148. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Justice the details of the Afghan Admission Programme; when it is planned to open the programme to applications; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [51718/21]
Minister of State at the Department of Justice (Deputy James Browne): I share the Deputy’s concerns for the Afghan people and the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding in Afghanistan.
Ireland has acted swiftly and compassionately to demonstrate our support and solidarity with the Afghan people. My Department is working closely with colleagues in the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth to ensure a coordinated national response.
This includes opening the Irish Refugee Protection Programme under Minister O'Gorman's remit to Afghan persons in need of protection and working to ensure that applications received from Afghan nationals under the various State schemes for immigration residence and international protection can be prioritised for speedier processing where possible. These schemes provide avenues for Afghan nationals to seek protection and for eligible family members living in Ireland to seek to have their close family members granted permission to reside in Ireland, where the relevant criteria are met. More than 740 Afghan nationals have already been granted permissions to reside in the State so far this year.
Myself and Minister Humphreys secured Government approval for an additional initiative: the special Afghan Admission Programme which will provide places for up to 500 Afghan family members. Each applicant will have an opportunity to nominate up to four family members who are currently residing in Afghanistan or who have fled to neighbouring territories and whom they consider would be especially at risk in terms of their freedom and safety.
The Programme, including the detailed eligibility criteria and the application process, will be developed over the coming months, with a view to issuing a call for applications in December.
The timescale provided is to ensure that the options considered are as inclusive as possible and that the programme is available to those that most require our help. The intervening time is required to develop the details of the programme, including a guidance document for applicants, application form, decision making criteria and the appeals process. The clearer the application process is made at the outset, the quicker we will be able to process applications in the interests of those concerned.
The Programme is unique across the EU and was hailed by the UNHCR as a very welcome commitment by Ireland that will bring much solace to Afghans who are worried about their relatives abroad.
In the meantime, all current immigration avenues remain open for new applications, including visa and family reunification applications. My Department will process any new applications received speedily and sympathetically.