I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. Given the huge upsurge in the numbers seeking protection, few Bills have been more timely or more needed. However, last weekend, I received 752 e-mails asking that I press for the withdrawal of the legislation. I am completely baffled by this. I do not know who orchestrated the campaign or how they formed the view that refugees’ interests would be better served by not passing this Bill. I wonder how many of them read the Bill or are aware that its purpose is to address the main concerns expressed by asylum seekers themselves.
We surely all agree that the painfully slow determination of status has been an outrage over the years. Nobody should be waiting up to seven years, or even more, for an outcome to an application for protection. The system simply had to be streamlined and made more efficient. The current lengthy process is no more likely to produce a better or fairer outcome for applicants than would a shorter process. I disagree with Deputy Boyd Barrett’s claim that a shorter process is somehow a way of getting refugees out of the country. There is far more focus and a sense of urgency when there is a single process rather than a drawn out one. The endless waiting period applicants have had to endure must have been utterly demoralising. I disagree, too, with Deputy Boyd Barrett’s argument that there is no proper appeals process. The safeguard of a completely independent appals system is included in the Bill.
I accept there may be disappointment that not all the recommendations of the working group are provided for in the Bill. However, that was never the purpose of this legislation. Its function is to provide for a single application process that will bring our system into line with those in other countries. It is what people have been clamouring for in recent years. The legislation also introduces enhanced compliance with the UN Convention on Refugees and with EU directives. In fact, the Bill provides for 26 of the recommendations of the working group. Crucially, it addresses the major concerns of asylum seekers currently residing in reception centres. Addressing the length of time issue will make the other recommendations far less urgent. If people are moved more quickly through the system, it certainly will make it easier to address many of the other concerns, such as providing single rooms for individuals and making family-appropriate accommodation available.
The Minister has clearly noted that speeding up the process by introducing a single application system is a priority but with more to come. This Bill addresses the first and most pressing issue and is one step in an ongoing effort. The refugee crisis is changing almost daily in terms of scale and the attendant dangers for those seeking asylum. There is no sign of any abatement in that crisis. Inevitably, Ireland and Europe’s responses will be under constant review, but we must begin with the measures set out in this Bill. Such is the scale of the challenge, it is inevitable too that we must clarify and update our laws and procedures dealing with applications. We also need to tighten up and make our deportation procedures much more orderly and safe. In addition, we need to strengthen our border controls. We owe it to the genuine cases seeking our protection that we register them, know who they are and where they are, and give a speedy outcome to their applications. At the same time, where persons are found not to be in need of protection, we must have a system that safely, promptly and cost-effectively arranges for their deportation. It is ludicrous that until relatively recently, 10% of people in reception centres had already had their applications rejected and were the subject of deportation orders. That percentage does not take account of those who have been lost in the system but presumably remain in the country.
I welcome, in particular, Part 9 which provides for matters relating to programme refugees, the admission into the State of persons for resettlement and the possible invocation of the Council of Ministers under the temporary protection directive. We in Ireland have gone beyond our EU commitment requirements in agreeing to take 4,000 refugees for resettlement here. It seems to be little understood that when one takes family reunification commitments into account, we will probably accept some four times that number. The Minister might not be able to do so in this Bill but I ask her to consider implementing as soon as possible the recommendations on including elderly relatives, for example, in the family reunification provisions.
When people are fleeing conflict, elderly people are often too infirm to travel. When one sees the pictures of people travelling, it is easy to see how elderly relatives may have to be left behind. Mothers, fathers and grandmothers are left out of the definition and they should be included. The recommended period of a year within which one must make an application should be extended, particularly where people are escaping from war-torn areas.
There has also been criticism about the delay in starting resettlement, but when one is resettling people, it is far better to be ready for them. Particularly given our current housing situation, it is in everybody’s interest if we are really ready to accommodate migrants. They will inevitably go to reception centres for processing and familiarisation, but given that nearly all those chosen for resettlement here will already have an established case for protection, it is likely that they will be able to move quite quickly through the first phase in reception centres and then hopefully move on into houses. If they are to be integrated and not left homeless or hanging around in reception centres, it is better to be ready and to take our time and maybe receive them in the new year, rather than trying to get them out immediately from the camps or wherever they are at the moment.
There has also been criticism that we are not accepting enough refugees and that 4,000, growing to 16,000, is a mere drop in the ocean. It is a drop in the ocean and we probably could be more generous. Indeed, we probably will be more generous, and I hope we will be. When we see the pictures on our televisions of hapless Syrians packed into boats, of children’s bodies being washed up on beaches, and of pregnant women who have travelled for months through Africa arriving to a less than welcoming Europe, our natural inclination is to respond with compassion, to be generous and to say that maybe we should open our doors to all comers. I understand that, because it is my own instinctive reaction, but while we could probably be more generous, the sad truth is that even if we were to accept into Europe all of those currently seeking asylum – most doing so legitimately – who are based in reception and detention centres in Europe, in camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, within a very short time, they would be replaced by as many more. It is sometimes not grasped that this is not a finite problem that we can solve by saying we will settle 4,000, 40,000 or 400,000. There will, for the foreseeable future, be wave after wave of migrants escaping war and want and seeking protection, shelter and a better way of life in Europe. Even if the Syrian war ended tomorrow, the instability in the Middle East created by war and devastated economies, the lack of any kind of rule of law in some north African countries, like Libya, and the unrest, wars and hunger of sub-Saharan Africa all combine to ensure a steady flow of humanity from south to north for years to come. It is not just Africa and Syria: we read in today’s newspapers of 1,200 refugees being bussed from the Macedonian border to Athens. They were not coming from Syria but from places like Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is an inexorable flow to Europe.
The world’s population is to grow between now and 2050 by almost 2.5 billion and most of that population growth will come from sub-Saharan Africa, where we have some of the poorest people in the world and many war-torn countries. In Nigeria alone, the population will more than double, rising from 173 million to almost 400 million people, surpassing the population of the US and Indonesia and becoming the world’s third most populous state, after India and China. That is just Nigeria; the trend is the same all over sub-Saharan Africa. If they are fleeing that region now, escaping poverty and hunger and seeking a better way of life in Europe, as the population grows and they become ever poorer and ever hungrier, they will come in ever-greater numbers. They will keep coming, seeking a better, safer way of life for themselves and their children for as long as the standard of living in Europe is better than theirs. Who could blame them? It is a perfectly natural thing to want to do. They do not have much but they do have mobile phones and access to the Internet and they know there is a better world than the one they live in, so they will come and they will take risks. They will continue to come until either their standard of living rises nearer to ours or ours falls to theirs, so that it is no longer attractive for them to come to Europe. That is the grim reality and we have to ask ourselves which option we want and what we will do to ensure that option is available. I am talking about doing something about poverty in Africa.
Squabbles over who takes how many refugees are very short-term problems compared to the future trend and what it means for Europe’s stability. Ending conflicts and improving economies and governance in Africa are problems without easy solutions, but that is a debate we urgently need to have in Europe and beyond. We need to see what we are dealing with in the broader context of what is to come. Meanwhile, migration must be managed and regulated, minimising exposure to danger for refugees through taking hazardous journeys. This must take the shape of funding camps in the countries where they first arrive, outside the EU. It must involve establishing a regulated programme of resettlement into Europe and putting in place improved border controls, which allow for the managed and ordered registration and reception of the many genuine asylum seekers.
I also want to comment on the criticism I have heard of Ireland, and Europe generally, paying money to Turkey to fund its refugee programme. Approximately €3 billion in funding was agreed in Europe. Critics accuse Turkey of human rights abuses, curbing the media and so on. Maybe they are right and maybe they are not. Maybe they are partly right. However, we have a bit of a hard neck to criticise Turkey when it comes to the refugee issue. Turkey is not Ireland. It is a country at the crossroads of continents, cultures and religion, and it is struggling to find a way to build a secular democracy appropriate to its place and time. They may not be all we want them to be, but they never will be if we leave them to deal with all the refugees they have had to cope with in recent years. Last June, I spent a few days on the Turkish-Syrian border, visiting refugee camps. As far as I am concerned, the Turkish Government and people have been heroic in the generosity and compassion they have shown to the almost 3 million refugees they have received and who have fled over the borders in the last four years. There are over 1 million people in towns and villages, absorbed into villages and swamping villages in many cases, along the border. There are also over 1 million people in the camps. One could not fault the Turkish people and Government for the efforts they have made to make those camps as safe, comfortable and well provided for as possible. They have provided schools, health centres and training centres, all in as culturally appropriate a manner as could be arranged. When I was there in June, they had already spent over $6 billion and they were pleading for more help. The initial refugees who came over the border into Turkey only envisaged staying there a few months. They assumed the war would be over soon and that they would go back. As the war drags on, temporary camp conditions, no matter how good, are clearly not a long-term solution. Consequently, these people are beginning to leave the camps and come north into Europe if they can. If we are to avoid those hazardous journeys, the least we can do is to give financial support to the receiving countries to improve conditions for the asylum seekers who are going to be there as the war goes on much longer than was envisaged in the first few months.
I also welcome and support the measures to improve the policing of our borders, here and in Europe. The prime function of any state is to protect its borders and that function is growing in importance as the terrorist threat in Europe grows. Apart from terrorism, the only way to register and assess those genuinely needing protection is to know who they are and where they are. I also welcome the agreement requiring airlines to pass on passenger lists. I know this has been criticised heavily because people say this exchange of data is an invasion of their privacy, but I would be happy to exchange my privacy for my protection and security. Most people would agree with that and would recognise that unfortunately there is a price we have to pay for security in the new world dominated by the threat of terrorism. I congratulate the Minister on this Bill. I utterly support everything in it and look forward to the further measures that will come in time.