Ireland must do more to speed up the process for assessing asylum seekers’ claims, a senior United Nations official has warned.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) is concerned with the time it takes the Government to decide asylum cases, said Gráinne O'Hard, the director of the organisation's international protection division.
The average processing time for new applications is 15 months with people waiting between eight and 10 months for an initial interview with the Department of Justice’s International Protection Office.
Ms O’Hara told The Irish Times “State procedures should go as rapidly as possible” for the sake of asylum seekers and local communities.
The quicker people have clarity on their application, the quicker they will be able to integrate into the community or plan their future. This also applies to those whose application is rejected, she said.
“Because not everyone who enters the system will end up with refugee status.”
Ms O’Hara said the UNHCR is also concerned with the number of asylum seekers living in emergency accommodation due to a lack of space in the direct provision system.
The 38 existing direct provision centres are currently operating at full capacity and an additional 1,400 people are being housed in 34 emergency accommodation centres. The department is expected to spend €120 million on direct provision this year, a 50 per cent increase on last year, with the majority of the money going to private operators.
“Clearly there are challenges there and it would be a matter of concern to UNHCR,” Ms O’Hara said, adding that the UNHCR has raised the issue with the Irish Government recently.
She said a system is required which balances the rights of asylum seekers with “the challenges that Irish people themselves are facing in finding adequate housing”.
Ms O’Hara said the UNHCR is increasingly of the view that community sponsorship schemes, such as those established in several Irish towns, are preferable to large-scale accommodation centres.
Sometimes large-scale housing will be unavoidable, such as during humanitarian emergencies, she said, but for countries like Ireland small community projects seem to work better.
“It’s the community that actually anchors people in a country. Early indications are that it leads to much quicker results in the integration of people.”
Consultation with communities is vital to achieve this, she said. Ms O'Hara said she was aware of protests against a possible direct provision centre in Oughterard, Co Galway, but that she was not fully briefed on the details.
She praised Ireland for recently winning an international award for its community sponsorship programme which has been used to resettle five Syrian refugee families. Under the programme, towns, villages and parishes across Ireland were encouraged to “sponsor” a vulnerable family.
Despite challenges, Ireland’s system for dealing with asylum seekers is more positive than those in other European counties where people are detained in the system, despite having committed no crime, Ms O’Hara said.
In an address to the Law Society’s Annual Human Rights Conference 2019 in Dublin on Saturday, Ms O’Hara said there is a disconnect between what is reported in the media about refugees and what the statistics say.
“From what we see in the media we get the sense that everyone is banging down doors to get into Europe or the US. The statistics show a different reality.”
Eighty per cent of refugees live in countries neighbouring their country of origin, she said. The countries hosting the most refugees are Turkey, Pakistan, Uganda and Sudan. Germany, which hosts 1.1 million refugees, is the only EU country in the top five.