Sunday 22 October 2017

Refugees, work and mental health issues all need to be addressed

Some asylum seekers will have left family behind, in their urgent bid to reach a place of safety
Some asylum seekers will have left family behind, in their urgent bid to reach a place of safety

Patricia Casey

Last week the Supreme Court ruled that the law in Ireland prohibiting asylum seekers from working was "in principle" unconstitutional. I cheered silently when I read about this as a mark of recognition that at last the plight of this group of unfortunate people was about to change.

Mr Justice Donal O'Donnell delivered the Court's ruling. He said that the State could legitimately have a policy of restricting the employment of asylum seekers. The problem was that the Refugee Act did not just severely limit their right to work but removed it altogether.

He highlighted the fact that there is no time limit for processing an application for asylum and that could amount to an absolute prohibition on employment, no matter how long a person was within the system.

He further implied that this delay had now reached a tipping point when legitimate differences between an asylum seeker and a citizen of the State could no longer justify the exclusion of one group compared to the other from the possibility of employment.

He specifically spoke of the damage to the individual's self-worth and sense of themselves and pointed out that this was exactly the damage that the constitutional right to seek employment sought to guard against. The Burmese man who took the case, had been in direct provision for eight years and he spoke of his frustration and depression at his plight. The Judge indicated that the issue would be revisited by the Court in six months when the Government had time to consider the judgement and respond to its pronouncement, presumably with appropriate legislation.

Psychologically, uncertainty is one of the most difficult cognitions to live with.

In the context of asylum seekers, whose application is often turned down on multiple occasions and there are long delays inherent in the system, not knowing whether you will summarily be deported back to the hostile and dangerous country that you have come from is frequently overwhelming.

Some will have left family behind, in their urgent bid to reach a place of safety. They will be separated from them and left in a state of terrifying doubt as to the safety of their loved one. Filled with grief, loneliness and poverty many arrive bearing the scars, physical and psychological, inflicted by the situation in their homeland. Post-traumatic stress disorder, adjustment disorder, anxiety and depressive illness are common.

Interestingly there is research showing that while many asylum seekers have symptoms of these disorders, they do not regard themselves as ill. Instead they view these symptoms as temporary, and part of life's ups and downs in difficult times. Work is very much regarded by them as part of the healing process. Instead, until the recent ruling, they were stonewalled by a creaking and incompetent system in their asylum application and surviving in Direct Provision on handouts while the dignity of work was not bestowed upon them. True, they were given free access to medical services but from some, being able to earn a living, to give to the country and to save for a future, was more rehabilitative.

Not only are there the obvious financial benefits to working but it will potentially assist in their cultural integration. Provided native employers are willing to give them employment, asylum seekers' language skills will improve rapidly, they will appreciate the local social customs and mores more readily and friendships will be built with the local people.

There is also a mistaken belief that asylum seekers are largely uneducated but this is inaccurate. Many are well educated and they could augment our workforce in diverse areas and professions. Similar considerations apply to the trades also. Undoubtedly some who come here seeking asylum may be too old or ill to be suitable for work and continuing financial assistance is necessary. Those who want to develop skills to enable them to enter the workforce should be encouraged into courses, as part of the reform measures this ruling requires the Government to make.

The requirement that the Government must address allowing asylum seekers to work within six months demonstrates how concerned the Supreme Court is about this issue. It is likely to be challenging and to meet with some opposition. But where human dignity is at stake the State has a duty to vindicate it in respect of this very vulnerable group.

Let us all hope that it rises to its responsibility.

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