Wednesday, 5 May 1999
Seanad Éireann Debate
That Seanad Éireann expresses its concern at the continuing difficulties being experienced by asylum seekers and refugees in this country and requests the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to give an explanation of this situation to the House, to give a full account of the operation of the Refugee Act, 1996, and to explain why this Act, properly passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas, has yet to be fully implemented.
The way in which this matter has been approached and the short notice given to us to prepare for this motion is unsatisfactory. However, we have done better than the Government side which has not been able to produce a Minister who deals with the issue of refugees.
The Government has a cheek to invite refugees from Yugoslavia, given the way in which refugees already in the country are being treated. I suggest that the wording of the amendment does not flow from Members on the Government side but from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform over whom the motion was shot. The wording of the amendment is laughable and I defy Fianna Fáil Members to troop through the division lobbies with anything other than a scowl of shame on their faces to push through the amendment. This will mean that they are not concerned about the refugees because the amendment proposes to delete everything after the word “that”. This removes any scintilla of concern for refugees. Included instead is a form of wording which is an offence to this House. It suggests that we acknowledge all the wonderful work the Minister has done in this area. We cannot possibly do this with a clear conscience. The amendment suggests that Seanad Éireann supports the Minister's policy to ensure that every non-national who is genuinely in need of protection is identified and recognised. This is not happening. The attempt to table this amendment is an absolute disgrace on the part of a group of anonymous people who do not have to answer to anyone.
I call on Fianna Fáil to show that they have not entirely lost their sense of honour and not to act as lackeys for civil servants. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform is the most regressive and least progressive Department. It has done everything possible to frustrate the will of the Oireachtas, which passed the Refugee Bill in 1996. Everything possible has been done to neuter, delay, frustrate and sabotage the Bill. I would like to know what is happening to the Donegan case which is being used as an excuse to prevent the full implementation of the Refugee Act. Why has this case not got to the courts? I would like to see something done about this.
 The record of the Department stretches back long before the involvement of the present staff. The miserable and disgraceful record of xenophobia in the Department goes back to the 1930s. It did everything it could in a neurotic way to exclude people who most certainly were refugees. I heard on the radio this morning the story of a woman, Sophie, from Central Africa. She had lived in circumstances of some prosperity. Her husband was taken from her and butchered. When her house was attacked her four children ran away. She was repeatedly raped and left unconscious. She managed to extricate herself, went to a refugee camp and ultimately arrived in Ireland. After two years, she has been refused refugee status. This is the type of thing which is covered by this anodyne and lying amendment. We must ask why these people are frustrating the will of the Oireachtas, and whether it is legal and constitutional. The Oireachtas has spoken and the Refugee Act has been placed on the Statute Book, yet it is not being implemented, particularly in terms of the criteria for the establishment of adjudication personnel to look into the question of assessing the status of refugees. That has not been done and the will of the Oireachtas has been abrogated by these people. For that reason, I call on the Government to withdraw its amendment to the motion and join us in calling for the full implementation of the Refugee Act, 1996.
This is not an odd outburst on my part. I am a member of the Church of Ireland and they are usually a fairly mealy-mouthed bunch. However, this Easter the Archbishop of Dublin, the Most Reverend Dr. Empey had this to say, in a sermon in Christchurch Cathedral:
It is very difficult to see the Risen Christ in the abominable attitude of the Government in its treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. There is little evidence there of God's love for all people. It is ironic that Christ Himself in the flesh was a refugee and would be in danger today of being deported to His own country but then, of course, He taught us that if we do this to any of His people we do it to Him. One sign of faith in all this has been the brave initiative of the Lord Mayor of Dublin [who is a Member of this House] in attempting to bring more understanding of the situation regarding refugees to the notice of people in this city. It is sad to note that because of his Christian witness he has been subject to hate mail that revealed the ugly face of racism in elements of our society. Obviously, such people have turned their backs on the Risen Christ. On the issue of refugees, at least, the Churches have put the claims of the Gospel to those in a position to improve the situation for asylum seekers.
This was angrily rejected from behind the barricades in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. At around the same time there were a few other worrying things. Can all these signals be wrong? I refer to a report in The Irish Times of 12 April 1999 on the annual general meeting of the Irish Medical Organisation, which carried the headline “Asylum-seeker legislation 'unethical”'. This is the rubbish that Fianna Fáil is standing behind. This is what is implied in the Government's amendment. I am certain that my decent friends in Fianna Fáil have not read it. They do not know what it is about and I am asking them not to vote in favour of it. The Irish Times report stated:
It is a Gestapo-like technique. Are we to expect the humane profession of medicine to act as informer against people who are driven and buffeted by the winds of chance to the shores of this once hospitable island?
A Cork GP, Dr. Mary Favier, said this would require doctors to become “quasi-immigration” officials, having to check the papers of an illegal before providing them with medical care. “This is unethical and unacceptable”, she said.
The report in The Irish Times pointed out that “Similar legislation was proposed in the US in the 1980s”. What happened? Our good Fianna Fáil people were over there lobbying against it, saying it was wrong, immoral and anti-democratic. If it was anti-democratic in America it is twice as anti-democratic here, ten or 20 years later. The Government should be ashamed to table that amendment. I excuse Senators on the Government side only because they did not write it. They had the opportunity to show they had a bit of guts. They should either get the out of here and not vote, and let us win the vote, or withdraw the amendment.
A motion was passed calling on the IMO to reject the Immigration Bill currently going through the Dáil. Dr. Favier said plans by the Minister for Justice. Mr. O'Donoghue, to amend the Aliens Act attempted to criminalise and deport aliens and made doctors “a part of that process”. Dr. James Molloy, a Limerick GP, said the proposal could cause conflict in the doctor-patient relationship. “This legislation is racist and, in my opinion, contrary to human rights”.
That is one aspect – medical treatment, a fundamental basis of human rights. What are the other aspects? Let us look, for example, at the right to education that the Irish people have claimed for themselves. The Irish Times of Tuesday, 6 April 1999, reported:
We are not going to allow them to have medial care or education. I know that some weasel words will be used to get round this and pretend that it did not happen but, of course, it did happen. Why are so many signs coming out? If these are all mistakes then taken together they constitute one coincidentally huge mistake.
Writing to the City of Dublin VEC last month, a senior Department of Education official noted that the advice from the immigration section of the Department of Justice was that asylum-seekers “are not supposed to work, [That is wrong for a start. It is a rotten lousy thing to do to people who are defenceless. It leaves them open to the accusation of being shiftless and unwilling to work. That is what the Department is at. It is trying to pare down the figures as hard as it can by every unjust and inhuman method.] and I have been told, but not in writing, that they should not have access to education”. [That is an official departmental note, although it is a note of a telephone conversation because they did not have the guts to put in writing.] The letter accompanied an “information note” sent to school and college principals in the Dublin area, instructing them that asylum-seekers must pay more than £2,000 a year to take Post Leaving Certificate courses.
To summarise the information note, it said they must pay the full amount. In other words, it is the kind of money we bleed out of wealthy South Africans, Arabs and Americans. Where will refugees get £2,000 a year? The newspaper report continued:
Senior Department of Education officials are known to be concerned about this issue. They have been active recently in helping refugees and asylum-seekers with their education needs, appointing special teachers to primary schools with high numbers of refugee pupils, and moving quickly to fund a special unit , based at TCD, to oversee adult refugee language training. The president of the Teachers' Union of Ireland, Mr. Joe Carolan, said that forcing asylum-seekers to pay exorbitant fees was unacceptable and discriminatory and would be the subject of an emergency motion at this week's annual congress of the TUI.
According to a survey published in The Irish Times on 27 April 1999, some 80 per cent of asylum-seekers are graduates. The survey may be vitiated slightly by the fact that the sample on which it is based was so small, but the newspaper reported that
40 per cent had university qualifications, 28 per cent had finished polytechnic or teacher training courses and 11 per cent had followed  postgraduate degree courses. Only 2 per cent had received primary education alone . . . Asked about their perception of the atmosphere of racial integration and tolerance in Ireland, only 9 per cent of the asylum-seekers described it as good or very good, while over half called it poor or very poor . . . 70 per cent found it difficult to secure accommodation, with the majority citing racial discrimination by landlords as the main problem . . . The study concludes that “there is a failure to provide a fair and independent asylum determination process; an absence of legal assistance during the first stage of the determination process; a protracted period of waiting and uncertainty endured by asylum-seekers before even an initial decision is delivered”; and “a social ethos of hostility, reflected in hurtful media stereotyping towards asylum-seekers”.
We are asking for certain modest things to be done. We are expressing our concern about the difficulties which exist. We are right to be concerned. One can only vote against this motion if one is unconcerned and does not accept there are difficulties. We are entitled to ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to give the House an account and an explanation. I see the Chief Whip nodding his head and I hope that maybe he will vote with us. We are not being critical of the Minister, although God knows I could be – I am in my speech but not in the motion. There is nothing to prevent the Government side from voting for the motion. The Minister should explain why this Act, properly passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas, has yet to be fully implemented.
Mr. Norris: I do not want to be entirely critical. The Eastern Health Board is doing good work in an emergency situation, but the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform should be thoroughly ashamed of itself. It must be held accountable by the House for the unconstitutional attempt to frustrate the legally expressed will of the Oireachtas in the Refugee Act, 1996.
I know that my good friend, who will lead for the Government, is well qualified legally, which I am not. I would, however, like to serve notice that if he attempts to support this ludicrous contention that the proposed amendment, of which I am aware, will—
Mr. Norris: We more or less know what is in train. I have pages of objections because the thinking in the Department of Justice, Equality  and Law Reform virtually includes what amounts to the internment of asylum-seekers. We have informers and interners and Fianna Fáil will support it. I would love to see the day, and they will be ashamed of it yet.
Mr. O'Toole: I compliment Senator Norris on his fine presentation on a complex issue and on his extraordinary energy, commitment to and enthusiasm on this matter. I support everything he said about this amendment. It is shameful, disreputable and absolutely unnecessary. It shows an extraordinary lack of confidence in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform that it cannot deal with such a benign and uncritical motion. It must take the approach of never agreeing with anyone on the this side of the House. I do not know on which side the Department puts on in these matters but it never seems to be on the side of the common good.
We are perceived internationally as the most xenophobic, exclusive and whitest member of the European Community. It is more difficult to get into Ireland than it was to get out of communist eastern Europe. We are becoming a focal point for neo-Nazis and fascists who seek to present this country as the way forward for Europe. It is shameful that we are in this position and the point raised by Senator Norris about education for asylum seekers and refugees is very worrying.
Primary teachers have made it quite clear to the Department of Education and Science and to others who may wish to hear it that teachers in primary schools will not make a distinction between asylum seekers, convention refugees or other refugees. If children come to our schools they will be enrolled and treated like any other children in those schools, although the regrettable addendum to this is that many of these children require additional help and support. At our conference at Easter I can think of no motion that was debated with as much frustration as the motion on the education of refugees and asylum seekers.
It is a shameful reflection on us all as public representatives that we are prepared to put up with this. We had a long and complicated debate on the Refugee Bill. Members on these benches put the issue of not allowing asylum seekers the right to work to a vote. That is now seen as a mistake, as are other aspects of the Bill we sought to change. Nonetheless, we all agreed that the Bill should be implemented. However, that has not happened.
The worst part of this matter is the image it gives both of this country and asylum seekers. I was interested in the outline Senator Norris gave of the survey done on asylum seekers and refugees. It conforms to and confirms what I have heard from schoolteachers. I recently spoke to the principal of a school in Ennis, County Clare which has the largest number of refugees or non-nationals in any primary school in the State. I asked her how difficult the situation was, and she outlined the problems. However, having done so,  she also said that these people were a joy to teach because they were very interested and easily motivated. She saw a difference in the parents of these refugee and asylum seeking children in that the parents were invariably interested, motivated and involved.
I spoke to these people and found they had never been out of work in their lives and had never been dependent on the state in any country where they had lived. Incidentally, many of them spoke perfect English and most had high levels of education. They felt embarrassed that they were not allowed to work and were a burden on the State, and were frustrated because they had abilities, experience and qualifications that could help the State. They felt totally unwanted on the basis of what they read in the more disreputable parts of the Irish media.
Why could the Government not have accepted our motion? It does not create a difficulty and it could be explained. This is surely an issue on which we should find consensus. There are so many parallels between the refugee and asylum seeker issue and Northern Ireland that I cannot see why there is not the same drive to get a consensus approach to it.
I am not going to address the current situation with NATO in eastern Europe but does anyone else find it shameful, if predictable, that as of now Ireland has the worst record in Europe for welcoming and receiving refugees from Kosovo? Is it not totally predictable? As Senator Norris said, it is unfortunate that we have never been different and it is now hard to take seriously our attempts to accept people. It is an international embarrassment that Ireland is to be listed this week in the world's media as the European country which has so far taken no refugees from war-torn Kosovo.
Mr. O'Toole: All we now need is to heap mortification on our shame with another myopic Nationalist call on the British to apologise for the Great Famine when we see how little we have been prepared to do. Ours is a developed western state. How is it we cannot adapt at home to what we demanded abroad for centuries? We were the spongers of Europe and the illegals of North America. We cried crocodile tears for the way our people were treated in other countries and we are now inflicting the same on those coming to our shores for help and support.
During the last century most of the Irish emigrants at Ellis Island in America or Grosse Ile in Canada were apprehensive, uneducated and unwelcome. They were forced to live in horrific, overcrowded conditions and were resented by all except their own ethnic group. They struggled to find work, to gain acceptance and to achieve an acceptable standard of living. The people coming to Ireland today face the same hardships. How can we find it in our hearts to treat them in the  abominable way we felt our people were treated when they arrived in countries to find notices like “No Irish need apply”? It is no different to “Niggers go home” being written on Irish pavements today. It is a shame and an embarrassment and it is wrong.
I appeal to the Government to implement all aspects of the Refugee Act which are not held up by court proceedings immediately. Those court proceedings should be brought to a conclusion as speedily as possible. It is just not good enough.
(b)supports the Minister's policy to ensure that every non-national who is, genuinely, in need of the protection of this State is identified and recognised as such as soon as possible after arrival here, so that they can immediately start the process of integration into Irish society and take up the rights to which they are entitled under the Convention, and
There has been much criticism meted out to the Minister and his Departmental staff. This is most unfair and is unhelpful to anyone making a case for asylum seekers and refugees. These kinds of attacks and emotional outbursts do not further that cause in any way.
Let us look at this in a sensible way by looking at the facts and figures. When this Bill was introduced in 1996, the total asylum applications was approximately 450. In two years this number was multiplied tenfold . When the Minister came into office, the crisis was escalating.
Mr. O'Donovan: Thank you for your protection, a Chathaoirligh. In a short time, the Minister provided extra staff, funding and facilities to address the situation. A major problem persists but, despite what is said by the Opposition, our  system for dealing with refugees is similar to, and often better than those of other European countries which face this problem. Fair procedures for the processing of asylum claims are set out by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
Mr. O'Donovan: The outbursts from my Opposition colleagues do not help matters. The first part of the amendment consists of a factual statement acknowledging the achievements of the Minister. When he took office the Minister dealt with the huge backlog of applications for asylum reasonably and fairly. Much work remains to be done but it is unfair to attack the Minister and the staff of his Department and to claim that they are not doing enough. I defend the Minister's record. The amendment supports the Minister's policy of ensuring that every non-national who is genuinely in need of the protection of the State is identified and recognised. That policy is being implemented. Finally, the amendment welcomes the Minister's commitment to bring forward amendments to the Refugee Act, 1996. The Minister is cognisant of the problems and is willing to deal with them. He was present for a debate on this subject in the House within the last nine months. Most of what is being said this evening was said on that occasion.
It is incorrect of Senators to say that Ireland has a bad record with regard to refugees. Throughout Europe and the rest of the world, we have an excellent human rights record. I do not object to helping refugees or asylum seekers who need education or other forms of assistance. However, people who do not have a genuine case or do not comply with procedures set down by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform will face difficulties.
It is incorrect and improper to draw parallels between the crisis here and what is happening in Kosovo where hundreds of thousands of people are being forced to leave their land. The willingness of the Government to accept a substantial number of Kosovar refugees indicates the sincerity with which the Government faces the refugee question. It is unfair to attack a Minister who increased his departmental staff five fold and provided extra money and facilities to deal with the crisis of asylum seekers. The Government is doing everything possible to ensure that genuine asylum seekers and refugees receive fair treat ment. For these reasons I commend the amendment.
Mr. Connor: I welcome the Minister of State to the House but I regret the absence of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I also regret the Minister's undignified departure from the House at the end of the last debate when he scurried away, having made a very unfair attack on me and on Members of Dáil Éireann. It is a pity he is not in the House to hear this debate.
I support the motion. It is a disgrace that legislation passed by the Oireachtas nearly three years ago – I remember contributing to the debate on it in Dáil Éireann – has not been fully implemented. This failure proceeds from an attitude of xenophobia on the part of the Minister and his Department. Xenophobia is a very ugly prejudice and it is a great pity that it manifests itself so widely in Ireland. Do we forget our history? We recently commemorated the Famine of the 1840s. Do we forget that the famines of nineteenth century Ireland created the greatest refugee movement of that century? The words of Emma Lazarus, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” are carved on the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbour. Among those huddled masses were the hundreds of thousands of Irish refugees who went to a foreign shore to seek a better living or a place where they could survive. Most of my relatives live in the United States because of emigration. Some of those relatives were no better than refugees. Despite our history and this experience, the Government will not implement this humane legislation.
I am a member of the Council of Europe Committee on Migration, Refugees and Demography. I am constantly embarrassed at meetings of that committee when it is stated that my country – a developed country with our historical experience – has the worst reputation in Europe for accepting refugees and asylum seekers. We have the worst reputation for implementing legislation which has been adopted for several decades by the Council of Europe. We pay lip service to the human rights resolutions and statutes of the Council of Europe. At each meeting I attend, I am embarrassed by criticism of my country to which I can make no answer.
This part of the world has sufficient economic capacity to look after people who are oppressed or obliged to flee their countries for economic or political reasons. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall there has been a huge movement of people northwards from south-east Europe. Many would say Germany has had an appalling human rights history in this century but that country has assimilated approximately 7 million people from south-east Europe. They are now citizens of Germany, the country which gave the world nazism and the militarism of the early part of this century. All Scandinavian countries welcome thousands of people every year and have integrated tens of thousands of people from all over the world,  particularly from south-east Europe. The economic crises in Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey, Albania and the states of the former Yugoslavia have caused tens of thousands of gypsies, who did not have a happy existence under oppressive regimes in that part of the world, to move to more prosperous countries. This country has a moral duty to take our fair share of the thousands of people who are forced to flee economic privation and political persecution. We have a particular duty to do this because of our historical experience.
We celebrate the achievements of the Irish in America, a country where they were not always welcome. They were looked upon as part of the wretched refuse of the Old World, but they survived those early rejections and made an enormous contribution to that country. We are delighted to celebrate that contribution with them. Now it is our turn. The economy has grown out of all proportion in the last 20 years to the point where there is spare capacity. This enables us to accept people from other countries into our economic system and to offer them a reasonable standard of living and education.
There is no country which has not benefited from ethnic diversity and the movement of people. Although we may criticise it for many other reasons, the United States of America is ethnically rich as a result of massive emigration from Europe from the mid-19th century onwards. In the mid-1980s the thousands of young people who emigrated illegally to the United States of America were the subject of much debate. I was a member of a parliamentary delegation which met leading Irish-American politicians, including Ted Kennedy and Brian Donnelly, in Washington with a view to having legislation enacted in the United States Congress that was discriminatory to other ethnic groups. I was present at a hearing at which people of Oriental origin complained that the Irish were receiving preferential treatment. That is what Members on all sides of the House fought for. Up to 100,000 young people emigrated during that period. Thankfully, most have returned because of improved economic conditions. I wholeheartedly support the motion in the names of Senators Norris and O'Toole.
Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Mr. Fahey): The position of asylum seekers has acquired an increased significance with the increase in the number of asylum applications. This has presented the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform with a major challenge as it focuses attention on the procedures and resources in place to process asylum applications. The number of asylum seekers in 1992 was 39. By 1998 this had increased to almost 5,000. It is against that background that we must consider the motion—
Mr. Fahey: It is against that background that we must consider the motion in the names of Senator Norris and others. While I commend the amendment to the House, the Government, officials of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and I would be the first to admit that more needs to be done quickly. No one is saying that the response to the crisis is adequate but significant progress has been made since the Minister took office in 1997.
I have great regard for Senator Norris but his inappropriate, emotional and unreasonable outburst does not do his cause any good. His unfair attack on the staff of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform who are not in a position to defend themselves is most unbecoming. I hope he will withdraw his comments which were unfair, unreasonable and emotional. The staff of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform who deal with asylum seekers are trained by the staff of the United Nations High Commissioners for Refugees. They work closely with that body in drawing out from asylum seekers the stories they have to tell. While the experiences of many asylum seekers are beyond their personal experience, it is a most difficult and, at times, harrowing task which is not made easier by the unwarranted attacks of Senator Norris.
This has become a serious problem. While we have all been affected by what we have seen on television, it is not good enough to engage in such an emotional display. During the five years I was a Member of this House I never saw Senator Norris engage in such a display about the plight of refugees. It is easy to lambaste everyone else. It is most unfair to adopt this attitude when everyone knows we have a serious problem on our hands. Where was Senator Norris for the past five years when it was necessary to stand up and be counted?
Mr. Fahey: —and address the realities confronting the Minister and his officials for the last two years. The record speaks for itself. I would be the first to admit that much more needs to be done. What did the previous Government do? It took a long time to introduce legislation.
Mr. Fahey: On taking office in June 1997 the Minister initiated an immediate review of the  arrangements for processing asylum claims. When the legislation was being drafted the number of applications was of the order of 300 to 400. Each application had to be considered by the refugee applications commissioner and, where applicable, each appeal had to be considered by a five person appeal board. In 1998 there were almost 5,000 applications. No one person or appeal board could possibly have hoped to cope with the number of applications being received in a reasonable time. In addition, an applicant for the position of refugee applications commissioner had obtained a High Court injunction which prevented the Minister from proceeding further with the appointment of a commissioner.
Sections 1, 2, 5, 22 and 25 have been brought into force by ministerial order. It is disingenuous to accuse the Government of subverting the will of the Oireachtas. Senator Norris picked out the parts of the legislation that he likes and ignored the parts that he does not. He cannot have it à la carte.
As to the future of the Refugee Act, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has indicated that, should it prove practicable, in order to expedite the process he would bring forward the necessary amendments to the Refugee Act, 1996, as part of the Immigration Bill. This has proven practicable and the Minister stated on the Second Stage debate on the Immigration Bill, 1999, that he would bring forward a short amending Bill to make the Refugee Act, 1996, workable. He expects to be in a position shortly to publish the Refugee Act amendments, which are at an advanced stage of preparation, in the form of additional provisions to be inserted in the Immigration Bill. The Bill itself is on Committee Stage before the Select Committee on Justice, Equality and Women's Rights.
While it would be inappropriate for me to elaborate at this stage on the detailed provisions to be contained in the amendments, I can indicate that they will include provisions to deal with the power of the refugee applications commissioner to delegate functions in respect of the first instance examination of applications for refugee status and with the structures for considering appeals from negative first instance decisions. This House will have an opportunity to debate the Immigration Bill, incorporating the Refugee Act amendments, in due course.
As I have already said, a backlog of asylum  applications developed due to the increase in the number of persons arriving which was compounded by the lack of resources and staff to process these applications. For example, in 1997 there was only 11 staff working in the asylum section of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The first step the Minister took was to recruit 72 extra staff. In July 1998, the Government approved a further 72 extra staff for asylum and immigration related duties. Comprehensive training was provided for all staff by the UNHCR as well as on the job training.
The task force moved to the dedicated Refugee Applications Centre in Lower Mount Street last October. The Minister's objective in establishing this one stop shop type facility was to locate all the key services which an asylum seeker would need on arrival in this country in a modern centrally located office complex. The one stop shop houses the Eastern Health Board's refugee and medical screening units and the independent appeals authorities.
The motion at the IMO conference to which the Senator referred was utterly without foundation. Medical practitioners should be aware that asylum seekers are medical card holders and are, as such, entitled to all the services to which an Irish citizen is entitled. Senator O'Toole should be aware that asylum seekers have the same right to education and schooling as an Irish citizen.
Mr. Fahey: The facility was established by the UNHCR at the Minister's behest and provides key information and data for the staff who process asylum claims as well as the legal representatives of asylum seekers. The documentation centre will be administered by the Refugee Legal Service.
Another important step was to put in place procedures for processing applications for refugee status. Up to 1997, procedures for processing application for refugees status were based on an administrative arrangement with the UNHCR, the so-called Von Arnim arrangement. This arrangement involved the UNHCR assessing all applications for asylum after initial processing by officials from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, and making recommendations to the Minister which were invariably accepted. With the increase in the number of asylum applications, the UNHCR was unable to cope with the caseload being forwarded to it under the terms of this arrangement and it was necessary for a procedure to be put in place to deal with the growing backlog of applications and the increasing number of new applications.
Following extensive consultations with UNHCR new procedures were put in place to process asylum applications. These procedures provide for appeals to independent appeals officers or authorities at all stages of the asylum  process, that is, at the Dublin Convention stage, if a case is considered to be manifestly unfounded, and following substantive consideration of an application. These procedures follow the philosophy of the Refugee Act and replaced the Von Arnim arrangements which had been regarded by the courts as binding on the Minister. The new procedures are considered by the Minister as equally binding.
The asylum task force commenced operations in earnest with effect from 5 May 1998. From then to 28 April of this year, over 4,233 substantive interviews have been scheduled, 2,863 interviews conducted, over 3,083 applications assessed and the results of those assessments notified to the applicants.
Mr. Fahey: Some 94 cases have been deemed to be abandoned as a result of ongoing co-operation between the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Department of Social Community and Family Affairs and the health boards.
Mr. Fahey: Cases are being pursued with the Eastern Health Board on an ongoing basis where applicants failed to show for interview or renew their asylum applications without reason and it is anticipated that in the region of up to 1,000 additional cases could be deemed to be abandoned as a result of this process in the coming months. By the end of 1998, all applicants who had sought asylum in this State before January 1997 had been afforded the opportunity of a substantive interview. First stage determination of asylum applications follows within a matter of weeks of the substantive interview in most cases; exceptions would be where a re-interview or further detailed inquiry is necessary.
By June 1999, it is expected that all applicants who lodged a claim up to March 1998 will have been afforded the opportunity of a substantive interview. Simultaneously, the task force put in place to deal with this matter is dealing with a mixture of new and old applications. At the present rates of progress and based on current application figures, it is expected that the task force will have dealt with the entire backlog of applications by July 2000 and from that date will be dealing with applications on a current basis.
The importance of having an independent appeal mechanism against a decision to refuse a person refugee status has been recognised. Four independent appeals authorities have been appointed by the Minister, three of whom conduct appeal hearings simultaneously on up to three days per week.
 Where an appeal is made against a decision to refuse refugee status, the appeal is determined by an independent appeals authority, a person independent of the Minister and the Department with a least ten years' practice as a solicitor or barrister. The appeals authority is provided with all of the information provided to the applicant and with such submissions as may be made be made by or on behalf of the applicant in connection with the appeal. The appeals authority may make a decision based on the papers only, or where the applicant has so requested, following an oral hearing. The Minister is satisfied that these procedures are reasonable, fair, transparent and in accordance with the philosophy of the Refugee Act.
The appeals authority has heard 523 substantive appeals in the period May 1998 to 31 March 1999, decisions have been reached in 280 of these cases and refugee status has been granted in 98 cases. In addition, the appeal authorities have considered 23 appeals against the decision to refuse refugee status on manifestly unfounded grounds and eight of these appeals have been successful and 15 were refused.
The Minister has also taken action in relation to the integration of persons granted refugee status. The Minister has established an interdepartmental working group comprising senior officials of the various Departments involved in the delivery of services to refugees to review the arrangements for integrating persons granted refugee status or permission to remain. The review will include an examination of the appropriate institutional structures for the delivery of these services to refugees. It is important that we examine the measures in place to assist persons granted refugee status and what needs to be done to assist them to integrate into Irish society while at the same time protecting their own cultural identity. As part of its review, the working group has consulted UNHCR and non-governmental organisations.
Recent media reports have drawn attention to racist attacks and intolerance directed against ethnic minority groups, including asylum seekers and refugees. I abhor racism and I assure the House that the Minister, who is charged with responsibility for ensuring that the twin cancers of racism and xenophobia do not take hold in Irish society, takes those responsibilities seriously. In this regard the Minister has taken a number of steps to combat racism and intolerance which include the establishment of the national consultative committee on racism and interculturalism. The committee is a partnership of non-governmental organisations, state agencies, social partners and Government Departments. The objective of the committee is to provide an ongoing structure to develop programmes and actions aimed at developing an integrated approach against racism and to advise the Government on matters relating to racism and interculturalism. The committee will also endeavour to promote a more particip ative and intercultural society which is inclusive of persons such as refugees, travellers and other minority ethnic groups. The Minister, Deputy O'Donoghue, has allocated £90,000 to the committee to fund its programme of activities in 1999.
Other legislative proposals will address concerns in relation to deportation, proposals to outlaw discrimination on grounds including race, colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin, and new legislation to combat trafficking in illegal immigrants. The Immigration Bill, 1999, is designed to deal with the situation following the High Court's decision last January in the Laurentiu case.
Senators will recall that in that case the High Court found that the manner in which the Oireachtas had in 1935 conferred deportation powers on the Minister was inconsistent with the 1937 Constitution. The Bill provides powers, principles and procedures regarding deportation and gives the effect of an Act of the Oireachtas to certain of the orders made under the Aliens Act, 1935. Officials of my Department have had fruitful discussions with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and a number of interest groups in the non-governmental sector in the context of the Bill, and the Minister has tabled amendments to the Bill which take account of some of the concerns expressed in those discussions. I look forward to a productive debate on the Bill when it comes before this House. Out of respect for the procedures of the House I will avoid going into detail on its contents.
The Minister, Deputy O'Donoghue, also has in course of preparation a comprehensive Bill to replace the Aliens Act, 1935, in its entirety. The Minister's plan is to put in place a modern code of immigration and residence law. This will provide a solid legislative framework for the development and implementation of fair and sensible immigration policies which can meet the changing needs of Irish society and respect the rights of non-nationals in their dealings with the law. Work is proceeding on the development of this major legislation and it is the Minister's intention to put detailed heads of proposals before the Government in the second half of 1999. It will be the first ever fundamental review of the State's principal legislative measure in the area of immigration and I am sure it will give rise to wide-ranging debate on the issues.
The Employment Equality Act, 1998, which is expected to come into operation later this year will outlaw discrimination on a number of grounds including race, colour, nationality, ethnic and national origin. Senators will be aware that revised equal status legislation was published on 15 April 1999 and is expected to be enacted into law within the coming months. The Equal Status Bill, 1999, prohibits discrimination in non-employment areas such as education, the provision of goods and services and accommodation  on the same grounds as the Employment Equality Act, 1998.
An illegal immigrants Bill, aimed at the activities of those who organise and engage in the trafficking of illegal immigrants, will be introduced as soon as possible. The Bill will provide a framework by which those who engage in the trafficking of illegal immigrants can be dealt with under the law. The Bill will provide for the creation of an offence of trafficking in illegal immigrants with appropriate penalties which, in addition to fines and imprisonment, will include, in certain circumstances, the forfeiture of the means of transport used in illegal immigrant trafficking. The Minister, Deputy O'Donoghue, does not anticipate any delay in finalising these procedures once the Immigration Bill currently before the Dáil is enacted.
I thank Senators for raising these important issues. I reiterate that it is an extremely complex and difficult area, something underpinned by the information I have given. I repeat that none of us are happy that we are doing enough. Over the past two years the Minister and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform have made considerable strides in dealing in a humane and proper way with the refugees who come to the country.
Finally, I wish to refer to Kosovo. Next week the first refugees from Kosovo will arrive with 150 refugees arriving at weekly intervals. The Minister of State, Deputy O'Donnell, has convened round table meetings with the relevant Ministers. Since we were requested by UNHCR on 21 April to activate our quota under the emergency evacuation plan for Macedonia, the Refugee Agency, the Office of Public Works and other State agencies have been working intensively to source and inspect suitable properties. An interdepartmental committee has been working on the provision of management, health and social services. Many properties inspected have not conformed to fire safety requirements and this has delayed matters.
Once again I say to Senators who have been critical in this regard, including Senator O'Toole, that it is not a matter of waving a magic wand. There is no point in having hundreds if not thousands of refugees come from Macedonia if we cannot cater, house and look after them properly. The Government has been ensuring they will be looked after properly and I am glad to say that the first group will come next week.
Mr. Quinn: I welcome the Minister of State and in particular what he has said. It has been an understandably emotional debate given that feelings run high on the matter. I am pleased to support Senator Norris's motion which was seconded by Senator O'Toole. I am sorry the Government decided to table an amendment as I think Senator Norris wanted to draw the attention of the Government to the matter and get information from it. I congratulate the Minister of State on providing a great deal of information. The purpose of Senator Norris's motion, namely to explain why the 1996 Act, properly passed by both houses of the Oireachtas, has yet to be fully implemented, has been achieved. I think the Minister of State has gone some way towards explaining why the Act has not yet been fully implemented.
If we leave aside the emotion, there is a feeling in the country that we have not been doing enough. I was embarrassed to read in a newspaper last week about the refugees from Kosovo. I was surprised that none had come here and that those we were willing to take were so few. I was pleased to hear the Minister of State tell us that they will be arriving and that appropriate arrangements are being made, and I congratulate him for taking this step at this stage.
However, we are fighting against a viewpoint which has been widespread among many people for a number of years and which was expressed clearly by Senator Norris when he talked about his concern that the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform is a law unto itself. This viewpoint may not be valid, but there is a feeling that the Department is a law unto itself and that certain Bills passed by the Houses of the Oireachtas do not appear to be put into operation with the same enthusiasm as other legislation.
Mr. Quinn: Perhaps the Department has gone some way towards alleviating some of our worries. However, the point being made by Senator Norris concerned why the Act has not been fully implemented with enthusiasm. I fear there is a viewpoint that those in authority, particularly in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, are living in the past and do not recognise the changes which are taking place. This may not be true, but there is a need for marketing by the Department, and tonight's debate has achieved in part that need to get across its message and explain what it is doing.
Six or seven years ago I was visited for three days by a white person from South Africa who said this was the first country they were in where they did not notice one black face. This reflected the Ireland of only six years ago when there were very few strangers who were not born in the country. This has changed quite dramatically. We must change and be seen to change, and to take the steps which must be taken. Two initiatives have been taken – the Lord Mayor's effort to  make people recognise we are becoming a multicultural society and the Garda Commissioner's to ensure the Garda Síochána is run in a manner which recognises we are entering a multiracial society.
We have a poor record and, while that may be understandable, it is not excusable. There were high levels of unemployment and emigration in the past, and it was understandable that the laws were vigorously enforced to avoid an invasion of cheap labour. Matters have now changed. Many vacancies are now on offer with no people to fill them, yet we learn that 80 per cent of asylum seekers are graduates. Am I correct in what I heard?
Mr. Quinn: Imagine what the nation is losing by not loosening the laws. Picture the benefits we could gain from these people who want to make their home here because they are refugees from their native countries.
When the boot was on the other foot, we were knocking on doors seeking asylum in Ellis Island and elsewhere and we were welcomed although we came without degrees or qualifications and with no benefits other than the brawn for hard labour. We should recognise the world is changing, Ireland especially, and the motion has assisted greatly by drawing attention to that. The Minister's lengthy speech corrected two allegations made at the IMO conference and which Senator O'Toole said were made at the teachers' conference. All asylum seekers are entitled to a medical card and to free education.
Mr. Quinn: I was unsure but it is clear now and I thank the Minister of State for clarifying it. I am not sure that answers the allegations made at the IMO and teachers' conferences. This is information we need to know. We will benefit from such knowledge.
I notice from the copy of the Minister's speech given to me that he skipped one part which referred to the Refugee Legal Service. He did not read it into the record and may have left it out by accident. To what extent can he answer the query about the Refugee Legal Service?
The benefit of the debate is that the Minister of State has given much information we did not have before. From that point of view, I regret the Government felt obliged to table an amendment effectively covering the majority of the contents  of the motion. It was unnecessary. The motion tabled was carefully worded so as not to embarrass the Government. It achieved what it set out to do and I congratulate Senator Norris on tabling it. I am also pleased we have learned a great deal which we would not have known had it not been tabled.
Mr. T. Fitzgerald: I welcome the debate and the open manner in which it has been conducted. We have been criticised for tabling an amendment because it is apparently unnecessary. However, it is necessary because the motion criticises the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and his officials for doing nothing and we must make the House aware what the Government is doing and will continue to do.
Senator Norris and I get on well and I regret the attack he made on the officials in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform who cannot speak for themselves. They implement the law as enacted by our good selves and there is little more they can do other than a day's work and be courteous to people who deal with them.
I have met no one who would show disrespect to people because they were black, white or any colour or because they were from another country. I could not care less; all people are the same to me. As a line of a song said: “I bear no hate against living things”.
I am annoyed by some of the remarks made. Senator O'Toole gave me a document stating Ireland has not accepted any Kosovan refugees. It has been well known for weeks that Ireland is due to accept them. Even as late as last night I heard on the news that arrangements were being made for 500 people to come here. The Minister of State also outlined that.
The debate so far has consisted of a sustained attack on the Minister. I want Senator Norris to answer one question when he sums up. Will he explain what is the problem? Are these people not being treated properly?
Mr. T. Fitzgerald: Have they accommodation and food? Are they being treated properly by the law? In the picture painted by Senator Norris, they were deprived of education and were almost in jail. That was the impression he gave.
Mr. T. Fitzgerald: Every piece of information Senator Norris gave the House came from a newspaper or was hearsay. He even rubbished a reply a person received from the Department by saying it was only a phone call and that they would not dare put it down on paper.
Mr. T. Fitzgerald: Senator Norris is a bit of a showman and can act the part. However, we must face reality. What is the problem? I want Senator Norris and the people who support him to name specific cases where the law is not being adhered to and they will be followed up.
Mr. T. Fitzgerald: I live in the same county as the Minister, Deputy O'Donoghue, and I have great regard for him and what he has done. There is no more honourable man in the country. He is humane, honest and down to earth and can work 24 hours a day to look after the needs of people. Despite this, for an unknown reason the Oireachtas has singled him out for unjustified criticism in the past month.
In his speech the Minister of State said there is no magic wand, but the Government is doing its best. Not only is there a problem in housing asylum seekers and refugees from Kosovo, but it extends to housing our own people. Perhaps Senator Norris is unaware of that. Matters are confounded in attempting to house those who come into the country without proper arrangements. Despite this, I understand many are staying in high standard accommodation because we do not have the housing for them. Some of these people are visiting the House and listening to this debate. I assure them that everything possible has been done and will be done. If to ensure this I have to take matters up with my friend, the Minister, I will do so.
Mr. T. Fitzgerald: Asylum seekers must take some of the blame. In his speech the Minister of State said some applicants have failed to attend interview or renew their status without reason and that it is anticipated that approximately 1,000 additional people will do the same next month. I want to help these people, but they must, like me, comply with the law.
Mr. T. Fitzgerald: I welcome these people to our country. Nobody suggested giving them identity cards, which would speed up the process. Yet a move along these lines was made approximately six months ago. I will talk to the Minister.
Mr. Ryan: I apologise to my friend, Senator Fitzgerald, for interrupting him but he was provoking me beyond endurance. I challenged the Minister of State to provide figures in respect of the 3,083 applications assessed, but he refused to provide them. According to my information the Department refused 94 per cent of them. Interestingly, he provided figures for the appeals process which suggest that one third of the 280 appeals referred to were upheld as was one third of appeals which his Department had described as “manifestly unfounded”. The Department appears to be getting things badly wrong and perhaps it should start retraining those involved in these preliminary assessments.
Mr. Ryan: Otherwise they are operating to instructions because the number of appeals upheld is extraordinary. It is also extraordinary that despite my interruptions the Minster would not provide the information requested. He is embarrassed by the scale of refusals. It is nothing new.
I do not wish to attribute motives to individuals in the Department, but unfortunately it has never been, to put it kindly, enlightened. In the 1930s and 1940s the then Taoiseach, Mr. de Valera, wanted to allow an increased level of Jewish immigration into the country for reasons that were obvious to everybody, but the Department objected. In 1989-90 a school party of 15 year old children, mostly Asian, from Shipley College in Bradford, England, wanted to visit Dublin on an educational tour which would have included a  visit to the Oireachtas. They were all legally resident in Britain but not all were British, nor did all of them have British passports. They applied for visas but the Department refused visas to three of them. I made a fuss and two British Labour Party Members of Parliament were so outraged that they moved a motion in the House of Commons criticising the Department.
The following year the same college attempted to organise another tour but the Department refused visas to three more children. What was the reason? Was the Department saying that three 15 years olds were going to abandon their parents and stay here? Knowing the strength of Asian family ties, that was nonsense. I can only conclude it was done to ensure that nobody got any notions that black people could get into this country easily.
Unfortunately, that is the common thread that runs through a series of otherwise inexplicable decisions by the Department. There are good people working there but it has a record. By way of another example, in 1992 a large internationally based congress was held in Dalgan Park to reflect on the 500 years since Columbus began the colonisation of the Americas. One of the most eminent speakers at the congress was a Peruvian development economist who had the misfortune to have dark skin. It took him one and a half hours to get through immigration at Dublin Airport because the Department's immigration officials suspected he was up to something. A famous case was reported in The Irish Times involving somebody at a railway station asking Iarnród Éireann staff if there were any blacks on a train.
I first interrupted the Minister of State when he used the word “crisis”. Such language is turning this into an issue that will be increasingly difficult to resolve. If the Minster of State refers to a crisis he invites a selection of headlines which the Evening Herald is delighted to grab and which a couple of cheapskate Fianna Fáil Deputies in this city are happy to latch onto. They should be disciplined and a decent Minister should – I know the Minister would if he could get a chance – tell them to shut their mouths because it is causing problems for everybody and is making racism worse. There is no point in the Minster establishing nice organisations to combat racism when some of his party Deputies are building their electoral strength on the back of people's concerns about the problem of asylum seekers. Likewise, there is no point in trying to talk about the concerns one has for these people if cheap headlines are dug up.
The Minister again referred to the wonderful  things his Department is doing. While this is better than nothing, the Refugee Act was enacted against the resistance of the Department. Many of the people who were around at the time will confirm that it did not want the legislation.
The way Departments begin to blame everything on the asylum seekers is fascinating. Deputy De Rossa and I were at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Environment and Local Government at which the Department of the Environment and Local Government made a presentation on the housing problem. The Department managed to mention asylum seekers as part of the cause of the housing crisis. They are not part of the cause of that crisis but they are a good convenient scapegoat. One Minister – I think it was the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform – produced the figure of £450 million per annum as the potential cost of allowing families be reunited.
Mr. Ryan: There is resolute refusal to allow asylum seekers to work in a country where there are manifest labour shortages. At the same time we are told about the burden of all of these asylum seekers. We are making people a burden, classing them as essentially dubious and then blaming them because the State must pay for their housing, health care, etc.
Senator Norris mentioned the small survey on their educational background. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has conducted 2,863 interviews. Those interviews are detailed and they can last hours. Has the Department asked those 2,863 people what are their skills and qualifications and what is their background? If it has not done so, what is it trying to find out? If it has done so, why does it not tell us the educational background of all of these people? Let us end this argument once and for all. The Department knows the figures but it will not tell us, just as the Minister would not tell us how many of these applicants it had turned down.
There are many things the Government could do, the first of which is to allow people to work. The second is to ensure that everything is done to make sure that they feel welcome by countering the racism which is manifest in at least one Dublin newspaper. Third, they could guarantee that all levels of education would be available to people on the same conditions which apply to Irish people. That is the least we can do. To blame them for indolence but to say they cannot be educated is wrong. They could ensure a degree of transparency in this whole process, whose absence is manifest when the Minister will not even supply us with the information he has at his disposal. They could also ensure that the nonsense of depriving people of driving licences, one of the latest escapades, is ended. There is no point in talking from one side of your mouth  about the evils of racism and from the other side going through a process of systematic stigmatisation of people. That is a recipe for racism.
It is not just asylum seekers who will suffer. This country is becoming rich. It will, therefore, be a country into which there will be large-scale immigration either from without the EU or within it. Every seed of racism, which I hope is being sowed inadvertently by our current practice, will be a seed which will make life difficult for every immigrant who comes here. The seeds we are sowing are the ones which will leave us a problem, not of immigration but of racism, for the next 50 years.
Mrs. Taylor-Quinn: I welcome the opportunity of speaking on this motion and I compliment Senator Norris and the other Senators on tabling it. I am amazed that the Government sees the need to table an amendment to this straightforward motion. It requests clearly an explanation from the Government as to why the 1996 Act has not been implemented fully. This evening the Minister has attempted to some degree to try to explain that here. I hope what he said will be implemented rapidly because the scenario to date has been most unsatisfactory. I fear that there is a tendency at Government and departmental levels to flow along with a certain tide of anti-refugee thinking which is clearly to be heard from various communities within our society.
Tonight the Minister put a number of interesting matters on the record. How open-minded and open-hearted is the Irish nation towards accepting into our society people who come from a different background or are of a different nationality? Unfortunately, a percentage of people in Irish society find it difficult to accept non-nationals from certain countries into our community. To a certain degree, the Department and the Government have been pandering to that minority within our society who would show a certain resistance towards refugees entering the State.
A number of refugees have been placed around the country. There are a number in my constituency in County Clare and many in Dublin. The fact that the Minister must put on record that he hopes the twin cancers of racism and xenophobia do not take hold in Irish society and that he takes these responsibilities seriously suggests that a certain element of that is already in place in our society. There has been an element of xenophobia since the 1930s and it has carried on until the present day. There is no point in denying it. That is the reality. Equally, the existence of racism in Ireland is a reality. Although Irish people emigrated to the United States over the years and as a minority were subjected to second class citizenship for a considerable length of time, we have managed to develop racist attitudes. That is extremely unfortunate. Racism is particularly prevalent among better off young people. We must be watchful of that. As public representatives who are in a position to give leadership  within our communities, there is a moral as well as a political responsibility on us to take up leadership positions and to say positive things about refugees rather than negative things which feed on certain vices which exist in the mentality of certain people.
The Minister goes on to talk about setting up a consultative committee to advise the Government on matters relating to racism and interculturalism. This is a small island of about 4 million people. Is the Government capable of hearing and seeing what is going on? Does it not have enough common sense and basic intelligence to deal with reality? This idea of appointing continuous consultative committees on every issue does not make any sense. Does the Government have a mind of its own? Does it have the ability to take decisions on its own without appointing an advisory or consultative committee to make the decision or direct it towards making a decision? Has common sense gone out the window? Does the Government have the courage of its conviction with regard to the basic and simple matters of social justice and equality for all? It does not take a huge amount of intelligence and common sense to put that in place. Why do we need all these consultative committees? Will the Department just get on with the job instead of tying up the matter in bureaucracy? We are talking about people who are dispossessed and displaced, who have been through traumatic experiences and who have been seriously disadvantaged in their countries. They have come to this country hoping to receive the type of assistance which any civilised country should be prepared and able to give them and we should be able to do that.
It reflects poorly on the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform that the necessary amending legislation to the 1996 Act has not been put in place. The sooner it is put into place, the better. I hope we do not have to bring forward another Private Members' motion or a Private Members' Bill.
The Minister stated that committee's programme for the first quarter of this year included anti-racism training for certain civil servants dealing with minority groups, a seminar on the forthcoming human rights commission and the setting up of a website. The fact that the Minister has put on record that it is necessary to train certain civil servants in relation to anti-racism speaks volumes about the mentality.
Mrs. Taylor-Quinn: That is what the Minister stated in his speech. It speaks volumes about the nation and about certain civil servants in the Department, if they must receive training in anti-racism. Anti-racism should not arise. We should be sufficiently open-minded, open-hearted and generous in spirit not to have to put formal training in place. If the type of person dealing with refugees requires such training, he or she is not a suitable person for the job. If open-mindedness,  generosity of spirit and understanding do not come naturally to them, no kind of formalised, institutionalised training will give them those traits. Rather than putting these kind of programmes in place, the Minister should implement a selection process to find people who display a suitable attitude and temperament to hold these positions.
Mr. J. Cregan: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform was here earlier and was unfairly castigated by some Members. I endorse the comments made by Senator Tom Fitzgerald who rightly defended the Minister. There appears to be an agenda to castigate the Minister. I apologise for deviating from the point of this debate but I felt it was necessary.
I admire those speakers in the other House who made a strong case for the refugees who are coming into this country. I am as charitable as the next man and would love to see everyone being accommodated and having their problems sorted out overnight. However, it is unfair to say the Minister's performance has been negative.
Mr. J. Cregan: The Minister introduced the Refugee Act; although I admit it has not been fully implemented, parts of it have and that has been a positive development. When the Minister took up office, no interviews were being held. The Minister put those in place immediately. He went on to increase the number of staff dealing with asylum applications from 11 to 84 in 1997 and subsequently increased it again by an additional 72 people. I wonder how many of those three positive steps would have been taken if the rainbow coalition had stayed in power.
Senator Fitzgerald wondered whether part of the problem was being caused by refugees themselves. Are people failing to turn up for interview? If that is the case, it should be acknowledged. All of the blame should not be levelled at the Minister. There are probably good reasons why people are not turning up for interview but I have not yet heard them.
The Minister set up an interdepartmental working group, comprising senior civil servants from across the board, to provide for the integration of asylum seekers into the community. In a couple of minutes, I have outlined four positive steps taken by the Minister since he assumed office less than two years ago. It is very unfair  that the Minister is being castigated and that all of the remarks made on the other side of the House are negative ones. The positive steps taken should be recognised and appreciated.
I am sure the Minister would love to solve all the problems overnight. However, we cannot solve our own problems overnight. We stand up in this House and try to defend the rights of underprivileged people, the poor and those living in poor housing. Charity begins at home and it would be wrong of us to put all our resources into dealing with this problem when many other areas are also in need of resources. I praise the Minister for the manner in which he has tackled this problem. I know he will not rest until it has been solved.
Dr. Henry: I congratulate Senator Norris on tabling this motion but the debate has been a very depressing one. It has revealed an underlying level of racism in this country which I did not think was quite as bad as it appears to be.
Senator Tom Fitzgerald asked Senator Norris to cite examples of people who had been discriminated against and accused him of speaking only on the basis of newspaper cuttings. I want to refer to some people on whose behalf I made representations; the departmental officials might remember some of them. Not all of them had black faces and not all of them were jobless. However, they experienced very serious problems. To a large extent, our health service outside the major teaching areas, is staffed by non-EU nationals many of whom I have come into contact with.
The first case I want to refer to concerns a Bosnian family who came to live in Ireland. The mother, who was in her fifties, developed cancer and was in St. Luke's Hospital, a hospital which deals primarily with cancer patients. The woman's sister, also in her fifties, lived in Sarajevo and desperately wanted to visit her sister in Dublin. Visa applications were persistently refused even though the woman lived with her three sons in Sarajevo where her husband had a good business. The priest involved in the case eventually contacted me and asked whether I could do anything. To be fair, the Department immediately granted a visa and the woman spent three weeks here visiting her sister and then returned to Sarajevo. The woman did better than expected and lived for almost a year. One year later, there was a repeat performance in regard to visas. The woman in St. Luke's again believed she was dying, the Department refused to grant a visa, I was contacted and, in turn, contacted the Department but sadly the woman died before the visa was granted. That woman looked not unlike me, with pinky white skin and brown hair.
I was also involved in a situation regarding a young Nigerian female doctor before Christmas. Her husband is also a doctor and both were coming to Ireland to work. The woman was allowed in but her husband was not. An Irishman who had worked in Nigeria in a professorial capacity  contacted me to see whether there was anything I could do. The Department, to give it its due, did do something. The woman's husband was allowed into the country and the woman has sent me cards saying I am always in her prayers. Why is it that people who are running our health services must endure such situations? It is ridiculous. We cannot get people to work in our health services. If these instances are not evidence of racism, I do not know what is.
I spoke last week during a Private Members' debate about the difficulties experienced by foreign doctors in obtaining credit cards from some banks. Senator Fitzgerald may feel there is no racism in this country but he moves in a very sheltered circle. Members of the medical profession, not just refugees and asylum seekers, are persistently being attacked.
I was very pleased to hear Deputy Ruairí Quinn citing a success story during his speech at the Labour Party conference in Tralee. He spoke about a young Bosnian woman who has lived in Ireland for six years and is a very successful member of the community. We never seem to ask what we can gain from these people. Instead, we talk about the cost and the sacrifice involved. Normally, those who flee here are the “haves” because the “have-nots” cannot get out; they do not have the resources to leave. The survey showed that 80 per cent of refugees and asylum seekers have third level education and it is probably right. We have a nursing shortage. Have we considered whether we could employ some of them in that field?
Matters have improved and I give the Minister credit for some actions which have been helpful. Like everyone else, I regret bitterly what has happened to the Refugee Act. It is disgraceful. The provision in the new Immigration Bill – if it should be called that – which suggests medical practitioners should act as informers on patients will not do. Ethically it is impossible.
We have set up a medical centre in St. James's Hospital. It is unfortunate that it is in the same building as the legal aid centre. There is an opinion that those doctors who see these refugees or asylum seekers are supposed to say that they have seen them – which they will not. This means there is not exactly an air of confidentiality in that building when they know the legal centre is next door. Anyone who goes to a doctor should be certain that the doctor is not obliged to inform that he has seen the patient.
Dr. Henry: We have talked a lot about the need to allow people to work and we should. First, it would do a great deal of good for us. Second, it is important for the refugees and asylum seekers so they feel they are making a contribution to the country. Third, and most important, many asylum seekers and refugees arrive here in extremely good health, they do not need much treatment. However, because they are so demoralised due to not being able to work, constantly being told that they are a drain on society, that the situation is in crisis and we must look after our own first, they have problems with depression and alcoholism. Imagine having to flee from somewhere because of the stress of the situation there and ending up here on skid row. There is an enormous amount that we could do but are not doing. A little less self-congratulation would be a good idea.
Who watched the other night as the nun in Rwanda told of the children being led away from her convent to be murdered? She said they all looked so sad. Do we ever think that this is the background to asylum seeking and refugee status?
Mr. Fahey: On a point of information and to be helpful, on the qualifications of asylum seekers which Senator Ryan raised, there are no statistics on this because qualifications are only of incidental relevance to a person's entitlement to refugee status.
On the numbers of people refused, this is a complex area because it takes up to two years for applications to be processed through the various stages. Based on the small numbers in previous years, there were 168 persons recognised as refugees in 1998 but because of the ongoing process in the vast majority of applications it is not possible to give statistics since then.
Mr. Costello: I congratulate Senator Norris and colleagues for tabling this motion. From my experience in the Dublin Central constituency which the Taoiseach shares with me, I accuse the Government of fomenting racism because of the policies it is implementing. It is implementing three major policies which are bringing about racism in this country. It refuses to allow asylum  seekers to work, it refuses adult asylum seekers education and, due to the geographical distribution of asylum seekers in this city, there are—
Mr. Costello: I will explain it if the Minister listens. It is not sanctimonious, it is what is happening on the ground. Does the Minister have the figures for the number of asylum seekers in County Kerry? He told us there were 5,000 in the country in 1998.
Mr. Costello: Last week the Minister told me there were 3,705 being dealt with in Dublin city. That is almost four out of every five. Of those, 1,000 are being dealt with in Mount Street in the central clinic and of the rest, 1,475 are in Dublin Central. There are 1,230 in the rest of Dublin. Including those dealt with in Mount Street, well over 50 per cent are distributed in inner city areas. Over 50 per cent are in one constituency and it is the most disadvantaged constituency in the country. In addition, 700 people, or 50 per cent of those, are in one health clinic in Summerhill which is the most disadvantaged area in Dublin Central.
The people in the area are scrambling for housing, social welfare payments, health payments and medical cards and trying to make a living in an area where there has been endemic unemployment for generations. With policies like that, how can we expect them to treat in a rational and dignified fashion people whom they see as being imposed on them? There is no distribution. That is the first problem. The policy of putting people into an area where there are major infrastructural, employment, social and drugs problems must create hostility and antagonism. People will blame others, rightly or wrongly.
Asylum seekers can attend primary and second level schools. However, they cannot attend further or third level education because the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has told the Department of Education and Science that no asylum seeker can receive further or third level education if he or she does not pay for it. No adult asylum seeker can get further education. At the same time they cannot work. The Government has created a pool of asylum seekers in one area, who because they are not allowed work or attend education, are seen as loafers. That is how they are presented and the Government is tolerating it – it is doing nothing to change it. The Progressive Democrats are anxious to allow them to work but Fianna Fáil will not allow it.
Mr. Gallagher: The Minister interjected to ask what the parties on this side of the House did  when in Government. After years of neglect, we introduced an Act which the Government has failed to implement.
Mr. Gallagher: The reason the Act came into being was that it was in the programme for Government from 1994. We gave the then Minister of State, Joan Burton – counterpart to the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donnell – responsibility for getting the Act in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Having assisted her in that effort I can say that she did so with great difficulty and with little help from the Department's officials. It is to her credit that the Bill was enacted and it is to this Government's shame that it has not been implemented.
I do not accept the excuse given by the Minister in the second paragraph of his contribution. There are two reasons why the Act was not implemented. First, there was a court challenge by Mr. Cooney. The Government has never sought to have an early hearing of that challenge in the High Court. If it wanted to it could. Second, it has hidden behind a supposed interpretation of weakness in the Bill regarding the functions and powers of a refugee applications commissioner. I do not accept its interpretation. My late colleague, Dr. Pat Upton, presented the Dáil with legislation entitled the Refugee (Amendment) Bill last December. It consists of only one section which would cure that deficiency. The Government has failed to give that Bill time and has not indicated that it would give the Bill favourable consideration. No one can say this Government's record on refugees is above reproach. I appeal to the Government to give a commitment that Deputy Upton's Bill, now in the name of Deputy Stagg, will be taken in Government time at the earliest opportunity so that any defect – if it is conceded – can be rectified.
On numerous occasions I have called for two things and I will repeat them again. I want the Government to prepare a policy statement on immigration and naturalisation which should be brought before these Houses for debate and approval. I also want a separate immigration and naturalisation service to be set up to administer it. It is unacceptable that refugees have to queue in the rain outside the Department while waiting for officials to deal with their cases. It is also unacceptable that refugees have to report to Garda stations like criminal suspects to be monitored. What is needed is an independent service approved by these Houses. I also expect the Government to give a commitment on that.
I will raise my concern about Kosovar refugees on the Adjournment. However, I will give one example of where I, as a public representative, was asked to help secure an extension of a student visa for an Argentinian national who had  failed summer exams and wished to repeat them in August. I rang the Department who referred me to the Garda. They in turn told me to go back to the Department who told me the visa would be granted if I got a letter from a priest. Thankfully the case was sorted out but that is no way to conduct business. Visa applications need to be put on a proper, statutory, professional basis for the sake of all concerned.
Mr. Norris: I will not withdraw a single word and I stand over what I said earlier. History will prove it. When the history of this period is written we will discover precisely the same thing we discovered about the shameful period in the 1930s when the Department behaved in a similar manner.
We have been told that 5,000 refugees will create a crisis. I challenged the Minister to state the population of Ireland. If 5,000 people is a crisis then we are ill prepared. What about the hundreds of thousands of people who are crossing borders all over the Balkans? It is ridiculous to suggest that 5,000 people is a crisis. I have a list of asylum applications in Europe for 1997. Ireland is listed towards the bottom with a total of 3,883 asylum applications. Greece, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, Belgium, France, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Germany had more applications. Austria, which is the same size as Ireland, had more than twice our number of applications. These figures tell their own story.
I am glad the Minister has put on record the fact that there has been an increase in the number of people seeking asylum because it saves me the trouble of doing so. There is also 6,362 cases waiting to be dealt with which does not suggest that the backlog is being dealt with efficiently.
One level that is efficient is the swingeing way the Department attempts to refuse people. In 1998, 1,202 people were refused status but 1,177 people were refused within the first three months of this year. That tells us something about the draconian methods employed. Senator Ryan correctly pointed out that there is something wrong with these figures because 40 per cent of appeals are accepted by the Appeals Board. Therefore, I make no bones about calling for the full implementation of the Refugee Act.
The sections dealing with the procedures for determining whether an asylum seeker's request will be granted are not yet operative. There is also no refugee applications commissioner or five member refugee appeal board. We are going nowhere until we get these things.
Ireland needs a Charter on Asylum Rights. I signed the charter along with many decent people and friends of mine in Fianna Fáil. I know they feel strongly about it. I am grateful to Senator Tom Fitzgerald for his offer to take up particular instances. He has been given plenty by Senator Henry. The charter states:
The right to asylum in Ireland in accordance with international law. Asylum seekers must not be turned away from Ireland's borders and  thereby be put at risk of being sent back directly or indirectly to a country where they fear persecution, torture or death. All potential asylum seekers must be made aware of their rights clearly and in a language which they can understand. Reception procedures should be courteous, effective and provided by appropriately trained staff. Asylum seekers should have the same freedom of expression and freedom of movement within the State as Irish citizens. Detention should not be used as part of the asylum procedure.
The right to prompt and fair determination procedures. The body responsible for deciding on asylum claims must be independent and must have expertise in refugee law, and access to the independent information necessary to make an informed decision. There must be a right to appeal decisions made in asylum cases to an independent body and for the asylum seeker to remain in the country while the outcome of the appeal is awaited. Humanitarian considerations should be taken into account in making a decision on the right to remain in Ireland. All asylum seekers must have access to independent, adequately State-funded legal advice and representation at all stages. All officials in contact with asylum seekers must  respect the principles of human dignity and must be properly trained in human rights and asylum law. An asylum seeker has a right to complain to an independent body about racist or unprofessional treatment by any official or organisation. If an asylum case has not been decided within six months, the applicant must be permitted to take up work and to study with the same rights as Irish citizens.
The Costa case is one of the cases I tabled on the Order Paper. I read about it in the newspapers. Where else would we get our information? I also heard the Costa family speaking on radio. They have lived here for years. Their children were in school studying for State examinations and spoke with Dublin accents. However, they were being booted out of this country at 6 a.m. by agents of this State. Will the Government stand over that? Is that the type of procedure we want? I am fighting against those procedures and make no apology for it.
The Minister of State had the gall to ask me where I have been for the past five years. If he does not know it is because he was not here, was not paying attention or did not bother to read the records of this House because I have consistently spoken out about the issue. I spoke on the Immigration Bill. I was here day after day. I tabled amendments and they were accepted. I fought to get other amendments included. I have raised this issue every year and I tabled these three motions. I have moved them, raised them and consistently acted in this matter. If the Minister is seeking information there it is for him.
Senator Quinn correctly pointed out that we have flushed out some information here. I am glad we have done that but I am sorry the Minister feels so defensive that he has to drive decent people in Fianna Fáil through a lobby that will only bring them shame.
Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
Cregan, Denis (Dino).
Cregan, Denis (Dino).
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