Asylum and refugees are issues which deserve attention

The plight of those stuck in reception centres while their claims for asylum are - slowly - processed is not a priority for government. However Justice Minister Alan Shatter has promised to review the overall situation. Catherine Kenny and Angela Long hope there will be some real justice for legitimate asylum-seekers

The number of people seeking asylum in Ireland has fallen dramatically in the past few years, with a 28 per cent decrease last year. However, there are thousands of people from Congo, Nigeria, Iraq, and other countries living in Ireland now, with varying statuses - and levels of acceptance.

Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, has said he will breathe life into the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill, which has had a tortuous existence since it first appeared in 2006.

However, the bill did not feature among the ‘top 20’ bills which the new government last month announced it intends to fast-track. In fact, it didn’t seem to feature in the ‘bottom 40’, either. This could be an unfortunate indication of the non-importance with which successive administrations have viewed the issue of handling Ireland’s transition to a multicultural society.

The IRP Bill has appeared in several guises in the past five years, most recently last July. The then minister, Dermot Ahern, said at the time that the bill would be processed in the autumn. But events overtook that plan.

Despite some amendments being made, the last version fell a long way short of that required under Ireland’s obligations under international law, in particular, the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the European Convention on Human Rights. The proposed legislation contained some welcome provisions, including the proposed single procedure for determining applications for asylum. But the Minister will need to make significant changes to ensure that Ireland has an asylum system that is fair, efficient and effective, and has the confidence of the wider public as well as the people who seek refugee protection in Ireland.

Statistics from Eurostat (the statistical office of the European Union) revealed that Ireland has the lowest rate of recognition of applications for refugee status in the European Union. The Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner, the body responsible for processing claims at first instance, recommended to the Minister that only 24 applications in 2010 qualified for refugee status; in the same period, 1,309 negative recommendations were made by that office.

The Department of Justice, Equality and law Reform responded by noting that comparisons with other EU States cannot accurately be made, primarily because of differences in the asylum determination systems in place. While some caution perhaps should be exercised, whatever differences that may exist cannot alone explain the considerable disparity between the average recognition rate EU-wide of 25% and approximately 2% in Ireland.

The introduction of a single protection determination procedure will, it is believed in the sector, lead to a more streamlined, effective and fair protection determination system. Correct implementation of the single procedure should benefit both applicants and the State and should ensure that public confidence in the protection process is restored. Moreover, it should ensure that people seeking protection in Ireland are not left waiting for a final decision on their application for unbearable periods.

It is to be hoped that some of the provisions contained in previous versions of the Bill, will be omitted from any new draft - or substantially amended. The principle of non-refoulement,m under international agreements, is the cornerstone of refugee protection: this means that no person should be returned to a country where he or she could face persecution. The principle of non-refoulement, is the cornerstone of refugee protection and means that no person should be returned to a country where he or she could face persecution. It is enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention, Article 33.1 of which states that  ‘ No Contracting State shall expel or return (‘refouler’) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion’. The right to be free from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment is also codified in international human rights law and has been held to mean that not only must States not engage in such practices in any circumstances but must also not return individuals to where they could face such treatment. Previous versions of the Bill included summary deportation, which risked violating Ireland’s obligations under international law.

While the State has the right in certain circumstances to remove non-Irish citizens from State, this is provided for under existing legislation. Under the current procedure the Minister for Justice and Law Reform is required to give the person notice and 15 working days in which to make submissions as to why he or she should not be removed from the State. These can include the person’s connection with the State, duration of residence here and humanitarian reasons. However, that provision was not included in the Bill. So people seeking protection who have become unlawfully resident could be deported before they had a chance to put their case, which appears a denial of natural justice.

All persons seeking protection should have their application handled individually, on its merits, and through a fair, efficient and transparent procedure. Provisions for accelerated determination, procedures for certain categories of application and those that consider certain countries of origin and third countries as safe for all applicants, diminish the individual’s right to have a claim considered fully on its merits.

While changes to the law governing asylum is long overdue, this alone will not remedy all the failings of the asylum system. The reception of asylum seekers must also be addressed as a matter of urgency. People seeking asylum are required to live in designated accommodation centres, where they receive €19.10 per week for adults and €9.60 (never increased since its introduction in 2000) for each child. No matter how much they want to work, to avoid listless empty days and a sense of non-contribution to society, asylum-seekers are denied this right. Ireland and Denmark are the only two countries in the EU who do this, and the only ones not to have ratified the 2003 EU Directive on the Minimum Standards for the Reception of Asylum Seekers, according to Grainne Mellon, an Irish lawyer working in London and specialising in immigration law.

Nor can asylum-seekers here avail of state-funded education (with the exception of limited English language tuition).   As well as the impact on mental and physical health, such lengthy waiting periods can lead to de-skilling and extra difficulties in integrating successfully for those who are eventually given legal residence. Last year a group of asylum-seekers at Mosney, the former Meath holiday camp now used as ‘emergency’ accommodation, protested at moves by the Department of Justice to move them into hostels in Dublin city centre. The Department insisted that some move, but backed down in other cases. Some residents have been waiting years, literally, for a determination of their cases.

The unsuitability of accommodation centres for long-term residence, in particular for children and other vulnerable applicants has been well documented. Mr Shatter, who has already announced a review of cases involving Irish-born children, should carry out an independent review of the current reception system for people seeking asylum.

The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees is 60 years old this year. It is time Ireland had legislation and practice that is in keeping with the spirit and letter of the Convention.

Catherine Kenny is a consultant on asylum and human rights. She is completing a PhD on Article 1F of the Refugee Convention

Angela Long is a journalist and a former director of the Refugee Information Service, now incorporated into The Integration Centre.