Dáil Éireann - Volume 523 - 05 October, 2000
Written Answers. - Asylum Applications.
Mr. Howlin Mr. Howlin
 129. Mr. Howlin asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the steps he will take to deal with the serious deficiencies in the handling of asylum applications identified in the report prepared by the Irish Refugee Council Asylum in Ireland; the reason his Department failed to co–
operate with the council in the preparation of the report; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20152/00]
Mr. O'Donoghue Mr. O'Donoghue
Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. O'Donoghue): The report of the Irish Refugee Council entitled Asylum in Ireland: A Report on the Fairness and Sustainability of Asylum Determinations at First Instance is wide ranging and is, of course, worthy of study, even though I do not accept many of its conclusions.
The Government places a high priority on maintaining an asylum process which is both fair and transparent and which is geared towards providing protection to those in genuine need of such protection as quickly as possible.
The Government is also fully committed to the implementation of the 1951 Geneva Convention and this is reflected in both the present administrative procedures for processing asylum applications agreed with the UNHCR and the provisions of the Refugee Act, 1996, as amended, which are due to be commenced shortly. Considerable resources are expended annually to ensure that our procedures are in line with best international practice and the highest standards and the application of these procedures has been affirmed by the courts on several occasions. The staff of the Department also receive comprehensive training in the application of the asylum procedures. The Departments procedures include: a first instance decision after interview at which every opportunity and assistance is afforded to an applicant to put forward his or her case for refugee status; a right to an appeal which is heard by one of 14 independent appeals authorities; a right to independent legal advice and assistance from the refugee legal service at various stages in the asylum process.
This process is being expanded with the implementation in full of the Refugee Act, 1996, shortly which will see the establishment of two new independent offices, namely, the refugee applications commissioner and the Refugee Appeals Tribunal.
I do not accept that there are, what the Deputy calls, serious deficiencies in the asylum process. While it is not possible to respond in this reply to each of the reports' recommendations, I would make the following comments on the key recommendations as follows: while, as pointed out in the report, the manifestly unfounded grounds applied in Ireland are extensive, they essentially cover many of the principles applied in other EU member states in more general terms. They are also very much in line with the provisions of the EU resolution on manifestly unfounded applications for asylum as adopted by EU Ministers in  1992. The manifestly unfounded grounds are to be found in the present administrative procedures for processing asylum applications which were agreed with the UNHCR; the right to an interpreter is extensively recognised and provided for in the Refugee Act, 1996, as amended, which is due to be commenced in full in the near future. At present, the Department will always provide interpretation where practicable and possible having regard to the fact that for certain languages there is a limited number of interpreters available in the State; staff involved in asylum case processing and appeals are trained to deal with applicants for asylum in a sympathetic manner and with respect and sensitivity and a full awareness of cultural differences. All staff working in the asylum division of my Department, including reception and interviewing personnel, have completed appropriate training courses and have received “on the job” experience of interviews and assessments. Training programmes are agreed with the UNHCR and delivered by a combination of the Department's own experienced personnel, UNHCR training specialists and the UNHCR's full time official here. This training includes procedures to be followed when dealing with victims of trauma and violence and other sensitive matters such as gender issues. Furthermore, training on cultural issues is also provided in conjunction with the UNHCR to ensure that staff are aware of the cultural sensitivity of the background of the applicants.
My Department recognises the importance of addressing the special needs of all vulnerable groups including victims of torture, unaccompanied children and those who have suffered from gender based persecution. Our present procedures, which adhere to the UNHCR's recommended practice, reflect the Department's commitment to processing applications for refugee status in accordance with our international obligations with a view to providing the best possible service to all applicants. Extensive training of staff has been undertaken to ensure that each individual asylum applicant is treated with courtesy and professionalism by all members of staff.
The Irish Refugee Council did approach my Department in February, 2000 in relation to this project. However, as was explained to the council by my Department, as the refugee applications commissioner was due to be appointed, in anticipation of the implementation in full of the Refugee Act, 1996, it was considered that any review of the first instance asylum process, should be a matter for consideration by the commissioner.
I would like to again emphasise my commitment to the maintenance of a fair and efficient asylum process. This was further underlined recently in the Government's decision to provide some 370 additional staff for asylum case processing and appeals and related repatriations. This will allow the Department to achieve a number of strategic objectives, namely: greatly increasing processing capacity, including appeals, to deliver more speedy decisions in relation to  applications for refugee status leading, in due course, to the completion to finality of the processing of all new asylum applications within a six month period. This should ensure that those who are genuine refugees will receive decisions on their applications much more speedily and that non-genuine applications will also be dealt with on a faster basis; the elimination of the asylum applications currently on hands as soon as possible; dealing with the increased numbers of repatriations which are expected to arise in respect of persons whose applications for refugee status are refused.
In addition, considerable extra resources have been sought for the refugee legal service to enable it to keep pace with the increased processing capacity being provided in relation to applications for refugee status and to improve the level of service provided to those in dispersed locations.
Dáil Éireann 523 Written Answers. Asylum Applications.