82. Deputy Colm Burke asked the Minister for Justice the progress to date on the processing of visas, including family reunification applications, for Afghan nationals arising from the fall of the democratically elected Government in Afghanistan; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [51544/21]


Minister of State at the Department of Justice (Deputy James Browne): I thank Deputy Burke for raising this very important question. I share his concerns for the Afghan people and the humanitarian crisis 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 co-ordinated national response. This includes opening the Irish refugee protection programme under the remit of the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, 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 been granted permission to reside in the State so far this year.
The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and I have secured Government approval for an additional initiative, namely 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 who they consider are 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 programme is unique across the European Union and was hailed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 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.