Thursday 21 February 2019

Comment: 'It's time to move away from direct provision'

Asylum seekers, refugees, human rights supporters and members of the public march to the Department of Justice in 2013
Asylum seekers, refugees, human rights supporters and members of the public march to the Department of Justice in 2013

Dr Liam Thornton

Over recent days, the separation of children from their families in the United States, and the scenes from ships in the Mediterranean of asylum seekers not being accepted into ports of European Union member states, has raised significant concern.

The long standing international regime on refugee protection is under significant attack from populist forces across the globe. As a country that is on the geographical periphery of Europe, the numbers of asylum seekers arriving in Ireland remains small.

This week witnesses Ireland becoming bound by European Union law on reception conditions for asylum seekers. This is a positive move, particularly in light of the gloom as regards countries reactions to the arrival of asylum seekers elsewhere. However, we should not rest too easy on our laurels.

Since the onset of the migration crisis, Ireland’s asylum system has seen very few asylum seekers arrive on our shores. The numbers claiming protection in Ireland have never gone above 3,300 annually between 2012 and 2017. 

Between January 2018 and April 2018, there were 131,000 asylum seekers who claimed protection in the European Union, with just 1,195 people claiming asylum in Ireland.  

Asylum seekers must meet strict legal tests in order to prove that they face persecution or serious harm in their countries of origin. There are significant delays within Ireland’s machinery for determining whether asylum seekers have a lawful claim to protection in this State. This results in many asylum seekers having to spend prolonged periods within a system known as ‘direct provision’.

Direct provision is shorthand for the services provided to asylum seekers in Ireland. While there is no obligation on asylum seekers to use these services, direct provision consists of: communal accommodation, a weekly allowance of €21.60 per adult and per child, provision of food, mainly catering, although an increasing number of centres now permit asylum seekers to cook for themselves, medical services, and education for children up to the leaving certificate. 

Only those in the system for 5 or more years, who completed five years education in Ireland, may be entitled to state support for University. Asylum seekers are not entitled to child benefit, nor any other social welfare payment with the exception of the €21.60 payment per week. 

When direct provision was introduced, it was seen as a temporary, no more than six months, measure. However, as the years have progressed, the vast majority of asylum seekers spend well in excess of 6 months in direct provision centres. 

Previously statistics were collected which calculated the length of time persons spent in direct provision. However, recent statistics from the Reception and Integration Agency have failed to provide this information. 

The duration of stay for asylum seekers in direct provision was last reported in December 2017. 60 per cent of all asylum seekers in direct provision accommodation had been there for 12 months or more, with just under 40pc of asylum seekers in the system for over two years. 

To bear a system of enforced dependency, strict meal times, shared accommodation with strangers for six months would be difficult, to do so for any period of time beyond this is cruel and inhuman. 

Asylum seekers have catalogued the significant harms done to persons by the system of direct provision. Imagine a child who arrives in direct provision, who sees her parents under the control of this institution as regards when to eat and how to sleep, on a pittance of €21.60 per week. 

The system of direct provision is infantilising for adults, and wholly inappropriate system for children. No amount of child friendly policies nor child auditing systems can justify the purposeful placement of people, in particular children, in institutions. 

Ireland has a long history of institutionalising those groups in society that we dislike, be it condemning such persons to Magdalenes, mother and baby homes, borstals and mental institutions. We condemn families who are homeless to months and years in hotels. 

We have condemned asylum seekers to institutionalised living since the foundation of the direct provision system in 2000. I often view direct provision as being the start in the modern era of Irish society further punishing the poor. We institutionalise the poor, be it in hotels for homeless citizens and residents or direct provision centres for asylum seekers.  

One particularly pernicious aspect of the system of direct provision had previously been the absolute prohibition on the right to work for asylum seekers. This created an enforced dependency on the State for many asylum seekers.

The Irish Supreme Court in May 2017 struck down this absolute prohibition on the right to work as being a violation of human dignity, contrary to our Constitution. An initial mean-spirited response to this Supreme Court judgment by Government only permitted PAYE employment for asylum seekers in highly specified job sectors, subject to the payment of a €1000 employment permit fee, and only for employment earning over €30,000 per annum. 

Not one asylum seeker was able to qualify for this aspect of the scheme. A broader right for permission to self-employment saw over 500 employment permits issued to asylum seekers. 

However, from 02 July 2018, this limited scheme will be no more. In the space of a few months, Ireland has gone from the most restrictive right to work scheme for asylum seekers, to having a freedom to work scheme that is one of the more generous schemes in the European Union. 

For asylum seekers whose first instance asylum decision has not been reached within nine months, they can now access practically all employment positions in Ireland. The employment permit fee of €1000 no longer applies, and asylum seekers are no longer subject to minimum job income requirement of €30,000. 

While this still means that those who have already received an initial rejection of their asylum claim, cannot access the labour market, it is estimated some 3,000 asylum seekers now enjoy the right to work in Ireland.

So, in Ireland, the news on asylum seekers is mixed. We continue to only shoulder a very limited responsibility to asylum seekers, who will be placed in direct provision.

However, we should acknowledge the reformulated rules on the right to work. This could be potentially the starting basis for discussions on a less punitive, more humane, and more person-centred reception regime for asylum seekers in Ireland. It is time to move away from direct provision.

Dr Liam Thornton is an assistant professor in UCD School of Law and he blogs at www.liamthornton.ie . 

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