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Post-Afghan hunger strike reflections on Ireland’s asylum system
Wednesday May 24, 2006 19:28 by Anthony
Some coverage of the Afghan hunger -strike in the mainstream media from an NGO perspective. The first part of this article is an article written by Peter O’Mahony from The Irish Refugee Council which appeared in today's Irish Times (24th May). The second is a transcript of Peter being interviewed by Matt Cooper on his Last Word current affairs show on Today FM. The show was broadcast on Monday 22nd May and also featured a debate between Rosanna Flynn of Residents Against Racism and Ian O’Doherty of the Irish Independent (which is not covered by this transcript).
The hunger strike in St. Patrick’s Cathedral last week by a number of Afghan nationals who had applied for asylum in Ireland ended peacefully. All who contributed to this peaceful end are deserving of our gratitude.
One effect of the saga was to confirm that the issue of how well or badly the asylum system caters for those who seek refuge here is the subject of widely polarised views. Claims by some that the Irish system is one of the best are hotly disputed by others.
Having worked in the asylum area for the last 6 years, I am happy to acknowledge the immense strides made since 1999 when the then system was described by one Minister as a ‘shambles’. In the subsequent 3 years, a commendable infrastructure was put in place to assess applications initially and, if unsuccessful, on appeal. The State-funded Refugee Legal Service was set up to advise asylum applicants as their cases were being heard and new cases are being dealt with promptly. Nonetheless, a number of major flaws and inconsistencies continue to mar the Irish system.
The Refugee Appeals Tribunal operated from the outset under a veil of secrecy as the only Tribunal of its kind in the English-speaking world to not publish any decisions. While it has recently published a total of 22 decisions, the fact that these were internally selected by the Tribunal, again behind the veil of secrecy – deciding what they would like the public to see – shows that we remain a long way from a transparent process while statistics strongly suggest that some refusals at appeal stage are influenced by who heard the case as much as by the merits of the case.
To be recognised as a refugee one has to meet an extremely stringent test. Many who have fled situations of extreme danger such as war or generalised violence may not meet this test, even if they would face imminent death on return to the country from which they fled. The UNHCR mandate means that it is not responsible for people who fall outside this very narrow definition. Unlike in many of our EU counterparts, assessment of these types of human rights protection does not yet form a part of the asylum determination process in Ireland. Furthermore, our overall success rate compares poorly to countries such as Austria who, with far more asylum seekers, give protection to some 50% of all who seek asylum there.
Many who have sought asylum without fully meeting the refugee criteria will face the risk of deportation unless they are given ‘leave to remain’. This is ultimately at the discretion of the Minister for Justice, numbers given leave to remain in Ireland are extremely low, those without a Government party TD fighting their case appear to have less chance of success and some who succeed will have spent years with their lives on hold.
Having opted out of the relevant EU directive, Ireland and Denmark are now the only EU countries to maintain a complete ban on the right to work for all asylum seekers. One woman and her children have been here since 1997 and, while they have not received a deportation order, they have absolutely no guarantee of being allowed to stay, despite the fact that their children have spent the greater part of their lives in Ireland. In a recent interview, the mother who is not allowed to work, was quoted as saying: “I’m not free. I’m going day to day but I don’t know what’s tomorrow, what’s going to happen”.
Asylum seekers in Ireland are powerless to manage aspects of their lives that most of us see as basic. The system of direct provision means that they have accommodation, often in centres with few links to mainstream society, as well as their food and a cash allowance of less than €20 per week. Some 27% of all those in the direct provision system have been there for over 2 years. Unable to work or access further education, many adult asylum seekers feel a festering sense of despair. One asylum seeker expressed his frustration at being effectively immobilised for 4 years: “I am a grown man – I should be out working, out doing something”.
Children are growing up without ever having seen a parent go out to work or indeed cook a meal and adults are almost totally isolated from Irish society though Ireland will be the permanent home for many of them. The long-term consequences of this degree of marginalisation and the short-sighted lack of effective integration policies or measures to tackle racism in Ireland are potentially devastating not just for the individuals themselves but for society more broadly.
Within the asylum system unaccompanied minors or separated children, who have no adult family members here to care for them, are at particular risk. The ratio of social workers to separated child compares poorly to that for Irish children in care despite requests by the HSE for additional funding ‘to improve on a minimum standard of care’ provided. Appointing guardians ad litem to represent their best interests, as was done exceptionally in the case of the Afghan minors, should be done routinely. There is no out-of-hours service for this vulnerable group of children, some of whom are victims of trafficking including some rescued from brothels in Ireland.
Separated children seeking asylum start off disadvantaged with no parents here to advocate for them, to comfort or support them through life. Add to this the small cash allowance, which makes integration with Irish friends difficult, the lack of English language teachers in schools (there is a cap of two teachers per school), the lack of suitable study facilities in busy accommodation centres as well as the asylum interview itself and one sees that the asylum process is stressful and, in cases of severely traumatised or very young children, inappropriate.
Concerns about the care of separated children seeking asylum are heightened by the fact that over 250 children have gone missing from HSE accommodation in the past four years. Following media coverage of these disappearances, the Tánaiste and Minister for Health, Mary Harney TD, indicated that hostels for unaccompanied minors would come under the Social Services Inspectorate but it is unclear how high a priority this is.
In the last year and a half, a number of ‘aged-out’ minors - young asylum seekers who arrived here as separated children and have recently turned 18 – have been deported. A number of others have been served deportation orders, and report on a regular basis to the immigration authorities, not knowing if they will be forced back to the country from which they fled. One young Sierra Leonean has reported 25 times in the last 18 months. Friends and supporters from local voluntary groups have reported how he is unable to eat or sleep properly for long periods before every visit to the immigration office.
We can take pride that progress was made in the early part of this decade as Ireland cranked up its response to the asylum issue. However, we remain a long way from ensuring that all who need refuge are fairly and transparently treated and it is unacceptable that 2 asylum cases of apparently equal merit may have very different results depending on who assesses or who gives support to the cases. Ireland’s obligations, under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to treat all children equally must be made real for asylum-seeking children and the social isolation and sense of helplessness that many people face in the asylum system must be tackled as a matter of urgency if we are to avoid a future explosion of despair from within marginalised asylum-seeking communities
Peter O’Mahony, CEO, The Irish Refugee Council,24/5/2006