The Government has today agreed to a joint proposal from the Minster for Justice, Helen McEntee, T.D., and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, T.D., for Ireland to avail of the option to temporarily 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 Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovak Republic, Spain, Sweden, or Switzerland.
Article 7 of the Agreement allows for suspension of the Agreement’s operation. The suspension will come into effect from noon tomorrow, Tuesday 19 July 2022.
The visa free travel arrangements for Ukrainian nationals introduced on 25 February in response to the war in Ukraine remain unaffected by this 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 has agreed to the temporary suspension to protect the integrity of the immigration and International Protection systems. The International Protection Office has been receiving applications from some people who already have granted refugee status by other states.
The International Protection Office checks every applicant over the age of 14 against the Eurodac database – the EU database that stores the fingerprints of international protection applicants or people who have crossed a border illegally. It is used by the countries of the EU and also Norway, Iceland, Lichtenstein and Switzerland.
Eurodac notifies Ireland if the person has been granted International Protection in another EU Member State. From January 2021 to January 2022, IPO 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.
Speaking after Cabinet, Minister McEntee said:
“This is not a decision that the Government has 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 protection systems and uphold public confidence in those systems.
“In recent months, we have seen that the visa exemption provided for in the Council of Europe Agreement is being exploited, including by some who enter the State and subsequently claim international protection, despite having already been granted such protection by another European state.
“The suspension of the operation of the Agreement is temporary and will be reviewed in a year’s time. In the meantime, Convention travel document holders who want to travel to Ireland can apply for a visa under standard visa arrangements.”
Minister Coveney said:
“Ireland’s commitment to protecting and assisting those in need, especially those fleeing the unjust and illegal war being waged by Russia against Ukraine, remains steadfast.
“The decision taken today 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 member states have taken similar action previously.
“We will keep this decision, which is temporary in nature, under review, and will revisit it twelve months from now”.
Article 7 of the European Agreement, provides for 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.
Ireland’s temporary suspension of the Agreement will be notified to the Council of Europe and Minister McEntee will make an order to amend the Immigration Act 2004 (Visas) Order 2014.