Asylum seekers’ right to work remains a fantasy

Direct provision residents are still prevented from taking jobs by a myriad of issues

Last month, the Government opted in to the EU reception conditions directive, which among other things allows for a limited right to work for people seeking asylum. Prior to this, Ireland was one of only two EU states that imposed a total ban on access to work for asylum seekers. The opt-in was in response to a Supreme Court ruling in May of last year that found the total and indefinite ban on work that had been in place for two decades to be unconstitutional.

The announcement was initially welcomed. For once, there was hope in the direct provision centres across the country. Finally, people hoped to have the possibility of escaping enforced dependency, where they have to subsist and support their families somehow on €21.50 per week, often for years on end as they wait for decisions on their applications for asylum in Ireland.

However, this hope was shortlived and has been replaced by a growing despair. The reality is that this “right to work” remains inaccessible in different ways to the majority of people in the asylum system.

Only people who are still awaiting a first decision on their application for protection after nine months in the system qualify to seek employment. Nine months is the longest that any state can wait to give access to employment to people seeking asylum under the terms of the EU directive. So the Government is leaving it as long as it possibly can to allow any access to the right to work to people seeking protection in Ireland.

Abysmal record

Furthermore, Ireland has an abysmal record in getting it right at first decision stage. Most people who are eventually successful in their application for protection in Ireland are refused asylum in their first application but are then found eligible for asylum on appeal. However, the inexplicable limitations on the new “right to work” mean that those in the process of appealing a negative first decision will not have any right to work in Ireland until they are finally granted protection. Those affected by this exclusion are for the most part the people who have been languishing within the direct provision system for the longest time – in some cases more than seven years.

One welcome aspect of the new scheme is that people who are currently eligible to work and who receive a negative first decision in the future can appeal and renew their work permit until they get a final decision.

However, we now have a situation where some asylum seekers are denied access to work because they are appealing a decision while others will have the right to work even though they are appealing a decision. It is hard to see any logic or justification for this situation.

As more details of the multiple injustices and irregularities within this system come to light, it will be important that our politicians are prepared to undo the harms being done through these ill-thought-out measures.

It will be important that our politicians are prepared to undo the harms being done through ill-thought-out measures

Even for those who do qualify for the right to work, the obstacles are proving to be insurmountable. Employers are reluctant to take people on under the conditions the Government has laid down. For instance, the six-month renewable permit is offputting for employers who don’t want to take the risk of recruiting and training an individual only to have the permit potentially withdrawn six months down the line.

Meanwhile is almost impossible for an asylum seeker to provide the required identification in order to open a bank account in Ireland. How can a person in legal employment get paid without a bank account? The answer is simple: they cannot.

Driving licence

To take another example: asylum seekers cannot apply for a driving licence, again because of the Kafkesque situation people are up against where they do not have the required identification. The majority of direct provision centres are located in out-of-the-way places with no regular public transport. In places where there are such poor transport services, how can a person travel to work every day without a car?

In places where there are poor transport services, how can a person travel to work every day without a car?

These are issues that the Department of Justice is batting away as trivial details, but they are far from trivial. What might seem small issues to many people with resources and citizenship status become insurmountable nightmares for people in the asylum and direct provision system.

The Irish Supreme Court ruling in May 2017 found the total ban on access to employment to be unconstitutional. The case taken concerned a Rohingya man who had spent eight years living in the direct provision system. He has since received refugee status after having had to appeal an initial negative decision.

It is difficult to get across how soul-destroying it is to be held in a state of paralysis and segregation in direct provision, prevented from integrating with other people, prevented from providing for one’s self and one’s family, prevented from living a life with a sense of dignity and purpose. A real right to work would mitigate some of the indignities and injustices people in the system are forced to endure. A real right to work is one that includes all people in the asylum process and supports people rather than putting so many senseless bureaucratic obstacles in their way.

Lucky Khambule is a spokesperson for the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (Masi). Anne Mulhall is a lecturer in UCD's school of English, drama and film and a member of the Anti-Racism Network Ireland