‘Beyond McMahon – the future of asylum reception in Ireland’

We are delighted to welcome this guest post by Claire Dorrity, lecturer in social policy in the School of Applied Social Studies, UCC.

Nasc logoOn Wednesday 25th April 2018 Nasc and the Centre for Criminal Justice and Human Rights (CCJHR) co-hosted a conference in UCC on the future of asylum reception in Ireland. The conference participants included members of the Working Group (Working Group to Report to Government on the Protection Process, including Direct Provision and Supports to Asylum Seekers), academics, representatives from state institutions, international speakers from both the Portuguese and the Scottish Refugee Councils, representatives from the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, Migrant NGO representatives, and members of the asylum seeking community in Ireland. The main foci of the conference related specifically to the system of direct provision, models of integration and rights that are afforded to asylum seekers.

Broadly speaking, asylum policy incorporates three key areas: – 1) the rights and entitlements of those entering the state to seek asylum, 2) the reception conditions afforded to asylum seekers by the state, and 3) how asylum issues are represented both in policy and practice. The political representation of asylum issues will also be determined by the modes of participation, engagement and inclusion available to asylum seekers. In Ireland, rights available to asylum seekers to influence political outcomes and decision-making processes remain severely restricted. This is mostly attributed to the nature of immigration policy, more specifically the asylum process and the restricted status asylum seekers occupy within the Irish state (Titley, 2012; Lentin, 2004).

The system of direct provision (DP) has been in operation in Ireland since 1999 and was made the official mechanism for the reception of asylum seekers in 2000. Prior to the introduction of DP, asylum seekers had the right to access the labour market and receive social welfare payments, equivalent to that of an Irish citizen. The system of DP, however, removed that right and since then asylum seekers have been the subject of an increasing array of restrictions on many of their basic human rights. The system of DP placed asylum seekers in designated accommodation centres dispersed around the country and has continued to operate for the past 18 years.

The exclusionary aspects of DP are well documented (Kinlan, 2013; Arnold, 2012; Lentin, 2012; Titley, 2012; Akidwa, 2010; FLAC 2010; Considine and Dukelow, 2009). They are evident in the location of DP centres, generally located away from local communities, limiting the ability of asylum seekers to integrate into communities. Also evident in this system is the denial of the right to work and third level education, economic marginalisation, conflated with limited rights and freedoms. A weekly allowance of €19.10 per week adults and €9.60 per child was permitted from 2000 until 2016. This rate did not change in over 16 years despite incremental increases in other social welfare allowances. In January 2016 the child allowance increased to €15.60 and the adult weekly allowance now stands at €21.10 (Department of Social Protection, 2016). In 2017 the rate increased to €21.60 for both adults and children (Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection).

The administering of the direct provision system is carried out by the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA), as part of the Department of Justice and Equality, who are contracted to provide full board and accommodation for asylum seeker residents. There is currently no requirement for staff employed in DP centres to undertake training in the area of child protection or to have had any training of working with asylum seekers, vulnerable people or children (Irish Refugee Council, 2013). However, RIA has now brought their child protection policies in line with new legislation and have a dedicated seconded Tusla social worker on staff. There is also now a requirement for training in child protection when working with vulnerable children and adults (RIA, 2018).

The introduction of the policy of DP has been widely criticized, by both academics and migrant NGOs alike, for its failure to consult with asylum seekers and migrant NGOs prior to its implementation and also for the exclusionary and restrictive nature of the system and its impact on the daily lives of asylum seekers (O’Connor, 2003; Healy, 2007; Lentin 2012). Furthermore, while the European Union introduced a Council Directive 2003/9/EC of 27 January 2003 (revised in 2013) putting in place minimum standards for the reception of asylum seekers, the Irish state opted out of this directive. This allowed Ireland to continue administering the system of DP at a policy level. The system allows for little recourse for those living within DP accommodation (Irish Refugee Council, 2011). In 2012 the Irish Refugee Council released a document addressing child poverty in the DP system entitled ‘State Sanctioned Child Poverty and Exclusion’. The report highlighted both child poverty and child protection issues. More specifically it stated:

The Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, Geoffrey Shannon, has raised concerns about the detrimental effect of Direct Provision accommodation on children and on parents’ ability to provide adequate care. He describes the system as amounting to institutionalised poverty (2012:21)

Also highlighted was ‘unsuitable living conditions, malnourishment, poverty, exclusion and lack of play space’ (2012: 21). The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission have also repeatedly expressed concern about the human rights of residents in DP (Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, 2014). Both NGOs and academic commentators have criticised the system and highlighted the challenges to integration that DP presents for asylum seekers (Irish Refugee Council, 2012; FLAC, 2010; Nasc 2007; Fanning 2002).

Reflections on the Conference

Political representation is highlighted as one of the most crucial avenues to democratic processes of representation (Pitkin, 1967). It both establishes the legitimacy of democratic institutions while also creating institutional incentives for state bodies to respond (Dovi, 2017). Political representation has been acknowledged as an important means of providing voice to oppressed groups through assigning meaning to the manner in which groups are represented and importing significant issues and their relevance into the body politic (Young, 2000). The literature on inclusive political representation indicates that the exercise of voice and demanding more responsiveness and accountability from state institutions is more likely to occur when other participatory mechanisms are present (Rocha Menocal, 2014). In this context, developing more inclusive representative structures and fostering strong mechanisms of inclusion is highly significant.

The conference ‘Beyond McMahon – the future of asylum reception in Ireland’ took a step towards facilitating inclusive dialogue on key asylum issues. It provided an interactive space involving the participation of state and non-state actors, along with a range of participants working directly or indirectly with asylum seekers. Most refreshing was the inclusion of the voices of asylum seekers. Lucky Khambule, a spokesperson from MASI (Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland) gave a poignant contribution from the perspective of the asylum seeker, giving the audience a real insight into the lived experience of those accommodated in the DP system. This provided both the speakers and the attendees with a clear sense of how oppression and injustice operates within the DP system.

The international perspectives from both Teresa Mendes, Director of the Portuguese Refugee Council and Sabir Zazai, Director of the Scottish Refugee Council provided an invigorating alternative to systems such as DP, placing a focus on the importance of making explicit the vital supports required for asylum seekers when arriving in host countries. Both of these approaches provided avenues for new thinking in relation to how Ireland might respond to the reception of asylum seekers in future policy formation. Both contributions highlighted the important role refugees play in enriching and providing positive contributions to host societies. The right to work was highlighted as playing a crucial role in supporting refugees to integrate into community life. Promoting autonomy within the asylum seeking community was also viewed as a key factor in ensuring successful and inclusive participation and integration. These explicitly inclusive and supportive systems of reception illustrate how the Scottish and Portuguese models emphasise humanitarian principles and place human security at the centre of their approach. It also highlights how such approaches can assist in resolving some of the tensions and challenges Ireland currently faces.

Overall the conference discussions illuminated the need for a more coordinated approach to asylum policy that does not involve punitive measures or prolonged periods of time in DP. The contributions and discussions made clear that any coherent policy must prioritise rights and dignity. This will require a willingness on the part of all parties to accept that the current system is not fit for purpose and failing asylum seekers socially, financially and politically. In bringing together all parties, the conference set the foundations for building better working relationships but highlighted that such relationships must place asylum seekers at the forefront of this process. This will require new and different approaches, one that treats asylum seekers in a more humane and dignified way and as people who can make a valuable contribution to Irish society if given the opportunity to do so.

Further References:

Reflections from the Exercise Viking18 on civil-military cooperation in multinational crisis response and peace operations

Viking18 Red Cross team

Viking18 Red Cross team

This guest blog by Lenin Tinashe Chisaira (candidate on the UCC LLM International Human Rights Law & Public Policy programme) reflects on his experience in the Viking18 civil-military training exercise in Custume Barracks, Athlone.

The Exercise Viking18 on civil-military cooperation in crisis response and peace operations was conducted from 16th – 26th April 2018 at sites in Brazil, Bulgaria, Finland, Ireland, Serbia and Sweden, with over 2,500 military personnel and civilian humanitarians simultaneously working on the same fictitious scenario in real-time. The Swedish Armed Forces are the primary coordinator and host of the exercise, in conjunction with the Folke Bernadotte Academy (the Swedish agency for peace, security and development). The Viking training exercises are held every four years; therefore 2018 was an opportune time for the dozen law and international relations students from University College Cork who applied and got selected to participate in the exercise. It was an informative and hectic week for students interested in international humanitarian law.

The exercise is conducted in real-time. The Exercise Viking focused on the fictional State of Bogaland, whose map, however, is modelled on Sweden. There is an excellent level of seriousness from both military, police and civilian participants and that makes the whole exercise worthwhile. The Exercise Viking indeed develops a sense of ‘on the ground’ experience for all participants.

In Ireland, the exercise was conducted at Custume Barracks in Athlone, County Westmeath. The participating UCC team was joined by other students from University College Dublin and NUI Maynooth. Students were divided amongst dedicated Irish Aid mentors, and they participated in the simulated ground operations of some humanitarian aid agencies. These agencies included the Red Cross, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), UN Mission in Bogaland (UNMIB), the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and non-governmental organisations (NGO).

As UCC students, we had some helpful prior pieces of training in Cork, conducted by our UCC coordinators Dr Dug Cubie from the School of Law and Dr David Fitzgerald from the School of History. We also had a briefing from Comdt Laura Fitzpatrick, from the Defence Forces Ireland. She is also the Chief Instructor at the United Nations Training School Ireland (UNTSI).

As a participant, I was first deployed to the Red Cross office and then to the OCHA office due to the availability of experienced mentors. My day during the exercise would start at 0700hrs each morning with breakfast and then going over the events of the previous night. Information was shared via email, telephone and especially dedicated social media and newspapers. I would draft emails to seek clarity on specific issues with the military side of the exercise.

There were also daily briefing meetings. As a participant, I attended the OCHA briefing meetings with humanitarian agencies where we planned activities such as the deployment of secure aid convoys to disaster-affected regions of Bogaland. This participation in meetings was very informative as it informed how civilians and the military should communicate in a conflict zone.

I also managed to attend some army briefings as an observer, notably the morning Commanders Briefing and the Operations Briefing. During the Commanders Briefing, leaders of each army unit from intelligence, operations, legal and others would brief the commander about the situation on the ground and discuss the planned activities for the next 24 hours. This method was also the situation with the Operations Briefing.

On the overall, the Exercise Viking was a critical and practical element to my LLM experience in Ireland. I imagine that it was similarly helpful and practical for all the other participating students, civilian, police and military personnel from around the world. It added a real-world dimension on what life and interaction would be like in a humanitarian situation, in conflict areas.

The only downside is that the exercise is only held every 3-4 years, which means such an opportunity would only be availed to students and other stakeholders in the year 2021.

For future participants, the training is a once in a lifetime event, and it adds to the practical side of learning. It is a welcome experience that holds together lessons from international humanitarian law, international relations, development planning, crisis response, and conflict resolution and human rights sides. And yes, in the end, we were awarded #Viking18 pins and certificates for successful participation in Exercise Viking 18.