A humane approach to asylum

 

Minister of State at the Department of Justice Aodhán O Riordáin has spoken in favour of allowing asylum seekers to work after they have been here for a certain period of time. It is what happens in all but one other EU State and it offers these vulnerable people renewed confidence and a sense of worth. A right to work is, however, just one aspect of the direct provision system that requires urgent reform.

Official Ireland has always regarded immigrants and asylum seekers as problems. That is why legislation emanating from the Department of Justice has been so strict and inflexible, limiting rights and opportunities to remain. Justification for this harsh regime was based on the premise that a more liberal approach would act as a “pull factor”. That mindset has not disappeared and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald remains officially opposed to asylum seekers working.

Other aspects of this punitive “direct provision and dispersal” system have been condemned by international agencies. The treatment of children and their exclusion from third level education has received particular attention. Mr O Riordáin has described the direct provision regime as “inhumane” while Ms Fitzgerald has also expressed concern. Adults in these centres receive a weekly allowance of €19.10 (children €9.60); are isolated from society and can experience depression as a result. Inmates have recently engaged in protests and hunger strikes because of their “prison-like conditions”.

Twelve years ago, the government changed its temporary work visa system for non-EU citizens following a campaign by Church leaders and trade unions. Similar pressure for reform is now building. Opposition to direct provision is being organised by the Irish Refugee Council. Political muscle has come from Mr O Riordáin and from Minister for Education Jan O’ Sullivan, while Ombudsman for Children Emily Logan has spoken publicly on behalf of the 1,600 children affected. Significantly, the Ombudsman is legally barred from investigating issues relating to asylum and direct provision.

The number of asylum seekers has fallen dramatically in recent years to about 4,000. In spite of political undertakings, however, the average length of stay in dispersal centres remains excessive, at almost four years. Various interests will meet at the Department of Justice this week to consider amendments to an Immigrant, Resident and Protection Bill that fell with the last government.

Under this legislation, Mr O Riordáin hopes decisions on asylum applications can be taken within a year; the ban on employment relaxed and child-friendly rules introduced. It is an ambitious agenda that will require courage and a generosity of spirit. But society can benefit from such a humanitarian approach.