Change to refugee claims system to cut long delays for asylum-seekers

Opinion: World Refugee Day sees massive increase in displaced people – driven mainly by war in Syria

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Antonio Guterres  visits a Syrian refugee family in Beirut this week. Photograph: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Antonio Guterres visits a Syrian refugee family in Beirut this week. Photograph: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters

Fri, Jun 20, 2014, 00:01

Along a sweeping beach promenade that still oozes history, Belgians of all stripes still flock to Ostend for the bracing sea air and miles of sandy beaches.

But 100 years ago scenes of panic gripped the city as 25,000 people massed on the docks for one of the last boats out of the country.

The first World War had started, and the country’s civilians were looking to escape. A total of 250,000 Belgians fled to Britain, 3,000 or so arriving in Ireland. They were taken in by the affluent and the curious, but most often the generous. The tireless work of volunteer groups such as the Jesuit Refugee Committee found homes for schoolmasters and fishermen, bakers and cabinet makers.

A century later people continue to flee, most notably from Syria. Some 2.8 million have sought safety in neighbouring countries since that country’s conflict began in 2011. On current trends that figure will rise to 4.1 million by the end of 2014, a movement of people so dramatic that UNHCR called for the resettlement of 30,000 Syrians outside of the region in 2014. That target has been reached, with 90 set to arrive in Ireland this year. But the UNHCR has called for a further 100,000 Syrians to be resettled in 2015 and 2016.

Indeed, as UNHCR’s Global Trends report released yesterday shows, new displacement is outpacing solutions. Forced displacement has exceeded 50 million people worldwide for the first time in the post-second World War era, reaching 51.2 million at the end of 2013. That is six million more than the 45.2 million reported in 2012. Half of them are children.

Five years

This massive increase was driven mainly by the war in Syria. The country has moved from being the world’s second largest refugee-hosting country to being its second largest refugee-producing country in a span of just five years.

Major new displacement was also seen in Africa – notably in the Central African Republic, and towards the end of 2013 in South Sudan. And in Iraq, as of June 17th, more than 300,000 people have fled their homes seeking protection elsewhere within Iraq due to the dramatic recent developments there.

Very few will come to Ireland, with nine out of 10 refugees living in developing countries, a 21st-century high. But for those who do come here we must ensure the correct systems are in place so they do not have to wait long periods to hear if they may stay.

Ireland is no different to other EU states in establishing direct provision centres to accommodate asylum-seekers. The authorities decide if they qualify for either refugee status or what is called “subsidiary protection”, a status introduced by the EU in 2003 for people who don’t meet the strict refugee definition but who would be subject to serious human rights violations if returned to their country.

As originally envisaged, the system compared favourably with those in other countries, as people were expected to stay no longer than six months. However, because Ireland is the only EU state that does not assess refugee applications and subsidiary protection applications at the same time, asylum-seekers must first exhaust the refugee process. If unsuccessful, then they make a subsidiary protection application.

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