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


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.

This can take years. The average wait is four years. Some people have been there for seven years or longer. And while they wait, access to the labour market is not permitted, educational opportunities are limited and family life suffers.

Last week’s commitment by Minister for Justice and Equality Frances Fitzgerald to introduce legislation this year to enable refugee claims and subsidiary protection claims to be assessed at the same time is a welcome development.

UNHCR is ready to support the authorities in the roll-out of the new procedure. Preparations for its introduction are already underway at the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner where good progress has been made in processing outstanding subsidiary protection applications under a new procedure, with the assistance of a panel of lawyers it has retained.

The new law, in addition to the rise in the number of people recognised as refugees in Ireland, should help cut down on many delays in the system.

Some 18 per cent of asylum-seekers were recognised as refugees in 2013, close to the EU average and a significant rise on the 1.2 per cent in 2010.

Pending the new law, additional measures could ease the restrictions of the direct provision system and facilitate greater access to integration supports.

As a UNHCR report published in May found, the longer refugees waited for final decisions in their cases, the harder they find it to integrate into Irish society.

They have already fled harrowing situations – persecution, war or violence – because of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. As the Global Trend’s report shows, nowhere is this more noticeable than in Syria, the greatest humanitarian tragedy of our time.

Resettlement places

This is why UNHCR is hosting a high-level meeting on resettlement and other forms of admission for Syrian refugees in Geneva on June 27th.

This is a key occasion for states to pledge resettlement places for Syrians in addition to their existing annual resettlement programmes.

Ireland has a proud history in this regard, resettling Hungarians in the 1950s and Vietnamese in the 1970s. Even before it was a sovereign State, Irish people reached out to help the displaced.

In the aftermath of the first World War, the Belgian queen awarded the Médaille de la Reine Elisabeth to Leonie Leslie for taking 15 refugees to Monaghan town.

Some may argue it is only a lump of metal. Others may look on it as a small reminder of the debt of gratitude refugees will always hold for those who give them safety in times of conflict. Sophie Magennis is head of office with UNHCR in Ireland

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