Adjournment Debate. - Detention of Moldovan Workers.

Tuesday, 30 January 2001

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 529 No. 1

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An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Séamus Pattison  Zoom on Séamus Pattison  The next two items relate to the Moldovan immigrant workers. Because they are similar they are being taken together. Each Deputy will have five minutes and the Minister will have ten minutes to reply.

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  I do not know whether to be sad or sorry for the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform on this occasion. I have the greatest sympathy for him, however, because he must be deeply embarrassed by this matter. The spectacle of people being paraded publicly in chains was one of the saddest sights I have ever seen in this country. These people had travelled abroad to seek employment, as they were legally entitled to do. They had all the necessary documentation and had been approved before legitimately entering the country to seek employment. Yet, somebody arbitrarily decided that they did not have sufficient resources at their disposal. Who gave them the right to determine whether these people had sufficient resources? They were here legally and were entitled to go about their business, but what did we do? We arrested them. The Minister arrested them, put them in prison and treated them to most God awful spectacle of Irish hospitality that anybody has ever seen. It was the worst manifestation of zero tolerance I have seen. I do not know how Irish people all over the world felt about this matter, but I know how I felt about it. How would the Minister feel if Irish people abroad were treated in that fashion? How would he feel about it if all the hundreds of thousands of people who have left this country to seek employment over the centuries had been treated in that way? In our so-called civilised generation of the enlightened and economically improved Celtic tiger economy, what way was that to show recognition of those who are worse off than ourselves?

Apart from that, how legal was it? Can the Minister stand over the fact that these people were treated illegally? They were entitled to go about their business. How would the Minister feel if the next time he went abroad on business he was chained hand and foot and thrown into prison because somebody arbitrarily decided he did not have enough money to sustain himself? What [137] about all the Irish people who left our shores and went to seek their fortunes elsewhere? What resources did they have? Did they always have the necessary resources so that some bureaucrat somewhere could decide they could continue or not?

Has the Minister apologised to the Moldovans, on behalf of the people and on his own behalf, for the disgraceful and disgusting manner in which they were treated? Has he given instructions that it is never to happen again? Such things must not recur and such decisions must not be taken on behalf of the Irish people. Last week's spectacle must rank among the saddest and sorriest ever seen on this island – a country that has suffered oppression, poverty and deprivation. Its citizens were forced to wander all over the world to seek employment and better living conditions. It is sad to think that an example should have been made of these people in this way. They were legally entitled to be here. They were professional people, engineers and dentists, and they had jobs to go to. In those circumstances, if the Minister has not apologised to their nation, we in this House should apologise for the disgraceful way they were treated – seriously eroding their human and civil rights – which has held this country up to ridicule by the rest of the free world.

Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg  Zoom on Emmet Stagg  Last week 19 Moldovan men, who came to this country to work with valid papers and visas, were treated like criminals. They were detained in Mountjoy Prison and taken to the Four Courts in chains, an event which caused revulsion and anger in every right thinking person in the country. Eventually, through the sterling work of a number of people in north Kildare, some justice and humanity was shown to these men. However, what occurred last week was a national disgrace. These 19 men were abandoned and treated in an inhumane and disgraceful fashion. It was only through the efforts of a number of individual citizens that an end to the nightmare was achieved. I want to pay tribute, in particular, to the work done in this regard by Mr. Bertie Dunne of Naas.

The record shows that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform did not lift a finger to help these men. They were thrown into jail for the “crime” of legitimately seeking work, while the Government was quite content to sit back and twiddle its thumbs. In a week when the Minister found time to wax lyrical about a new readmission agreement with the Governments of Bulgaria and Poland, he could not issue one word of concern about the injustice being perpetrated against 19 innocent men. That, too, is a disgrace.

In the strange world of the Minister, Deputy O'Donoghue, perhaps he thought it was a good thing and that it would send out the message that Ireland was tough on immigrants, legal or illegal. [138] The fact that 19 men had to pay the price was a minor issue as far as the Minister was concerned. It was only when public outrage at the treatment of these men became obvious that the Minister took a view. Late last Friday the Minister claimed that new arrangements would be put in place to prevent innocent people being flung into jail. Great. This was an appalling response from the Minister and the Government. His craven cowardice in the face of this issue will come to characterise his whole policy towards immigration and asylum. If this scandal is to teach us anything it is that we must immediately put in place an immigration policy as distinct from an asylum process. My colleague, Deputy Howlin, has published one of the most comprehensive policy papers in relation to asylum and immigration, yet the Government refuses to even recognise the mess over which it is presiding.

In the wake of this latest scandal, it is essential that the Government abandons the hostility and suspicion of non-nationals which has dominated policy to date. This country faces a serious labour shortage. Official reports suggest that we will need in excess of 300,000 immigrant workers over the coming years. The intolerant and conservative attitude of the Government in relation to immigration is in direct conflict with this reality and must be reversed. That is particularly true of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and its officials.

Ten days after these innocent men were thrown in jail – they were declared entirely innocent of any wrongdoing by the High Court – an official apology from the Taoiseach or the Minister has not been forthcoming. This adds insult to injustice. These men deserve not only an apology, but compensation for the horror that was visited upon them courtesy of the Irish State. This compensation should be agreed between the Department and the legal representatives of the 19 Moldovans. Does the Government intend hauling them before the courts again to seek justice? I could not believe my ears today when I heard that each of these workers, who received this treatment, was required to pay an additional £125 each for their new work permits.

I also urge the Minister to desist with the current practice of hauling innocent people before the courts in chains generally. It is a cornerstone of our judicial system that people are innocent until proven guilty, yet innocent people are paraded in chains through the streets of Dublin each day the courts sit. Security considerations can be adequately dealt with without inflicting public humility and disgrace on people who will come before the courts. The pictures printed in our newspapers last week should not be repeated and it is not beyond the imagination of the Department, the Prison Service or the Courts Service to come up with more appropriate alternatives.

[139] This whole affair has brought shame not only on the Government, but on Ireland's reputation. The inaction and cowardice of the Government throughout the affair has been disgraceful. Unfortunately, I cannot say it has been shocking because it happens regularly. This Government has utterly failed to devise a humane and responsible policy on the issues of asylum and immigration. It has spoken out of both sides of its mouth content for the likes of Deputy Callely to stoke up racist fears, while officially talking the language of inclusion. The direct result is that 19 men, genuinely and legitimately seeking work, were confined to prison like criminals abandoned by the State. Fortunately, in this case, the citizens of this country have demonstrated humanity and generosity that is nowhere to be found in the Government's policy.

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. O'Donoghue): Information on John O'Donoghue  Zoom on John O'Donoghue  It is important that I preface my remarks this evening by pointing out that, contrary to a widely held perception, many of the issues relating to this case have not yet been determined by the courts and are the subject of a judicial review application by the persons in question. In addition, the question of costs in relation to the Article 40 proceedings, which were determined last Thursday, have been reserved. The Deputies will appreciate, therefore, that my remarks must be such as not to prejudice the court's fair consideration of these matters.

On the question of legal entry to the State, the situation is now, as it has always been, that possession of a valid visa does not guarantee entry, although failure to have one if required is grounds for refusal. This is made very clear in the information provided with the visa application form. All non-EEA nationals, whether visa required or not, require leave to land upon arrival. A valid work permit, which is issued to a prospective employer, merely authorises that employer but not any other employer to employ a specified non-EEA national for a specified period. The work permit application form makes clear to an employer that the issue of a work permit does not of itself authorise the person named therein to enter or reside in the State and that admission and duration of stay are subject to the control of the immigration authorities. The work permit itself clearly states that it is valid for the employment stated and not for any other kind of work or for any other employer.

Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg  Zoom on Emmet Stagg  Why did the Minister not send them back, so?

Mr. O'Donoghue: Information on John O'Donoghue  Zoom on John O'Donoghue  On the matters raised by the Deputies, the facts are that on the morning of Sunday, 21 January 2001, a group of 19 Moldovan nationals, all male, presented themselves to the immigration authorities in Dublin Airport having [140] arrived on a direct flight from Bucharest in Romania.

Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg  Zoom on Emmet Stagg  There were 20; the Minister let one through.

Mr. O'Donoghue: Information on John O'Donoghue  Zoom on John O'Donoghue  They were in possession of valid Irish entry visas and copies of work permits authorising a company called Kildare Chilling to employ them as general operatives. Very shortly before the arrival of the group in Dublin Airport, Kildare Chilling informed immigration officials in writing that no jobs were available for the group and that their agent in Moldova, who had recruited the group on their behalf, had been informed of this several weeks previously. Kildare Chilling had, according to the information available to me, made no attempt to bring to the attention of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment the fact that the jobs were not available, an action which would have afforded the authorities an opportunity to deter the group from travelling in the first place.

The recruitment consultant who organises the recruitment of Moldovan workers on Kildare Chilling's behalf, has given further information to the Garda national immigration bureau on the circumstances leading up to the incident in question. It appears that the permits were issued to Kildare Chilling as part of a batch of 50 such permits last October and that 25 of the workers in question had commenced employment with the company on foot of an invitation transmitted on behalf of Kildare Chilling through a Moldovan agent. Those who commenced work had been specifically invited to report for work by the company, had their airline tickets supplied by the company and were met at the airport on arrival on 15 October 2000 and 24 October 2000. However, Kildare Chilling claimed that difficulties in the beef sector meant that they did not require all of the persons they had earlier sought to recruit and, therefore, that an invitation was not extended by the company to the remainder of the group and airline tickets were not provided by the company on their behalf.

On arrival the group maintained that they were unaware that the jobs were no longer available. Following inquiries by the immigration authorities, the group was, in accordance with long-standing practice, refused leave to land under section 5(2)(a) of the Aliens Order, 1946, as amended which states: “An Immigration Officer may refuse leave to land to an alien coming from a place outside the State other than Great Britain or Northern Ireland where the immigration officer is satisfied. . . . that the alien is not in a position to support himself and any accompanying dependants.”

Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg  Zoom on Emmet Stagg  What does that mean?

[141]Mr. O'Donoghue: Information on John O'Donoghue  Zoom on John O'Donoghue  The immigration officer in question gave evidence in court to the effect that the inquiry at airport lasted more than two hours and in accordance with the aforementioned provisions, she refused the 19 men leave to land as she considered that each person was not in a position to support himself. In making that inquiry, the officer was assisted by other immigration staff, including the sergeant in charge on the day who obtained professional translation services in order to ensure full information could be obtained. She also indicated that if alternative work permits had been available the 19 men would have been granted leave to land.

The group was then detained in Mountjoy prison under section 5(4) of the Aliens Order, 1946, pending their removal from the State.

Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg  Zoom on Emmet Stagg  Disgraceful.

Mr. O'Donoghue: Information on John O'Donoghue  Zoom on John O'Donoghue  In this case, the carrier, Tarom, the Romanian national airline, originally advised that the next available flight was on Thursday. It subsequently advised the immigration authorities that the Thursday flight would not operate and arrangements were made for the group's departure on the following Sunday.

The immigration officer gave evidence in court that her decision to refuse leave to land was based on the following facts: the information that Kildare Chilling did not have employment for the 19 men and no other work permits existed at that time; the 19 men had approximately US$3,000 between them, some with as little as US$ 65 each and had no accommodation arranged and—

Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg  Zoom on Emmet Stagg  They had accommodation arranged.

Mr. O'Donoghue: Information on John O'Donoghue  Zoom on John O'Donoghue  —the 19 men had return flights for 18 February 2001.

On the basis of those facts, the State argued in court last Thursday that the detention for the purposes of returning the 19 men was lawful. However, during the hearing of the Article 40 inquiry, when it became clear that there were persons present in court who were prepared to offer the men employment, the State in answer to the court's question, confirmed that if work was being offered and new work permits were being issued, the State would release the men immediately. Consequently, the court ruled that the detention of the men from that point onwards was unlawful given that it was accepted that a clear and bona fide offer of employment was available to them. The court also reserved the question of costs. The court made no determination regarding the decision of the immigration authorities to refuse the applicants leave to land in circumstances where they were in possession of valid visas and work permits, on the extent of the inquiries made by the immigration authorities prior to making that decision nor on the initial detention of the [142] persons in question with a view to their removal from the State by the carrier which brought them to the frontiers of the State.

Turning to the more general issues raised, one would be forgiven for concluding from some of the public comment on this issue that immigration procedures in Ireland operate in an indiscriminate, paranoid or even racist fashion. The reality is that now, as in the past, only a tiny proportion of all passengers are refused entry to the State and that every effort is made to minimise the inconvenience to genuine travellers. The State relies on the vigilance of immigration officers to maintain and operate effective immigration controls in accordance with legislation provided by the Oireachtas—

Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg  Zoom on Emmet Stagg  The Tánaiste is trying to find workers and the Minister is putting them in jail.

Mr. O'Donoghue: Information on John O'Donoghue  Zoom on John O'Donoghue  —and these controls have operated under successive Governments in the public interest. To put the operation of those controls in context in relation to this incident, I would point to the fact that more than 18,000 work permits were issued to Irish employers to employ non-EEA nationals during the year 2000. The permits were issued to a wide spectrum of nationalities and in respect of vacancies in a broad range of skill areas, not just to high skill North Americans as is regularly reported. In addition, the Government has put in place a fast-track scheme to attract persons in areas of particular skill shortage. Almost 1,400 people availed of this scheme last year. I have been a consistent advocate of measures to promote legal migration where such migration is in Ireland's interests and my Department has responded flexibly to these new challenges.

Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg  Zoom on Emmet Stagg  What new challenges?

Mr. O'Donoghue: Information on John O'Donoghue  Zoom on John O'Donoghue  While it is true that what happened in this case was not without precedent, in the sense that people without subsisting offers of employment have been refused entry to the State in the past – it is also the case that what took place was the result of the application of the law by an official charged with that duty by this House – it is necessary to stand back from the logic of implementing the law in this case.

Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg  Zoom on Emmet Stagg  Charged by the Minister.

Mr. O'Donoghue: Information on John O'Donoghue  Zoom on John O'Donoghue  No matter what one says about the law and the logic of its application, it is a matter of great regret that the end result was that these men appeared in court in handcuffs.

Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg  Zoom on Emmet Stagg  It is a shame.

Mr. O'Donoghue: Information on John O'Donoghue  Zoom on John O'Donoghue  This cannot happen again and I have, therefore, taken immediate steps to [143] ensure that there will be no recurrence. On my initiative, an arrangement has been agreed between my Department, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Garda National Immigration Bureau to deal with future cases where persons arrive in the State with visas obtained on the basis of validly issued work permits but where the jobs in respect of which the permit was issued no longer exist and where the employer in question has made no attempt to notify the Irish authorities prior to the departure of the persons in question. Measures to [144] give effect to those arrangements are currently being put in place. The arrangements will facilitate temporary admission, where appropriate, based on an assessment of the person's prospect of obtaining legal employment.

On immigration generally, Deputy Stagg suggests I live in a strange world. If the real world is a strange place, there is little point in blaming me for it.

Mr. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  Ireland of the welcomes.

The Dáil adjourned at 10.05 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 31 January 2001.

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