Remarks at the Opening of the Irish Refugee Council’s Independent Law Centre
17th November 2013
A dhaoine uaisle, Dia dhaoibh go léir ar maidin. Tá an-áthas orm bheith anseo inniu.
I am delighted to be here today to formally open the Irish Refugee Council’s independent law centre and to launch the European Database of Asylum Law. I would like to thank Mrs. Justice Catherine McGuinness, patron of the Irish Refugee Council and Ms. Sue Conlan, Chief Executive, for inviting me here today. As I am familiar with the role and objectives of the Irish Refugee Council and the important advocacy work they do for asylum seekers and refugees, I am especially pleased to be in your company today.
On the occasion of World Refugee Day 2011, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon, said “I ask people everywhere to spare a thought for the millions of children, women and men who have been forced from their homes, who are at risk of their lives, and who, in most cases, want nothing more than to return home or to start afresh. Let us never lose sight of our shared humanity.”
Those words of the Secretary General resonate strongly with me. Throughout my public life, in my speeches I have sought to place great value on our shared humanity and the need to champion the protection and promotion of the human rights of those marginalised and voiceless in our society. And what group of people could be more disenfranchised than those fleeing persecution and human rights abuses in their own countries and seeking hope and refuge in a foreign land where the language, culture and social practices may be very alien to an arriving refugee. There is in addition to the social and psychological challenges, the need to read the forms of a local bureaucracy. The situation of asylum seekers and refugees wherever they may find themselves continues to be an issue of significant interest to me as President of Ireland.
The Irish Refugee Council will celebrate its 20th birthday this year. Since its establishment in 1992, it has been working to support and improve the way in which asylum seekers and refugees are dealt with in Ireland, whether in terms of contributing to national policy debate on the matter, or by providing advice, support and advocacy on behalf of individual asylum seekers as the need arises.
In 2011, the Member States of the United Nations commemorated the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. The Convention and its 1967 Protocol are the fundamental instruments which form the foundation of the international protection regime for refugees. Ireland acceded to the Convention and Protocol in 1956 and 1968 respectively and their core principles have guided our approach over the years to meeting the needs of those who arrive here seeking refuge.
The Convention was in place for many years before we here in Ireland began to experience the challenge of large numbers of persons arriving here seeking protection. At the time we did not have in place the asylum processing infrastructure that we have today to deal with their protection applications. Much had to be done in a relatively short space of time to deal with the challenge of the ever increasing numbers that continued to arrive and for which we had responsibility. In responding to this challenge, our authorities sought to replace ad-hoc administrative arrangements with a more sophisticated approach to dealing with asylum applications. Although the ad-hoc administrative arrangements met our international obligations at the time, they were not adequate for dealing with higher numbers of applications.
There has always been the challenge too of using a language in relation to asylum and refugee issues that is both morally acceptable and which honours the spirit of the international obligations to which we have committed ourselves.
Ireland has also shown solidarity internationally by continuing to work in partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the context of our national resettlement programme. This programme, which has been in place for many years, is directed at refugees who are stranded and living in difficult circumstances outside of their countries and for whom going home, or staying where they are, are not realistic or long term solutions for them.
Around a thousand people have been resettled in Ireland down the years under the programme, including twenty four people who were resettled from a refugee camp on the border between Tunisia and Libya in 2010. In the tough economic times we are currently experiencing, there is always the danger that people might question the need for all of this.
However, we must never lose sight of our international and human rights obligations. We must be guided by our moral compass to ensure that we act fairly and humanely in all of our dealings with those people who have been made to feel unsafe, forced to flee and have as a result made no easy decision to leave their home country, often with great risk to their lives and to those of their families, and who have genuine reasons for seeking Ireland’s protection. We must remind ourselves of the UN Secretary General’s words “never lose sight of our shared humanity”.
It is right therefore, that we acknowledge the key role and the great efforts that Ireland has made to ensure that those who are deserving of protection are guaranteed it. It is also right that we acknowledge the distinctive role that NGOs have to play in ensuring that society as whole faces up to the challenge of addressing this issue on the basis of our shared humanity – a role that must be exercised independently and from a rights perspective.
The investigation and assessment of asylum applications is a solemn task. Great care and attention must be paid to each person’s application with every opportunity taken to explore and avail of information which assists the person making the application, which also depends on the interpretation by individuals of the duty which attaches to the decision-making process. The Minister, and his or her officials, charged with responsibility under the law in making the vital decision must never lose sight of their shared humanity with the applicant. It is through this prism that I view the two constructive initiatives which you have asked me here to launch today.
Notwithstanding all the State has done, and continues to do, to meet its commitments under the 1951 Convention and other relevant international law, there is always a place for forward-looking and pro-active initiatives from civil society to contribute to the overall quality of the asylum determination process. I would like to acknowledge the support of private philanthropic bodies in this area such as Atlantic Philanthropies, The One Foundation, The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and others.
I understand that the aim of the Law Centre is to identify and address any unmet legal needs of protection applicants in a strategic manner and to promote and deliver prompt legal advice and representation to those in the early stages of the asylum process. In this way, I hope that the Law Centre will complement the service already provided by the State. Providing other complementary options can only be to the benefit of asylum seekers generally and I have every confidence that the Law Centre will act as a strong and positive voice both at the individual and national level. I look forward to seeing how the Law Centre develops over the years to come.
I am also pleased to launch the European Database of Asylum Law here today. I am certain that it will serve as a very helpful resource for all those involved in the challenging and complex area of refugee status determination and to the courts. Access to relevant and up-to-date legal decisions from a variety of countries and sources can only serve to provide further support for those whose task it is to make decisions, with potentially life changing consequences, for those seeking protection in Ireland.
I understand that the database will include judgments from the courts of eleven European countries. Over time, the possibility of other countries to have judgments from their courts included in the data base will surely serve to increase the use of the resource into the future. Such pan-European cooperation is truly an example of what can be achieved when we positively share resources, skills and commitment for a common purpose. The Irish Refugee Council is to be commended for co-ordinating the development of this database over the last year in partnership with the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, as is the European Commission for providing the enabling funding.
Although the number of people seeking asylum in Ireland is in sharp decline in recent years, the individual needs of asylum seekers do not change and the two initiatives being launched here today will greatly add to the supports already available for those who have to leave their home country to seek protection. As the number of asylum seekers has dropped we now, of course, have an enhanced opportunity of honouring even better the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees and responding to the inward migration system that has evolved.
I commend the Irish Refugee Council, its staff and supporters for all the work you do on behalf of a group who, virtue of their circumstances, are often marginalised; I congratulate you on the two initiatives that are being launched today; and I wish you all the best in your future endeavours.
Go raibh mile maith agaibh go léir.