Lives in limbo

Now is the time to reform our punitive, dysfunctional and inefficient asylum regime


Ireland’s punitive direct provision system for asylum seekers has rightly been the subject of stinging criticism by human rights groups and campaigners. It is resulting in thousands of people spending years in conditions which are damaging to the health, welfare and life chances of those who endure them. Under the system, asylum seekers are not allowed to work. They are not entitled to regular social welfare, such as child benefit. And they are excluded from social housing and free third-level education. Instead, asylum seekers receive bed and board through the direct-provision system and a weekly payment of €19.10 per adult and €9.60 per child.

Over recent days we have heard the voices of asylum seekers as part of the Irish Times “Lives in Limbo” series. They provide a troubling and disturbing insight into the everyday trials, humiliations and frustrations associated with living in these communal settings for years on end : teenagers blocked from progressing on to college; children excluded from normal school life; qualified and educated adults forced to be idle; parents struggling with mental health problems.

This was not the intention behind the direct provision system when it was introduced 14 years ago. It was aimed at providing shelter for just six months, until applicants were granted refugee status or deported. In many ways, it was a sensible response at the time to the dilemma of how to meet our human rights obligations following an increase in asylum applications. But the asylum process has proved fragmented and slow and there has been no political will to change it. Even in the face of evidence on the human cost of these delays, successive governments have failed to act, while the Department of Justice has proved defensive, inflexible and mean-spirited.

Many problems associated with the system could easily be remedied with simple and inexpensive reforms. Modest increases to welfare, access to third-level education and a streamlined applications process would dramatically increase the quality of life for many. A right to work after a set period could provide an incentive for governments to speed up the processing of applications. A working group will be set up by the Minister for Justice next month to review aspects of the system. This, at least, is a welcome development. It has become a habit over recent years for governments to apologise for the sins of previous generations. In the case of industrial schools, clerical abuse and Magdalene laundries, the response has typically been “we didn’t know” . We cannot resort to those excuses any longer. We know what is happening. We know the damage the system is inflicting on vulnerable families. We know the problems we are storing up for the future. There should be no more excuses. Now is the time to act.