Government’s moves to fast-track the international protection decision-making process must not deprive applicants of fair procedures, including access to legal advice at an early stage, a leading immigration lawyer has said.
“Fairness from the outset is in the interests of everyone, the applicants and the authorities,” senior counsel Colm O’Dwyer said. “It is very important that applicants get fair procedures, these are significant decisions for people and making them properly takes time.”
Solicitor Brian Burns, also a specialist on immigration, endorsed concerns raised by the Irish Refugee Council about applicants not having access to legal advice before having to complete required documents on their arrival in the State.
“I believe they should have access to legal advice,” Mr Burns said. “You have to factor in that English is not the first language for many and some do not get oral hearings. They are assisted by cultural mediators but we don’t know what experience the mediators have of the protection system.”
Both lawyers were speaking to The Irish Times after Minister for Justice Simon Harris said at the weekend that the Government would accelerate the international protection decision-making process.
Figures released by his department to RTÉ’s This Week programme showed a surge in asylum applications last year to 13,651, almost three times the 2019 figure of 4,781. Other European countries have experienced similar increases.
There are 850 appeals against refusals of asylum or refugee status pending before the International Protection Appeals Tribunal (IPAT) but the number of staff working with the tribunal has fallen to 46 from 50 in 2019, a drop of 8 per cent. The tribunal completed 1,558 appeals last year.
The figures showed 45 staff were assigned last year to the repatriation office, which deals with issuing deportation orders, compared with 58 in 2019.
The number of staff processing initial asylum applications rose from 143 in 2019 to 221 last year. The figures showed that 10,049 people – four out of every five applicants for asylum since 2019 – were allowed to remain after a final decision was made in their case.
The Minister granted permission to remain to 45 per cent of these after considering family circumstances and connections with Ireland. The number of people refused asylum or the right to remain since 2019 was 2,910, some 22 per cent of the cases processed.
The figures show that 14,849 cases are awaiting processing by the International Protection Office with most decided within three years.
A source within the office said it was “very busy” but was “getting through applications as quickly as we can”. Most applications now being dealt with concerned people who applied last year, they said.
New procedures put in place in the office last November were aimed at speeding up the processing of applications from people who arrived from what Ireland deems as “safe” countries of origin, including Georgia, Albania and South Africa.
Applicants have been required since November to complete in English, on the day of arrival and without the benefit of legal advice, a preliminary interview and international protection questionnaire. Previously they had a number of weeks to compile their applications during which they could seek legal advice.
These procedures also apply to applicants from countries in relation to which there is a large number of applications or appeals.
Mr O’Dwyer said the fact there was no oral appeal for applicants from safe countries against a refusal of their application has caused problems. He was also concerned that people who may have little or no English were completing important documents on the day of arrival here, many after arduous journeys, and without an understanding of what is involved including, for example, the meaning of persecution.
“Trying to rush through such important decisions may prove counterproductive,” he said. “It has been recognised that the early involvement of lawyers is very helpful, not just to applicants but to the whole process, including by reducing the number of appeals.”