The Government must urgently introduce special visa schemes to allow people in Afghanistan who have family in Ireland to be reunited with them, refugee support bodies and legal experts have said.
It comes as various organisations in Ireland say they have been “inundated” with calls from distressed and frantic members of the Afghan community in Ireland deeply concerned for family in Afghanistan.
Responding, the Department of Justice told theit was “currently processing family reunification applications for 103 Afghan family members” and humanitarian visas would also be processed for about 150 Afghans due to arrive in Ireland under the Refugee Protection Programme.
Nick Henderson of the Irish Refugee Council (IRC) said: “There are several ways Ireland can support people in Afghanistan. There is an urgent need for humanitarian admission of people who are at high risk of persecution. Family reunification can also be fast-tracked so family members, many of whom are likely to be in danger, can leave.”
He welcomed the commitment to extract up to 150 people, made by Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney on Monday.
He said Ireland can use its resettlement programme to resettle Afghan refugees and said Ireland needed to recognise people seeking asylum in Ireland as refugees.
“There are currently around 211 Afghan people living in direct provision” he said.
He pointed out that about 97 Afghan people were refused leave to land in Ireland between January 1, 2020 and May 31, 2021.
“People in this situation need to be given access to the protection process if needed,” he said.
The IRC estimates that 70 people from Afghanistan have applied for protection up to June 2020 and that although they are on a "prioritisation" list, projected waiting times are currently 19.5 months.
Brian Killoran, chief executive of the Immigrant Council said there was a “looming humanitarian catastrophe” in Afghanistan, as innocent people fled “violence and tyranny”.
He said: “In the last two days our services have been inundated by frantic calls and emails from Afghan clients whose applications for family reunification have been ongoing for several months, with little to no updates from the Department of Justice.
He called on the Department of Justice to prioritise family reunification applications from Afghan nationals.
“It is our view that there should be a major emphasis on expediting applications in the coming days, with necessary processes such as DNA testing to verify family relationships being done in situ here in Ireland.”
He urged a public statement from the department on the matter.
Mr Killoran added: “In recent days, we have also become aware of other issues arising in relation to the identity documents of visa applicants. We are calling on the department to return identification documents, like passports, to applicants based in Afghanistan, so that they can comply with the rapidly-changing security requirements being imposed by the Taliban that require people – women in particular – to carry identity documents with them at all times.”
Fiona Finn of Nasc, the Refugee and Migrant Rights Centre, said they have been “inundated with distressed calls” from members of the Afghan community in Ireland, most of them “distraught and deeply concerned” for family in Afghanistan.
“Given our current restrictive family reunification laws, all we can offer is a listening ear,” she said.
She welcomed Mr Coveney’s announcement that Ireland would resettle 100 to 150 Afghans and arrange a visa waiver for 45 others, with priority given to women and children and human rights and NGO workers.
“This is however little comfort to the many Afghans living in Ireland, we can and must do more,” she said.
“We are calling on the minister to immediately reintroduce the humanitarian visa programme to allow Afghans living in Ireland to apply for family reunification for their siblings and parents, to fast track and grant asylum to all Afghan nationals currently in the asylum process and to expedite all outstanding family reunification applications for family members of Afghan refugees.”
Colm O’Dwyer, a barrister specialising in refugee law for more than 20 years, said there were a range of measures the Government could take.
He said there was a special non-statutory scheme – Irish Humanitarian Assistance Programme 2 (IHAP) – set up in 2018 and 2019, which allowed people from a set list of countries, including Afghanistan, to apply for family reunification with members of their nuclear and extended families, including parents, elderly parents and adult children, who were left behind in the country of origin.
The senior counsel said the income threshold that was applied to regular family reunification visa applications were not applied to IHAP scheme cases.
Mr O’Dwyer said: “The scheme, however, closed in February 2019. There were two rounds of applications and approximately 550 family members were permitted to come to Ireland on foot of the scheme. It would be relatively straightforward to reopen it for Afghans.”
But he said that unlike those granted international protection, Afghans granted leave to remain in Ireland on a humanitarian basis had no right to family reunification, even with their spouse and minor children.
He said they have to apply for family reunification visas and, in general, have to meet a minimum income threshold as sponsors, even if they have become Irish citizens.
“A specific humanitarian exemption from the minimum income threshold, and, perhaps, other more stringent visa conditions, could be introduced for Afghans to permit family reunification with direct family members in the short term,” he said.
In addition, there were various programmes by which asylum seekers and refugees can be resettled from other EU member states such as Greece or Italy.
“Ireland should agree to take as many transfers as possible through these programmes,” he said.
He said Ireland can also provide for resettlement directly from neighbouring countries around Afghanistan, or even from Afghanistan directly, and for ‘programme refugees’ from UNHCR camps.
On top of this, he said many Afghans are going through the international protection system at the moment, but said they cannot apply for family reunification with their spouses or minor children under Section 56 of the International Act until they get refugee status or subsidiary protection.
“The processing of these applications could be expedited,” Mr O’Dwyer said.
“Also, Afghans who have already been granted international protection status and have applied for statutory ‘refugee’ family reunification can be waiting one or two years for a decision on the application.
In relation to Afghans who are refused leave to land at Irish entry points, he said: “Make sure, at the very least, that people from Afghanistan who arrive at our borders without valid visas or travel documents are given a proper opportunity to make an application for asylum and are not automatically refused leave to land and turned around.”
In a statement to the, the Department of Justice said it was “currently processing family reunification applications for 103 Afghan family members”.
The statement said: “These are being prioritised and will now be fast-tracked to completion in the coming days, with full consideration given to the current humanitarian context.
It added: “Humanitarian visas will also be processed for around 150 Afghan people who will arrive in Ireland under our Refugee Protection Programme. This includes visas for those who have worked for the EU in Afghanistan and family members of Irish citizens.
“International protection applications from Afghan nationals are already prioritised, as agreed with UNHCR.
"To date this year, 70 Afghan nationals have applied for protection in Ireland. The processing of these applications takes full account of whether a person will be in danger if not provided with a permission to remain here.”