[i] The Department of Justice have responded by introducing a programme for protection of migrants, and new legislation aims to reform and reorganise systems set in place by previous legislation.
Previous Irish refugee legislation
In the past, Ireland’s immigration policies have been criticised for their haphazard construction and lack of clarity. In particular, the implementation of the Refugee Act 1996 and the Immigration Bill 1999 saw low numbers of asylum seekers granted refugee status during one of the greatest periods of immigration into the country, the Celtic Tiger Years.
In particular, the dual-tracked approach to applications saw many applications discounted based on the fact that officials deemed them “so obviously without foundation as not to merit full examination”[ii]. This is known as a ‘manifestly unfounded procedure’, and was employed in Ireland as a means of speeding up the processing of applications when a large backlog grew.
This issue was in tandem with the fact that many of the people assessing the applications had little or no training or expertise in the area. Many were former Gardaí or civil servants.[iii]
In 2003, Steve Loyal stated that “the Irish state still lacks an official or coherent immigration policy comparable to that of other European countries”[iv]. While legislation followed this statement, the sentiment that great reform was still needed remained in place.
Loyal also points out that there is a marked difference between “asylum seekers” and “refugees”, as they are treated differently, legally. An asylum seeker is someone who wishes to have, but has not yet been granted, the title of a refugee. A refugee is someone who has been accepted on the grounds of protection from persecution and has many of the same rights as a citizen of the destination country.
The new measures
On March 25 2015, the General Scheme of the International Protection Bill 2015 was published. The Bill, as initiated, was passed on November 19. The Bill provides for a single procedure for applications, in contrast to the previous system. This would include applications for refugee status, as well as subsidiary protection and leave to remain.
The Bill repeals many acting pieces of legislations, such as the 1996 Act and eight of its S.I.s, the 2006 and 2013 Regulations, and the European Community Regulations of 2011. A full list of the provisions it repeals and reforms can be found in s.6 of the Bill.
The Bill provides several reasons why someone’s refugee status may be repealed. In the main, these are under circumstances in which the person can safely, and without recourse, return to their country of origin. Reasons for denial of refugee status include having previously committed crimes of war, or serious crimes that are not of a political nature.
S.8(2) of the Bill makes the following provision for the decision of foundation for the claim:
“In the assessment of whether an applicant has a well-founded fear of being persecuted, it is immaterial whether the applicant actually possesses the racial, religious, national, social or political characteristic which attracts the persecution, provided that such a characteristic is attributed to the applicant by the actor of persecution.”[v]
These measures go a way to solving the previous issue of unexamined applications, and provide clarity on points of debate regarding what constitutes a refugee.
The new legislation also outline the appeals procedure. Applicants will now have fifteen days to appeal decisions, in writing, to the Minister.
The 520 refugees already granted refuge and settlement are programme refugees, as defined under the Bill. The relevant passage, s.58(1), states that:
“a “programme refugee” means a person to whom permission to enter and remain in the State for resettlement, or for temporary protection … has been given by the Government or the Minister and whose name is entered in a register established and maintained by the Minister, whether or not such person is a refugee within the meaning of the definition of “refugee” in section 2”.[vi]
The remaining 3,500 will be assessed through the normal procedures.
In June, a Working Group on Direct Provision and the Protection Process published a report that included 170 recommendations for the improvement of Ireland’s system of dealing with refugee applications; among them, improvements to financial supports, access to education and community, and proper training for officials who process applications.
In Budget 2016, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Brendan Howlin TD commented that Ireland’s response to the current migrant crisis should be “practical and generous”. Therefore, the Budget will allocate €25m to the receiving, processing, and housing of refugees from affected countries. This money would provide for accommodation, staffing and staff training, integration programmes—something heavily advocated for—and Resettlement and Orientation centres. The first of these will be located in County Kildare, in the Hazel Hotel. However, there will be no increase in the allocated daily allowance for those in centres, despite the Working Group’s recommendation for a review of the amount.
When Minister for Justice and Equality, Frances Fitzgerald TD, announced the plan to accept the refugees in September, she also announced an “Irish Refugee Protection Programme”. This not only allows for the refugees to be accepted, but also establishes a task force to make sure that the programme is carried out properly. Full details of the programme can be found on the Department of Justice website.[vii]
Reception to the new legislation has been largely positive. The Irish Refugee Council accepted the moves; however, they called for the provisions to not only apply to migrants that had previously been agreed on (i.e., from areas such as Syria). They also criticised the lack of reform to the Direct Provision systems, which their Communications Officer noted was “acknowledged nationally and internationally as not fit for purpose” [viii]. They have also called for organisation of the private offers for receiving refugees. With the first refugees due to arrive in the coming weeks, it remains to be seen whether or not the new legislation, which seems strong on paper, will apply and maintain a fair, fast, and dignified system for incoming refugees.
[i] Press Release here.
[ii] UNHCR EXCOM Conclusions, No. 30 (XXXIV) – 1983. “The Problem of Manifestly Unfounded or Abusive Applications for Refugee Status or Asylum”.
[iii]Loyal, Steve, “Welcome to the Celtic Tiger: racism, immigration and the state”. The end of Irish History, 2003. pg 116. Available here.
[iv] Ibid, pg 113.
[v] International Protection Bill 2015. Available here.
[vii] Available here.
[viii] Press Release here.