"What are we looking at as far as people remaining in the system for years and years? I am from Waterford and the direct provision centres are in Tramore ... what members of the public want to know is how quickly will somebody be processed?"
PAC Meeting, Nov 5 2015
Department of Justice called and examined
Deputy John Deasy: That was the shortest opening statement ever, which is a good sign. I was not going to start with the issue of prisons as they are not as such the subject of this Vote. We are dealing with the appropriation accounts, which cover quite a good deal as well as the issue of prisons. In the appropriation accounts, I want to start by asking about the asylum process, which is one of Mr. Waters' areas of expertise in the years he has been in the Department of Justice and Equality.
Mr. Noel Waters [Secretary General]: Yes. Hopefully, it is.
John Deasy: I want to go through some of the figures and some of the policy announcements that have been made recently, particularly as they pertain to fast-tracking the processing of applicants. I will start with that aspect. On doing some research into this, I saw press reports of a fast-tracking process being formulated within the Department having been announced in the media in April of this year. I do not know many times it has been re-announced and every time there is a media scrutiny and exposure of the refugee crisis that exists, and that has grown during the past six months in Europe, we hear about the issue of fast-tracking the processing of applicants much quicker. At what stage is the fast-tracking of the processing of applicants process at now?
Noel Waters: What the may be referring to is legislation that has been a long time in the making, the international protection Bill, which will tidy up the not fit for purpose legislation we currently have in place, which owes its origin to the Refugee Act 1966, which in turn is a time-consuming sequential, not fit for purpose piece of legislation. The new international protection Bill will require people to put all their details on the table pretty much immediately when they make their applications. One of the effects of the current system we are operating is that there are possibly up to five or six, or maybe more in some circumstances, opportunities for people to seek to a judicial review of decisions which have been taken in the system and that has given rise to very serious delays.
John Deasy: There are four parts to the process potentially and then one can pursue a High Court appeal.
Noel Waters: Literally, at every decision point in the system, as it currently stands, people are entitled to go before the High Court. They do that on a regular basis and that is their entitlement. That is the law. A new Bill will remove that aspect. There will be two points of decision in the system, which will remove that aspect immediately. That Bill is a long time in the making. It was part of a wider piece of legislation, which was contemplated for reform of the entire immigration area, and the Minister, upon taking office in May of last year, decided to separate out the protection aspect of it. That has been done, and the publication of that is imminent. I anticipate that the Government will be making a decision on it very shortly. The intention is that it will be published, brought before the Oireachtas and, ideally and hopefully, the Minister - who is on record as having said this - would wish it to be enacted before the end of this session.
John Deasy: What are we looking at as far as people remaining in the system for years and years? I am from Waterford and the direct provision centres are in Tramore. I deal with many people who are in the system, having applied for refugee status. What will we be looking at in terms of timelines when somebody makes an application? Obviously there is an appeals process in place but what members of the public want to know is how quickly will somebody be processed?
Noel Waters: To put some context around this, under the existing system in terms of the first two aspects of the process, people get through it within a medium time of about eight months. When one applies for asylum, one gets a decision. The number of people being granted asylum is on the increase, and is of the order of 12% or 13% of the number of people who apply.
John Deasy: I will get to that aspect and I have the figures.
Noel Waters: I will come back to that. If an applicant is refused in the first instance and then makes an appeal, that decision is ordinarily made in about eight months. The difficulty in our current system is with the process beyond that, where the applicant then makes an application under what is known as subsidiary protection and that, effectively, starts the whole process all over again, and when that process is completed, the applicant can then seek to make an application for leave to remain in the country.
John Deasy: I understand that but what will be different with the fast-tracking of the processing of applicants?
Noel Waters: What will be different in the new system is that people will be required at the very point of making an application to put forward every single ground on which they are claiming protection in the State. They will not be allowed back into the system at a later stage on the basis that a new ground has emerged. They will be required from the outset to put all their information onto the system when making their application.
John Deasy: That will not prevent them from applying. If they put information on to the system, will there be an automatic bar in that respect in some cases?
Noel Waters: Absolutely. There will be a statutory requirement for them to do that and if they do not abide by that, effectively, they will be out.
John Deasy: Can Mr. Waters give me an example with regard to what they will be asked to fill out and what those statutory bars will be?
Noel Waters: For example, if somebody applies for asylum and they claim under the grounds that they are being oppressed because of their religion in their home country and that is found not to be the case, they then make their appeal and it is also found not to be the case, and they then, under subsidiary protection, go on to make an application on the basis that they have a fear of returning to their country-----
Acting Chairman [Robert Dowds TD]: To take the example of an application being discriminated on the grounds of religion, does the Department undertake an investigation of the country from which the applicant has come?
Noel Waters: There is a very large process with a large number of people involved in this. It is an independent process run by the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner, who is an independent officer of the Minister and of the Department while part of the Department. That office does what is known as country of origin research in a very large way. The office is also very much a part of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees training programme. That has all been very well established and there is a very large amount of information available to people in the Department in terms of documentation and access to the information about the countries. That is very well established. We started off very poorly in that respect ten years ago but by now we have extensive documentation around that process.
John Deasy: What is different with regard to what the Department is now proposing?
Noel Waters: What we are proposing now is that the person making the application will be required to say, "I wish to claim asylum in Ireland on the basis that I am persecuted because of my religion in my country and I also wish to make it clear that I am fearful about returning to my country". The person will be required to do that on the spot, not as two different separate processes. If they do not do that and their appeal is upheld, there is no more room for them be part of the system.
John Deasy: That is the end of it then.
Noel Waters: Yes, exactly.
John Deasy: So, then, what are we talking about? Are we talking about there being increased deportations?
Noel Waters: Clearly, that will be a function with respect to the number of people who come through the process but the ultimate gain in this for everybody - for Ireland, for the taxpayer - is that people will be processed through the system far more quickly. Clearly, in cases where they do qualify, they could be processed and recognised as refugees, or they will now be known as protection applicants, within a matter of weeks. That will happen.
I will come to the issue of the people coming here from Syria, by invitation of the Government, and the relocation process. That will happen in a matter of weeks in many cases. In other cases, there is no reason why those applications will not be dealt with and out of the system in a matter of months. Our target around that is that we should be able to do that between six and nine months. That will mean that people will not continue to be housed for very lengthy periods in direct provision. The reason they are there in very many cases is due to the delays in the system because of the sequential nature of it, due to the multiple opportunities people have to apply before the courts.
John Deasy: That is fair enough. Mr. Waters referred to the rates at which refugee status is granted, and I will refer to them now. The figure I have for 2011 is 3.3%, that for 2012 is 5.6%, and that for 2013 is 11.4%. Could Mr. Waters give me an idea of the numbers for 2014 and 2015 to date? He mentioned a rise to 12.6%. Could he explain this? Why has there been a rise from 3.3% to over 12%?
Noel Waters: The granting rate for 2014 was 12.6%. Essentially, there is no mathematical formula for this. People present themselves and make an application, and they either qualify or they do not. At the finish, it is a function of where people are applying from. Our system in more recent years has seen very many more people applying from refugee-generating countries. That was not always the case. Hence, if people are applying in Ireland and are from countries that do generate refugees, they will obviously-----
John Deasy: The last figures I saw, which were contained in a reply to a parliamentary question and were from the Department, indicated that the increase in asylum applicants was attributable to immigration from countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Noel Waters: Yes. This is a feature of this year. From late last year, there has been a very large number. I will just go back over the figures for recent years.
John Deasy: That does not quite equate with what Mr. Waters just said.
Noel Waters: We are talking about this year. To the best of my knowledge, up to the end of September about 1,500 people from Pakistan had applied for asylum in Ireland. That would have been approximately 40% to 45% of all applicants in our system at that stage. We are likely to have approximately 3,500, or perhaps 3,800, applicants this year, representing a very large increase over the last number of years.
John Deasy: What is the increase from last year? Is the total 3,800?
Noel Waters: In 2013, it was 950, or thereabouts. Last year, it was in the order of 1,200, and it is now likely to be 3,800.
John Deasy: Is Mr. Waters saying Bangladesh and Pakistan account for 45% of the applications?
Noel Waters: By the year's end, the likelihood is that they probably will.
John Deasy: Let us stick with that. People have intimated to me that some of the individuals coming from Pakistan and Bangladesh have already been processed in the UK system. What they do is come to Northern Ireland, for example, and cross the Border, given the free travel area. Has Mr. Waters encountered this himself?
Noel Waters: I want to talk in general terms because, clearly, people have a statutory and lawful entitlement to claim asylum. I do not want in any sense to be-----
John Deasy: I do not either. That is fair enough.
Noel Waters: -----commenting on any individual application.
John Deasy: I am actually citing the countries that the Department cited to me; that is why I am mentioning them.
Noel Waters: Yes. Let me outline what seems to be happening and what is a concern for us. The applicant cohort in the United Kingdom from the countries the is referring to tends to comprise young males in their early to mid-20s, or perhaps a little older. One of the benefits of our common travel area system is that we can check with our colleagues in the United Kingdom whether our applicants already have immigration status in the United Kingdom. In many cases, the applicants are people who might have arrived in the United Kingdom as students and whose immigration status has expired. In order to remain within the common travel area of Ireland and the United Kingdom, they come to Ireland, make an application here and, in some instances, remain. In some instances, when their applications are dealt with, they will have disappeared back into the system. It is a concern and-----
John Deasy: Surely it is a huge waste of resources when one considers the applicants have already gone through the UK process.
Noel Waters: They have not gone through the UK asylum process, by and large. They would have come to the United Kingdom through a different immigration route. While I agree with the , we have a statutory duty to everybody who turns up to claim asylum.
John Deasy: I will tell you where I am coming from. My view is probably shared universally and almost certainly within the Department. There is a refugee crisis in Europe right now and we have finite resources. We have not seen the kinds of pressures that Germany, for example, is experiencing. The city of Berlin is processing 1,000 people per day.
Noel Waters: Yes.
John Deasy: When Mr. Waters says something like that to me, I think about the people who are actually genuine refugees who deserve attention and accommodation and deserve to have governments look at them differently. Frankly, what we are dealing with here seems to be people who are applying for refugee status spuriously in many cases. That seems to have been a hallmark of our system down through the years, bearing in mind the rates Mr. Waters just cited. He mentioned that the number of genuine refugees is increasing. It is reflected in the refugee status granting rates.
However, the question arises as to how effective the system will be outside the fast-tracking process. Consider how much money we spend in this area and where it needs to be allocated. When there is an increase to 3,800 from 900, which was the number a couple of years ago, we have a problem. The problem is that the money is not going where it should be...
John Deasy: I referred to a number of nationalities mentioned in the responses I received from the Department. Members of the public would ask, in the context of the common travel area and those individuals applying for asylum, how different it will be under the new system. While the figure of 3,800 is not massive in comparison with other European countries, it is growing quite considerably.
Noel Waters: It is growing and that is worrying-----
John Deasy: It has grown fourfold in two years. What will the difference be in the treatment of people who were not fully processed in the UK system but who come here through Northern Ireland once the aforementioned legislation is enacted?
Noel Waters: It will mean they will not have the opportunities they have at the moment. They will not have five or six opportunities to go to the High Court to seek judicial reviews. It would not be unusual, although the incidences have reduced in recent times, for somebody who is literally on the steps of a plane, having been removed by gardaí, to seek High Court relief to stop his or her removal. That was not unusual in the period we are discussing. We can never rule that out. People have a right to go to the courts but we are removing the opportunities for people to do so as best we can.
There is also a wider issue here in the context of what is known as the Dublin regulation. Members will be aware that people are expected and required to make their application for asylum in the first country they enter. If they do not do so, they must be removed but that is not working in any country in Europe at the moment. The arrangements around it are very complex. People have to be given opportunities to appeal. It can work better if a country can detain people but we do not detain people in Ireland. It is a matter of policy that we do not do that save for very short periods pending their removal. When I say short periods, I mean a few days at most. That is part of the process too.
John Deasy: The onus on the individuals effectively to deport themselves is not going to change with this legislation. Is that correct?
Noel Waters: The onus will always be on the person, on foot of a deportation order, to leave the State.
John Deasy: Does Mr. Waters have any idea of the percentage of people who leave the country on foot of a deportation order?
Noel Waters: As I indicated, we did an exercise to try to establish that. It is very difficult, by definition, because people can travel freely. The favoured route at the moment is from the North, across to Scotland and down, as it is on the way back in. Hitherto, it would have been from Dublin on the ferry route or from Rosslare, but those routes are now closed off. We have an added difficulty in that if someone travels from Scotland and to Northern Ireland, he or she is still in the UK. None of us wants to reach a point where we are introducing border controls at Dundalk or elsewhere. That is clearly not an option. There are practical difficulties in respect of policing that area.
We do not have hard figures on the numbers of people who leave on foot of deportation orders.
John Deasy: Yes, but the Department did an exercise and has a fair idea of the figures. What figure did the Department come up with?
Noel Waters: We did on exercise on it, yes. There were between 10,000 and 11,000 people on our books whose cases still were not processed but when we wrote to them and to their legal advisers, we found that the real, live caseload was between 5,000 and 6,000 people. Most of those would have been outside of the direct provision system.
John Deasy: Is Mr. Waters saying that half of them left?
Noel Waters: That would have been our experience at that point.
John Deasy: When was that?
Noel Waters: This would have been in 2012-2013.