Deportation Moratorium (Covid-19) Bill 2020

First Stage: 9 Dec 2020
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Bill entitled an Act to prohibit the deportation of persons from the State during the public health emergency posed by the spread of Covid-19 and to provide for related matters.

Ivana's Contributions

Committee and Remaining Stages: 14/12/2020

I thank the Minister of State for her response on Second Stage, particularly to my question about the relocation of the Central Mental Hospital, albeit that the first half of 2021 is still unclear. From what she said - and I appreciate she is just being realistic - it seems it could be as late of June of next year. Given the urgency with which this Bill is being taken through, to which we do not object, it seems unfortunate that it will take so long to have the relocation carried out. Senator McDowell's amendment specifies a nearer date, which would be welcome.

The Senator raised a number of important points about prison conditions more generally. Like him, I pay tribute to Grainne McMorrow on her report into the dreadful murder of Gary Douch and what it showed us about the appalling conditions in Mountjoy Prison at the time, including the overcrowding and the lack of facilities for people with mental and psychiatric illness in the prison.

Without rehashing that debate there were a number of problems with the Thornton Hall project as originally envisaged. At the time, the Irish Penal Reform Trust raised concerns about the scale of that prison development. Some 2,200 places were proposed and it was being described as a supermax prison or an Irish equivalent of that. There was a lot of concern about cost and there was concern about the proposed location of the Central Mental Hospital on the same campus. I am conscious that, as Senator Boyhan rightly said, the hospital is a hospital and not a prison. The Portrane site is infinitely preferable because it is a hospital site, which is important. It is hard to believe that the McGuinness report to which Senator McDowell referred was back in 2011.

It is a long time ago. Her report said the site at Thornton Hall should be built upon for a new prison but at a dramatically scaled-down size. That expert group did not agree with the 2,200 proposal and, indeed, I believe its proposal was for a much smaller prison built along more therapeutic and rehabilitative lines to house no more than 500 people in one facility and 200 in another. It is extraordinary that nine years after that report, we still do not have any facility there. I would agree; I was a regular visitor to Mountjoy Prison over many years and saw first-hand the improvements that were carried out on site. It is still, however, a prison that dates back to 1850 in which the cells are woefully inadequate for modern conditions.

To return to the matter of relocation, which is the subject of this welcome Bill, the point about capacity we spoke about earlier ties in with the timeframe in this amendment. While we have all acknowledged that the increase to 170 places is welcome, we have also acknowledged that it is not enough. Like many of my fellow members of a previous Oireachtas justice committee, I believe we should be reducing the numbers in our prisons and relying more on community-based sanctions, particularly for non-violent minor offences. At the same time, we need to see an increase in forensic beds and psychiatric places to enable us to deal with the waiting list which I have described and to which Professor Harry Kennedy and the director general of the Irish Prison Service have referred. At any one time, 20 to 30 persons per week are waiting to get admission to the Central Mental Hospital.

I want to refer to one key issue. There has been an increase in the number of people seeking treatment, but there has also been an increase in the amount of time people spend in detention in the Central Mental Hospital. Clearly, that is a huge factor to be built into the timeframe for relocation. Looking at the figures, much of this is to do with an increase in verdicts of not guilty by reason of insanity. Professor Kennedy told the justice committee that ten years ago, two persons per annum might have been brought into the Central Mental Hospital by virtue of one of those verdicts, but it is now up to approximately ten per annum. He said that the average stay is approximately seven years for somebody who has been found not guilty by reason of insanity. That has increased the average stay of a person in the CMH currently to 4.4 years from 2.1 years on average in 2008. He is quoted as saying that when he started in the Central Mental Hospital, persons might have been in for a few months, received treatment and then were moved on. As I have said, the average length of stay is now more than four years. I was quite shocked to see that figure. It must also be built in that this is clearly a big factor in the decreased room for manoeuvre and the decreased facility for referring persons in from the Prison Service. We come then to this situation, to which Senator McDowell referred, where people within the Prison Service should be getting inpatient treatment in a hospital setting instead. I wanted to put those issues on the record. Again, however, I welcome the Bill.

Second Stage: 09/12/2020

I welcome the Minister to the House and congratulate her on her personal news. I am glad that I had the opportunity to congratulate her personally. I note that my former Labour Party colleague, Niamh Bhreathnach, writing in today's edition of The Irish Times, has pointed out the need for a debate on supports for women in public office. I was first elected when I was pregnant with my second daughter, and I know how glad I was that there were female Oireachtas Members before me who had fought for an Oireachtas crèche and for recognition of the need to accommodate women and men with small children in the Oireachtas.

I thank Senators Higgins and Ruane for putting forward this Bill, and on behalf of the Labour Party, I am delighted to support it very strongly. They have taken a very positive initiative, and it compliments the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Bill 2018 and the Born Here, Belong Here campaign that I have been strongly involved in with Labour Youth and the Labour Party. I thank the Minister for her engagement with me and the Labour Party on that Bill, and I am glad to be meeting with her officials next week.

I welcome many aspects of the Minister's speech and the Government's approach, particularly the Minister's assurance to those who undertake vaccination as part of the vaccination programme that no information gathered as part of that process will be passed on to the immigration authorities. That is an important assurance, given that we have just received such positive news on vaccines. I am also glad that the Minister is engaging with the recommendation of the Catherine Day advisory group to extend the period for people to come back on the voluntary return issue from five days to 30 days.

I am very pleased to hear of the Minister's commitment to the scheme to regularise the position of undocumented migrants, and of her offer to set a process in train for a pathway to legal residency and ultimately to the privilege of citizenship. In our Irish Nationality and Citizenship Bill, we were seeking to ensure that people living here and who have a stake here in Ireland, but who have this dreadful fear hanging over them and face uncertainty around their legal status, would have a pathway to citizenship. I am really glad that we are going to see that scheme announced in the coming weeks and that it will be as broad as possible to cover every eligible undocumented person and his or her family members. I hope that in the course of the introduction of that scheme we will be able to discuss the issue of citizenship fees, which remain very high relative to other EU countries, and, more importantly, we will able to see a good, robust pathway to citizenship for people here and to fulfil the motivations in our Bill.

Having welcomed those aspects of the Bill, I regret that the Government is seeking to deny this Bill a Second Reading. We will be opposing the Government's amendment. We do not think it is good enough to say that our approach relies on pragmatism and that that is enough for the many people who face the fear of deportation.

In many other instances Private Members' Bills whose intentions have attracted general support have been subject to amendment by agreement with the proposer. I am sure the proposing Members will also be open to amendment in this case. The Bill is modest enough in that it only seeks to tie discretion for a temporary emergency period. That seems very reasonable to me.

I note the figures other Members have pointed out. I am glad to hear that only four people have been removed from the State since St. Patrick's Day. That reflects a compassionate approach. However, 469 deportation orders were issued between the outbreak of the pandemic and the end of October. Every one of the 469 recipients will have experienced a great deal of stress, anxiety and insecurity as a result of these orders, even it has not translated into actual deportation in his or her case. This does not reflect the number of persons who have taken the option of voluntary return, which can sometimes be less than voluntary. The figures mask this issue, as well as the stress and fear involved. Perhaps the Minister could comment on that.

Many of us have been contacted by individuals who have received deportation orders, especially this year. I have written to the Minister on behalf of several people, particularly Mr. Benjamin Akhile, who has been resident in the country for 14 years. He fled Sierra Leone many years ago. His partner has been an activist for many years. A good deal has been written in the press about him, including in Hot Press. He has been received a deportation order and has been ordered to leave the country by 10 December. A petition calling for revocation of this order has more than 21,000 signatures. This is one person who has been subject to real fear, substantive uncertainty, stress and pressure as a result of the receipt of a deportation order. Many others will also have experienced the same things.

During the course of the pandemic there have been real concerns about threats of deportation of front-line healthcare workers. In November approximately 160 people in direct provision were working in the healthcare system. We must be conscious of the fact that sectors which are significantly populated by migrant workers, including undocumented migrants and asylum seekers, have carried extremely high levels of risk during the pandemic. In November, two healthcare workers working in nursing homes were instructed to return to Zimbabwe. While the number of actual deportations has been low, people on the front line in healthcare have received deportation orders, which cause such uncertainty and stress. In May, my Dáil colleague, Deputy Sean Sherlock, called on the Government to regularise the status of all undocumented front-line workers during the Covid-19 crisis. I wish to repeat his call. At a minimum we should make a commitment not to deport those working on the front line in this way.

Regarding the Government position, I wish to refer to pragmatism. It is not enough for someone who has been working on the front line and has received a deportation order to be told that a pragmatic approach is being taken. In comments in the Dáil on 18 November, the Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, expressed his surprise at hearing about people being deported during the pandemic. He stated the view that persons should not be deported to countries with a high incidence of Covid-19. I understand that some removals from the State this year were to Brazil, where in some regions extremely high numbers of people have contracted the virus. Many of those issued with deportation orders since the start of the pandemic come from other countries with very high levels of transmission. In May, the United Nations Network on Migration, endorsed by the United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, called on all states to suspend forced returns during the pandemic. The appeal stated that such removals increase the exposure of very vulnerable populations and place additional strain on countries of return. It noted that at a humanitarian level, such returns exacerbate trauma and oppression. It is well worth emphasising that message.

Some commentary has suggested that a more generous approach to citizenship, the suspension of deportations and so on might be open to abuse. The figures on naturalisation and citizenship applications remind us that the scaremongering about abuse which we saw at the time of the 2004 referendum is not borne out by the reality. In my office, Ms Chloe Manahan has found the data on naturalisation of minors which was not available to us during last week's debate on the Irish Nationality and Citizenship (Naturalisation of Minors Born in Ireland) Bill 2018. The number of people applying for citizenship through naturalisation has declined steadily since 2012. The share of EU nationals among new Irish citizens has increased from 4% in 2011 to 49% in 2018. The number of applicants from the UK has increased sevenfold since the Brexit vote. These figures show how immigration debates in Ireland are distorted by those who might prefer to be ungenerous in our approach to immigration. Research by the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, shows that there were only 76 applications for citizenship by naturalisation on the grounds of birth in 2018. We need to be cognisant of the real figures when we speak about issues pertaining to citizenship and migration. I know that many people who are very vocal on this issue are, unfortunately, very ungenerous. We need to challenge their views.

I will finish by appealing to the Minister. In light of humanitarian considerations, the common good and international imperatives around Covid-19, it would be intuitive and sensible to bring in a temporary ban in line with the Bill proposed by Senators Higgins and Ruane for the duration of the pandemic. I look forward to engaging with the Minister and her Department on citizenship issues and pathways for undocumented people.