The Government has approved a scheme to regularise thousands of undocumented migrants and their families who are living in Ireland.

The Department of Justice said it will enable eligible applicants to remain and reside in the State and regularise their residency status.

Where specific criteria is met, long-term undocumented migrants and their eligible dependents will benefit.

"These people already live and work in our communities and their children go to schools here," Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said, on RTÉ's Morning Ireland.

"And yet they're undocumented.

"It leaves them very vulnerable, it leaves their families vulnerable and it means that they can't become a full part of our society.

"I think we can all probably say that we know somebody in a very similar situation, be it living in America or elsewhere, and I believe it's the right thing to do to regularise them."

She said it is important to allow people to "come out of the shadows" and provide them with reassurance that "we want them to stay and continue to be part of our communities".

The time-limited scheme will open for online applications in January and applications will be accepted for six months.

Applicants must have a period of four-years undocumented residence in the State, or three years in the case of those with children.

Successful applicants will receive immigration permission, access to the labour market and will be able to begin a path to citizenship.

The six-month window aims to enable people to come forward and regularise their status, according to the Department of Justice.

There is no reliable data on the number of undocumented persons in the State.

The Department said studies suggest there could be up to 17,000 undocumented persons, including up to 3,000 children, and that many could be in employment, although likely low paid.

Due to the lack of reliable data it says that it is difficult to say how many will be eligible.

Criteria for eligibility

Applicants will need to have spent a period of four-years residence in the State without an immigration permission, or three years in the case of those with children on the date the Scheme opens for applications.

They must be granted an immigration permission that allows for unrestricted access to the labour market.

Applicants must also have years of residence with that permission reckonable for the purposes of pursuing citizenship by way of naturalisation.

Those with an existing Deportation Order can apply, if they meet the minimum undocumented residence requirement

Applicants must meet standards regarding good character and criminal record/behaviour and not pose a threat to the State.

Having convictions for minor offences will not, of itself, result in disqualification.

People with expired student permissions will also be able to apply.

Minister Helen McEntee has described it as a once-in-a-generation scheme that will bring some "much-needed certainty and peace of mind" to thousands of people who are already living here and making a valuable contribution to society and the economy.

"I believe that in opening this scheme, we are demonstrating the same goodwill and generosity of spirit that we ask is shown to the countless Irish people who left this island to build their lives elsewhere.".

In October, Justice for the Undocumented Group (JFU) and Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) published research into the lives of over 1,000 undocumented migrants in Ireland.

It gave a good insight into the working lives of those who were surveyed - 75% of whom had been living in Ireland for five years or more and 93% of whom were in employment.

Seventy percent were aged between 24 and 44 and many were working in vital sectors of the economy

The survey found 27% were providing care to older people in private home settings; 17% were working cleaning and maintenance; 10% in childcare and 5% in construction.

In addition, it found 26% did not receive the minimum wage and 46% were working more than 40 hours per week.

Three quarters of respondents were working in the same job for three years or more and 83% were employed in the same sector three years or more.

Launching the survey the Chair of JFU Tjanasi Jack said it showed that undocumented people are at the heart of communities and a clear and fair solution was required.

The scheme that will be announced by the Minister for Justice this morning will include a parallel process for people in Direct Provision.

It will allow international protection applicants who have an outstanding application for international protection and have been in the asylum process for a minimum of two years to apply.

This is based on the recommendation made by the Expert Advisory Group, led by Dr Catherine Day, regarding people who have been in the protection process for two years or more.

The Minister has said that in regularising those who are long-term undocumented in the State, the Government is keen to also ensure "that we address any legacy asylum cases so that the new system envisaged under the White Paper can come into operation in 2024".

Helen McEntee has committed to reducing processing times of both first instance decisions and appeals to six months respectively, which she says will ultimately benefit everyone in the protection process.

The scheme according to the Department of Justice, was developed following a consultation process with key stakeholders including NGOs that work directly with people and families who are in vulnerable immigration-related circumstances, as well as inter-Departmental and operational stakeholders.