The Supreme Court has on the eve of World Refugee Day 2020 confirmed that the rights afforded to refugees whose status was recognised under the Refugee Act 1996 (i.e. prior to the enactment of the International Protection Act 2015) are not extinguished on their naturalisation to Irish citizens in the State.
M.A.M. and K.N. were both recognised as refugees in the State in the late-2000s having sought asylum in Ireland. Both obtained Irish citizenship in 2013 and 2012 respectively. Both had fled their countries of origin, Somalia and Uzbekistan, both leaving close family members behind. Both, subsequent to their naturalisation to Irish citizens, sought to exercise their right of family reunification as refugees “in relation to whom a declaration is in force” (Section 18 of the Refugee Act 1996) in respect of these family members.
Ms M applied for reunification in respect of her her husband, with whom she had lost contact for many years. When, by chance, MAM again made contact with her husband in 2016, she immediately applied for her husband to join her in Ireland. Ms M had already made successful family reunification applications for her mother, children and other children under her care.
Of note and acknowledged by Mr Justice Macmenamin delivering judgment, the Minister for Justice in fact from 2010 – 2017 allowed naturalised refugees to exercise family reunification rights arising under the 1996 Act. The Minister cited further legal advices for the change in application of these rules in 2017. The Court was minded to include in its observations not only the impact of these proceedings on the appellants, but also to those numerous naturalised refugees who had been allowed to exercise their reunification rights from 2010 to 2017, and the uncertainty of the status of their family members in the State if this appeal was refused. While the impact of the proceedings on these individuals could not alter the correct interpretation of the 1996 Act, the fact that the Minister has been advised of two entirely opposing positions suggested that the “correct” interpretation, as suggested by the Minister, was far from obvious.
The Minister submitted that once refugees naturalised as Irish citizens, Ireland became their country of nationality and, therefore, they no longer satisfied the definition of “refugee” under section 2 of the 1996 Act, as they were no longer outside of their country of nationality. Both the High Court and Court of Appeal agreed with the Minister’s logic, citing also agreement with a number of international authorities. Employing rules of statutory interpretation, Mr Justice Macmenamin looks to the provisions of the 1996 itself to determine the correct construction of the term “country of nationality”. The Supreme Court found that it was illogical not to consider a person’s country of nationality as that country from which they originally fled. Macmenamin J reasoned that, looking to the other provisions of the 1996 Act for guidance, an individual’s country of nationality could not “by some metamorphosis” change on acquiring citizenship in the State. The term is not capable of having two meanings under one Statute.
Again employing a textual analysis of the 1996 Act, the Supreme Court disagreed with the Minister’s argument that once an individual ceased to be a “refugee”, as they were no longer outside of their country of nationality, that their Refugee Declaration automatically ceased to take effect. The rules on revocation are clearly set out in an exhaustive list under Section 21 of the 1996 Act.
The judgment overall applies a common sense approach by the Supreme Court in favour of the recognition, rather than the abolition of rights afforded to those whom the State has recognised as requiring protection. This decision in favour of clarity over obscurity is welcomed by human rights lawyers.
The judgment however is reflective of the broad approach to rights afforded under the 1996 Act, and the restrictive approach by comparison in the current 2015 Act. Section 47(9) of the 2015 Act provides that rights under the Act are extinguished when a holder of Refugee/Subsidiary Protection Status naturalises in the State. Moreover, family reunification rights in particular are severely limited by section 56 of the 2015 Act. It was decided by the Court of Appeal and did not form a part of the Supreme Court Appeal that Section 47(9) did not have retrospective effect. There is quite a significant number of cases on hold pending the outcome of these proceedings. With this judgment, many refugees should be able to be joined by their family members in Ireland in the not too distant future.