Seanad debates

Wednesday, 8 November 2023

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Family Reunification

10:30 am

Photo of Tom ClonanTom Clonan (Independent)
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I thank the Minister of State for coming in. I want to be as quick as I can. I am asking that the Department and the Minister for Justice adopt an urgent, pragmatic, family centred approach to visa applications to reunite the relatives of Irish families, particularly in the context of the increase in global conflict. We have an increasing global diaspora of Irish citizens and so this is going to be a more frequently occurring situation. We saw desperate attempts to get Irish citizens out of Kabul and desperate attempts to get Irish citizens out of Sudan and Khartoum when that country went into free fall. Obviously, we have 40 Irish citizens in the Gaza Strip. We are almost powerless to get them out against the backdrop of the appalling war crimes that are being perpetrated by both sides in that conflict. Emily Hand is being kept as a hostage by Hamas. We are pleading for the lives of Irish citizens.

I wish to raise the case of the Snunu family. This is an extended Irish family who live in Carlow and who have a number of businesses there. They fled persecution in Syria during the civil war there. They got to Turkey and made their way, as so many hundreds of thousands of refugees do, by boat, in little rubber dinghies, and got to Lesbos. They left their sister, Nouralhuda, behind because she did not want to die in the boat with them. They left her behind so one member of the family might live. The family managed to get Irish citizenship. In fact the father of the family, the patriarch, told me that in the refugee camp in Lesbos they were given a choice of different nationalities and they chose Ireland. I asked him why and he said it was because he knew he would get justice and love in this country. His nickname thereafter amongst the Syrians in the refugee camp in Lesbos was Paddy.

That family were in my office last week. After the earthquakes in Türkiye, Nouralhuda, her husband and their three small children - Ahmet, who is seven, Mohamed, who is five and little Rital, who is two - were effectively trafficked to Kuala Lumpur and they are now being held in a detention centre in Kuala Lumpur International Airport. They are crammed into a room and they have separated boys and girls. They are crammed into a room with 30 or 40 people. There is a hole in the ground for them to toilet in. They have no shoes. They have no stimulation. Malaysian authorities say they are going to deport the sister and her three children back to Damascus. If they are deported to Damascus, they will be executed. They will be tortured. The women and children will be raped and they will be executed. That is what is going to happen. That is what is on the line. The only reason we have managed to save their lives is because my assistant is Malaysian-Irish and speaks fluent Malay.When their plight was brought to our attention, my assistant, who is probably watching this, was able to communicate in Malay with the authorities in Malaysia to get a stay on their execution, which is effectively what it would be if they were deported to Damascus. The Malaysian authorities have told us, and I quote from their letter, that the Snunu family have been applying for a visa application to reunite Nouralhuda and her children with the family. The Department of Justice has rejected their application on the basis of misspellings in the passports and a discrepancy with the date of birth. This is a family that crossed the Mediterranean in a rubber dinghy. These are people who have been trafficked. Of course there will be discrepancies in their paperwork. For these tiny, bureaucratic - I do not even have the language to describe it - and capricious reasons, they are rejecting them. They have an appeal in at the moment and the Malaysians tell me:

We reiterate that the family has overstayed in Malaysia and we are yet to deport them.Our next course of action will depend on the result of the visa application from the Department of Justice, Ireland.

They are saying that if this appeal is not dealt with in a timely manner, they will be killed. In the context of us trying to save life in the world and of Ireland being a beacon of hope, can we reunite this family with their Irish family? I urge the Department of Justice to deal with this in a pragmatic, humane and generous manner.

Photo of Paul DalyPaul Daly (Fianna Fail)
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Before the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, responds, I would like to welcome to the Gallery our special guests from the White House, Matthew McFarland and Kelsey Quackenbush. Fáilte romhaibh; you are very welcome. The Minister of State has four minutes to respond.

Photo of Ossian SmythOssian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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I welcome our guests. I thank the Senator for making his case. I am here on behalf of the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, who unfortunately has another commitment and cannot be here. At the outset, I want to assure the Senator that the Minister and her Department are acutely aware of the grave humanitarian crisis in Gaza and are working with colleagues in the Department of Foreign Affairs to ensure a co-ordinated national response to this volatile and evolving situation. This includes their work to evacuate Irish citizens and their families who may require visa assistance. The Minister and her Department officials understand that this is also a difficult situation for our Palestinian community and their loved ones. They would like to assure the Senator that all current immigration avenues remain open for new applications to the Department, including visa and family reunification applications, which will be processed speedily.

In relation to the Department’s general approach to visa applications to reunite relatives of Irish families, there are several different routes available. The International Protection Act 2015 provides that a person who has a current declaration as a UN Convention refugee or who is a current beneficiary of subsidiary protection may make an application for family reunification. Under the 2015 Act, a person may apply for their immediate family members, spouse, partner and children under 18 to enter and reside in the State or to remain and reside in the State where they are already resident on the date of the application.

Other avenues also exist for the admission of more extended family members under the provisions of the Department’s policy document on non-EEA family reunification, which can be found on the Department’s website, This allows beneficiaries of international protection who fall outside of the terms of the 2015 Act and other non-EEA immigrants residing lawfully in Ireland to make an application to have their family members join them here. A review of the non-EEA family reunification policy is under way. The review, which is at an advanced stage, is examining a wide range of matters relating to family reunification. The policy document was last reviewed in 2016 and sets out the criteria and specific requirements for any person considering making an application to be joined by family members in the State through normal established legal pathways. The review will be informed by considerations of the relevant Government Departments.

I spoke to a Department official about the specific case that Senator Clonan has raised and the family he has mentioned. I understand the Department is fully apprised of it, they are working on it, there is no delay with it and they understand the urgency. It is right that Senator Clonan was able to make his case today very clearly for them. There are also similar incidents in Gaza at the moment. There are hostages and there are people who are eligible for Irish citizenship but do not have it at the moment. We cannot be expected to go through the normal timelines that it takes for a foreign birth registration, etc., in such a critical moment. The Department is working to provide documentation for those people. They are working on their diplomatic efforts with the various Governments involved to extract Irish citizens safely from these war zones. I want to tell the Senator that on the specific case he mentioned and detailed so passionately and clearly, the Department assures me that it is working at full speed, with all its efforts, and it understands the context.

Photo of Tom ClonanTom Clonan (Independent)
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I appreciate the Minister of State giving me that response. I am heartened to hear he has spoken to officials in the Department. It is 30°C in Kuala Lumpur today, there is 83% humidity and those children are barefoot in a mosquito-infested cell. The Malaysian authorities have told me they are imminent in their desire to deport them to Damascus. We do not need an aircraft. We do not need to borrow an aircraft from another State to save these family members of an Irish family. All we need is a bit of ink on a piece of paper and we can save their lives.

I implore the Minister of State to speak with the Minister, Deputy McEntee, who I know is aware of this case, because she very generously spoke to me about it last month. I know she is committed to helping this family. However, the letter we got from the Malaysian authorities is very clear. They are just at the point of deporting them. I therefore plead, consistent with the piece that Kitty Holland highlighted in TheIrish Times this week, with the State to help this family. It is a matter of urgency. They arein extremis. All it needs is a stroke of the pen and the Malaysians will deport them to their family in Dublin, as opposed to deporting them to Damascus, where they would face certain death.

Photo of Ossian SmythOssian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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I thank the Senator. I will revert with his comments to the official, who may be watching right now. If he has not heard this, I will revert to him with the Senator’s comments about the urgency of this particular case.

The Minister recognises the importance of international protection recipients and residents in Ireland from outside the EEA having their family members reunited with them. To this end, the Department engages where necessary with applicants for family reunification to ensure they have every opportunity to meet the requirements that are in place. As has already been outlined, alternative avenues for family reunification are available under the Department’s policy document on non-EEA family reunification, which is currently under review. The guidelines for the processing of long-stay family applications are set out in the policy document and there is information to assist people in making applications on the Department of Justice website.

On my behalf, and on behalf of the Minister, Deputy McEntee, I want to again express sympathy for what must be a very difficult situation for our Palestinian community and for their loved ones. I reiterate that the Department is open for all new visa and family reunification applications. I want to assure the Senator that the Minister, Deputy McEntee, and the Department’s officials are committed to taking a pragmatic and sympathetic approach when it comes to visas to reunite family members of Irish families.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 11.08 a.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 11.32 a.m.

Sitting suspended at 11.08 a.m. and resumed at 11.32 a.m.