The International Protection Office, which is responsible for recommending whether an asylum seeker should be granted refugee status, has stopped issuing recommendations due to the impact of Covid-19 restrictions, RTÉ News has learned.

Figures obtained from the Department of Justice show there are around 5,680 people with a live application for asylum status.

In 2019, the IPO issued an average of 285 first instance recommendations a month. A total of 4,781 applications were made last year.

A first instance recommendation is where the IPO makes a decision on an application on whether the person can remain in Ireland as a refugee or whether their application has been refused.

A person who is refused can appeal this decision. The Minister for Justice makes a final decision on granting or refusing status.

In the first two months of this year, 320 first instance recommendations were made. Up to February, 106 asylum seekers had been granted permission to remain in Ireland.

But no recommendations to either grant or refuse refugee status have been made since mid-March this year due to restrictions in place to stem the spread of coronavirus.

The Department of Justice has said face-to-face interviews with applicants have been cancelled until further notice.

It said that the process of issuing recommendations could be in breach of public health guidelines such as social distancing and non-essential travel.

For interviews, the applicant must travel to the International Protection Office in Dublin and if they are making an appeal against a decision there would be legal representatives as well as appeals tribunal personnel required to attend hearings. 

There has also been a reduction in the number of staff working on the asylum application process due to some having to work from home, or being deployed to other frontline areas of the immigration services.

Currently there are around 7,700 people in direct provision accommodation and emergency accommodation.

Figures show that more than 60% of these spend a year or more in the system.

The number of people in direct provision has been increasing year-on-year for the past number of years.

In 2016, there were 4,696 people living in direct provision, 5,096 in 2017, 6,106 in 2018 and 7,683 in 2019.

There are also 1,000 people who remain in direct provision accommodation despite having been granted permission to remain in Ireland but cannot exit the system due to a shortage of suitable accommodation.

The Irish Refugee Council has said it is concerned at the time it will take to restart the process of assessing applications and scheduling interviews. 

CEO of the IRC Nick Henderson said: "Past experience, in particular the shift to a single protection procedure at the beginning of 2017, is that the process can take some time to recover from changes to the decision making process. In some ways the huge backlog we have today is related to this shift. The Covid-19 crisis is likely to be the same."

He said there were a number of issues that would make it difficult to restart the process such as the risk of people in direct provision contracting Covid-19 persisting because they share accommodation, as well the issue of travelling to Dublin for interviews as travel is restricted until 20 July under public health guidelines.

Mr Henderson also said the IRC recommended that the International Protection Office and the Protection Appeals Tribunal could make use of their statutory powers to dispense with an interview or appeal hearing if evidence indicates that the person is a refugee.

They have also recommended that "virtual interviews could take place" but said "consent of the applicant is vital and legal representation should not be affected".

He said the fact that there has been a drop in the number of people applying for international protection may reduce pressure on the system.

The Department of Justice said the applications system remains open to offer asylum seekers a service in line with Ireland's international obligations.

It says the number of people seeking international protection at this time has fallen, but the department said people continue to arrive on a daily basis to make new applications.

The department said as of October 2019 the average length of time it takes to process an application has been reduced from 38 months in 2015 to 21.75 months now. 

The department said resuming interviews and the issuing of recommendations was under constant review but added that it was subject to the advice of the Health Service Executive and the Chief Medical Officer.