Government has tough choice on jobs for asylum seekers
State must allow free access to jobs for asylum seekers or bring in a restrictive regime
A family from Syria at a direct provision centre in Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo. The most recent figures shows in April there were 4,617 asylum seekers in the 32 direct provision centres across the State. Photograph: Keith Heneghan
So, finally, the Department of Justice is to grapple with the thorny issue of allowing asylum seekers to work.
Despite repeated admonishment from the EU, the United Nations, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, the Irish Refugee Council and even – in 2015 – a cross-government working group chaired by a retired judge, Government has been steadfast in its refusal to countenance allowing working-age adults in direct provision centres take up employment.
Its constant refrain – that it would act as a “pull” factor and attract unmanageable numbers to our asylum process – has essentially been described by the Supreme Court as a cop-out. It is not a good enough reason to ban asylum seekers from working and the open-ended ban is unconstitutional.
Crucially, the court’s judgment is that it is the absence of a time-limit on how long a person’s asylum application may take that leads to a potentially endless ban on their right to work.
The most recent data from the department’s Reception and Integration Agency shows in April there were 4,617 asylum seekers in the 32 direct provision centres across the State. The vast majority – 3,517 – are of working age, between 18 and 65 years, with 1,532 of these aged between 26 and 35.
The largest proportion – 691 or 14.5 per cent – have been in the direct provision system for between 18 months and two years, with 645 (13.5 per cent) for between two and three years.
Some 1,068, or 22 per cent, have been in direct provision for more than three years, including 318 who have been eight years or more in the system, neither allowed to work nor take up education or training beyond Leaving Cert.
The question for our neighbours in direct provisions now is, how will Government respond to the judgment? It has been given six months to come back to the court with its response – by around November 30th.
Will the response be generous and allow all adult asylum seekers to work – as advocated by the Irish Refugee Council? Or could it be a scheme so restrictive as to cause more frustration and disappointment?
Among the restrictions it could impose is that a person may have to be a year, two years, even longer, in the system before they can take up work. There could also be restrictions – as in the UK – on the type of work asylum applicants may do.
And what will happen to the direct provision system? Will asylum seekers, who are provided with bed and board and an “allowance” of €19.10 per adult and €15.60 per child per week, have to leave direct provision if they get work? Or could they be charged a rent? Will they get ancillary benefits – like maternity leave, family income supplement?
Key to the department’s considerations will be whether it can get to grips with the backlog of asylum and protection applicants which have transferred from the old multi-step system to a new single-procedure application system under the 2015 International Protection Act.
It came into force on December 31st, 2016, with a promise that applications will be dealt with within six months. Insufficient resources, however, in the International Protection Office have resulted in a backlog of over 2,200 applications. Informed sources say new applicants are facing waits of 18 months before getting a first interview.
If this backlog cannot be brought under control, and applicants are left years waiting for decisions, the temptation will be a restrictive regime, maintaining a ban on work for several years.
The balancing act for the department, which will have to outline its thinking just before Christmas, is between which option is least politically unpalatable – to provide free access to employment for asylum seekers and risk accusations of creating a “pull” factor or allow only a highly-restrictive regime and risk being labelled “Scrooge”.