members coming from major conflict zones as part of the Government's commitment to realising the target of 4,000 persons to come to Ireland under the Irish refugee protection programme. The IHAP was to provide for 530 vulnerable family members to be admitted before the end of 2019. Figures released by the Minister in the Dáil show that, unfortunately, far fewer than that number have come to Ireland because 75% of the first round of applications have been refused. This is a matter of grave concern. I have met members of the Irish Syria Solidarity Movement, ISSM, and members of the Syrian community who tell me that there are all sorts of obstacle in the way of persons submitting their documents. Sometimes, documents may be incomplete due to a lack of identity papers or people may lack accommodation.
The specific issue I am raising relates to persons who have received permission for vulnerable family members still in Syria. I have been in communication for a number of months with the Department of Justice and Equality's Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INIS, and travel document section relating to a family in an urgent situation. Family members are in Idlib, which is under siege. They cannot get out of Idlib. They have been given permission by the State to come to Ireland where they have close family members, including siblings. I keep getting a circular response from INIS to the effect that they must travel to the Irish embassy in Ankara, Turkey to access their travel documents, but they are unable to do so. They are in a terrible situation. Their lives are at risk daily. There are several hundred thousand civilians stuck in Idlib, which is under bombardment, so this family is not the only one in such a position. As a matter of urgency, would it be possible for the Department, INIS and the travel document section to arrange for Irish officials from Ankara to travel to the Turkish-Syrian border to assist with the beneficiaries' travel documents and arrange for safe passage out of Syria?
I have liaised on this issue with Senators Humphreys and Kelleher, who share my concern and have met the Syrian family in question. There is precedent from a number of years ago, where family members were at urgent risk in an African country and Irish officials travelled and were able to bring travel documents to the individuals concerned. It is essential that the Minister of State communicates with the travel document section and follows up on these beneficiaries, who have been given approval to come to Ireland but are physically unable to get out of Idlib.
There is the larger issue of IHAP applications being refused to such an extent that, given how we are now in October, it is unlikely that we will see the number of people who were supposed to be allowed admission coming to Ireland.Is there a way the safe passage of this small group of people who have been granted permission to join family members here but are unable to escape the siege in Idlib can be ensured?
On behalf of the Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, and on my own behalf, I thank the Bacik for raising the extreme difficulties being experienced by some people from Syria in obtaining travel documents. As she stated, they have been granted permission to come to Ireland by the Minister as part of the IRPP humanitarian admission programme. I have met some people who have benefited from this programme, which as far as I know, is unique to Ireland. It is hoped that the full complement of 4,000 Syrians will be here before the end of the year. That is our intention.
Irish travel documents are normally issued only to people physically and legally present within the State and who, by definition, have had face-to-face contact with immigration and-or Garda authorities. The checks and balances arising from this requirement assist the State to satisfy itself that travel documents issue legitimately. However, exceptions are sometimes made for persons who are outside of the State. In such cases, the applicants are required to travel to the nearest Irish embassy to complete application forms and to pick up their travel documents. This is necessary to protect the integrity of the process. It enables verification of the identity of the applicant upon application and at the time of booklet collection and links up the elements in the chain between applying and receiving the travel document.
I understand that the International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC, may exceptionally issue a one-way travel document for those who do not have officially recognised documents. However, such persons must been granted prior permission to come to Ireland. For security reasons, and in line with best practice, travel documents are not sent through international post but are sent by diplomatic channels to the nearest Irish embassy. Even if the level of security offered by international post were acceptable, postal services to the required areas are not always available. I understand that this applies in Syria.
When Irish travel documents are issued, such as to programme refugee beneficiaries, it is to facilitate their travel, where possible. It is the understanding of the immigration service of the Department that while the recipients have been given permission to enter the State and reside in the State, they must make their own arrangements for getting here. While the immigration service will process a valid application and cause to have an Irish travel document produced for the applicant, it is currently outside the scope and resources of the immigration service to guarantee that the travel document will reach an applicant in all instances.
As mentioned by the Senator in her opening remarks, Syria, in particular Idlib, is in a war zone. We would not ask Irish officials to put their lives at risk by attempting to travel there. The ICRC can issue documents for one-way travel in exceptional cases. I am not sure if that has been explored in this instance.
I thank the Minister of State for his response but I am disappointed that he does not suggest any alternative. In my latest correspondence with the travel document section of the immigration service, I raised the possibility of a laissez-passer document being issued through, for example, the Red Cross as suggested by the Minister of State and that is currently being explored. The response I got from INIS was that the travel document section is exploring options for addressing the issue. Officials are aware of this matter but for months now the response has been that they are exploring options. I know that the family concerned is anxious to explore all options, including the option referenced by the Minister of State. Nobody expects Irish officials to put their lives at risk. We understand the need for checks and balances but given that permission has been granted and the very dangerous situation in which this family is in, I ask for an opportunity to meet the Minister of State directly to discuss this particular case in more depth. I am pleased to have had this opportunity to raise it as a more general issue as well.
I am always happy to meet the Senator, in particular on a serious issue such as this. I reiterate that for security reasons and to uphold the integrity of the Irish immigration system, a number of checks and balances must be completed by the Irish authorities before a travel document can issue. Our rigorous policies and procedures are in line with those in operation in other EU member states. As the Senator will be aware, UNHCR Ireland worked with us to design and implement the IHAP programme as part of the wider IRPP, which, as I said, earlier is unique to Ireland.
The Irish immigration service cannot involve its staff members, their relatives or associates of the intended recipient or third parties in the delivery of documents to locations that would require such persons to put themselves at risk to effect that delivery. Herein lies the problem. As mentioned by the Senator, Idlib is under bombardment such that the people concerned cannot get out to get the documents and our officials cannot get in. It is an impossible, extraordinarily difficult and awful situation. The Minister and I appreciate that some refugee programme beneficiaries in Syria encounter difficulties in accessing travel documents and may be impeded by conflicting authorities in the region.It is not easy. However, as I have already stated, persons who cannot obtain documents from the relevant authorities in their country of origin may, in very urgent circumstances, approach the International Committee of the Red Cross for assistance. I am glad to hear that is being explored, as the Senator has said. The Minister believes the current system is the most robust and pragmatic means to facilitate travel to Ireland for those refugees in Syria who are in need of urgent international protection.