Seanad Éireann - Volume 155 - 10 June, 1998

Adjournment Matters. - Refugee Agency Review.

Ms Keogh: I thank the Minister of State for attending the House to respond to this Adjournment matter. Whether we like it or not, the Government's policy on refugees and asylum seekers is widely perceived as being one dimensional. Increasingly the country is seen as erecting a stop sign to all the different categories of immigrants who reach our shores.

We must take account of the criminal gangs who, it seems, are accumulating ill-gotten gains through the trafficking of immigrants to Ireland. We have heard the reports of immigrants who, it is believed, not only are forced to pay a huge premium for their entry to this country but are also forced to continue to pay to these criminals a portion of any income they receive here, whether it be in the form of State payments or otherwise. However, it is wrong to bracket all those seeking asylum and refugee status in a single category.

It is a new experience for this country to have to deal with such a huge inflow of immigrants. While Irish people for a century and more have sought and secured refuge in every country, we are entering unknown territory as a recipient country. At present it is estimated there are over 5,000 applications to be processed. I note the recruitment by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform of an additional 72 staff to clear the backlog and fully accept the need for a strict regime in the vetting of applications. However, it is vital that the process is underpinned by fairness and non-discrimination.

I note that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is considering legislation in an effort to deal with abuses of Irish citizenship law, particularly in regard to post-nuptial citizenship and the deliberate arrangement of births to non-nationals. The Minister also wants to introduce legislation which would criminalise trafficking in illegal immigrants and penalise persons who employ such immigrants. These measures are necessary, but of equal importance is a wide ranging Government initiative to put in place policies to accommodate ethnic minorities in Ireland.

Unfortunately, there have been signs recently of a growing intolerance of refugees. Racism is raising its ugly head and an impression is being formed in the public mind that refugees are an intolerable burden and this should be lifted swiftly through their mass deportation. However, we cannot allow such views to develop in Ireland which considers itself a modern democracy. There is no room for the oppression of ethnic minorities in modern Ireland.

The Government has a duty to lead by example and put in place a balanced programme which applies the rules firmly and fairly on the one hand but which fully respects and upholds the rights and dignity of all refugees on the other. The Refugee Agency, which comes within the remit of the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donnell, is only one vehicle through which this more balanced and considered approach to the refugee issue can be pursued. An expanded role for the agency is vital if we are to fulfil our range of obligations under international human rights conventions.

The often heard tourism slogan, “Ireland of the welcomes”, has taken a battering recently. I do not underestimate the pressure placed on the social services by the arrival of a record number of refugees from all parts of the world. However, I appeal to the Government to display more creative thinking and generosity of spirit in dealing with the issue.

[1293] Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs (Ms O'Donnell): I thank Senator Keogh for raising this matter on the Adjournment and I agree with many of the points she made. The increased number of asylum seekers coming to this country in recent years has led to different responses. Sadly, much of the comment, as Senator Keogh indicated, has been negative. Some commentators focus on the high cost of supporting the asylum seekers while others speak of the dangers of concentrating or ghettoising them in inner city communities, thus fermenting difficulties in areas where people already feel marginalised through poverty.

Up to the mid-1990s, the numbers seeking asylum in Ireland were not significant. This position has changed and, in my view, there will continue to be a regular flow of asylum applicants here for the foreseeable future. There will continue to be conflicts in many countries forcing large numbers of people to leave their homes and seek protection elsewhere. While the vast majority have and will continue to find protection in countries near their country of origin, there will always be some who will travel long distances, often at great physical risk, in search of protection and safety.

As Minister of State with designated responsibility for human rights, I am concerned, as is Senator Keogh, at the growing level of racism and public intolerance of refugees and foreigners in Ireland. It is vital that measures are taken to counteract this trend and that the Government plays a strong, proactive role. Government policy in this area needs to be balanced, fair and above all mindful of our human rights obligations internationally. For this reason I am anxious that the procedures in place to deal with asylum applications are efficient and effective and, at the same time, respect the diversity and ethnicity of the asylum seekers concerned.

Many people fleeing political persecution will face death or torture if returned by EU countries. However, I also want Ireland to apply in a flexible and humane way our right under the Dublin Convention to transfer asylum seekers who are held to have entered Ireland via another member state, even where that state agrees to accept the transfer. There are almost certainly cases where people fleeing political persecution will face death or torture if they are then returned by EU countries to their country of origin.

My Department is closely liaising with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to ensure that Government policy on this issue is fully consistent with our international obligations. We are consulting the UNHCR on the technical challenge of putting in place fair procedures in this regard. In the longer term we must develop proper policies for accommodating ethnic minorities generally in Ireland.

Each of us must promote a generous and positive welcome for the refugee community in Ireland and see it for what it is, an opportunity for Ireland to develop its diversity and tolerance [1294] of difference as is fitting in a true Republic. In the same way as Irish emigrants for generations have enriched the countries in which they have settled and been welcomed, society can be enriched through the diverse experiences, contributions and talents of other cultures who wish to live among us.

The Refugee Agency, under the aegis of my Department, is responsible for the co-ordination of reception and resettlement services for programme refugees, that is, those refugees invited to Ireland following a Government decision. Such decisions are usually made on foot of an appeal from the UNHCR. The main groups of programme refugees in Ireland are Bosnian and Vietnamese. There are at present 826 Bosnians and 603 Vietnamese in this country, including a number born here.

The Refugee Agency is managed by a board which comprises an independent chairperson and representatives of the Departments most involved with refugee issues. The Irish Refugee Council, the Irish Red Cross and the Irish Episcopal

Commission for Emigrants are also represented on the board as are a number of observer members, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The agency is funded solely by way of grant-in-aid from the Department of Foreign Affairs. The staff of the agency consists of a director, a small resettlement team and administrative support. They do valuable and much appreciated work with their clients.

The main work of the resettlement team involves initial support for families, including assistance in accessing entitlements such as health, social welfare, language training etc. and in helping the individual or family find suitable accommodation usually in the private rented sector. Follow up support is provided mainly in relation to accessing education, training and employment opportunities and in dealing with applications for family reunification where close family members may be given permission to come to Ireland to join families here.

The agency also has a role in relation to the development of policy and services for refugees. With its expertise in this area it has been able to offer assistance and advice to Departments and agencies in relation to the development of specialist services for refugees. In this way the agency has sought to ensure that policies, such as English language and training, are developed which enable refugees to build an independent life in Ireland.

Reviews of the Refugee Agency have been undertaken in recent years. A review last year suggested that in the absence of a major conflict or crisis which might prompt further intakes of programme refugees, the agency would have fulfilled its purpose in the near future if its mandate was not altered. I am determined that there will be no more procrastination on this matter. The [1295] need for an agency with a wider remit is now urgent and I am liaising with the relevant Ministers to expedite the matter.

Over the years the Refugee Agency has provided a high standard of service to programme refugees. It has taken a lead role in assessing the special needs of these groups, such as accommodation, special psychological services, language training, skills training and retraining. The agency has a skilled resettlement team which has been supporting refugees in their task of integrating into society. They have been extremely successful in that most programme refugees are happily integrated. Many of them are citizens and many more are anxious to become citizens.

In my view, any decision on a future role for the Refugee Agency — this decision would be taken by the Government — must be in the context of the need for such a service for others apart from programme refugees. My view is that it would make sense from a number of perspectives to bring under one organisation the co-ordination of State services for programme refugees and those asylum seekers recognised as refugees under the Geneva Convention. We must start strategising now on the basis that a certain percentage of the thousands of asylum seekers currently being processed will be determined as convention refugees and, therefore, allowed to stay. We need to have support services ready to meet that demand.

However, it is vital that any consideration on broadening the remit of the agency is seen as part of an overall policy on asylum and immigration. As policy develops and procedures are put in place to deal quickly with asylum applications, there will be a real need to provide, in a skilled and efficient way, the relevant support and assistance to facilitate the integration into Irish society of all those given refugee status or leave to remain in Ireland on humanitarian grounds. Any change in the role and functions of the Refugee Agency would necessitate adjustments in its structure and operations. The present status of the agency is cumbersome and the review undertaken in 1997 recommends, for example, that it should have the status of a limited liability company with authority to employ its own staff.

I would like to see the agency in its revised form also take a lead role on public awareness on issues surrounding racism. I believe strong advocacy is required by public officials and leaders in society against racism and in favour of generosity and courtesy towards those who are fleeing persecution and conflict. The agency, along with all sectors of the community — including the media, NGOs, community groups, trade unions, schools and parents' organisations — should be central in informing Irish society and helping us adjust to the changes within our communities.

Ireland is changing — we are becoming a society of different nationalities, cultures and languages. The Government has a responsibility to [1296] give leadership to our people in adapting to this changing environment. As Senator Keogh said, our history is one of mass emigration; but, thankfully, that is no longer the case. We must not allow xenophobic tendencies to proliferate among us, tendencies which would be historically inconsistent and morally wrong.