After a brief hiatus in media coverage of people arriving without passports to Dublin Airport, the topic has been back in the headlines recently. Figures from the Department of Justice revealed that 780 people presented at Dublin Airport in the first quarter of this year without passports, down 38 per cent on the previous quarter and 50 per cent on the peak figure last year.
These arrivals have sometimes been portrayed as an abuse of Ireland’s immigration system. The notion of destroyed passports has been used by anti-immigrant agitators to frame migrants as a threat – instead of attempting to understand why it happens.
But asylum seekers arriving without passports is not a new phenomenon and it is not unusual.
The 1951 Refugee Convention was signed over 70 years ago in the aftermath of the second World War, when restrictions were placed on the movement of people, primarily Jewish, fleeing persecution. States came together to create a system to ensure that refugees would be protected in the future. Importantly, it made specific provisions for people arriving without passports or travel documents under Article 31, which says that a person must not be penalised for entry without authorising documents for the purpose of seeking asylum. This was to recognise that those fleeing state persecution will often not be able to get travel documents from that state.
To seek protection in Ireland, a person must be in the country first. Under the 2015 International Protection Act, they can apply at the borders of the State or within the State, at the International Protection Office. This is difficult for refugees because Ireland requires visas for people from most refugee-producing countries. There is no specific visa to travel here to seek asylum and carriers do not allow people to board without documents. In addition, people may have to flee quickly and without documents, as has been seen recently in situations such as in Sudan. Thus, people often have to use smugglers and irregular migration routes – and, as part of this, fraudulent documents – to travel to a place of safety such as Ireland. Once they have reached Ireland and can claim asylum, the job of the smugglers is done and they will often take back the documents. Where this isn’t the case, some people destroy their documents. For some this may be strategic; for others it is out of fear.
People have long been refused leave to land at Dublin Airport for a variety of reasons, and many then apply for international protection. This is not a new phenomenon in Ireland and is common in other European countries.
The purpose of the international protection procedure is to determine an applicant’s eligibility for international protection status – refugee status or subsidiary protection status. This cannot be decided on the spot at the airport. It requires a thorough examination of their claim and, central to this, an examination of their life story and their reasons for fleeing. This is done through questionnaires, interviews and the submission of evidence, including travel documents, copies of identity documents, certificates, photos and documents that evidence their claim (such as police records, news articles, reports on their country of origin). An applicant also must make reasonable efforts to establish their identity before being granted permission to access the labour market.
During the asylum process, applicants are more vetted than most of us
The idea that people who present without documents at the airport remain unidentifiable and “unvetted” is, therefore, missing the essential point about what it means to seek protection in Ireland. With a strict definition of those who deserve asylum and similarly strict processes for proving it, it could be argued that during the asylum procedure, applicants are more vetted than most of us.
Ireland has seen an increase in international protection applicants since the start of 2022. Our recent research has pointed to a complex interplay of factors driving this increase, from a post-Covid bounce-back, to conditions in countries of origin and first asylum, to social networks in Ireland. Recent figures from Eurostat show that Ireland was not alone in seeing a rise in applications, with a 140 per cent increase across the EU, compared with 2019. Nonetheless, Ireland has seen an increase in the proportion of asylum applications received.
In 2022, Ireland received three applications per 1,000 people in the population, slightly above the EU average of 2.2 that year. However, this was an exception – in 2019, we received 0.94 applications per 1,000 people in the population, below the EU average of 1.56. Other EU countries saw similar numbers and some saw much greater numbers in 2022 – Austria had 12 applications per 1000 people. In addition, applications in Ireland are now dropping and stabilising, with applications in February 2023 slightly below the EU average. On average between 2017 and 2022, applications in Ireland accounted for less than 1 per cent of the EU’s total applications.
Scaremongering about asylum applicants and recent trends does not help anyone become better informed about migration to Ireland, or about the functionality of our system for managing it. Rather than focus on people arriving without passports, a more worthwhile debate could be about issues like how the international protection system works and how it could operate better, or why our reception system is ill-prepared for fluctuations in a space where fluctuations are common. We could learn much from how other countries that have been managing this phenomenon for longer deal with sudden increases, community consultation, dispersal, service provision and integration.
Emily Cunniffe and Keire Murphy are Policy Officers at the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), where they publish research on immigration and asylum in Ireland and the EU.