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Question

332. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Justice the number of substantive protection interviews under section 35 of the International Protection Act 2015 that have taken place to date in 2021; the number of international protection applicants that are currently on the IPO's interview schedule; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [30333/21]

Answer

Minister of State at the Department of Justice (Deputy James Browne): I am very conscious of the difficulties and trauma encountered by people who seek international protection and I am glad to say that, throughout the pandemic, my Department's International Protection Office (IPO) has remained open to allow people the opportunity to do so in line with our international obligations.
The provision of the facility to allow people claim international protection is considered an essential service at all times, including during COVID-19. Staff have worked both on-site and remotely since the pandemic began to ensure the protection process continues to operate and I am grateful to them for their dedication.
Physical attendance in the office has been strictly limited in line with public health guidance. Ensuring the safety of applicants, legal representatives and staff has resulted in additional logistical challenges that have limited the processing of applications and efforts to improve processing times, including the target set to make first instance decisions in the vast majority of cases within 9 months.
Despite these challenges, 2,276 applications for international protection were processed to completion last year – just under 67% of the total achieved in 2019.
My Department's main focus now is to get its processing system functioning as effectively and efficiently as possible, while adhering to all measures in place to combat the spread of COVID-19.  
We continue to explore new ways of working.  In-person contact and support is an indispensable part of the process, but also presents the greatest challenges at this time. We are working to ensure that those who had their interviews postponed are rescheduled as soon as possible.
The interview schedule has been severely disrupted by Covid-19 restrictions. Due to the Level 5 restrictions in place at that time, no interviews could be conducted from the beginning of this year until the first week in May. The IPO has, however, continued to maintain an interview schedule, to enable as rapid a resumption as possible once public health measures allowed this to happen. Currently, there are in the region of 450 applicants on that draft schedule 
From 10 May, interviews in Dublin by video link were commenced. The applicant is in one room linked by video conference to an interviewer in another room of the same building. This is in full compliance with health and safety guidance. 
Interviews by video link from Cork have also resumed and plans are also in place to hold interviews in suitable accommodation centres, starting with those in Letterkenny and Galway. A total of 53 video interviews took place in Dublin and Cork between 10 and 28 May 2021. We are working to expand our video conferencing programme with a view to making interviews by video conference a significant element of international protection operations.
According to IPO records, just under 2,700 section 35 interviews were scheduled during 2020 of which just over 1,100 proceeded.  Just over 1,000 interviews were postponed due to Covid-19.  This figure includes applicants who, unfortunately, had interviews postponed more than once as the situation evolved over the course of the year.  The comparable figure for 2019 is approximately 4,500 interviews scheduled of which 3,200 proceeded.
In general, the scheduling of interviews by the IPO is done in accordance with the prioritisation policy agreed with the UNHCR and published on the IPO website  www.ipo.gov.ie. This prioritisation, provided for under section 73 of the International Protection Act 2015, is subject to the need for fairness and efficiency in dealing with applications for international protection. Scheduling of cases will primarily be done on the basis of the date of application (oldest cases first).