The United Nations Refugee Agency has called for immediate action to cut Irish asylum application waiting times.

The UNHCR says asylum seekers are now waiting an average of 19 months to be interviewed by the International Protection Office at the Department of Justice and Equality under standard procedures.

With decisions likely to take longer again after interview, the UNHCR says many asylum seekers may now expect to wait two years before they receive a decision on their asylum claim.

The UNHCR says provisional statistics from the Irish authorities for 2017 indicate that there were approximately 5,200 people awaiting a decision at the IPO at the end of 2017.

That is up more than 1,000 over the course of the previous 12 months, despite the introduction of a new single procedure in December 2016 intended to reduce processing times to six months.

The UNHCR's Head of Office in Ireland Enda O'Neill says the UNHCR’s own research shows that "long periods of time spent in State-funded accommodation is leading to dependency and disempowerment among many people seeking protection, hampering their integration prospect.

"The introduction of a more general right to work from June, for those who can avail of it, should ease some of the stress people experience while waiting. Ultimately however, they need certainty about their fate to move forward with their lives."

According to the UNHCR, shorter processing times would also result in savings for the State.

"Each year one person spends in direct provision costs the state €10,950" said Mr O'Neill.

"The cost of processing is a fraction of this amount. Investing in decision-making not only improves outcomes for refugees, but also makes financial sense.

"Much of the focus in Ireland of late has been on direct provision and the accommodation system itself. However, the key underlying issue is not the accommodation necessarily but rather processing times.

Ireland is to be commended for its ongoing efforts to improve conditions in refugee accommodation centres, but when direct provision was introduced in 2000, the intention was that it should only be for a short period of time. This must be our goal again."