Ireland’s Asylum System – Still a Shambles?

Having worked overseas for more than ten years, I returned to live in Ireland in 1997. In the years during which I was away, both the pace and the scale of change in this country were significant; over the subsequent decade, however, they have been even more dramatic.

Nowhere has this been more evident than in the area of migration. Ireland, long seen internationally as a country of huge emigration, with, a mere generation ago, outflows in some years of more than 50,000 people, is now a country of substantial inward migration, both forced and voluntary.

By far the largest categories of immigrants to Ireland in recent years have been migrant workers from other parts of the European Union. However, Ireland’s response to the far smaller numbers of people seeking international protection by coming here asking for asylum – that is, asking to be recognised as refugees – merits close examination.

Some seven years ago, the asylum system was described  – correctly – by one senior politician as a ‘shambles’.1 How far has it progressed since then?

Ireland\’s Asylum System
While small numbers of people had sought asylum in Ireland in previous decades, relatively large numbers of people fleeing their home countries to seek protection elsewhere came Ireland’s way for the first time in the 1990s. Ireland was hopelessly unprepared when the annual number of people seeking refuge here rose from dozens in the early 1990s to a peak of over 11,000 in 2002. Asylum applicants commonly suffered unreasonable delays; there were major inconsistencies in how cases were dealt with, raising questions as to the authorities’ commitment to ensuring transparency and fairness in the system. Worryingly, the State – particularly the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and its agencies – continued to hope that an EU Convention known as the Dublin Convention, would ensure that Ireland, with few direct flight links with refugee-producing countries, would have to take responsibility for only a tiny number of asylum cases.2

The acceptance in 1999 – after the ‘shambles’ remark – that the system was not coping was, however, a turning point. In the subsequent two years, substantial investment was made in the asylum infrastructure. Large numbers of personnel were made available to staff both an Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner and a Refugee Appeals Tribunal to hear individual asylum cases, while a Refugee Legal Service offered legal assistance to asylum-seekers. An accommodation system known as ‘direct provision’ ensured that asylum applicants at least had a roof over their heads.

Peter O’Mahony has been CEO of the Irish Refugee Council since 1999. He writes here in a personal capacity.

NGOs and various arms of the State were now providing services to asylum-seekers and refugees. Schools, in particular, responded well to the challenges that were undoubtedly posed by the increasing diversity of their pupils’ backgrounds and the fact that many were not fluent in English. A 2005 scheme allowed a large number of asylum-seekers and other migrants who were parents of Irish children the security of residency, at least on a temporary basis.3 The National Action Plan Against Racism4 has many welcome elements and some Government initiatives include increased funding for those working with refugees and other migrants.

Obstacles to Integration
As yet, there is little evidence that the integration of people who have sought asylum here, and whose future is in this country, is happening in a way that will guarantee long-term social stability. Nor is there any evidence that we have learned from the experience, positive and negative, of many other countries with a longer history of dealing with large-scale migration.

In all societies, some members of new communities, including refugees, are unwilling to make the efforts necessary to ensure integration. Ireland is unlikely to be different in this respect. However, the biggest obstacles to integration of our new communities are State-imposed. Inter alia, these include policies in relation to family reunification,  work, education, and accommodation as well as ongoing flaws, including delays, in an admittedly much improved asylum system.

Leave to Remain
Despite huge progress in dealing more promptly with new asylum applications, a large number of people are caught in the backlogs in the system. This applies particularly to those who, having been refused asylum, exercise their right to apply to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform for ‘leave to remain’, that is,  permission to stay in Ireland.

Among them, one family known to me has been here – legally – since the late 1990s; by now, their children have spent several years in the Irish education system. Yet the family still does not have a guarantee of leave to remain. Also known to the  Irish Refugee Council are two asylum seekers who qualified for the right to work under a once-off government scheme in 1999 and have been in full-time employment for a period of years since then. Like many others, they continue to languish in uncertainty, always faced with the possibility that, when group deportations are being planned and seats on deportation charters need to be filled, their applications for leave to remain could be refused and closed, allowing them to be booted out regardless of the contribution they have made to their new home over a prolonged period of time. One woman who was similarly in limbo for many years had the good fortune to get to know a solicitor socially; after his intervention on her behalf, the unstated but ever-present risk of deportation was eventually replaced by a decision to give her leave to remain.  Should enjoying one’s rights depend on whom you know?

Separated Children
A fifteen-year old boy who applied for asylum has recently ‘celebrated’ his seventh Christmas here, again unsure of when or if he will get permission to remain here long-term. The comments of other separated children (unaccompanied minors) – a particularly vulnerable group, which was the focus of research produced by the Irish Refugee Council in December 20065 – on their experience in Ireland give a sense of their perspective. In workshops with these separated children,6 one young person commented:  “Even though I live in a safe country now, I don’t feel safe enough as I don’t have refugee status.” 7  For another, “Being an unaccompanied minor is not easy especially in a strange country all by yourself. At first the process of asylum is complicated for most minors especially because most of the time we are treated as adults when it comes to the asylum process and are expected to produce the same documents relating to our stories as adults would …”8 A young Rwandan separated child living in Dublin recently explained that his meagre allowance meant that when school friends asked him to go to the cinema or other social outings, he had to refuse … and the schoolmates soon stop asking.

In the workshops with separated children, those who had not received refugee status pointed out that they could not go on overseas school tours with the rest of the class, as they did not have the right to travel.  All spoke of the racism they encountered, and said that more should be done to teach people to respect diversity.  Many dread their eighteenth birthday when, instead of celebrating this milestone in their growing up, they are faced with the looming possibility of imminent deportation. One ‘aged out minor’9 who arrived in Ireland as a teenager from West Africa has been signing on for deportation every fortnight for over eighteen months.  Each time he expects to be taken and put on a plane and each time he is given a reprieve of another week or two as travel arrangements cannot be made for him. Having started off as an optimistic teenager with dreams and hopes, what chance is there that, even if he lives here long-term, he can now realise his full potential?

Impact of ‘Direct Provision’
Other than those who qualified under the 1999 scheme, no asylum-seekers in Ireland are allowed to work. While the impact of the work ban on their physical and mental health has not been properly quantified, it seems indisputable it has a massively negative effect. The situation is compounded by the fact that access to education for adult asylum-seekers is heavily restricted. Most will have spent long periods of time in the institutional setting of direct provision accommodation centres, where their contact with mainstream Irish society is minimal. Their only guaranteed cash income is €19.10 per week for each adult and €9.60 per week for each child (asylum-seeker children are not normally entitled to Child Benefit). It is notable that while Ireland’s management of a programme for invited Kosovar refugees in the late 1990s was in many respects excellent, the impact of institutionalisation on the beneficiaries of that programme was negative.

Not being permitted to work or to attend full-time education has a detrimental effect on the persons themselves and on their children. One woman, speaking to the media in 2005, admitted that many people get depressed because of this situation: “You go to your friends here to spill your problems. But you are helpless. You have no control. It is like you are at the mercy of the system.”10 While waiting for their refugee status to be declared (or refused) they have very little to do and many admit they just sit and think and “think too much”.
Addressing a meeting in 2005, Dr. Pat Bracken, consultant psychiatrist at Bantry Hospital, who has worked with asylum seekers in Britain and torture victims in Uganda, said that in some ways the system of direct provision could do as much long-term damage to asylum seekers’ mental health as the trauma from which they had fled. He told The Irish Times that a similar regime in Britain ‘profoundly demoralised’ asylum seekers, causing depression and other mental health problems. “It is part of a whole process of invalidation of them as people, of powerlessness, giving rise in many cases to a depression more insidious than the initial trauma,” he said, adding that the length of time people are left on a direct provision regime is critical. He went on to say: “I found that what people want more than anything after a terrible trauma is to establish a meaningful way of life, to be a part of the society. I have yet to meet an asylum seeker who is not desperate to work. This notion that people come here to get welfare is utter rubbish.”11
Living for lengthy periods in direct provision accommodation is hugely disempowering for adults.  In 2005, Dr Anne Sheehan, specialist registrar in public health medicine in the HSE Mid-Western Area, told a conference on services for asylum seekers in Cork: “A major issue for asylum seekers was ‘control’ over their lives. Most find it difficult to go from leading an active, productive life to one of waiting and inactivity.”12 Dr Sheehan, who conducted research on immigrants from 35 countries in Cork and Kerry, said some 48 per cent of the study group were found to have poor mental wellbeing.  The long-term effect on children, many of whom will never have seen a parent go out to work nor indeed cook a family meal, remains to be seen.
From Asylum Seeking to Refugee Status
Even where people who have sought asylum have been successful, the achievement of refugee status can sometimes seem like a false dawn. Newly-declared refugees face many barriers to integration.

Refugees – and others – whose academic performance in the Leaving Certificate meets the criteria set down by a university to which they have applied may be unable to take up a college place because they have not been resident in Ireland for sufficiently long to be entitled to avail of  ‘free fees’.  One such young refugee whom I know went back to school for a year – at some expense to the State – purely to kill time before taking up her university place the following year. Who gains from this folly?

For many refugees, a first task after securing their own situation is to pursue their statutory right to family reunification.  However, many face excessively long delays. One teenager who had attained refugee status in Ireland applied in 2005 for family reunification with her mother and young brother, both of whom were already in Ireland as applicants for asylum. At the beginning of  2007, she still remains separated from these family members. In another instance, an adult who had obtained refugee status applied for reunification with his parents who themselves were seeking asylum in this country. Because of an intellectual disability, the applicant is dependent on his parents; however, his application has been refused  … on the grounds that the parents are not dependent on him!

A particular absurdity in the system arises in the case of those people who have achieved refugee status and then go on to obtain Irish citizenship. Despite the commitment to this country that seeking and obtaining citizenship implies, they are, on becoming citizens, immediately penalised by the loss of their right to family reunification. I can vividly remember meeting one woman who called to our offices early in 2006 to kick-start the process of getting her children to join her. We struggled to explain to her that her success in getting citizenship meant that she had lost the right to have her children join her.

On attaining refugee status, the individual or family concerned must leave ‘direct provision’ accommodation. The vast majority will seek accommodation in the private rental sector and, until they obtain employment, they must rely on rent allowance. Finding suitable accommodation can be extremely difficult, especially as many private landlords are reluctant to let to immigrants receiving rent allowance.

While many refugees have indeed found employment, the reality is that newly recognised refugees encounter numerous difficulties when trying to obtain work. The employment situation for refugees is at least as difficult as for other immigrants. Because of the lack of access to training and to English language education while waiting for their applications to be processed, they find themselves de-skilled, unfamiliar with the Irish job market and with how to constructively search for employment, and lagging behind other immigrants in terms of English language skills. Unable to have early access to courses such as those provided by FÁS, this group of people may find they have lost many of the skills they had previously used in their country of origin.

Racism in the workplace and in other areas of life is an all too common experience for many refugees. An insight into the extent and nature of racism and discrimination encountered by recent migrants to Ireland is provided by a study published by the ESRI in November 2006 which explored experiences of discrimination in a number of domains: employment; private life and public places; shops and restaurants; commercial transactions; public institutions.13 Over one third of those interviewed – who included both work permit holders and asylum seekers – reported experiencing harassment on the street, on public transport or in public places. Of work permit holders, 21 per cent had experienced discrimination in accessing employment and 32 per cent reported being harassed or insulted at work. Black Africans experienced the most discrimination of all groups studied and non-EU East Europeans experienced the least.

Asylum seekers were much more likely to report discrimination than work permit holders. This was true for all the domains which are relevant to both groups: public places, shops and restaurants, and institutions, even after controlling for national or ethnic origin. Overall, 17.5 per cent of respondents who had been in contact with the immigration services in the previous year reported being treated badly or receiving a poor service.  This was the highest incidence of discrimination by public institutions reported in the survey. It is notable that the incidence of such discrimination experienced by asylum seekers (23.4 per cent) was significantly higher than that for work permit holders (14.3 per cent).14

The record of the Gardaí in handling the greater diversity of modern Ireland is mixed. While there have been several very positive initiatives, there are also incidents which cannot but give the impression that immigrants, including those in the asylum system, cannot always rely on being treated fairly. In one search of homes carried out by Gardaí in Dublin in 2006, there was no warrant for at least two of the apartments searched, both of which were occupied by immigrants. The doors were forcibly kicked in and the apartments searched in the absence of the occupants. The apartments were left open and unprotected when the Gardaí left and it is now acknowledged that the focus of the search was not associated with either apartment. No apology has as yet been forthcoming.

Looking Ahead
For some years, Ireland has had a ‘window of opportunity’ to ensure that immigrants are encouraged and facilitated to integrate. If we fail to take the right initiatives, the window will soon have slammed shut. If that happens, the recent experience of countries such as the Netherlands and France would suggest that disaffection among marginalised migrant communities and their descendants in Ireland might grow to dangerous levels with unknown but negative consequences for society at large. The Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Séamus Brennan TD, recently warned that Ireland must properly integrate new immigrants or else face the danger of French-style riots in the years ahead.  He said that Ireland must learn from the mistakes made by other countries, in particular, the failure to provide the “welfare, education and social employment policies” needed for the integration of new communities. 15

Though people who sought asylum here are only a fraction of those recent migrants who now see Ireland as their long-term home, it is imperative that integration policies take account of their particular situations and especially the State-imposed obstacles to integration. Despite the best efforts of individuals, communities, schools and others, we cannot – and will not – have meaningful integration unless a number of key initiatives are taken by the State.

Firstly, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform is not, in my view, well placed to lead on integration matters. A Minister of State, independent of that Department and not driven primarily by security concerns, is needed to lead the Government’s response to integration, at least for a period of a few years. We have a choice of either doing this in the near future, with a real chance of success, or much further down the line when we are trying desperately to reverse marginalisation and disaffection. Canada is one of a number of countries which offers a possible model for integration policy.

Secondly, people who sought asylum here many years ago – some in the 1990s – and who have not yet received a definitive answer to their applications for permission to remain here need to be given leave to remain so that they can begin to maximise their contribution to Irish society. Since poorly planned amnesties are inherently counter-productive, clearing the backlog of those who are in this category despite being resident for more than, say, three years needs to be done in a careful way – perhaps modeled on a version of the residency scheme of early 2005 for migrant parents of Irish children. Any such scheme would amongst other things allow – indeed, encourage – beneficiaries to access paid employment and would see all who have been in direct provision accommodation allowed to move into mainstream society after a defined time period.

Thirdly, recognised refugees who qualify for third-level education should be able to avail of  ‘free-fees’, regardless of the length of time they have been resident in Ireland.

Fourthly, refugees, whose long-term future is in Ireland, need to be able to reunite with their immediate family members more promptly than is the case currently. Situations where there are pressing humanitarian concerns – for example, where family members are at serious risk or where minors are separated from their refugee parents – need to be treated as urgent. This will mean some reallocation of personnel within the immigration and related services to this specific area. Refugees who make the commitment of becoming citizens must no longer be penalised by losing their right to family reunification.

Fifthly, the poverty-causing elements of government policy – including the provision that asylum-seeking children are ineligible for Child Benefit and the fact that the guaranteed cash income for adult asylum-seekers and their children has remained frozen since the year 2000 – must be addressed.

1. Comment by Liz O’Donnell TD, then Minister of State in the Department of Foreign Affairs, 1999.
2. Under the terms of Dublin Convention, asylum seekers are required to make their initial application for asylum in the EU Member Country they have first entered and that country is to be responsible for processing their application. The Convention was agreed in Dublin in June 1990 and came into force on 1 September 1997 for the twelve countries (including Ireland) who were initial signatories to it.
3. Under the Irish Born Child 2005 Residency Scheme, which was open for applications between January and March 2005 only, a migrant parent who had a child born in Ireland before 1 January 2005 could apply for residency. A total of 17, 917 applications were received, of which 16, 693 were successful. Residency was granted for an initial period of two years; those availing of the  scheme are then required to apply for a continuation of their residency for a further three years.
4. Planning for Diversity: The National Action Plan Against Racism 2005 –2008, Dublin: Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
5. Nalinie Mooten, Making Separated Children Visible: The Need for a Child-Centred Approach, Dublin: Irish Refugee Council, 2006.
6. These workshops were carried by the Irish Refugee Council in 2005 as part of a consultative process undertaken by the Children’s Rights Alliance, in the preparation of a submission by children and young people to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.  (See Our Voices: Our Realities: A Report to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child by Children Living in Ireland, Dublin: Children’s Rights Alliance, 2006.)
7. Making Separated Children Visible, p. 27.
8. Making Separated Children Visible, p. 57.
9. ‘Aged out minor’ is the term used to describe a young person who arrived in Ireland as an unaccompanied minor but who has now passed his or her eighteenth birthday.
10. Kitty Holland, “Stuck in Ireland\’s Hidden Villages”, The Irish Times, 9 April 2005.
11. Quoted in Kitty Holland, “Stuck in Ireland\’s Hidden Villages”, The Irish Times, 9 April 2005.
12. Barry Roche, “Concerns over Asylum Seekers’ Mental Health”, The Irish Times, 26 April 2005.
13. Frances McGinnity, Philip J. O’Connell, Emma Quinn and James Williams, Migrants’ Experience of Racism and Discrimination in Ireland, Dublin: ESRI.
14. Ibid., Chapter 5, “Perceived Racism and Discrimination”, pp. 32–53.
15. Mark Hennessy, “Brennan Warns of French Style Race Riots”, The Irish Times, 27 December 2006.