Length of procedures: The International Protection Office continues to process cases. However, there has been a significant decline in the number of protection applications as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, with a decrease of approximately 67.3% in the numbers claiming protection in 2020 (1,566 as of December 2020) compared with the previous year (4,781).
Prior to the outbreak of Covid-19 in Ireland, persons whose circumstances fell outside the prioritisation criteria were waiting between 8-10 months for their substantive interview, whilst applicants who successfully requested prioritisation were likely to be interviewed within 5 months. Following the outbreak of Covid-19, however, restrictions on the operation of the International Protection Office have resulted in significant delays to the overall procedure. As of December 2020, individuals whose circumstances fell outside the prioritisation criteria were waiting approximately 18 months for the processing of their application, while those who successfully requested prioritisation were waiting approximately 14 months.
Media reports in May 2020 indicated that the IPO had suspended the issuing of first instance decisions, with this suspension entirely due to the impact of Covid-19 restrictions. The issuing of decisions has now resumed, albeit with significant delays.
Access to procedure: Media reports in December 2019 stated that immigration control measures in place at Dublin Airport were targeting individuals seeking to disembark from arriving aircraft with false documentation. One such report indicated that “airlines have been told to take such individuals back on return flights before any opportunity to claim international protection arises.”  In January 2020, the Irish Refugee Council wrote to the then-Minister for Justice and Equality, Charlie Flanagan, requesting clarification regarding these instructions, the criteria used and their adherence to Ireland’s legal obligations. A written response from the Department of Justice stated that the purpose of these checks on arrival was to determine whether an individual was permitted leave to land, rather than any assessment of asylum. A freedom of information request made by the Irish Refugee Council for information on the policies and procedures on this issue was declined. Despite indications from the Department of Justice that this practice had been largely scaled back, media reports suggest that the policy continued to operate as of March 2020.
Following the outbreak of Covid-19 in Ireland, the International Protection Office continues to accept new applications for international protection and is providing a limited registration service to new applicants.
Examination of applications: Following the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, all substantive protection interviews at the IPO were postponed. Interviews recommenced in July 2020 in line with government guidelines. However, following the reintroduction of Covid-19 restrictions in October 2020, all scheduled protection interviews were suspended from 22 October until 10 December. Restrictions were implemented once again in late December and with effect from the 30 December 2020, all substantive interviews were cancelled until further notice.
All scheduled hearings at the International Protection Appeals Tribunal (IPAT) were suspended in a similar manner, although the Tribunal continues to accept and process appeals. Further to the introduction of the latest set of Covid-19 restrictions in December 2020, the Tribunal indicated that its previous blanket Covid-19 policy, which had been in effect since the onset of the pandemic, and under which late filing of Notices of Appeal were accepted, would no longer apply. Instead, the Tribunal has indicated that it will consider applications for the late acceptance of appeals on a case-by-case basis, pursuant to the relevant legal test established in the International Protection Act 2015 (Procedures and Periods for Appeals) Regulations 2017. The Tribunal has further indicated that it is also open to appellants to withdraw their request for an oral hearing and instead have their appeal dealt with on the papers, where the assigned Tribunal Member is of the opinion that such a course of action is in accordance with fair procedures and natural justice.
Decentralised international protection interviews and interviews via video-link: In light of the outbreak of Covid-19, a small number of applicants for international protection were offered the possibility of conducting their substantive international protection interview remotely under a pilot process. Approximately 90 interviews were carried out remotely. Interviews took place via video-link, with the applicant attending from a remote location in Co. Cork and the interviewer attending at the IPO. Following the resumption of face-to-face interviews in July, legal representatives and interpreters were required to attend client interviews remotely via telephone dial-in.
The IPAT is conduct some appeal hearings remotely by way of audio-video link. The IPAT has indicated that it will identify those cases in which a remote hearing may be suitable and will be in direct contact with appellants and their legal representatives in due course. Anecdotal evidence suggests video hearings are only taking place in English.
Implementation of the provisions of the recast Reception Conditions Directive: Ireland has transposed the recast Reception Conditions Directive into Irish law through the enactment of the European Communities (Reception Conditions) Regulations 2018. The extent to which the provisions of the Regulations have been implemented in practice continues to vary.
Absence of vulnerability assessment: The Regulations provide for a vulnerability assessment. However, no standardised assessment was carried out in respect of applicants throughout 2020, despite this being a clear requirement in law. In July 2020, the Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee, confirmed that vulnerability assessments would be implemented by the end of the year. At the end of January 2021, a pilot project to assess the vulnerability of asylum seekers was established at Balseskin reception centre in Dublin. Officials from the International Protection Accommodation Service (IPAS) carried out assessments with the assistance of a social worker from the IPO. As of the end of January 2021, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Roderic O’ Gorman had indicated that four assessments had taken place. According to information received from the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth Affairs in April 2021, the pilot scheme initially assessed applicants who were seeking accommodation from the State, however, from the beginning of February 2021, the pilot has been extended to all new applicants for international protection. Over 100 applicants have now been assessed and vulnerabilities have been identified in approximately 60% of cases so far. While the introduction of the programme is a welcome development, migrants’ rights organisations have expressed concern that the pilot project falls short of national standards and fails to include situations whereby individuals could be at risk of suicide, addiction or domestic violence.
National Standards on Direct Provision: Following public consultation, the final draft of the National Standards on Direct Provision was published by the Working Group on National Standards in August 2019. The National Standards are designed to constitute a set of standardised rules for every Direct Provision accommodation centre in Ireland and aim to provide a framework for the continual development of services and support for residents, while also ensuring consistent accommodation conditions across all Direct Provision centres in Ireland. The National Standards became applicable and legally binding on 1 January 2021. The Department of Children, Equality, Disability and Integration and Youth are currently engaged in talks with the Department of Health and the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) with regard to undertaking the role of monitoring the implementation of the National Standards. It is hoped that monitoring will begin in the coming months. However, in the interim, accommodation centres continue to be subject to inspections by both IPAS and an independent inspectorate company.
Publication of the Report of the Advisory Group on the Provision of Support including Accommodation to Persons in the International Protection Process: On 21 October 2020, the Report of the Advisory Group on the Provision of Support including Accommodation to Persons in the International Protection Process was published. The Advisory Group, chaired by Dr. Catherine Day, was established in October 2019 with a view to advising on the development of a long-term approach to the provision of support, including accommodation, to persons in the international protection process. The report makes a series of recommendations to end Direct Provision and transform the international protection process by mid-2023. In its Programme for Government 2020, the Government committed to ending Direct Provision and replacing it with a new accommodation policy based on a not-for-profit approach.
Publication of the Government’s White Paper on Ending Direct Provision: The Government’s long-awaited White Paper to End Direct Provision and to Establish a New International Protection Support Service was published on the 26th of February 2021. The paper establishes a variety of measures aimed at ending the system of Direct Provision and replacing it with a revised, not-for-profit model. The paper includes some of the recommendations of the Advisory Group’s report and sets out a roadmap towards establishing a new international protection support service, to be in place by 2024. Some recommendations of the Advisory Group were not included in the White Paper, including the recommendation that people in the process for more than two years be offered permission to remain.
Reception capacity and continued use of emergency accommodation: Capacity in Direct Provision continued to be a significant issue, with approximately 1,382 asylum seekers housed in emergency accommodation as of September 2020. The housing crisis in Ireland continued to exacerbate the situation, meaning that a significant number of individuals who have been granted protection status or permission to remain have been unable to move out of Direct Provision accommodation owing to a lack of available and affordable housing. Additionally, the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in the opening of a number of new emergency centres at very short notice so as to enable residents to socially distance and reduce overcrowding. These centres were also used to facilitate self-isolation.
Transfer of responsibility for Direct Provision: Following the Irish government’s commitment to ending the Direct Provision system, responsibility for the system was transferred to the Department of Children, Disability, Equality and Integration in October 2020. Responsibility for administering the system of Direct Provision was previously held by the Department of Justice and Equality.
Final report of the Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 Response: On 6 October 2020, the Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 Response published its final report, highlighting the areas requiring ongoing oversight and accountability, including Direct Provision. The Report highlighted the need for a stronger regulatory framework, as well as a rapid and robust test and trace system for individuals living in Direct Provision. Arising out of its consideration of the topic, the Committee also referred a number of issues to the Joint Committee on Children, Disability, Equality and Integration, including the need for the Department to review the practice of accommodating people seeking international protection in direct provision centres, hotels and B&Bs, the need for better data sharing between Departments so that adequate services can be provided to residents, and the need to ensure that staff working in Direct Provision services receive appropriate training, including in infection control measures.
Detention of asylum seekers
Dedicated immigration detention facilities: A dedicated immigration detention facility was scheduled to open at Dublin Airport in late 2019 in response to ongoing criticism regarding the detention of asylum seekers in general prisons. The unit was set to contain facilities for individuals refused permission to land in Ireland. However, media reports indicate that as of August 2020, the facility had yet to open.
Covid-19 and immigration detention: A particular issue of concern emerged following the onset of the pandemic with regard to the spread of Covid-19 in prisons used to hold migrants and asylum seekers. In Cloverhill prison, a number of inmates and staff are known to have contracted the virus, while in the Midlands Prison, five prisoners were also reported to have tested positive for Covid-19 as of October 2020.
7th Periodic Visit Report of the European Committee for Prevention of Torture: In late November 2020, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture released its 7th periodic visit report on Ireland. In the report, the Committee reiterated its long-standing call for Irish authorities to suspend the use of prisons for immigration detention, noting that “a prison is by definition not a suitable place in which to detain someone who is neither suspected nor convicted of a criminal offence.” The Committee reported that it had met with several immigration detainees who detailed the harassment and abuse they had received from other prisoners. It noted one case in particular whereby a “middle-aged diminutive foreign national was placed in a cell with two young remand prisoners who allegedly attempted to rape him as well as physically aggressed and verbally intimidated him.”
Content of international protection
Family reunification: The 12-month time limit for family reunification in Ireland was the subject of a challenge of constitutionality before the Supreme Court in the joint cases of A v. Minister for Justice & Equality & Ors, S v. Minister for Justice & Equality & Ors and I v. Minister for Justice & Equality & Ors.  IESC 20. The case concerned an applicant who became estranged from her family in 2011 and travelled to Ireland as an unaccompanied minor. She subsequently applied for, and was granted, international protection in 2014. After resuming phone contact with her family in 2018, she applied for family reunification with her parents and sister but the applicant was refused on the basis that the application was not brought within the 12-month time frame specified by s.56(8). In a judgment delivered on 8 December 2020, Justice Dunne determined that the 12-month time limit established pursuant to s.56(8) of the 2015 Act was not unconstitutional nor was it incompatible with the ECHR. The Court noted in its decision that it remained open to the applicant to apply under the 2016 Family Reunification Policy Document, whereby the Minister for Justice can exercise her discretion to grant family reunification on humanitarian grounds. In the same judgment, Justice Dunne also overturned a finding of unconstitutionality concerning a law preventing the recognition, for family reunification purposes, of marriages of refugees which took place after they sought protection in the State.
 Information provided by IPO, April 2021.
 Information provided by the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, 12th April 2021.
 Irish Examiner, ‘Nasc: State’s Pilot Project on Vulernability of Asylum Applicants is too Limited’, 11th February 2021, available at: https://bit.ly/3sfKjWo.
 Advisory Group on Direct Provision, Report of the Advisory Group on the Provision of Support including Accommodation to Persons in the International Protection Process, 21 October 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3qgSmC3.
 Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, White Paper on Ending Direct Provision, 26 February 2021, available at: https://bit.ly/3t2Xqv6.
 S.I. No. 436/2020 – Disability, Equality, Human Rights Integration and Reception (Transfer of Departmental Administration and Ministerial Functions) Order 2020.
 European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, Report to the Government of Ireland on the visit to Ireland carried out by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment from 23 September to 4 October 2019, 24 November 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3d5To06, 17.
 Ibid., 17.