‘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.

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