Speeches

Speech by Ms Mary Hanafin, TD, Minister for Children for the Conference on Reception of Unaccompanied Minor Asylum Seekers in the Coach House, Dublin Castle on Wednesday 6 June 2001

Introduction

It gives me great pleasure to be here this morning to welcome you all to this Conference on the Reception of Unaccompanied Minors which has been organised by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform in partnership with my Department as part of Ireland’s participation in the Children First Project.

I am particularly pleased to see so many people at the Conference today and I would like in particular to extend a “ceád míle failte” to speakers and delegates from abroad. Thank you for taking the time to come to Ireland to participate in the proceedings of this Conference over the next two days. I know that the work has already begun for some of you who were here yesterday for a workshop as part of the Project. Welcome also to the representatives of the Non-Governmental Organisations and to the representatives of the health boards and the other statutory agencies. I know that this will be a very useful information sharing and learning experience for all of you.

A very special thank you to the children who participated in the poster competition associated with this conference. It is an example of the creativity of young unaccompanied minors who have come to Ireland seeking asylum. It is very positive to see young people expressing themselves through the medium of art.

The Project

Ireland was delighted to accept an invitation from the Finnish Directorate of Immigration, last year, to participate, as a partner together with Poland and Lithuania in the Children First Project under the EU funded Odysseus Programme. I would like at this point to thank the EU Commission for part funding this invaluable Project which provides a unique opportunity for the development of a best practice model for the treatment of unaccompanied minors in the asylum process.

Children First Project

As you will know, the Children First Project is, in essence, a training project for officials, from the four participating countries, who are responsible for dealing with unaccompanied minors in the asylum process. The objectives of the Children First Project are to increase understanding concerning the best interests of the child by developing new working methods and best practices among officials and to create a model for a cross-administrative approach in the reception of unaccompanied minors. The intention is to circulate the outcome of the Project to all Member States for use as a guide for future action in this area.

Four key areas were identified for development during the course of the Project;

  • interviewing techniques when working with unaccompanied minors;
  • reception procedures;
  • post decision making procedures, and
  • the creation of cross administrative structures

Since work commenced on the Project in September last year much has already been achieved. Workshops for officials from participating states, dealing with important topics such as, interview techniques when dealing with unaccompanied minors, psychosocial development of children, and methods for determining the age of children have been hosted by Finland and Poland. A closing seminar, for the purpose of sharing information and experience gained through the Project will be hosted by Lithuania in September to which organisations from Member States and applicant countries will be invited to participate.

The Conference

The focus of this Conference, is reception procedures for unaccompanied minors and we will have an opportunity over the next two days to learn from the experiences of other countries in this regard. Irish involvement in this Project is timely as the number of applications from unaccompanied minors has increased significantly over the past two years from 34 applications in 1999 to 300 applications in 2000 and 154 applications as of 30 April last. It also comes at a time of major change in Ireland as regards the legal foundation for meeting our commitments under the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees.

Irish Structures

The Government places a high priority on maintaining an asylum process which is both fair and transparent in accordance with our obligations under the 1951 Convention and which is geared towards providing protection to those in genuine need of such protection as quickly as possible.

The Refugee Act, 1996 (as amended)

The Refugee Act, 1996 (as amended), places the procedures for processing applications for refugee status on a statutory footing for the first time and provides a strong foundation for meeting Ireland’s obligations under the 1951 Geneva Convention. The 1996 Act, which compares very favourably with legislative provisions internationally, was commenced in full on 20 November, 2000 and drafted in full consultation with the UNHCR. The Act, has resulted in the establishment of two new independent statutory offices to process asylum applications namely,

  • a Refugee Applications Commissioner who makes recommendations to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform as to whether a person should be granted or refused refugee status
  • A Refugee Appeals Tribunal consisting of individual independent members to deal with appeals against negative recommendations of the Refugee Applications Commissioner and a Chairperson whose role is to allocate work and develop a system of quality control, as well as hearing appeals.

The scope of the 1996 Act is wide ranging dealing as it does in a comprehensive manner with first instance decisions, appeals, right to legal representation, right to interpretation and providing specifically for a direct contribution to be made by the UNHCR to the determination process.

The provisions of the Act in respect of unaccompanied minors copperfastens the involvement of the health boards in the refugee determination process and by doing so presents us with a major challenge in terms of ensuring that there is effective co-operation and co-ordination between the organisations involved. The Refugee Act, 1996 also provides that the provisions of the Child Care Act, 1991 which require every health board to promote the welfare of children in its area who are not receiving adequate care and protection will apply in relation to unaccompanied minor asylum seekers. I will outline briefly later what this means for the child care services.

Inter-agency co-operation

In order to meet the challenges presented by the provisions of the Refugee Act and recognising the need to meet the needs of this highly vulnerable group of children, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform convened a Working Group in April 2000 comprising representatives from all relevant bodies including the Department of Health and Children, the health boards and the independent statutory bodies of the Refugee Applications Commissioner and the Refugee Appeals Tribunal established under the Act.

The Working Group is charged with the task of developing procedures for co-ordinating the processing of asylum applications for unaccompanied minors, developing procedures for co-ordinating the reception of unaccompanied minors and examining procedures to ensure compliance with our international obligations. Draft procedures for dealing with unaccompanied minors are close to finalisation. In drawing up these draft procedures regard has been had to international instruments including the UNHCR’s Guidelines on Policies and Procedures in dealing with Unaccompanied Children which provide that the basic guiding principle in any child care and protection action is the principle of the “best interests of the child” and that effective protection and assistance should be delivered to unaccompanied children in a systematic, comprehensive and integrated manner.

The draft procedures provide for amongst other things,

  • the prioritisation of applications from unaccompanied minor asylum seekers,
  • unaccompanied minors to be accompanied by a health board representative at the interview, the purpose of which is to establish the full details of the claim for a declaration as a refugee,
  • special care and consideration to be taken when interviewing an unaccompanied minor,
  • the postponement of the interview in the event of the unaccompanied minor arriving for the interview unaccompanied, and for
  • interviews to be conducted only by an authorised officer of the Refugee Applications Commissioner who has been trained to specifically interview unaccompanied minors.

EU Developments

The development of a common European asylum system will present a further challenge to our asylum arrangements in the future. To date draft proposals for Council Directives laying down minimum standards on the granting and withdrawing of refugee status and for the reception of applicants for asylum in Member States have issued. These proposals also recognise the importance of protecting a highly vulnerable group of children and include specific provisions relating to the treatment of unaccompanied minor asylum seekers. They place an obligation on Member States to ensure that the best interests of the child is of primary consideration for Member States, that a legal guardian or advisor is appointed as soon as possible, and that procedural guarantees such as the presence of the guardian or advisor during the interview are in place. As regards accommodation it is proposed that unaccompanied minors be placed, in the following order of priority with adult family members, with a foster family, in centres specialised in accommodation for minors, in other accommodation with a suitable situation for minors, for the duration of the asylum process. In addition, those working with unaccompanied minors are required to receive appropriate training on their needs.

Ireland has already opted in to discussions on the proposal regarding minimum standards for the granting and withdrawing of refugee status.

Role of the health boards in relation to unaccompanied minors

The immediate and the ongoing needs of unaccompanied minor asylum seekers relating to accommodation, medical and social needs and access to education as well as their application for refugee status are addressed by the health boards who have a statutory responsibility in this regard as I mentioned.

The main responsibilities of the health boards are:

  • the decision as to whether it is in the best interests of the child to make an application for asylum;
  • if so, to support the child through the application process;
  • to provide for the immediate and ongoing needs and welfare of the child through appropriate placement and links with health, psychological and social services.

To date the vast majority of unaccompanied minor asylum seekers have presented to or been referred to the health boards in the eastern region in particular the East Coast Area Health Board. Referrals are received from either Immigration Authorities or the office of the Refugee Application Commission, Mount Street. In 1999, 94 referrals were received and in 2000, 517 were referred. 429 referrals have been made to the end of April 2001.

Each young person is seen on the day of referral by a social worker. There is a brief discussion with them in relation to their history and their arrival in Ireland. An assessment of their immediate needs is carried out, including food, accommodation and emotional support.

The first priority is to establish if the young person has family members already in the country. If so, immediate steps are taken to facilitate reunification. Otherwise children are placed in a range of emergency accommodation depending on the age and vulnerability of the young person and the availability of placements.

These children /young people who are placed with a care family or in a residential care settings have an assigned social worker or project worker to follow up their care needs including medical, social and educational.

All these young people have an income from Supplementary Welfare Services, a medical card, and a bus pass to facilitate travel to school and/or English Language Classes.

Referral, to Psychology Services is made for those who require it.

Close relationships exist with voluntary groups and refugee networks to facilitate access to English Language Classes and emotional supports.

Application to schools is made, either by the young people themselves or by social workers or project workers on their behalf. The establishment of formal communication networks with schools is being developed by the Project Workers currently. Single exceptional needs payments are made by the Community Welfare Service for school uniforms and books.

Since 20th November 2000, application for asylum is made on behalf of the young person by a social worker, since that date, young people are unable to make application in their own right. This is followed up by attending with the young person for legal advice and their initial and substantive interview with the office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner.

Development of Services

The Department of Health and Children, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the health boards are liaising to keep under review and to progress the necessary development of services for unaccompanied minors including the planning of specific reception/accommodation facilities. We are all very aware of the vulnerability and the difficulties facing many of these children – separation from family, friends, cultural identity and coping with traumatic experiences and an uncertain future. There is a challenge for all of us involved in developing and implementing policy to ensure that they are supported in a way that ensures that they can have a stable life and a happy childhood.

Child Care in Ireland

I mentioned the Child Care Act, 1991 earlier. I want to take this opportunity to briefly outline childcare developments in Ireland and to put in context for our colleagues from abroad some of the main developments. The legislative basis for dealing with children in need of care and protection including unaccompanied minor asylum seekers is the Child Care Act, 1991. The key elements of the Act are that: it places a statutory duty on health boards to promote the welfare of children who are not receiving adequate care and protection it empowers the health boards to provide child care and family support it makes provision for the courts to place children in the care of or under the supervision of the health boards it also provides for the regulation of the different types of care such as foster care and residential care.

The guiding principles of the Act are around children’s rights to grow up in their own family, that the best interests of the child should be the primary concern and that the views of children must be taken into account in matters which affect them.

A sustained programme of investment has accompanied the implementation of the Act since it was passed into law in 1991. The funding has been used to develop an infrastructure for child care services and to appoint additional staff. In the early years the emphasis was mainly on addressing child protection issues. While this work continues we have in recent years been putting an emphasis on prevention and early intervention as well, thereby identifying children and families in need at the earliest possible stage and putting the necessary supports in place for them in a co-ordinated way. A range of family support projects and programmes are in place. Closer co-operation between the various statutory agencies and between the statutory and non-statutory agencies is a vital part of the process also.

Some of the major developments in child care services in recent years include :

  • the publication and ongoing implementation of National Guidelines on the Protection and Welfare of Children,
  • the establishment of a Social Services Inspectorate which at present is concentrating on the inspection of health board residential services for children in care,
  • the drafting of legislation to put in place an Ombudsman for Children and a programme of development of high support and special care places for children who need high support and special care because of their behavioural or other needs.

In addition, the launch of our National Children´s Strategy – Our Children Their Lives – last November shows that Ireland is at the forefront internationally in developing social policy for children. While the Strategy is about all children, there is a particular focus on children who need additional supports. In this regard, the Strategy addresses the position of children who are members of ethnic minority groups and points to the need to identify and address their specific needs to the same extent as every other child, but in a way that respects their ethnic and cultural diversity. With regard to the children whose welfare is the subject of this two day conference, there is a commitment in the Strategy to treat unaccompanied children seeking refugee status in accordance with best international practice, including the provision of a designated social worker and guardian. The outcome of this conference will be very helpful in guiding our efforts for these children and ensuring that we can meet the high standard which we have set for ourselves under the National Children´s Strategy.

I said at the launch of the Strategy that it is not just aims and hopes. It is a real plan which will be delivered. Our commitment to delivery can be seen in the new structures we are putting in place to make it happen. The Strategy provides for new structures which are intended to bring a better focus and greater impact to Government activity in relation to children, through stronger leadership and co-ordination. The new structures are:

  • a Cabinet Committee on Children
  • an expansion of my role as Minister of State with Special Responsibility for Children
  • a National Children´s Office, and
  • a National Children´s Advisory Council

Funding of £2 million has been provided in 2001 to commence the establishment of the new infrastructure necessary to implement the Strategy.

Much progress has been made. The first meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Children, which is chaired by the Taoiseach, took place on 28th March, 2001. The Committee will meet on a quarterly basis to review progress and agree priorities for action. I am now responsible for overseeing implementation of the Strategy. This is in addition to my current statutory role in the Departments of Health and Children; Justice, Equality and Law Reform and Education and Science. I will report to the Cabinet Committee on progress being made.

The National Children´s Office has been established and is providing a dedicated team to support me in my expanded role. While government departments will retain responsibility for implementing the Strategy, the Office will co-ordinate and monitor progress in this regard. At their first meeting, the Cabinet Committee agreed the key priority areas to be tackled by the National Children´s Office and its detailed functions.

The National Children´s Office is currently developing out its work programme and it will be meeting with Government departments to agree the actions to be taken by them to progress the implementation of the Strategy’s goals and objectives, including the one that I have mentioned in relation to unaccompanied children seeking refugee status. The Office will be aiming to ensure that these and other marginalised children are supported so that they too can have a happy childhood and the opportunity to enjoy the values, traditions and customs and behaviour associated with their cultural heritage. It is recognised in the National Children´s Strategy that the experience of cultural diversity enriches all children´s lives and that learning to appreciate and recognise positively each others differences and similarities during childhood, should be seen as a critical investment towards Ireland’s new multiculturalism.

Finally the National Children´s Advisory Council has been established and it held it´s inaugural meeting on 15th May, 2001. The Council, which has a membership of 30 and an independent advisory role in relation to the implementation of the Strategy, will be reporting to me. The Council will maintain the partnership approach developed through the Strategy to influencing policy on children’s issues. It includes representatives of the statutory agencies, voluntary sector, research community, parents and children. The National Committee in Inter-Culturalism and Racism is represented on the Council.

Conclusion

In conclusion I wish to underline Ireland´s commitment to ensuring that the principle of the best interest of the child is kept to the forefront of our procedures for the treatment of unaccompanied minors.

I would like to say once again how pleased I am to have this opportunity to welcome you all today and, in particular, the participants from our partner States, Finland, Poland and Lithuania and the speakers from the U.K., Sweden, Brussels and the Netherlands. I hope that you all enjoy the Conference and enjoy Dublin. I know that it is the first visit here for many of you and hopefully you will be back again.

I wish the Conference and future work of the Children First Project every success.