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"Asylum seekers could have decision on status 'in weeks'". What does this really mean?

Photo by Donal Higgins

Asylum seekers could have decision on status ‘in weeks’. Main purpose of new legislation is to cut time spent in direct provision”, says Minister Fitzgerald in a statement about a forthcoming bill.(1) 

Let's be clear on one thing. The direct provisions system is not going anywhere according to the proposed changes. The question is, what happens to the - more than 90% - applicants who are refused the status of refugee? That's where deportations may well be coming into play... Or, is it "back to the old direct provision system" for refused applicants who will continue to spend many years, filled with long appeals and disbelieving court hearings...

The ongoing protests by the asylum seekers in various direct provision/accommodation centres have forced the state agencies and the Department of Justice to look closer into the asylum process in Ireland. The mainstream media is covering this issue more frequently - probably more than ever -  over the past number of weeks. The protesting asylum seekers have certainly made their voiced heard and they have succeeded in galvanising some significant support from the public and various civil organisations. They deserve a big congratulation but more importantly further support and and strong solidarity from the people of Ireland.

While the issues and demands raised by the asylum seekers are very clear and specific, so far the response from the government and especially from the Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald have been vague and outside of the core problems the asylum seekers are facing. Asylum seekers demand an end to the direct provision system as well as the right to work and residency. Having suffered in the direct provision system for  many years, the asylum seekers do not believe that some limited reforms will solve the long ongoing problems that are inherent in the direct provision. The government is not addressing any of these real and serious issues.

There is also an undertone in government's response that continues to blame the asylum seekers for the problems they are facing and alongside of this blame, the 'economic-social difficulties' are used as an excuse for lack of any progress. This is nothing new.

A piece published on 20th September in the Irish Times titled “Asylum seekers could have decision on status ‘in weeks’” has a small print statement by the Minister for Justice that reads, “If applicants co-operate with the process, some will have decisions in weeks and the rest within six months”. The minister is referring to a legislative change that will go before the cabinet within two or three weeks time. While the minister is focussing on 'non co-operating' applicants to eliminate the delays by enacting this new legislation, in the same article, it seems that Taoiseach Enda Kenny - correctly in his definition - contradicts the minister's pre-condition by stating that “...cases varied and were often complicated...” But there is no response by the government to address the core issues the asylum seekers are protesting about. It is clear from the minister's statements that with the new Bill the direct provision system, ban on employment and barriers in-front of free higher education are to stay unchanged.

The Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioners (ORAC) was already tasked in 2010 to define a Single Procedure for the consideration of refugee, subsidiary protection and leave to remain type matters. This was to facilitate the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill, 2010 (3). This bill (not enacted) had very specific references to summary deportations, without the right to appeal. It had also many limiting measures for seeking asylum in Ireland.

The new announcement by the minister to reduce the refugee application process may first sound reasonable and progressive but there is a danger behind this proposed reduced processing time. And that is the danger of higher number of deportations in a much shorter period of time. To understand this we need to switch to the Irish Independent article published back in 2011 and refresh our memories in terms of the refugee approval rates in Ireland. (2)

In 2010, there were only 25 asylum seekers who were given the refugee status. Although in the years prior to 2010 the number new asylum seeker had dropped significantly, as per the official EUROSTAT figures quoted in the article, Ireland, with only 1.5% had the lowest approval rate for refugee status in the whole of Europe. The same year the European rate was 25%. In terms of absolute numbers things have not much improved since 2010. According to the The Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner (ORAC)  numbers  following refugee statuses were granted in the past 4 years.

Year, Total Cases Processed, Total Granted (%)
2011, 1834, 3.3
2012. 1198, 5.6
2013, 1122, 11.4
2014,   579, 8.7 (Jan - July)

As we see from the official numbers, the refugee  grant rates in Ireland are extremely low. This very low rate of approvals for refugee status are not simply due to some logistical issues and 'non co-operating' asylum seekers, but due to political decisions of subsequent governments, and the attitudes of legal/bureaucratic powers in the state. Many asylum seekers are forced to appeal. While initial applications for asylum are made to the office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner, appeals are made to the Refugee Appeals Tribunal.

The overall process is not transparent and democratic. As the report in 2012 titled 'Difficult to believe: the assessment of asylum claims in Ireland' had found, there is a very widespread culture of disbelief and racism in the refugee application process.

EU is widening its network of 'deportation friendly' 3rd party countries using the Readmission Agreement. This agreement with non-EU countries enables the EU states to deport asylum seekers back to the last country of departure before they entered an EU state. The latest country signing this agreement with EU is Turkey. In return, the EU has promised the Turkish state easier travel visa procedures for citizens of Turkey.

There are virtually no 'legal' and 'normal' ways for people to apply for refugee status in any EU country. People have to first enter an EU state to seek for asylum. The fortress Europe concept is truly in action with the measures taken by the EU Border Control Agency Frontex.

With such serious barriers and constraints in place and with a proven track record of very high number of rejections in Ireland, a legislative change to fast-track refugee decisions is extremely worrying. While - it seems - there will be no change in direct provision system and in other areas, this fast-track approach will eventually lead to deportations backed by a legislation and sold to the people as a reform.

The issues of asylum seekers in Ireland is not a simple matter of fast-tracking decisions while every other aspect of the system is failing them, and miserably so.

The organisations supporting the rights of asylum seekers need to be very clear of the political choices of the state and the government and not fall into the trap of advocating for changes that have nothing to do with the clear and loud demands of asylum seekers...

“Main purpose of new legislation is to cut time spent in direct provision”, says Fitzgerald. The question is, what happens to the more than 90% of applicants who are refused the status of a refugee? That's where deportations may well be coming into play... Or back to the old direct provision system for many years, filled with long appeals and disbelieving court hearings...


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