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Immigration Q&A: What are ‘safe countries’ and how many asylum applications are in train?

Designation of a state as ‘safe’ means asylum applications are then processed with greater speed

As debate sharpens over migration, Minister for Justice Helen McEntee is taking steps to tighten the international protection regime.

One key measure is to speed up rulings on cases taken by people from Algeria and Botswana by designating them as “safe countries”. Another is to resume charter flights to deport failed asylum seekers. In addition, procedures for checking whether applicants received asylum in any other European Union country have been quickened.

Such moves come in advance of a big European overhaul of asylum and migration laws, aimed at deepening co-ordination between member states. The EU legislation does not automatically apply in Ireland but Ms McEntee has signalled she will recommend opting-in to the new EU regime.

What are ‘safe countries’?

The International Protection Act of 2015 gives the Minister for Justice powers to make such designations “on the basis of the legal situation, the application of the law within a democratic system and the general political circumstances” in the country.


In each case, the Minister must be satisfied “that there is generally and consistently no persecution, no torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and no threat by reason of indiscriminate violence in situations of international or internal armed conflict”.

Using these criteria, Ms McEntee has resolved that Algeria and Botswana are safe countries.

The first designation was in 2018, when then minister Charlie Flanagan put eight countries on the list: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Georgia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Serbia, and South Africa.

What is the significance of a ‘safe country’ designation?

In essence, the designation means asylum applications are processed with greater speed. The Government aims to hand down a determination within 90 days, although negative rulings can be still challenged at the International Protection Appeals Tribunal. Most appeals are determined within four or five months.

“Safe country” cases are considered on their merits, although the burden of proof is considered to be a bit higher. Applicants face the rebuttable presumption that they do not need protection. The country must be considered safe if applicants don’t submit serious grounds to have it deemed unsafe in their circumstances.

What happened in previous cases?

The accelerated process was introduced in November 2022. Among the 2,192 applications that had entered the system by December 2023, 68 per cent received a first-instance ruling, and 81 per cent of the rulings were negative, prompting appeals in 80 per cent of the cases. The original decision was upheld in 79 per cent of the appeals.

The final determination was handed down in 1,441 of the cases by the end of 2023, with 64 per cent of the applicants from Georgia and 25 per cent from South Africa.

The average processing time was 80-90 days in the first months but dropped to 65 days when a digital-only system was introduced in August. Applications from “safe countries” dropped 39 per cent in the first 12 months of accelerated “safe country” processing.

Overall, how many asylum applications are in train?

Reforms in 2016 aimed to speed the system by assessing applications for three forms of protection in a single process, instead of sequentially.

This means applications to be declared a refugee fleeing persecution are considered simultaneously with the case for subsidiary protection for people who have a genuine fear of danger and the case for ministerial permission to remain based on ties built up in Ireland.

The International Protection Office received 13,277 asylum applications in 2023, down almost 3 per cent on 2022. The highest number of applicants came from Georgia, Algeria, Nigeria, Somalia and Afghanistan.

To quicken decision-making, the office is increasing its staff and digitising case files. Decisions in 9,000 cases were issued in 2023, up from 4,988 in 2022 and 3,334 in 2019. The number of monthly determinations rose above 1,000 in November 2023, the aim being to hand down 14,000 rulings this year.

What about applications from people granted asylum elsewhere?

The Government has accelerated inadmissibility procedures that aim to establish where asylum seekers have already received protection elsewhere in the EU.

Fingerprint and photograph data from applicants is now processed in a system known as EuroDac, which registers the data of people who already are the beneficiaries of international protection. Such applications are likely to be rejected by Ireland, the argument being that a person with refugee status in another EU member state can be deemed an economic migrant when seeking protection in Ireland.

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Arthur Beesley

Arthur Beesley

Arthur Beesley is Current Affairs Editor of The Irish Times