Seanad Éireann - Volume 146 - 20 March, 1996
Refugee Bill, 1995: Second Stage (Resumed).
Question again proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”
Mr. D'Arcy Mr. D'Arcy
Mr. D'Arcy: I welcome the Bill, but I am totally frustrated by the length of time it has taken for this legislation to come before the Oireachtas. Members are aware that a number of years ago the Refugee Protection Bill, which was first proposed by Deputy Shatter and later by Senator Neville, was not accepted by the previous Government. In 1994, the then Minister, Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn, introduced a Refugee Bill but, unfortunately, it fell when the previous Government left office. Given that humanitarian protection is vital, that important legislation, which sought to safeguard internationally recognised rights, should not have been considered on a party political partisan basis. The important provisions contained in the Refugee Protection Bill and the Refugee Bill, 1994, received, in practice, the backing of all parties in  both Houses of the Oireachtas. In that light I welcome the Refugee Bill, 1995, which arises from the Government programme negotiated in December 1994.
I am sure Members are aware of the precarious way in which the State treated refugees seeking asylum in Ireland. Our record in terms of those seeking asylum and protection is one of the most disgraceful episodes in our history. I hope the new legislation will shift the balance and tide of history so that we will successfully fulfil our international obligations. The 1951 UN Geneva Convention and the subsequent 1967 Protocol, while accepted by Ireland, were not put into practice. The Bill will put into law for the first time the international obligations Ireland accepted when it signed the Geneva Convention relating to the rights of refugees.
It is most important to make a clear distinction between those to whom reference is made and the rights we are seeking to bestow on them. Unfortunately, sensational prejudices and nationalistic commentary fuels much of the debate on this issue in Europe. Establishing rights for refugees does not mean the creation of an easy or quick route to Ireland for those seeking protection from crimes they committed in other jurisdictions. Instead, through this Bill we are recognising our international obligations and giving effect to them by our actions.
Ireland is not a landlocked country surrounded by six or seven or other jurisdictions, nor is it a gateway for international terrorism. There is not a ready supply of employment opportunities here for the thousands of people throughout Europe displaced as a result of political or economic upheaval. The number of refugees seeking asylum in Ireland is probably the lowest of any EU state. That is borne out by the figures. Just over 1,000 people are seeking asylum in Ireland at the moment and in 1995 a total of 424 persons sought refugee status here. Therefore, we are not referring to a massive transfer of population. The number of refugees who  seek asylum in Ireland is a small percentage of the total number who seek that status in other European jurisdictions. It is important to state that point clearly because some people seek to distort the true picture.
People in this State must realise that in signing the 1951 Geneva Convention, or any other international treaty, we took on certain obligations. We have a responsibility to put a transparent system in place and to play our part in providing a home for those who seek refugee status. To date, this has not been the case in Ireland and I hope this Bill will change that. We must never forget that hundreds of thousands of Irish people received a home in countless foreign jurisdictions over the past 300 years and we have an obligation to find a home and safe place for people escaping tyranny or fleeing political persecution. It would be totally hypocritical for us, as a State, to put our collective heads in the sand when it comes to recognising refugees' rights when so many of our people found such rights and comforts abroad, albeit in different circumstances.
Ireland has a proud record of standing up to persecution and tyranny where it raises its head across the world. Frequently we allow our security forces to take their place with the United Nations to defend displaced people in poverty stricken countries. We rightly pride ourselves on our record of helping to establish and guarantee human rights throughout the civilised world. However, law officers of this State have, in the not too distant past, summarily sent those seeking refugee status here back to the countries from which they came. Lecturing other countries on human rights issues must not be just theory, it must be of practical application by our State to help the most defenceless and vulnerable people.
I will wait until Committee Stage to deal with each section in detail and just make some observations at this stage. A number of agencies regard this legislation as worthwhile but feel, from their experience, that some modifications may be required. The Minister of State  signified on Committee Stage in the Dáil that she would look at a number of aspects of the legislation. The issue is not of questioning the system which has been proposed to deal with refugees seeking asylum, but rather that it seems exceptionally difficult for refugees to enter the system under which their application will be judged. I hope we can iron out these difficulties, otherwise many of the people whom the Bill is intended to help will be unaffected by its measures and their chances of making a successful application will not get over the first hurdle.
The Minister of State is aware of the need to provide adequate interpretation facilities for those seeking asylum. The application form is available in only six languages which prevents many refugees from understanding the procedures in this country. Is it possible to provide interpreters for those seeking refugee status at a much earlier stage in the process? As Members are aware, the vast majority of asylum seekers have little or no English and their inability to communicate with immigration officers adds to their trauma.
What proposals does the Minister of State have for the establishment of a special unit within the legal aid system to deal with the legal requirements of applicants for refugee status? A mere 20 people received refugee status in Ireland recently. While this figure is low, how large a backlog of applications will emerge when the legislation is passed? The Minister of State undertook on Committee Stage in the Dáil to put in place special provisions through the legal aid system for asylum seekers. What provisions has she made?
I welcome the proposed establishment of an appeal board. It is vitally important for the system of deciding on applications for refugee status to be seen as open and transparent. Refugees should have the same rights of appeal as those enjoyed by every citizen in the State.
This Bill proposes to enact new procedures to satisfy the 1951 Geneva Convention. It also highlights a greater  awareness of the problems of persecution and tyranny which still exist, and of which we have seen a great deal lately. The Bill brings our laws up to date and fulfils our international obligations. However, we are also seeking to stretch out the hand of friendship to those who have undergone despicable treatment in their countries of origin.
Mr. Mooney Mr. Mooney
Mr. Mooney: I welcome this Bill which brings to an end a sorry chapter in Ireland's history of dealing with refugees and asylum seekers. Although this may sound contentious, for a country which has shown, and continues to show, so much compassion to other parts of the world, particularly the Third World, our record of dealing with refugees and political asylum seekers over the past two decades has been appalling. I have heard and read of people being bundled back on to aeroplanes — many such occurrences are unseen, unreported and unpublicised — and whenever I raised the matter with various Administrations over the years, it became clear that the main reason for such action on the part of the authorities was not that they lacked compassion — far from it — but political expediency.
The point has been made repeatedly that, because of the easy access Irish citizens have to the United Kingdom, we are, in effect, treated similarly to a Commonwealth country. Certain Protocols were entered into to ensure that Ireland would not be seen as a back door for refugees, political asylum seekers and others denied access to the United Kingdom. It is a sad fact of real-politik that we, as a sovereign nation, have had to adopt such Protocols. However, the motives were of the highest order.
Several hundred thousand Irish people live in the United Kingdom and one million people in London are Irish born or of Irish descent. Given the history of relations between the two countries, if we were to allow unfettered access to non-citizens there is no doubt  that the flog them and hang them brigade associated with the British Conservative Party, which needs little excuse to call for passport controls, would use such a policy change to introduce unacceptable controls on Irish citizens travelling between the United Kingdom and Ireland. What amuses me about this lobby, a constant feature of British politics, is that it does not appear to recognise that the traffic is not all one way; a substantial number of British citizens travel to this country, be it for business or pleasure, and they would not welcome the introduction of passport controls in what they consider to be a friendly country. Perhaps this is an ideal opportunity to highlight that aspect of the continuous and offensive call from British MPs who should know better.
I pay tribute to all who campaigned for this legislation for many years, especially the Irish Refugee Council, Refugee Trust, Amnesty International and individuals too numerous to mention. The tone of my contribution to this debate will be influenced to a large extent by the warm welcome for this legislation from the aforementioned organisations. However, a number of concerns have been raised and I will deal with some of them. They will be familiar to the Minister of State.
One concern centres on a position paper from the National Union of Journalists. I will declare my interest because I am a practising journalist and a member of the National Union of Journalists. I have great empathy with the NUJ on their point that section 19 appears to directly contravene the part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states: “Everyone has the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media, regardless of frontiers”. Section 19 requires the consent of the Minister for Justice as well as the applicant before details of a case can be published or broadcast. Any breach of this regulation results in a fine of up to £1,500 and or imprisonment for up to six months. That will concentrate the minds of journalists.
 I accept that an applicant has the right to refuse publicity. However, the point being made by the NUJ is that the power granted to the Minister under this section could — and I use that word advisedly — be used to ensure that matters of potential embarrassment to the Government of the day could be denied a public hearing. A political activist who might have a criticism to make about individual Ministers, officials, a political party, a politician or anybody associated with the Government of the day might feel his plight offers an ideal opportunity to make that criticism. The criticism might or might not be justified but the Minister of the day could decide that it would be best to leave matters unsaid. That is where the concerns of the NUJ are centred. The union believes in openness, accountability and transparency. Whoever first coined that phrase should have taken out copyright on it because he or she would have made a pile in royalties each time it was repeated. The NUJ claim these powers could be misinterpreted. I will be interested to hear the Minister of State's response to their concerns.
The Irish Refugee Council raised a number of concerns. The provision of translation and legal services to an applicant is absolutely essential. The reason I took this matter to heart is that, as a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, within the last 12 months I listened to representatives of Refugee Trust and of the settled Vietnamese community in this country discussing it. Some members of that community live in or near the Minister of State's constituency. This is a law abiding, low profile community which came to Ireland in the aftermath of the Vietnamese war. It appears to have integrated effectively into and made a positive contribution to Irish society in a variety of areas and we should acknowledge that and pay tribute to the community for it.
Their main concern — and this applies to their countrymen or somebody coming to this country who cannot speak our language — centred on the  lack of information printed in their language from Government and State agencies. One could argue that they have translation facilities and there are people in their community who speak perfect English or have learned English since they arrived here. However, it was depressing to hear that after that length of time these people still had difficulty in interpreting ordinary Government documents and State information leaflets about areas such as social welfare, education and other State services which we take for granted because we speak the language. I was struck by their concern and I found it depressing. I am not sure if action has been taken since then.
A section within the Department of Foreign Affairs is responsible for liaising with such communities and I am sure it would argue it is doing the best job in the circumstances. However, of all the concerns the Vietnamese had, their major concern focused on the denial of the basic right of access to Government publications on social services and the rights of citizens to a significant proportion of their community who could not read English.
That predicament can be applied to a political refugee or asylum seeker who cannot speak English. There appears not to be a legal requirement to provide translation and legal services to an applicant. The Minister of State, on Committee Stage in the Dáil, said that the Bill would place “the highest possible onus on the authorities to provide interpretation”. The Irish Refugee Council finds this terminology unacceptable and I must confess to sympathising with the council. While the Minister of State is highly motivated and means well, this legislation will be enshrined in law and will outlast all of us. Now is the time to change the phrase “where possible” to something more substantive. I will be interested in hearing the views of the Minister of State; I hope they will be an advance on those she gave on Committee Stage in the Dáil.
 The other area of concern relates to detention. I urge the Government to explore alternatives to detention when an applicant has to await a final decision. The Irish Refugee Council expressed great concern about this issue. In its view detention is not appropriate for asylum seekers, save in extreme circumstances of public safety. It is not a proportionate response to an investigation into an applicant's identity. The council is concerned that interpretation of section 9 (8) (c), (d) and (e) would penalise asylum seekers who have made difficult decisions while traumatised or confused by using false documents or by deliberately destroying travel documents. In that context the council strongly urges the exploration of alternatives to detention.
I agree with this because some, if not all, of those seeking asylum in this country may have had to leave their countries of origin in extremely difficult circumstances; they may have had to leave overnight. They may have been under surveillance in their home countries for some time and they may have been operating under aliases for legitimate political reasons. It seems to me that the Bill may not take account of this scenario, which may be used as a disadvantage in the processing of such a person's application.
Section 9 (4) (b) concerns the right to work. The Irish Refugee Council recognises that the talents and creativity of those seeking asylum could contribute positively to the economy and culture of Ireland. If this is so, permission to work could be granted after six months residence to asylum seekers, as is the case in the UK. International studies have documented that asylum seekers who most fully integrate into the host country are the first to return to their countries of origin when circumstances there improve.
In Ireland the right to work is granted, in certain circumstances, to asylum seekers who are awaiting the outcome of their applications. According to the Irish Refugee Council, the  Minister has put forward a number of justifications for denial of the right to work, one of them being that the decision making process would be so speedy — I wish the Minister well in this — that there would be no need to look for work in the interim period. There is also a suggestion that the cost of providing supplementary welfare allowance is arguably reduced by permitting people to seek employment so that they would not be a burden on the State. In this context there is no doubt that there is a strong argument for assessing the talents and creativity potential of an asylum seeker and this must be taken into account by all those concerned in this process. If the person who is seeking asylum has proper and credible bona fides which would not give rise to any conclusion, other than that he or she would be a force for positive good in the community, detention would be a harsh penalty to impose during the application process. I would be interested to hear the Minister's views on this.
The definition of a refugee is a difficult area. I would hope we would not use legal jargon to exclude people for the political reasons I indicated at the outset and I seek some assurance from the Minister on this. In the EU there is a growing trend towards a “fortress Europe” policy. I would hate to think that, because we, as a peripheral nation, are in a sense an outpost of Europe, pressure will be put on the Irish Government by our EU colleagues to strictly interpret this law in a way which would be in their interests rather than ours. Unquestionably, there has been a trend in Europe over the last few years towards a stricter immigration policy. I have no doubt this will accelerate with the pending integration of Eastern European countries into the EU. A stricter policy has already emerged in France. The British are past masters at interpreting asylum laws for their own benefit. Some of their legislation, which has resulted in the splitting of families, has caused anger and sorrow and has been downright uncharitable.
 I would be grateful for a reassurance from the Minister that we will adopt our own sovereign attitude to the definition of refugees and that we will not be influenced to any great extent by trends in Europe. It is inevitable that we are going to be sucked into this debate because of our EU membership, our peripheral nature and our unprotected coasts. I understand there have been unrecorded attempts by people to enter Ireland through the UK, not on scheduled airlines or ferries but illegally. I have no statistical information on this but there is a perception that this is happening because of our proximity to the UK. As the law becomes more defined and more anti-immigration in several larger EU countries, especially the UK, I would hate to think that we would use this legislation, laudable as it is, to deny access because we accept an international definition of refugees or deem it more politic to interpret the legislation in such a way.
I referred earlier to NGOs and I acknowledged the great contribution they are making to this debate. The Minister also acknowledged this and I have no doubt that she will continue to do so — it is what I would expect from her because of her work with NGOs in her previous career. The Irish Refugee Council would like explicit recognition of the role played by local NGOs in the determination process and would welcome an invitation to partake in discussions on the role of NGOs in the context of the Bill.
NGOs unquestionably do marvellous work in an area about which, to put it bluntly, the majority of people in this country could not care less because it does not impact on them. So what if poor unfortunates arrive off planes without tickets or visas and are returned from where they came? We do not worry about such matters. We salve our consciences in other ways, perhaps by giving money to Third World charities. We are dealing with human life and there is a duty on all of us as Christians to ensure that people will not be adversely affected by this legislation by  being imprisoned or returned to their countries of origin. We have this duty even if only one person is so affected. We should be compassionate in our approach and not take a legalistic view.
The chairman and vice-chairman of the Refugee Appeal Board must be practising barristers with not less than ten years experience. I appreciate that we are dealing with matters of law but why should people in the public service with a non-legal approach not be considered? Why was it felt necessary to exclude everybody except those with ten years experience as barristers? Do they have a monopoly of wisdom in this regard? Those of us who observe courts and the practise of law throughout the country would hardly think so.
Mr. Lanigan Mr. Lanigan
Mr. Lanigan: The people who are appointed to these posts may not even have been promoted to the position of judge.
Mr. Mooney Mr. Mooney
Mr. Mooney: Is this another panacea for disappointed political followers? Is it an opportunity for the Government to give them these jobs? The staff in the parliamentary draftsman's office are lawyers. Did they recommend to the Government that only practising barristers are competent to deal with these matters at tribunal level?
Surely this exclusion narrows the Minister's scope for action in this area. If she identifies people, some of whom may work with NGOs, who have long administrative experience, have been at the coal face and have all the necessary credentials, surely they should be considered for these posts The Refugee Appeal Board will determine after the fact decisions made by the Minister and other agencies. I am not enthusiastic about that aspect of the legislation. Perhaps the Minister could widen it to include this area because it seems exclusive and elitist in this day and age. We have a great deal of talent and expertise, so why should it be excluded? I look forward to the Minister's response. I reiterate my welcome for  this long awaited legislation which is to this Administration's credit.
Mr. Townsend Mr. Townsend
Mr. Townsend: I welcome the Minister. These provisions represent a considerable improvement for those seeking refugee status. They aim to correct the most glaring inadequacies in a system which leaves much to be desired.
We pride ourselves on being a welcoming country. The welcome should extend to those in need of refuge in the same way as it applies to those who come here on holidays. In the 19th and early 20th centuries Irish people needed a refuge from persecution, poverty, famine and hardship. The United States and Australia provided a political refuge, while Britain provided an economic refuge for thousands of Irish families. In an earlier period continental Europe provided a refuge for the Wild Geese. We hope the days are gone when Irish people have to seek refuge. However, we should not forget our history or our responsibility to those less fortunate than ourselves.
In recent years we accepted refugees from Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America. They are making a valuable contribution to the development of our country. Who could have foreseen ten years ago the horrendous ethnic cleansing in Bosnia? That unfortunate country has suffered from war, racism, genocide and devastation, while we in the developed part of western Europe are troubled by nothing more than arguments about a common European currency. We cannot nor should we try to isolate a prosperous western Europe from the rest of the Continent.
We have an important interest in European stability and have a role to play in this regard. Our refugee policy is an important contributory factor. Our policy on refugees should not be governed solely by considerations of self-interest. We are a small independent nation which has made a significant contribution to foreign policy and the workings of the United Nations. We have authority, credibility and standing  among the international community. Our refugee policy is important for our reputation.
I congratulate the Minister and the Government for introducing this legislation.
Mr. Lanigan Mr. Lanigan
Mr. Lanigan: I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. We are doing nothing more than we should have done many years ago. When we signed the Geneva Convention in 1951 we should have taken on board our national as well as our international responsibilities. However, signing the convention merely provided a photo opportunity and, unfortunately, the reasons for it became clouded. We have been waiting since 1951 to introduce this Bill, although I will not criticise anyone for that. I am delighted the Bill is before the House today. There is no reason we cannot accept our obligations under the convention. This Bill should not take away any rights under the Geneva Convention.
Ireland will not be inundated with refugees. Approximately 2,000 people applied for refugee status in the past and this has increased since Aeroflot started flying through Shannon from Cuba. There has been an increase in the number of refugees from countries where people are in danger. Ireland is on the periphery of the refugee problem. There will be a major refugee problem in Europe from Africa into southern Europe and from the former USSR into Germany and the eastern part of the EU. However, we will not be inundated with applicants for asylum.
Anyone who has travelled to see the plight of refugees in camps throughout the world know they live in poverty and in sordid conditions with no rights and without hope. We should, therefore, feel privileged to accept a small number of refugees and to apply this Bill in a fair manner. Few obstacles should be put before people running away from persecution. Some countries persecute their people in an inhumane way. The word “animalistic” was used in this Chamber — I would not use that phrase  — but the treatment of citizens in some countries has downgraded the word human.
It should not be a problem to provide interpreters because many people who seek asylum come from eastern Europe, Cuba or Africa. Few people come here from Africa who do not speak Spanish, English or French. The majority of interpreters would need to know Portuguese, Spanish and French. The same applies for refugees from Cuba. Few people from eastern Europe do not speak English or French. Although people without English, French, Spanish or Portuguese are in the minority, interpreters should be sought in the short term. If a person can get on an plane in eastern Europe to fly to London and then on to Dublin, somebody must be able to understand their ticketing and seating arrangements. Few people arrive in Ireland by boat. I do not know any instance where somebody has left a mother ship off the coast and has arrived in County Kerry, County Cork or County Wexford.
There have been many problems in relation to refugees. I remember when the refugees arrived from Hungary in 1956. They were dumped in camps which had been abandoned by the Army.
Mr. Enright Mr. Enright
Mr. Enright: Two refugees were in school with me.
Mr. Lanigan Mr. Lanigan
Mr. Lanigan: They were given little support. Some, however, did very well and stayed here. I had the privilege of visiting Hungary last year and I attended a social function with the Ambassador at which I met two sons of refugees who had come here in 1956. They had gone to school and university here and had then gone back to Hungary to give it the benefit of what they had learned. People who come here may return to their country of origin if the situation changes.
We must ensure that refugees are treated humanely and are not dumped and put into confined quarters. Often refugees are already traumatised when  they arrive here and then they are met by officious people from the Department of Foreign Affairs or another group and treated as genuine refugees only if they can prove otherwise and that they are not coming here for social or economic reasons. They must be treated as citizens and not traumatised further by being placed in confined quarters without interpretative services and legal aid. Genuine asylum seekers will not have the resources to pay for the legal aid which I would expect if I arrived without a passport in another country.
As I said refugees arrive in a traumatised state as they are fleeing from an authoritarian regime and they should be treated like citizens. If it is proven that they are not genuine refugees under this Bill or the 1951 Convention, then so be it. We will not need to set up camps for hundreds of thousands of people as has happened in central and eastern Africa or in Jordan to which Palestinians in Kuwait fled. There is a difference between what we and other nations face. I plead with the Minister to give anyone seeking asylum refugee status. It should not be impossible to provide interpretation facilities in Dublin, Shannon and Rosslare.
Anybody who leaves a country in which they are not wanted and in which they feel threatened will not have proper travel documents. It is nonsense to think that anybody genuinely seeking refuge will have a passport unless it or exit documents are valid for five to seven years. I have seen the plight of genuine refugees who have spent 20 to 30 years in camps which they cannot leave.
I ask that this Bill take people's humanity into account. In the past we have not welcomed foreigners who sought refugee status. There have been instances of blatant racism, although we like to believe that we welcome people from abroad. We have been as racist as other countries when dealing with under-privileged people from abroad. Indeed, foreign students who have come to Dublin to study have been treated as  the Irish were in Great Britain after World War Two.
There is racism in Ireland because it is not a multi-racial society; it has tended to be white. Medical staff from abroad who serve us well are discriminated against in towns and cities. If professionals who have studied here and who are giving their professional services are being treated in a racist manner, how can a person fleeing corruption and fearing for their safety believe they will be treated fairly?
I ask the Minister to ensure the human element is taken into account in the implementation of the Bill. Whoever deals with these people, whether it be the appeal board, the commissioner or whoever, should treat them as if they were genuine refugees until it is proven otherwise. We will not be inundated with large numbers of people seeking refugee status. There will be no boat people. We will not have a situation such as that which exists between Cuba and Miami or the countries which border Rwanda. It will only cost us a small amount of money to pamper these refugees when they arrive for a short time. If they must stay, they must be given the dignity of reasonable housing, education and being able to apply for a job. If we give them asylum, they should have the same rights to work as an Irish citizen.
I welcome this Bill. Most fairminded people will see there is a growing need for the Irish people to show they feel for less fortunate people who must flee their countries. We live in a cocoon. We live in a safe environment. We have reasonable laws and a reasonable chance in life. The people who come here as refugees do not have that. I have seen what man can do to his fellow man and the inhumanity of this world appalls me at times. I ask the Minister to be humane. I ask that we be forgiving if a person is not exactly as they appear. Even if we cannot allow people to stay here as genuine refugees and they must be sent away, I ask that we ensure they go away feeling they were treated as human beings.
Mr. Doyle Mr. Doyle
 Mr. Doyle: I congratulate the Minister for bringing the Bill to the House.
When I was first elected to Dáil Éireann in 1982 I used to hear some of my colleagues from County Clare and County Limerick raise cases of refugees who had arrived at Shannon Airport. I never thought I would be faced with such a case until four coloured people, three men and a woman, approached me as I finished a clinic I held at Markievicz House. One of the men told me that the woman was a refugee from Sri Lanka and that if she was forced to return, she would face summary execution. They gave me the name of a barrister who was acting on her behalf so I contacted her the next morning and she explained the details to me. She told me that her application was under examination by the Department of Justice and that the young lady in question was pregnant. Then it came to my attention that the authorities here were preparing a deportation order so my only recourse at that time was to approach the then Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, with whom I shared a constituency. He showed great sympathy towards the case. He said he would use his authority to have the matter examined and would put a stop on the deportation order. I went to bed happy that night because I felt we were saving this woman from the terrible experience she would face if she was forced to return to her country. The next morning I rang her barrister to tell her the good news and was somewhat taken aback to hear that in panic the woman had taken the boat to England the previous night.
I explain that case to the House because I do not think we dealt well with applicants for asylum in the past. I welcome this Bill because it includes a mechanism which her barrister could have used had it applied in 1983, that is, an application can now be made to an independent commissioner. If an application is denied, one can appeal to a five member appeal board and an oral hearing can be sought. That is a tremendous improvement over what has been there in the past. I agree that when people  flee their own country — and a terrorist organisation as in that particular case — they do not have money or a passport and are very vulnerable. Nevertheless, I believe we should treat them with great dignity.
I am pleased to note that the Bill provides that applicants for refugee status are entitled to the same social welfare, housing, education and health care Irish citizens enjoy. That is a great advantage because in doing so we show we are prepared to give them the same status as citizens. They deserve nothing less. For these reasons, I welcome this Bill.
Mr. O'Kennedy Mr. O'Kennedy
Mr. O'Kennedy: I join all my colleagues in welcoming this Bill. It deserves and will get support on the broadest basis from all of us. It is appropriate, in particular, since we are the successors in title — although our refugees did not have much title — of those who experienced economic and political repression at home. Our nation has been developed and enhanced by the experience of our refugees. Nowadays, they might be called economic refugees and, to that extent, I have a certain worry and reservation about the distinction which is made sometimes between political and economic refugees. It would be reasonable to say that some of our people were escaping from political repression but most of them were what would nowadays be termed economic refugees. Had they been faced with restrictive bureaucratic limitations when the arrived on Staten Island on the east coast of the US or at some of the well known refugee stations of America or Australia, the haven which our people enjoyed, and from which they developed such an established reputation for themselves and their families, would never have been afforded to them. In that connection, I do not think Ireland should make what is sometimes a convenient but not reasonable distinction between political and economic refugees as we are the least qualified people to make that distinction.
I have had the experience, as Minister for Foreign Affairs, of welcoming on  behalf of the Irish people one of the biggest groups of refugees which came to our country, that is the boat people in the late 1970s. In that instance, our fellow members of the European Community with Australia, Canada and the USA made a commitment in Geneva during Ireland's Presidency in 1979 to take on the responsibility of receiving these people as refugees. The fact that we did is now a matter of record.
I want to make the distinction between the formal decision by Government to accept a group — such as the boat people or the Hungarian refugees in 1956 where formal arrangements and preparations made in advance were sometimes not as good as we would wish them to be — and the less formal issue in this Bill which deals with individuals about whom we have no advance notice.
We are dealing here with individuals, many of whom come totally ill-prepared. Some of them come illegally in so far as they do not have proper passports or documentation. If they had, they would not have to rely on receiving refugee status. When we are dealing with these individuals, it behoves us to be as generous, understanding and tolerant as possible. That view has been reflected in the contributions here this evening and in this Bill.
However, there are still anomalies. We should be generous to a fault in respect when it comes to their practical requirements, such as translation and legal services. If they have to face the legal requirements of our State, which is understandable, they must have access to legal advice from the beginning to enable them, under the rights of the international conventions and as fellow members of the human condition, to avail of every opportunity and loophole in the law. It is our responsibility to ensure that our law gives effect to what we want it to do. Just as our citizens can avail of loopholes in the law which we have left through our failure as legislators, there is no reason refugees should be in a different position.
 I also agree with the suggestion from the Irish Refugee Council that detention is not appropriate for asylum seekers save in extreme circumstances of public safety. Every state has the responsibility to provide its own security but that should not mean that we will detain these people while they are being investigated. I welcome the appeals board. Whatever the circumstances that may have forced these people to come to our shores, it would not be reasonable to subject them to detention as soon as they arrive.
My final point concerns a matter in which I will be involved in Geneva this coming weekend. It is regrettable but true that all around the world there are repressed minorities, whether it be in the Western Sahara, Tibet or East Timor. As often as not, wherever there is government — I would like to think it is not true in our case — there will be minorities, some of them repressed to a much greater extent in one country than in another. There will also be unrepresented minorities who will play no role in the international community. It will be the purpose of the conference that I will be attending this weekend to try to represent these people. This conference will be held under the aegis of the United Nations, which has given its blessing.
Repression has reached such a dimension that it has become almost a characteristic of many regimes. Sometimes power for the few means repression for the many. However, people are now thinking more than ever that if they are repressed at home, they can look to a haven elsewhere. They could not have done this before now. It is important that, for historical, judicial, conscientious and legal reasons, we should be seen to be at the forefront of this issue.
I commend the Minister and the Government for taking this action and hopefully we will be able to make precise comments and observations on Committee Stage.
Ms O'Sullivan Ms O'Sullivan
 Ms O'Sullivan: I also welcome this long overdue legislation and I commend the Minister for her work on this matter. She had interest in a Refugee Bill before she ever had responsibility for the Justice and Foreign Affairs portfolios and has worked hard to reach this point.
We can only do a limited amount for many victims of persecution in various parts of the world because they often cannot leave their countries. The kind of actions we can take may be limited to supporting UN resolutions and sanctions, highlighting issues such as the situation in East Timor and supporting human rights organisations like Amnesty International. However, for those people who do break free from persecution and look for asylum, particularly in our country, we can and should take action. I welcome this legislation. We will be complying with the basic principles of natural justice by giving a fair hearing to people looking for political asylum. In bringing the legislation to this point, the many proposals and suggestions put forward by various organisations and all political parties have been listened to and taken on board. Indeed, they strengthened the initial legislation.
I welcome the fact that we are finally putting into law the principles of the 1951 Geneva Convention and the 1967 Protocol and that various aspects have been strengthened in the Bill, the guarantees in terms of gender, sexual orientation and trade union membership which were not in the original legislation.
As other speakers said, when somebody looks for political asylum in this country, many difficulties must be understood, and they are being dealt with in this legislation, for example, language difficulties, concern about the safety of their loved ones whom they have to leave behind etc. These people may also need translation and interpretation facilities, legal assistance and clear procedures to understand what is happening. All those considerations need to be taken into account. Senator  Lanigan referred to the need to understand that we are dealing with human beings facing real dilemmas. They may not even know where they are when they come here; they may be disorientated and frightened and have language difficulties. We should not only deal with them by way of proper legal procedures but in a humane way as well.
I support to some extent the concerns expressed by Senator Mooney. While it is important that whoever is dealing with these people — whether it be the commissioner, the people they meet when they arrive or those on the appeal board — has the relevant legal expertise and knowledge, they should also have the personal skills to deal with these people, many of whom may be frightened and or do not know their rights. I welcome the indication that interpretation facilities will be available. The wording in the legislation was queried by some of the organisations which made representations but the matter has been clarified and I am satisfied with it.
The Minister of State referred to the Government's agreement that legal assistance would be provided and said independent advice is being sought on this issue. She should keep the House informed of progress. It is important that people seeking asylum receive appropriate legal assistance because they usually do not have access to financial support on entering the country. While their cases are being dealt with they also require a decent place to live and supplementary welfare payments. Assuming they obtain political asylum, they need access to normal rights such as housing, social welfare, etc.
Previous speakers raised section 22 and the Dublin Convention. I and other Senators are members of Amnesty International, which is particularly concerned about this section. A representative of Amnesty International recently informed me that the organisation wishes to ensure that someone travelling to another EU country under the Dublin Convention — which will determine what state is responsible for examining  applications — will receive a fair hearing and will not be transferred to a third country without one. I welcome the Minister of State's assurances that the Dublin Convention provides for the establishment of a committee comprising representatives of the member states, which can examine general questions concerning the application and interpretation of the convention and that she intends to avail of this provision if difficulties arise in relation to section 22. I welcome this because section 22 is Amnesty International's remaining major concern about the legislation. I hope her assurances will allay the concerns expressed by Amnesty International.
Another question relates to numbers. As Senator Lanigan stated, it is unlikely Ireland will have to deal with numbers of refugees similar to those dealt with by other countries. The number seeking refugee status in 1991 was 31. In 1995 this rose to 424 and it seems there will be a further increase in the current year. This bears no comparison to the numbers applying for refugee status in other EU countries, particularly Germany where applications have reached millons. Nevertheless, Ireland has experienced an increase in the number of applications and there is likely to be an even greater increase when legislation is enacted to deal with refugees. People will feel they will receive a fair hearing and are more likely to apply. Are we prepared for an increase in the number of applications? Has there been assessment of what is likely to occur in the event of increased numbers? Are there structures in terms of legal aid?
It is quite likely that there will be an increase in numbers. This is a tribute to us for enacting good, comprehensive, humanitarian legislation to deal with refugees. We must monitor the situation on an ongoing basis and listen to refugees already resident in this State, and to those who will come here, to ensure that we deal with their problems in a humanitarian way. We must deal with them as human beings. Many flee from appalling persecution and are denied  basic human rights which we take for granted such as access to free speech and to hold political views or are censured on the basis of their membership of minority groups, gender, etc.
There are many political differences here, particularly in relation to Northern Ireland, but nobody is denied the right to express a view. Unless we travel to countries which deny human rights, it is difficult to comprehend the fear, trauma and terror that people experience in seeking to exercise their rights. If they manage to escape, the least we can do is to ensure that they receive a fair hearing and all possible comfort, consideration and a decent lifestyle if it is proved they are genuine political refugees. I welcome the legislation.
Mr. Enright Mr. Enright
Mr. Enright: The Minister of State correctly stated that the number of applications which will be dealt with under this Bill are quite small. Apart from the number of applicants who are granted asylum, a considerable amount can be achieved in the overall context of refugees if Ireland, a small independent democracy, exercises its influence at every public forum on the international stage to try to improve the conditions under which refugees live.
The Minister of State and her husband lived and worked among the people of Africa. I had the pleasure of meeting them on a visit to Tanzania some years ago. It would be wrong of me to lecture her on the plight of refugees since she has expertise and experience in that area. I pay tribute to her and her husband for the work they did in Africa.
In the past Ireland was not as generous as it might have been toward refugees. To put it mildly, our record is very disappointing. No particular Government or civil servant is to blame. Government policy throughout the history of the State was to exclude rather than include due to the climate of public opinion. We now realise the importance of being more generous. On a percentage basis, no other country exported  more refugees than Ireland. Millions of people left Ireland and took refuge in other countries. We have a duty to ensure that we are generous in granting refugee status to those seeking it. We were over-zealous in imposing rules and regulations in the past and people were prevented from entering the State.
Let us consider the number of people seeking refuge in Ireland, 31 applications were made in 1991, 355 in 1994 and 424 in 1995. This shows the numbers applying and the existing procedures were not designed to handle these increasing numbers of applicants. I have not had much reason to visit the Aliens Office in the Department but it needs better accommodation and more staff, notwithstanding the embargo. I would find it difficult to carry out my work under the conditions these officials must tolerate.
Refugees are people who have been intimidated and threatened. Since they are particularly vulnerable, it is essential that the procedures we introduce are based on a distinct policy decision by the Government that we play our part. I have seen at first hand the way refugees are treated; if animals were treated that way, animal rights campaigners would complain. While we may talk about the way people were treated in the past, the way refugees are treated today is to the shame of the human race. Our voice may be small but we should continually raise it as long as people live in those conditions.
Legislation is in hand to allow people who can trace their forefathers to apply for citizenship. I raised one such case previously in the House but I will not go into detail because it does not relate to this Bill. We are strict in enforcing these regulations. This case concerns a South African, some of whose family are here while others have been excluded. If the family left some generations ago we should be careful. We have gone all over the world to look for soccer players, and now rugby players; possibly we will look for hurlers and  Gaelic footballers in years to come. However, people with no sporting talent are prevented from coming in and no one is seeking them out. We should be helpful to those who love Ireland and want to live here. I brought this case to the attention of Ministers in the Department of Foreign Affairs and may raise it again at some future date.
Mr. Lanigan Mr. Lanigan
Mr. Lanigan: Have they a couple of million pounds to invest?
Mr. Enright Mr. Enright
Mr. Enright: They have not approached me on those lines but I would decline in such a case. These are ordinary people and it is essential that we assist them. I wish the Bill safe passage through the House.
Minister of State at the Department of Justice (Ms Burton) Austin Currie
Minister of State at the Department of Justice (Ms Burton): I thank Senators for the quality of their contributions. In response to Senator Enright, I am also Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and if those whom he wants to bring into Ireland particularly wish to go to Shinrone, I undertake to treat his application and representations with particular care.
Mr. Enright Mr. Enright
Mr. Enright: The person in question has a connection with Shinrone.
Ms Burton Ms Burton
Ms Burton: Having had the pleasure not only of being visited by Senator Enright in Africa but also of visiting the Senator's family in Shinrone, I will reciprocate and undertake to look at this matter if he brings it to my attention.
I agree with the basic point made by Senators from all parties that the passage of the Refugee Bill and its broad acceptance by NGOs and Members of both Houses is a mark of the maturity of our democracy and the development of the concept of human rights and openness in this society. As Members have said, this is particularly appropriate at the beginning of the cycle of commemorating the Famine. While most of those who left Ireland then were what we would now call economic migrants, there was nonetheless a political motivation  for many exiles and it behoves us to recall how we were received in other countries.
In relation to broader developments in the EU and Ireland, while as a Minister of State at the Department of Justice I must be cautious about the problems caused by large scale, unstructured movements of people, the concept of building a “fortress Europe” is not necessarily in the best interests of the EU in the long term. I think we should take a broader and more generous view, not least in our own interest in the context of European demographics. If Europe is a greying and aging society it may be that some countries should do as the US did in the past and allow in younger people with talents and particular skills — and families — to contribute to ageing democracies. I welcome the broader view of the movements of people put forward by many Senators in this debate.
I accept that in the past our reputation in relation to the reception of asylum seekers was less than wonderful. However, I hope the style and culture of that reception has changed permanently and that this change happened some time ago. Various Senators referred to the reception of people in Ireland as far back as the Second World War — I hope we have changed for the better. When I visited Shannon recently I was particularly struck by the open, frank and friendly relationship between the gardaí who act as immigration officers, the NGOs and many people who came as refugees, subsequently settled and clearly intend to stay in the area. That is as it should be.
A number of Senators raised the language difficulties. For the last nine months we have printed application forms in a number of languages — Arabic, French, Romanian, Russian, Spanish and Turkish as well as English. That is a step forward and we will add other languages in due course. The specific problem raised by Senator Mooney was of the 500 Vietnamese people who came here as programme refugees. I am pleased to say that more than 300 of the  Vietnamese community are now naturalised Irish citizens, so they are committed to staying here. I have met with members of the community and visited their centre in Hardwicke Street, Dublin, on a number of occasions. I accept that one of the greatest difficulties for some members of that community is language.
Classes are made available in the Vietnamese community centre and a great deal of effort is being made, particularly by the City of Dublin vocational education committee with the co-operation of the Refugee Agency and the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Justice, to make the essentials available to refugees which will allow them to make full and satisfying lives for themselves and their families in Ireland once their status has been clarified. Another problem for the programme refugees is the resettlement in Ireland of other family members who are still abroad.
There is a community of about 500 Bosnian programme refugees in Ireland. Two weeks ago I was privileged to open a community centre on Pearse Street for the Bosnian community. It will act as a centre to make facilities available, such as information, community and social contacts and language learning. It will be helpful to that community.
I am aware that people are often anxious about family members. The Departments of Foreign Affairs and Justice are anxious to facilitate family members who wish to join those who have been given refugee status in Ireland. That is provided for in the Bill.
Senator Mooney referred to the NUJ and difficulties it has with section 19 of the Bill. Section 19 does not prevent a refugee speaking with a journalist. It deals with the public identification of a refugee. It may be important for the safety of a refugee, their family or the political movement or cause with which they are associated that their anonymity is preserved. The section does not prevent refugees telling their story or commenting on political conditions in  the country they fled. However, it provides that their identity should be protected — their story could be fully disclosed with the use of an alias — by permission in relation to disclosure of identity being given by the refugee and by the Minister. Under section 19 the Minister cannot withhold consent in an unfair way as such a decision would be subject to the possibility of a judicial appeal. That is provided for specifically in the Bill. I invited the NUJ to speak with me on the matter if it wished. That invitation remains open as I have not heard from the NUJ to date.
The Dublin Convention should provide a mechanism for refugees who have no definitive country in the EU where they can make an application. The Convention commits all EU member states to reaffirm their commitment to the 1951 Geneva Convention. It provides that refugees can make a positive application in the country in which they first arrived. However, if someone arrives in Ireland having passed through another European country, they could be told that they must process their application in that country. However, there is not a requirement on us to do so.
I have undertaken to seek that the EU should provide that matters dealt with under the Dublin Convention should be dealt with openly so that we can be reassured that cases are dealt with properly and, in particular, that nobody in such a situation might be deported via a second country to a third country where they might be persecuted.
The Bill specifically broadens the definition of persecution to include persecution on grounds of gender, sexual orientation or membership of a trade union. Those provisions go further than the 1951 Geneva Convention. Ireland has given a lead in this regard which I hope other countries may follow in due course.
Senator Mulcahy was worried that a refugee would have to prove their persecution came from the state. That is not so. Religious intolerance is rife in some countries. In one country in Mediterranean  north Africa persecution does not necessarily come from the state but from religious zealots. Persecution does not have to come from a state source.
Senator Mulcahy and Senator Roche raised the concern that a UNHCR recommendation could be overruled by the Department of Justice. Since becoming Minister of State at the Department of Justice I have read many files in relation to asylum seekers. Having checked with officials, I am not aware of any instance in which a UNHCR recommendation that somebody be treated as a refugee was overturned at official or ministerial level.
A number of Senators raised the issue of legal aid. We have drawn up a scheme of legal aid having consulted with the Refugee Council and the Irish Red Cross. The proposed scheme went for examination by the Attorney General's office; the Chief State Solicitor had comments on the proposed scheme and the Attorney General then decided he would have an independent senior counsel examine the proposed scheme to ensure it meets certain legal requirements in relation to the legal profession. That examination is being carried out. The Government is committed to having a scheme of legal aid and I would like that scheme to be as efficient as possible.
The purpose of the commissioner and the appeal tribunal is not to have an adversarial system as in a court. The objective at each stage is to get the refugee's story. Having heard that story and, as far as possible validated it, a decision may then be made as to whether that person comes within the provisions of the Geneva Convention or the definition in the Bill. I hope the appeal tribunal will not become a court because the adversarial system is not particularly appropriate to it. It will be seeking to elicit the story and, based on the facts, trying to judge whether the person comes within the terms of the convention.
There has been a rise in litigation and court actions in Ireland in recent years. I do not feel that refugee hearings  should be conducted as court hearings. Under the Bill, the commissioner and the chairperson of the appeal tribunal should be legally qualified persons of seven years and ten years experience, respectively, because many refugee applications are the subject, ultimately, of court proceedings. Nevertheless, it should not be an adversarial court proceeding.
The greatest problem with regard to refugee applications is the delay period. I hope that when the structures set out in the Bill are established, the commissioner will be able to give fairly rapid indications of the success or otherwise of the applications once the facts are known. In the case of negative decisions, there is the appeal procedure with the right of an oral hearing. It is important this processing should take place as quickly as possible because I recognise that, for applicants and their families, the waiting period can be one of great tension and uncertainty. I urge Senators to appeal to the Minister for Finance and the Department of Justice to ensure that in years to come an adequacy of resources is available for these structures.
Senators referred to the relatively low numbers of refugees received in Ireland. Up to last night, we had received 222 refugees this year. It is interesting to note that, of this figure, 100 are from Romania and none of them made an application directly at a port of entry. They called subsequently to the Department of Justice. Nowadays, many of our applicants do not declare themselves as asylum seekers at our ports or airports. They arrive in the country and subsequently make an application to the Department of Justice.
Senators referred to a number of specific points which arose on Committee Stage in the Dáil. These points will probably arise again on Committee Stage here. I thank Senators for their contributions and for their welcome for the Bill.
Looking after refugees and providing facilities on a par with the entitlements of Irish citizens costs money. We have  established a structure in Ireland and have recently commissioned a report in the Department of Justice. The nub of the report is to suggest that the welfare of refugees should be primarily directed towards one official — similar to the one shop stop concept — who would be a community welfare officer. Senator O'Sullivan and other Senators from the mid-west would agree that the community welfare officers of the MidWestern Health Board in the Shannon area have been extremely helpful and efficient in providing a service. As suggested in the report of the working group, community welfare officers in other areas should be the first point of call for the range of services to which refugees are entitled. In addition, through the Refugee Agency for Programme Refugees, we have the specialised services of the refugee agency.
We are moving to address what is our fundamental responsibility as an independent State. It is going to cost us but it is a cost we should be prepared to  meet. I thank the many Senators for the generosity of their response on behalf of the many refugees they met over the years. If in the past our record was not wonderful, I hope the Bill will provide the basis from which, in the future, we can acquire a record which not only reflects our traditions as a people but is in keeping with our own specific historical experience and our need to be generous to those who may now be experiencing what our people once experienced.
Question put and agreed to.
Committee Stage ordered for Wednesday, 1 May 1996.
Acting Chairman (Mr. Belton) Acting Chairman (Mr. Belton)
Acting Chairman (Mr. Belton): When is it proposed to sit again?
Mr. Doyle Mr. Doyle
Mr. Doyle: Tomorrow at 10.30 a.m.
The Seanad adjourned at 7.35 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 21 March 1996.
Seanad Éireann 146 Refugee Bill, 1995: Second Stage (Resumed).