Seanad debates

Friday, 26 March 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Citizenship Applications

10:30 am

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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I warmly welcome the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, to the House.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. I really appreciate that she is here to discuss the important issue of the fast-tracking of citizenship for non-national healthcare workers. It is an issue that I have raised in the House before. As we know, migrants currently make up 26% of essential workers in Ireland. Our hospitals have been very active in seeking work permits for non-EU staff since the beginning of the Covid crisis. There is no doubt but that without their work, the country's efforts to combat Covid-19 might well have collapsed. They have been the absolute backbone of the Irish healthcare system, whether it was in hospitals or nursing homes or whether it was caring for individuals in their own homes.

I am going to address the circumstances of essential workers who are asylum seekers, many of whom are living in direct provision and often forgotten about. Elsewhere in Europe, the contribution made by foreign healthcare workers has been recognised with a commitment to fast-tracking their citizenship. Numerous countries, including Italy, France, Spain, Portugal and Canada, have recognised the contribution made by migrant healthcare workers and asylum seekers working on the front line during the Covid 19 pandemic by granting them full citizenship rights and permission to remain in recognition of their selfless efforts to care for the vulnerable. It is time that the same recognition was given here by the Irish Government. Delays in the current system are causing frustration and desperation. Healthcare workers and their families who meet citizenship requirements should have their applications expedited.At an unstable time, we need to provide stability for our essential front-line workers. Dr. Liqa ur Rehman tells us that most foreign doctors end up waiting eight years for Irish citizenship. It is not enough to pay tribute to people such as Ms Mariter Tarugo , Dr. Syed Waqqar Ali, Mr. Solson Saviour and others who have passed away fighting our war. The contribution made by these hard-working people should be reflected in the processing of their citizenship applications. An online petition was launched by Dr. Mohsin Kamal of Crumlin hospital calling on the Department of Justice follow suit on other countries and expedite the citizenship process. I feel strongly that this must be looked at.

I have been working with and listening to our asylum seeker community who are working in essential services. I want, for them, to read part of a letter into the record:

We are requesting favourable consideration in granting us, the essential workers among the asylum seeker community, leave to remain in Ireland in recognition of the contributions made to the Irish economy and society during the pandemic. The journey we have made is not an exciting journey or a comfortable option. We live without our families. We left them for their safety and benefit. Asylum seekers generally live in direct provision accommodation centres around the country, meaning they are provided with accommodation and food but with little privacy and independence. We have had to find our way to work come rain, snow or sunshine, denied the basic right to drive, so we find ourselves walking or cycling for hours to get to our place of work. There are between 500 to 800 essential working asylum seekers currently risking their lives every day during this pandemic. We are looking to remain for our front-line essential workers, freedom for Ireland's future adults, our children, to be treated as citizens of this country with dignity, grace and respect.

I rest my case.

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator O'Loughlin for raising this extremely important issue.

First, let me stress that I recognise the crucial role all healthcare workers, including those who are non-EEA nationals, continue to play in this ongoing pandemic in responding to the threat of Covid-19. Their exceptional commitment has been particularly clear throughout the pandemic, during which they have in no small way played a part in preventing the spread of Covid-19. First and foremost, I want to acknowledge the significant, vital and important role they continue to play and they no doubt will play in the future, because this is something that will not end today or tomorrow.

I can Senator O'Loughlin that humanitarian factors, employment records and other factors are considered by my officials in the immigration service as part of the permission to remain and leave to remain processes. Each case is examined in detail on its individual merits, taking all factors into account, as I have outlined.

For people who have applied for international protection, our overall objective, whether they be front-line workers or not, is to have this process on their protection applications and permission to remain considerations decided upon as quickly as possible. This ensures those who are in need of our protection, including applicants who are working on the front line who are working in healthcare services and many other parts of the community who are protecting us daily, can receive this response as quickly as possible and begin rebuilding their lives and starting to set out a new life here with a sense of safety and security.

I am committed to making further efficiencies in the international protection process. As Senators will be aware, with the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, we launched the White Paper where there are clear commitments given by my Department to reduce processing times of both first instance decisions and appeals to six months in both cases. That in itself will have a huge impact and make a huge difference to those who are currently in the system.

Work is under way in my Department to identify mechanisms which will assist in that overall process, working towards improving those times. Additional ICT resources have been secured for this year. Detailed work, including an end-to-end review of processes to guide enhanced processing times, is also under way.When this first phase of work has been carried out, it will enable a more detailed set of milestones to be put in place.

Regarding the current backlog of international protection cases, my Department intends, in the first instance, to prioritise processing of all cases using improved processes and the planned ICT investment in the system. My Department will, by October 2022 at the latest, commence a review of progress made in reducing and improving processing times and based on the outcome of that review, decide by the end of 2022, whether additional measures are required in order to ensure that the new system can come into operation without the overhang of any significant number of legacy cases. Furthermore, to ensure that people do not fall out of permission during this time, I have provided six automatic extensions of immigration and international protection permissions since last March. The most recent extension is to 20 April, and I expect to announce a further extension shortly, giving people the reassurance they need.

Healthcare workers are also benefiting from the temporary citizenship process that we opened in January. As a result of Covid-19 restrictions, the face-to-face citizenship ceremonies have not happened and a backlog has built up. We put in place a new temporary system and I am pleased to say that we are on track to meet our target of communicating with 4,000 people by the end of this month with a further 2,500 people by the end of June. A significant number of those are working on the front line in the vital services that have been supporting us through the Covid-19 pandemic. They will benefit from this enhanced system. I believe we will be able to clear the backlog by the end of this year as we had targeted to do.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for her work on the White Paper, which is very welcome. I impress on her and the Department the need to prioritise these essential healthcare workers, both those who are immigrants and those who are asylum seekers. We are not talking about many people. Asylum seekers represent a maximum of 800 people. These workers make a significant difference to the everyday lives of Irish people. They are contributing and paying taxes. They are a vital part of the effort to make Ireland a healthier and safer place.

The Minister said that the Department will commence a review of progress by October 2022 at the latest, but that is a full 18 months away. In line with what is happening in other European countries and Canada, the Minister should make an exception for our front-line emergency healthcare workers.

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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Irrespective of whether we are assessing asylum applications or citizen applications, it is important that we have a fair system that acknowledges that everybody who has applied is making some contribution, be it working in healthcare are in other settings. The most important thing is to have a system that goes through the application process as quickly as possible and that nobody is waiting for years on end. I know that a backlog has emerged, particularly over the last year which has meant that waiting times are much longer. Many of the people the Senator spoke about are waiting because of that. With the new mechanism for conferring citizenship in place, it is my intention to get rid of those backlogs this year.

While we have a review of the international protection process set up for 2022, should something arise and should there be some difficulty between now and then, we have a commitment to invest in our ICT this year. I anticipate we will address all those backlogs and hopefully the review will show that that is the case and that no changes will need to be made.

I again thank everyone who has been working on the front line throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Everything is being done to ensure that those who are in the system can be processed as quickly as possible.