Significant concerns about the system for treating asylum seekers in Ireland have existed throughout the entire period direct provision has operated, coming from a range of different quarters: from asylum seekers, a retired Supreme Court judge, former ombudsman Emily O'Reilly, special rapporteur for children Geoffery Shannon and a wide variety politicians and civil society organisations. These have been highlighted in the current Irish Times series Lives in Limbo.
In the last number of weeks there has been increased Government focus on how asylum seekers in the Republic are treated for the duration of their asylum and/or protection claim. Currently not permitted to seek or enter employment, asylum seekers are entitled to full bed-and-board communal accommodation and an allowance of €19.10 a week per adult and €9.60 a week per child.
With the declaration by the new Minister for State at the Department of Justice, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, that the system of direct provision is responsible for poverty, marginalisation and stigmatisation of asylum-seeking residents, Ireland has an opportunity to ensure that the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of those seeking asylum are better protected.
On July 24th the United Nations Human Rights Committee expressed concerns about the length of time people have to stay in direct provision and the lack of an independent complaints mechanism. With the Government now seemingly minded to reform or reorientate the manner in which asylum seekers are hosted in Ireland, people often turn to see how other European countries deal with hosting asylum-seeking populations.
Varied nature of supports
The European Migration Network study on the organisation of reception facilities for asylum seekers, published last May, notes the very varied nature of supports provided to asylum seekers across the European Union. The report notes the wide disparities in provision of accommodation, some countries operating systems similar to direct provision, others permitting asylum seekers to find their own accommodation, some countries not providing any (or minimal) financial allowances, others setting allowances near the same level available as their own citizens to ensure a dignified level of subsistence.
Whatever the form of any new system that replaces direct provision, 14 years after its introduction it is time for a debate on the core principles that must underpin any system for ensuring the needs of asylum seekers.
First, any system must have a clear legislative and legal basis in compliance with international and European human rights obligations.
Second, there needs to be a frank discussion on whether absolute equality is demanded as regards minimum welfare provision for citizens and those seeking asylum.
Third, given Ireland’s past sullied record on how we institutionalised individuals in borstals, industrial schools, mental health hospitals and Magdalenes, to what extent can any reformed system permit the warehousing of asylum applicants?
Fourth, there needs to be wide consultation that involves asylum seekers and those who have previously resided in direct provision centres, as regards what can reasonably be done to ensure respect for and protection of core social and economic rights while awaiting determination of their refugee or protection claim.
Finally, the system for determining whether an individual has a legal right to refugee or some other protection status needs to ensure that well-reasoned decisions are taken in a fair and transparent manner that will offer certainty to applicants.
The key issue facing the Government in its endeavours to reform the systems for social protection of asylum seekers is, from my perspective, the question of how, in a continuing severe economic environment, do you ensure dignity and respect for asylum seekers? The core issues that need to be addressed surround accommodation and financial allowances (asylum seekers under 18 are entitled to education, and asylum seekers are also covered by the medical card scheme).
The form of accommodation utilised is an issue that will be difficult to deal with. Placing asylum seekers away and apart from communities has increased isolation.
On the other hand there is a near total lack of public housing and severe pressure for those seeking private rented accommodation due to the failure of successive administrations – and, it has to be pointed out, this is not the “fault” of asylum seekers. The challenge of seeking to ensure privacy, dignity and the right to family life in an accommodation setting will be one of the key challenges for Mr Ó Ríordáin.
The second core issue of financial allowances also needs to be addressed. The State has generally set €188 under the social welfare code as the minimum amount an individual will need in order to ensure a modicum of dignity in their lives. The precise level of payment for asylum seekers will have to ensure that if there is a departure from this amount that this is reasoned, legitimate and rationale. One issue is clear: the wholly inappropriate and miserly level of financial allowance currently paid to asylum seekers needs to be reconsidered urgently.
Ensuring dignity and respect for human rights has a financial cost and the fact that any new system may be more expensive that direct provision cannot be an argument for the further denial of rights that is so inherent within the direct provision system.
Dr Liam Thornton is a lecturer in law in UCD Sutherland School of Law