Immigration reforms: Higher level of passenger document checks at gates could see airlines avoid fines

Number of people claiming international protection in first 12 weeks of 2024 was 75% ahead of same period last year, committee to hear

Airlines could face higher fines and be subjected to tougher legal obligations to check the documents of passengers flying into Ireland under proposed new immigration reforms.

A new gate check programme could see airlines escape fines, however, if they put in place an audited higher standard of document checking along with dedicated security procedures at embarkation.

New information provided to the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC), seen by The Irish Times, shows the Government may seek to tighten rules around documentation.

Secretary general in the Department of Integration Kevin McCarthy is also due to appear before the PAC on Thursday morning, and he will tell TDs there has recently been a “further significant upward trajectory” in international protection arrivals.

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“In the first 12 weeks of 2024, over 5,100 people claimed international protection, compared with 2,900 people for the same period in 2023 – a more than 75 per cent increase in arrival numbers.” Procuring bed space continues to remain “extremely challenging”, he will say, especially for single males.

The PAC has also been given fresh information around the number of individuals not co-operating with the international protection system. The committee has been told there are currently 412 files on hand where there is considered to be non-co-operation with the interview process.

Regarding airline measures, a review group is examining the level and structure of fines imposed on carriers, and is looking at a straight fine increase and the introduction of increased penalties for repeat offences. The group is also considering legislative amendments which would place enhanced responsibility on airlines to conduct appropriate checks on boarding passengers, making it an offence for them not to carry out the checks.

Another option would be for the introduction of a dedicated gate-check programme which would see carriers entering into agreements where fines are waived in return for an audited high standard of document checking and security procedures at a port of embarkation. This would also involve a good level of co-operation from the carrier and an established record in the timely settlement of outstanding charges.

Almost 1,000 fines were handed out last year, costing airlines about €1.5 million. At present, each fine is €1,500, rising to €3,000 for each offence if not paid within 28 days. In 2023, 990 fines and 1,165 cautions were issued.

It comes amid a surge in recent months in asylum seekers being charged with arriving into the country without passports, as the Government seeks to present a tougher image on immigration. Last year, 3,285 people arrived at airports without valid travel documents, almost all of whom applied for asylum.

Asked about the increase in the numbers of people seeking asylum and the pressures on the system, Taoiseach Simon Harris pointed to the ongoing drop in the number of Ukrainian refugees in State accommodation.

“Every day 15 people from Ukraine on average are seeking State accommodation, but 45 people from Ukraine on average are leaving State accommodation. So by my maths that works out at roughly 175 fewer Ukrainian people in State accommodation each week,” he said in Brussels, where European Union leaders are meeting for a two-day summit.

“Now I fully accept that that’s the Ukrainian side of the challenge and there is of course a very significant increase that we see in international protection numbers,” he said.

He linked the drop in Ukrainian refugees to the reduction in benefits for new arrivals from Ukraine which came into operation recently and added that the reliance on the private market to source accommodation for asylum seekers “isn’t sustainable”.

“But I do think we now need to see proposals come forward very quickly in relation to other turnkey-type opportunities that may exist in relation to international protection.”

He said he would convene a Cabinet committee on migration shortly.

Officials later clarified that Mr Harris was making reference to the average number leaving every week, which is about 175.

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