MORE than 3,000 returning Irish emigrants have been refused social welfare payments because they haven't been living in Ireland for the two years before they made their claims.
The inconsistent enforcement of an 'habitual residency' requirement -- originally designed to stop welfare tourism from eastern Europe -- is causing enormous hardship.
The problem is so bad that some Irish citizens are ending up on the streets as a result, the Dail's Committee on Social Protection was told.
Emigrants who left Ireland in the 1960s and '70s are being affected, as well as some who left as recently as 18 months ago but have now returned and are being denied social welfare, said Joe O'Brien of Crosscare, the Catholic social-care agency.
The number of Irish citizens being turned down as habitual residents -- a condition for social welfare entitlements -- has doubled in the past two years, with 1,723 rejected between 2008 and 2009, and a total of 3,261 in all since the measure was introduced in 2004, Crosscare said.
The number of cases coming to Crosscare's attention in 2010 has increased five-fold already this year, said Mr O'Brien.
One of those affected is Rita Delaney.
After living and working for 17 years in Boston, Ms Delaney, who was born and raised in Pullough, Co Offaly, returned to Ireland in September, after being laid off from her job with the Massachussetts Institute of Technology.
Based in Dublin, she has been seeking work, but was shocked at the response when she went to the Department of Social Protection to see if she could claim jobseeker's allowance.
"One person there told me my best bet would be just to get on a plane back to the US," she said.
Ms Delaney, whose brother and other relatives still live in Ireland, has been turned down for habitual residency but given no explanation for that. With the aid of Crosscare, she plans to appeal the decision.