Wednesday 11 December 2019

Ireland must change our treatment of asylum seekers

Aodhan O Riordain
Aodhan O Riordain

EVERY now and then a politician says something which is of real substance. Forget publicity stunts like "inspecting" US planes in Shannon for arms or flag waving protests in the Dail Chamber.

I am referring to the life altering statement this week by newly appointed Minister of State at the Department of Justice Aodhan O'Riordain that it is a "priority" of the Government under the revised programme to reform the Direct Provision System for asylum seekers in Ireland.

As a former Minister of State with responsibility for Human Rights I have long been critical of the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers by successive Irish governments, including that of which I was a part. In the late nineties, faced with a significant "influx" in the numbers seeking asylum in Ireland the Department of Justice was in crisis defence mode.

In 1998 there were lines of people waiting in the cold and rain to access services to which they were entitled under international law. Antipathy was high towards refugees then; most people taking the view that these were economic migrants and not therefore deserving of reception or, indeed, consideration of their case.

I remember calling the response a "shambles" and citing Ireland's obligations under international law. I got short shrift and little or no support from government and parliamentary colleagues apart from some Labour deputies. Staff in my constituency office and Party HQ were inundated with hate mail and abusive telephone calls. Racist tirades and threats rained down on my private office in Iveagh House, some so serious as to require garda investigation.

Negative media headlines fuelled racism and intolerance. I took every opportunity to counter this as Minister with Special Responsibility for Human Rights.

I was a member of the cabinet subcommittee on Asylum Integration and related matters, formed to coordinate the State's response across relevant government departments and agencies. The lead Department of Justice was singularly unhelpful, unsympathetic and downright obstructive to any proposals sympathetic to refugees.

Gradually, even at a time of unprecedented prosperity, attitudes hardened and policy became more regressive with direct provision being introduced to replace a more flexible rent allowance regime. Even then this move was controversial and was purported to be for a finite period of time.

But as the Minister of State confirmed this week, thousands of asylum seekers, many of them children, have languished in these direct provision reception centres for as long as nine years.

The story of this regressive policy since 1996 to date is outlined by UCD law school academic Liam Thornton in a recent article titled 'The Myth of the cherished child in Ireland'.

Direct provision has been consistently challenged by activists, politicians and human rights lawyers by advocacy and in the courts. Criticisms centre on the fact that the system deprives people of their autonomy and dignity for long periods, a state of affairs described as an "assault on human dignity and an assault on the rule of law".

Because there is limited choice of food, movement and shared living space, curfews and a restriction on visitors to the centres, it is claimed the system breaches the right to private and family life in Article 8 of the Convention of Human Rights.

That asylum seekers in Ireland are uniquely in an EU state, denied the right to work and must live on a weekly allowance of €19.10 per adult and €9.60 per child has been widely condemned. Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly, former Supreme Court Judge Catherine McGuinness, refugee support groups and childcare expert Geoffrey Shannon amongst others have claimed that Ireland is in breach of constitutional and European human rights.

It is ironic that at this time of national handwringing and long overdue state redress for "legacy" institutional child abuse, that over a thousand refugee children continue to be warehoused in unconscionable conditions for extended periods.

When first introduced, direct provision was presented as a policy intended to provide basic needs for asylum seekers and promote "dispersal" so as to counter the tendency of asylum seekers to cluster in cities thereby placing housing in the private rented sector under pressure. The justification for such a harsh regime was to act as a disincentive or counter the "pull factor" of the previous more flexible provision of rent support. When challenged judicially the State argued that "while the system was" not ideal, the State had to be mindful of other calls on resources.

Just like the Magdalene laundries and Mother and Baby homes of the past, the regime enjoyed the benefit of being "out of sight and out of mind". But Frances Fitzgerald, as former Minister for Children and now Minister for Justice, can no longer ignore the child protection and human rights issues arising.

Even at a time of limited resources, she must call time on this shameful policy.

Irish Independent

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