Thursday, 10 July 1997
Seanad Éireann Debate
Dr. Henry: The Refugee Act was passed by the Oireachtas earlier this year to the acclaim of all political parties. Indeed, some speeches by Senator Mulcahy in support of the Bill urged the Minister to be more liberal. There was genuine support for the legislation but I am extremely anxious about the lack of progress in implementing it since it was passed.
The commitment of support was made long before the Act was introduced. The interim report on applications for refugee status in the report of the interdepartmental committee on non-Irish nationals which was published in 1993 stated that there was a genuine public concern regarding the State's procedures for dealing with applications for asylum. It said the concern had been highlighted earlier that year during contributions to the debate in Dáil Éireann on a Private Members' refugee protection Bill. In her contribution to the debate the then Minister for Justice, Mrs. Geoghegan-Quinn, emphasised she would honour that commitment at the earliest opportunity.  This was genuinely meant and she started work on the Refugee Bill almost immediately. The interdepartmental report, which was issued when Fianna Fáil was in Government, also said it was an essential recommendation that the existing administrative arrangements for asylum seekers and refugees should be placed on a statutory footing with the important addition of an appropriate appeals authority.
I was anxious that the appeals authority should be part of the Bill and I put down an amendment, which was supported by Senator Norris and others, to provide for a suspensive period to the Dublin Convention. This was incorporated in the Bill and the reason I take this issue so seriously. There have been newspaper reports of a huge influx of refugees in this country and there is increased public awareness that some of the refugees are not seeking political asylum but have travelled across Europe to this country apparently as a result of their favourable impression of our social welfare system. However, a large number of these refugees have returned to their own countries.
I and the general public do not fully understand the measures which were recently put in place. They appear to work to the detriment of those who might be seeking political asylum for genuine reasons. The ministerial order which was put in place is a non-statutory instrument and might involve the refusal of entry to people genuinely seeking political asylum. Every country has the right to decide under what criteria it will admit aliens. However, when the Refugee Act was introduced it was not understood by Members of either House of the Oireachtas that the Act might be superseded by ministerial orders, as is the case at present.
I had hoped the new Minister might, as was suggested by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, suspend the order so the situation could at least be examined. It appears the non-implementation of relevant sections of the Refugee Act, which are necessary to deal with the administration of refugees, is the reason for the refugee problem in our streets and in the Eastern Health Board rather than anything wrong in the Act.
The Dublin Convention will be introduced in September and I am concerned that we are putting another hurdle in the way of those seeking political asylum in Ireland. After September, will the ministerial order and the Dublin Convention be in place? Will people be forced to go through the suspensive period of the convention, which we were happy to support, because it prevents asylum seekers or refugees being left in limbo? That was the case for many years and people were sent from one EU country to another. Will people be dealt with under the Refugee Act? Matters have been complicated enormously by the introduction of the ministerial order.
Under the new procedures introduced approximately two months ago, people arriving in Ireland from Great Britain or Northern Ireland are in an  invidious position compared to those arriving from another EU country, or a country outside the European Union, because they have an extra hurdle to cross. I did not realise we would return to the position where a civil servant decided on whether an asylum seeker should be allowed to stay in Ireland. There appears to be no means by which an applicant is permitted the possibility of presenting his or her case. It does not appear possible for an applicant to get legal representation or translation services. The only right an applicant appears to have is to receive a letter from the official, stating that he or she decided the person should not come into the country. This is not in line with the spirit of the Act, which was supported by all parties and Independents, and it does not correspond to natural justice.
Why has there been such a delay in the appointment of the refugee applications commissioner? I recall the post was advertised in February and was told interviews took place in May. I do not know if the post was offered to somebody and he or she refused it. However, this is mid-July and an appointment has not been made. This makes me think there is a certain reluctance in the Department of Justice to implement the will of the Legislature in an Act passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas. We were most anxious about these areas and I recall the legislation received support from all sides. Why has this essential part of the Act not been promoted?
Until that is done, it is almost impossible to put in place the various functional aspects of the Bill which are necessary to prevent the type of scenes which occurred outside the Eastern Health Board offices. A vast number of people arrived there, some at 7 a.m., but there was not enough staff to deal with them. There appears to be an enormous lack of communication between the Departments of Justice, Social Welfare and Health with regard to dealing with these people. This gives the public an appalling impression of turmoil caused by refugees in Ireland and leads to the type of stories which have been published in newspapers recently. It makes the public feel the influx of refugees must be resisted. Genuine political asylum seekers may be refused entry due to the lack of will to implement the legislation passed six months ago.
The implementation of the Act is flowing like molasses in January. This is July and I want to know how far the Minister has moved towards planning the implementation of the legislation. Perhaps he could tell the House what he has done with regard to the refugee commissioner and about the arrangements that have been made at ports to intercept people entering from Great Britain and Northern Ireland who are being treated invidiously.
Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. O'Donoghue): I thank Senator Henry for raising this important matter. Regarding the appointment of a refugee applications commissioner,  an injunction is in place, which was granted by the High Court, in relation to that matter. Unfortunately, I cannot comment further on it.
It is important to make a distinction between illegal immigrants and those seeking refugee status. I will deal first with the issue of immigration. It is important to state there has been considerable public disquiet about the growing problem of illegal immigration into Ireland. I share that disquiet. The outgoing Government considered the situation on several occasions over recent months and decided on 25 June that immigration controls should be introduced between Ireland and the UK on 29 June. The effect of those controls is to introduce into Irish law a requirement that non-EU citizens seeking to enter Ireland from the UK must meet the same entry requirements as non-EU nationals seeking to enter Ireland from any other part of the world.
Since those controls were introduced about ten days ago, 109 persons have been refused entry to Ireland and returned to the UK. That so many persons have been refused entry in the first few days indicates the scale of the problem, which has been growing for some time. I am satisfied the outgoing Government's action was correct even if it was belated. I also pay tribute to the immigration officers, members of the Garda Síochána, who are operating the new procedure in a discreet and courteous fashion.
Regarding the issue of those seeking refugee status, of the 109 refused entry, three applied for refugee status in Ireland. In these three cases, the matter was considered by an officer of my Department in accordance with arrangements put in place by the outgoing Government and a decision made to return them to the UK. In accordance with those arrangements, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the UK authorities were notified.
I am extremely concerned at the enormous increase in the number of applications for refugee status being made in Ireland in recent months and years and at the evident rising trend in the numbers. For example, of the 2,000 or so applications made this year up to 30 June, nearly 900 were made in May and June. By comparison, in the whole of 1992, only 39 applications were made. While it is too early to say for certain, there appears to be a link between the refusal of entry to the 109 people to which I referred and a simultaneous drop of more than 50 per cent in the number of persons applying to my Department for refugee status since the new arrangements were made.
There is a very substantial and worrying backlog of applications for refugee status which must be addressed. There are now about 2,800 applications on hand. In fairness to those who have applied, and having regard to the social welfare and other costs involved of about £45 million, a way of dealing speedily with these applications must be found. I am examining the situation and will bring proposals to Government shortly.
 The need for the new arrangements has been criticised by some and there is public disquiet, which I share. There is concern about the costs involved. If we revert to the position which obtained prior to 29 June, the costs next year will be in the order of £110 million. The outgoing Government realised the consequences of its inaction and took the first steps necessary to deal with the problem. I want to make it clear that these arrangements meet two objectives: first, stemming illegal immigration and, second ensuring the integrity of Ireland's refugee procedures.
The Government is satisfied that these arrangements do not in any way conflict with Ireland's obligations under the 19512 UN Convention or its related Protocolumn Ireland will continue, of course, to examine requests for refugee status from individuals to whom Ireland has obligations.
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