Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Should the Ombudsman’s powers of oversight be extended to the areas of immigration and Asylum?

The role of the Office of the Ombudsman is to examine complaints from members of the public who feel they have been unfairly treated by certain public bodies.

Last week, the Ombudsman (Amendment) Act 2012 passed its final stages in the Dáil granting further powers of independent investigation to the Office of the Ombudsman. Some 140 government agencies were added to the list including the third level sector, the National Treatment Purchase Fund, Fas, the Irish Medical Council and the Family Support Agency.

However the agencies that deal with immigration and asylum were expressly omitted. This is a level of oversight that the Department of Justice seems to resist and  has proven to be a contentious issue.

If the Ombudsman were allowed to investigate agencies like the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service and the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner, it would mean that immigrants and asylum seekers would be able to lodge a complaint with a body independent of the Department of Justice in cases of poor administration. This would be likely to result in more accountability and improved decision making processes in these areas.

Many other European countries have this level of oversight in their equivalent immigration services. For example the UK Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman can deal with complaints relating to the Home office including the UK Border Agency and Identity and Passport Service as well as the Immigration Services Commissioner.

While our current Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly has noted that the Ombudsman (Amendment) Act 2012 is an historical milestone for her office, she has said that would like to see the agencies dealing with immigration and asylum come under her offices remit also. She expressed that it was a move that many, including the United Nations have been calling for over the years.

Denise Charlton, chief executive of the Immigrant Council of Ireland (ICI), agreed with Ms. O’Reilly stating that
"The Government's refusal to extend the Ombudsman's role to this area not only leaves people without an independent avenue of complaint in cases of poor administration, but in extreme cases can deny vulnerable migrants access to emergency supports and services," she also noted that

“This failure not only lets down vulnerable migrants, but also a system which has undergone many improvements in recent years."

The ICI has said it intends to ask the Department of Justice to review the current position and meet with the Ombudsman to examine if any interim steps can be taken to extend the protections of her office to those using the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service.

The general consensus on this issue seems to be that these Agencies should be held to account in situations of unfair treatment and poor administration like other public bodies.

Minister for Justice and Equality, Alan Shatter, has promised that this issue will be reviewed in future legislation.

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