Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Pushing for safe passage in Ireland

The families of many Irish citizens and residents are stuck in war zones. Why won’t the state offer them safe passage? 

Jennifer DeWan
27 April 2017

Dublin bridge. valanzola.t/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by)

Nasc (the Irish word for link) is an NGO and a registered charity based in Cork, Ireland. Nasc works for an integrated society based on the principles of human rights, social justice and equality. Nasc offers free legal clinics and provides advocacy in the areas of immigration, protection and social welfare law.

One of the key focuses of Nasc’s work is reuniting families. Over the past 17 years, Nasc has worked with thousands of individuals and families seeking to bring family members to safety in Ireland. As a result, we have developed knowledge of the issues and barriers that this community is facing when seeking to bring family members to safety. The proposal we outline below was developed in consultation with the Syrian community in Ireland and has the support of the Irish UNHCR office.

The context

We are currently witnessing the largest global humanitarian crisis the world has seen since the end of world war two.  Over 65 million people are displaced worldwide and over 1.5 million people have sought protection in Europe since 2015. As there are few legal routes of migration available, people are forced to make this journey across the sea in unseaworthy vessels and are at the mercy of people smugglers and traffickers. This crisis has resulted in the deaths of over 8,000 men, women and children since 2015. The majority of those arriving in Europe come from refugee-producing countries, such as Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Eritrea.

Ireland’s response to the crisis began with the deployment of our navy in the Mediterranean on lifesaving missions. Ireland’s response increased in late 2015, when the government voluntarily committed to take 4,000 refugees and asylum seekers under the EU Resettlement and Relocation Programme. These commitments are being delivered through a programme entitled the Irish Refugee Protection Programme (IRPP), which prioritises those fleeing the war in Syria.

Many people already legally resident in Ireland are desperately seeking to bring family members out of conflict zones.

However, progress on our actual intake of people under the relocation plan has been fraught. As of the end of 2016, 520 programme refugees have been resettled in Ireland, with another 520 due in 2017. In contrast, the pace of relocation has been extremely slow; only 239 asylum seekers have been relocated to Ireland to date. Here, resettlement refers to the process of bringing a refugee residing outside the EU to an EU member state, while relocation refers to transferring someone from one EU member state to another.

In the meantime, many people already legally resident in Ireland or naturalised here are desperately seeking to bring family members out of conflict zones, and are experiencing significant delays and refusals in the processing of their visa applications for family unity. These people are willing and able to provide for their family members when they arrive with no additional cost to the state. More must now be done to bring these families together in a safe and legal way, to remove the need for them to undertake dangerous crossings, and to stop smugglers profiteering from this human misery.

Nasc is proposing a pragmatic, cost effective, and efficient solution to this problem, one that ensures the safety of those seeking protection while also promoting integration and reuniting families – a true cornerstone of Ireland’s national identity enshrined in our constitution and idealised in the 1916 Proclamation, which we commemorated the centenary of this past year. Potentially hundreds of people could be welcomed to Ireland under this proposal, going some way to filling our as yet unfulfilled commitments under the Irish Refugee Protection Programme.

Nasc’s safe passage proposal

Nasc is calling on the Irish government to introduce safe passage – a humanitarian admission programme for families fleeing conflict. This would allow Irish citizens, beneficiaries of international protection, and/or legal residents to apply for family reunification for extended family members fleeing conflict zones. 

The programme could be modelled on humanitarian admission programmes and private sponsorship schemes in place in other jurisdictions, including Canada and Germany, as well as the Irish experience with the 2014 Syrian Humanitarian Admission Programme (SHAP). It is designed to complement the government-agreed resettlement and relocation quotas to address the current humanitarian crisis. There is significant international precedent for humanitarian admission and sponsorship schemes, and for the benefits they confer. Schemes of this nature lead to faster, safer, and more positive integration opportunities and outcomes for recipients.

Under the 2014 SHAP, Syrians living in Ireland (both legal residents and naturalised citizens) were invited to sponsor an application for extended family members living in Syria or in surrounding countries or in refugee camps. In total 111 Syrians were granted permission to join family members here. The number of individuals who actually entered under this programme are unavailable, but Nasc is aware of at least two cases where the permitted family members died or went missing before they had the chance to get their visas, due to slow decision-making under the scheme. Of those who came to Ireland, many are now working and contributing to the economy. Since the SHAP was concluded, the situation in Syria has deteriorated further with greater numbers being forced to make perilous journeys across the sea.

In a few cases, the death of a family member might have been prevented if the decision making process had been expedited.

In the last two years alone, we have worked with our clients to bring loved ones to safety in Ireland and have reunited over 150 families. We have found there to be significant delays in decision making, and a number of incidents where positive discretion should have been applied but was not. In a few cases, the death of a family member might have been prevented if the decision making process had been expedited. We have witnessed Irish citizens unable to bring family members to safety because they do not have an automatic right to family reunification. We have also witnessed instances where family reunification visas were refused because the criteria, in particular the financial criteria, were strictly applied, even in cases of extreme vulnerability. 

This has become particularly urgent with the commencement of the International Protection Act 2015 on 31 December 2016, which brings with it a further erosion of the right to family reunification, removing completely the discretionary right to apply for extended family members and introducing a 12-month time limit for refugees to submit a family reunification application. A humanitarian safety net is urgently needed to ensure families fleeing conflict are reunited in safety. 

In addition, an enhanced humanitarian admission programme could include a ‘co-sponsorship’ element, which would allow Irish citizens, community and faith-based groups, charities and NGOs, business, and universities to support a family reunification application, providing financial, social and institutional backing and thus improving a person’s opportunities for integration.

This co-sponsorship aspect allows the Irish government to harness the outpouring of support and goodwill coming from Irish society in support of those fleeing conflict, while also easing the financial burden on the host family in Ireland and on the government to provide for those who have newly arrived. Based on the Canadian ‘group of five’ resettlement programme, co-sponsors could establish a trust fund or sign formal commitments relating to their obligations in terms of financial resources, accommodation, and employment opportunity and/or integration measures.

Every day at Nasc, we see people struggle with the horrendous choice; do they leave their families behind or do they entrust them to the care of a smuggler's boat crossing the sea to Europe. They need a real choice, they need safe passage.

  For more information about our Safe Passage proposal, visit


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