Asylum seekers live in harsh circumstances with little support

Asylum seekers in Ireland are forced to live in exceptionally difficult circumstances and get little support from the public, the media or the political system. By Justin Frewen.

Enveloped in a global recession and the consequences of the disastrous economic mismanagement of the fruits of the Celtic Tiger, life has become considerably more difficult for the vast majority of people in Ireland. As unemployment continues to rise, those who still have work are seeing their wages decrease as taxes and pension levies increase.  

As always, the most vulnerable members of our society - the disabled, single parent families, pensioners and children - face the worst deprivation. To these groups, one more can be added; asylum seekers.

The lot of asylum seekers is a harsh one. In addition to the mental and emotional trauma which caused many of them to flee their homelands, they have generally arrived in Ireland with negligible if any economic resources. To compound this situation, they are entitled to only the most meagre of support from the Irish state during the asylum process.

Yet for many in Ireland, asylum seekers are frequently judged in highly negative terms. They are regarded as being no better than ‘illegals’ who have come to scrounge off the domestic social welfare system, benefiting from government largesse that is in some inexplicable manner not available to the country’s own citizens. However, even the most cursory of examinations is required to reveal the untruthfulness of these assertions.

Since November 1999 and the introduction of the direct provision policy, adult asylum seekers receive a paltry allowance of €19.10 a week, on top of their basic food and accommodation needs. The even more derisory sum of €9.60 is provided for children. Even in deflationary post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, the idea that €9.60 might cover a baby or child’s costs above food and board can only be regarded as highly delusional.

Furthermore, it is illegal for asylum seekers to seek employment or engage in any business, trade or profession to supplement their asylum seeker allowances. This prevents asylum seekers from making a contribution to their upkeep while awaiting adjudication on their refugee status claim. It also prevents them from trying to escape the poverty trap within which they find themselves and invariably leads to higher levels of social exclusion.

Contrary to the malicious rumours that sadly appear to be still doing the rounds, asylum seekers have no access to local authority housing lists. Instead, they are placed in shared hostel type accommodation centres that suffer from severe overcrowding, as mentioned in this Irish Refugee Council report. Entire families can find themselves confined in this manner with little or no privacy for several years, as they wait for their asylum claims to run their course.

Reception and Integration Agency statistics show that in December 2009, 6,459 asylum seekers were in direct provision accommodation with 1,567 (24%) having been there for one to two years, 1,257 (19%) for two to three years and 2,211 (34%) for over three years. Therefore, approximately 77% had spent more than a year in direct provision accommodation.

The relative isolation of many of these accommodation centres makes it extremely difficult for asylum seekers to integrate in any meaningful manner with local communities. This situation further aggravates the sense of isolation experienced by asylum seekers, who have frequently lost effective contact with their family and friends.

Asylum seekers are only allowed to spend the minimum of time outside these centres to visit friends or for any other reason. An overnight stay outside the centre must be approved by the accommodation manager while three nights away risks the loss of their residency rights.

One resident described the experience in this Seaview documentary: "[I]t’s no life at all. We just live by the day… We are grateful for the food, for the accommodation, most for our children going to school… but people are wasting in the name of the asylum process."

In the 18 months prior to October 2008 some 22 asylum seekers were expelled from direct accommodation centres on behavioural grounds. According to the Irish Refugee Council, many of those expelled suffered from mental health problems and were now abandoned to the streets as no agency had responsibility for their welfare. They automatically lost their €19.10 weekly welfare allowances and with no fixed address, they lost their entitlement to a medical card.

Detrimental as these harsh and callous conditions are for adults, the consequences are far worse for children, as their youth is effectively stolen from them. One can imagine the emotional stress experienced by young asylum seekers who, despite having spent almost all of their life in Ireland, have the Damocles sword of imminent deportation constantly suspended over their heads. 

Should they remain long enough in Ireland to finish their secondary education they will not, as asylum seekers, be entitled to pursue third level studies. It is hardly surprising so many find it well nigh impossible to develop the social contacts that would facilitate their integration into Irish society.

It would appear that the Irish government, like many of its sister administrations in Europe, is applying a deterrent motive to inform its policy on asylum seekers.

In this respect, it should be noted that only Ireland and Denmark of the EU’s 27 members states have availed of the reception directive opt out clause to avoid bestowing certain rights on asylum seekers. Such rights would include the possibility of seeking employment after a period of one year while awaiting a decision on their status.

Added to their lack of economic resources, asylum seekers and refugees are also confronted with a rising politicisation of their position, due to international events outside their control. 9/11, the Bali, Madrid and London bombings, together with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, have all served to elevate public concerns and anxieties with respect to immigrants. Although these events had nothing to do with asylum seekers, they have not been spared from the negative fallout they provoked.

Unfortunately certain politicians and elements of the media would appear only to ready to contribute to the negative public perception of asylum seekers. Stranded in a non-citizens political limbo, asylum seekers suffer from a lack of voice and therefore tend to be excluded from this ongoing debate despite the consequences it entails for them.

Asylum seekers are significantly dependent on the goodwill and support of their host communities. Therefore, every effort should be made to generate awareness of the discrimination and difficulties asylum seekers have faced in their prior lives together with the current hardships and dilemmas they are facing. At the same time, host communities should be provided with the opportunity to express their concerns and feelings as to how they envisage asylum seekers might best be integrated.

In this manner, it might be possible to develop a mutually beneficial dialogue, based on reciprocal understanding, respect and recognition, between asylum seekers and their host communities. Such a process would necessitate the bringing together of asylum seekers and host communities on neutral grounds, whereby there will be the chance to develop an enhanced appreciation and respect for each other’s rights and ways of life.

An interesting example of how this might be achieved was Ismale Khurdi’s August 2008 'Challenging Myths and Misinformation about Asylum Seekers and Refugees' workshop held in Dublin. This workshop, organised by the artist Anne Kelly and facilitated by Commonplace provided an opportunity to: "[Q]uestion definitions of refugee, asylum seeker and economic immigrant; challenge stereotypes and offensive labels applied to these groups; look at the meanings and perceptions of ‘home’; and facilitate the exchange of personal and professional experiences."

Another promising initiative, which was implemented by the Independent Asylum Commission between 2006 and 2008 in the UK was Citizens Speak. Citizens Speak convened hearings throughout the UK where members of the public could discuss the positive and negative aspects of their asylum system.

As the commission co-chair Sir John Waite remarked: "For the public to have faith in an asylum system, it has to reflect their values - they have to feel that they have been listened to and understood… it is as important to know how ordinary citizens feel about asylum as it is to know how the system itself is operating."

The Citizens Speak commission’s work has now concluded with more than 180 recommendations "to safeguard people who seek sanctuary" in the UK, "while restoring public confidence in the UK’s role as a place of sanctuary for those fleeing persecution".

While this approach is a significant step in the right direction, asylum seekers and recently accepted refugees should be included in such discussions together with the general public and professionals involved in the asylum process. This approach would assist in the development of improved links between the two communities. 

In the long term, such assemblies and encounters might lead to eliciting greater public support for improved economic and social support for asylum seekers. Most importantly of all, it is crucial that asylum seekers are furnished with the opportunity to present their cases and develop relationships with the general public.

As a nation that has provided the world with a huge outpouring of its people over the centuries, principally in the guise of economic migrants, it ill behoves us to turn our backs on the sufferings of those who arrive at our shores seeking asylum. Let us hope that the current recession does not see us raise our drawbridges even higher to deprive those in desperate need of the opportunity to start a new and better life.