THE IRISH government has today agreed on a proposal which will allow Ireland to temporarily suspend visa-free travel from 20 'safe' European countries.
The government will suspend the operation of the Council of Europe Agreement on the Abolition of Visas for Refugees (Council of Europe) for a period of 12 months.
Signatory countries to this agreement issue Convention Travel Documents to refugees, which allow the holders of such documents travel to other signatory countries without a visa or prior clearance if the purpose of the journey is solely for a visit of a maximum of three months.
The visa exemption applies to holders of a Convention Travel Document issued by the following countries:
- Czech Republic
- Slovak Republic
The suspension will come into effect from midday today, however the visa-free travel arrangements for Ukrainian nationals introduced on 25 February in response to the war in Ukraine remains unaffected by the decision. Refugees holding Convention Travel Documents will still be able to travel to Ireland but will now be required to apply for a visa under standard arrangements.
The government said in a statement that the move is being made "to protect the integrity of the immigration and International Protection systems" as applications have been received from some people who already have been granted refugee status by other states.
From January 2021 to January 2022, the International Protection Office received 760 notifications on the basis that the person was a beneficiary of international protection in another State.
Of those 760 notifications, 479 or 63% came from EU Member States whose beneficiaries of international protection are visa exempted. Those 479 notifications relate to 7% of the 6,494 applications for international protection in that period.
Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said the decision to suspend the agreement has not been taken lightly.
"We are committed to upholding our international and EU obligations towards asylum seekers (international protection applicants and refugees.
"However, where there is evidence that there may be abuse of such systems, the government must act swiftly to mitigate the risks to maintain the integrity of our immigration and international protections systems and uphold public confidence in those systems."
She said that in recent months, the agreement has been exploited, "including by some who enter the State and subsequently claim international protections, despite having already been granted such protection by another European state."
Minister McEntee confirmed that the suspension of the operation of the agreement is temporary and will be reviewed in a year's time.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said the decision will "assist in the protection of Ukrainians, and those of other nationalities, who are fleeing conflict, as it will lessen the incidence of abuse of this system."
"This step is not unprecedented; other Council of Europe members have taken similar action previously."
Article 7 of the European Agreement allows parties to the agreement to temporarily suspend it for reasons of public order, security or public health.
France suspended its operation of the Agreement in 1986 and the UK in 2003 for similar reasons.
The chief executive of Doras, the non-profit organisation which promotes the rights of migrants, has described plans as “a worrying trend”.
John Lannon told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland that such a move was “a knee-jerk reaction” to the problem of a shortage of accommodation.
Restricting the numbers coming to Ireland seeking international protection was a "retrograde step", he added.
Mr Lannon said there could be cases where people were not able to get visas. Ireland should be creating safe pathways and there was a need to ensure that if someone needed to seek asylum they could do so, he said.