The Plight of Asylum Seekers in Ireland


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…it’s no life at all. We just live by the day… We are grateful for the food, for the accommodation, most for our children going to school… but people are wasting in the name of the asylum process…” (Anonymous Resident Mosney camp, Seaview documentary)

Enveloped in a global recession and the consequences of the disastrous economic mismanagement of the fruits of the Celtic Tiger, life has become considerably more difficult for the vast majority of people in Ireland. As unemployment continues to rise, those who still have work are seeing their wages decrease as taxes and pension levies increase.  As always, the most vulnerable members of our society – the disabled, single parent families, pensioners and children – face the worst deprivation. To these groups, one more can be added, namely asylum seekers.

The lot of asylum seekers is a harsh one. In addition to the mental and emotional trauma, that caused many of them to flee their homelands, they have generally arrived in Ireland with negligible if any economic resources. To compound this situation, they are entitled to only the most meagre of support from the Irish state during the asylum process.

Yet for many in Ireland, asylum seekers are frequently judged in highly negative terms. They are regarded as being no better than ‘illegals’ who have come to scrounge off the domestic social welfare system, benefiting from government largesse that is in some inexplicable manner not available to the country’s own citizens. However, even the most cursory of examinations is required to reveal the untruthfulness of these assertions.

Since November 1999 and the introduction of the ‘Direct Provision’ policy, adult asylum seekers receive a paltry allowance of €19.10 a week, on top of their basic food and accommodation needs. The even more derisory sum of €9.60 is provided for children. Even in ‘deflationary’ post-Celtic tiger Ireland, the idea that €9.60 might cover a baby or child’s costs above food and board can only be regarded as highly delusional.

Furthermore, it is illegal for asylum seekers to seek employment or engage in any business, trade or profession to supplement their asylum seeker allowances. This prevents asylum seekers from making a contribution to their upkeep while awaiting adjudication on their refugee status claim. It also prevents them from trying to escape the ‘poverty trap’ within which they find themselves and invariably leads to higher levels of social exclusion.

Contrary to the malicious rumours that sadly appear to be still doing the rounds, asylum seekers have no access to local authority housing lists. Instead, they are placed in shared hostel type accommodation centres that suffer from severe overcrowding. Entire families can find themselves confined in this manner with little or no privacy for several years, as they wait for their asylum claims to run their course.

Reception and Integration Agency statistics show that in November 2009, 6,650 asylum seekers were in direct provision accommodation with 1,597 (24%) having been there for one to two years, 1,276 (19%) for two to three years and 2,161 (32.5%) for over three years. Therefore, over 75% had spent more than a year in direct provision accommodation.

The relative isolation of many of these accommodation centres makes it extremely difficult for asylum seekers to integrate in any meaningful manner with local communities. This situation further aggravates the sense of isolation experienced by asylum seekers, who have frequently lost effective contact with their family and friends.

Asylum seekers are only allowed to spend the minimum of time outside these centres to visit friends or for any other reason. An overnight stay outside the centre must be approved by the accommodation manager while three nights away risks the loss of their residency rights.

In the 18 months prior to October 2008 some 22 asylum seekers were expelled from direct accommodation centres on behavioural grounds. According to the Irish Refugee Council, many of these expellees suffered from mental health problems and were now abandoned to the tender mercies of the streets, as no agency had responsibility for their welfare. They automatically lost their €19.10 weekly welfare allowances and with no ‘fixed’ address, they lost their entitlement to a medical card.

Detrimental as these harsh and callous conditions are for adults, the consequences are far worse for children, as their youth is effectively stolen from them. One can imagine the emotional stress experienced by young asylum seekers who, despite having spent almost all of their life in Ireland, have the Damocles sword of imminent deportation constantly suspended over their heads. Should they remain long enough in Ireland to finish their secondary education they will not, as asylum seekers, be entitled to pursue third level studies. It is hardly surprising so many find it well nigh impossible to develop the social contacts that would facilitate their integration into Irish society.

It would appear that the Irish government, like many of its sister administrations in Europe, is applying a ‘deterrent’ motive to inform its policy on asylum seekers.

In this respect, it should be noted that only Ireland and Denmark of the EU’s 27 members states have availed of the ‘Reception Directive’ opt out clause to avoid bestowing certain rights on asylum seekers. Such rights would include the possibility of seeking employment after a period of one year while awaiting a decision on their status.

Added to their lack of economic resources, asylum seekers and refugees are also confronted with a rising politicisation of their position, due to international events outside their control. September 11th, the Bali, Madrid and London bombings, together with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, have all served to elevate public concerns and anxieties with respect to immigrants. Although these events had nothing to do with asylum seekers, they have not been spared from the negative fallout they provoked.

Unfortunately certain politicians and elements of the media would appear only to ready to contribute to the negative public perception of asylum seekers. Stranded in a ‘non-citizens’ political limbo, asylum seekers suffer from a lack of voice and therefore tend to be excluded from this ongoing debate despite the consequences it entails for them.

Asylum seekers are significantly dependent on the goodwill and support of their host communities. Therefore, every effort should be made to generate awareness of the discrimination and difficulties asylum seekers have faced in their prior lives together with the current hardships and dilemmas they are facing. At the same time, host communities should be provided with the opportunity to express their concerns and feelings as to how they envisage asylum seekers might best be integrated.

In this manner, it might be possible to develop a mutually beneficial dialogue, based on reciprocal understanding, respect and recognition, between asylum seekers and their host communities. Such a process would necessitate the bringing together of asylum seekers and host communities on neutral grounds, whereby there will be the chance to develop an enhanced appreciation and respect for each other’s rights and ways of life.

An interesting example of how this might be achieved was Ismale Khurdi’s August 2008 ‘Challenging Myths and Misinformation about Asylum Seekers and Refugees‘ workshop held in Dublin. This workshop, organised by the artist Anne Kelly and facilitated by Commonplace provided an opportunity to…

…question definitions of refugee, asylum seeker and economic immigrant; challenge stereotypes and offensive labels applied to these groups; look at the meanings and perceptions of ‘home’; and facilitate the exchange of personal and professional experiences.

Another promising initiative, which was implemented by the Independent Asylum Commission between 2006 and 2008 in the UK was Citizens Speak. Citizens Speak convened hearings throughout the UK where members of the public could discuss the positive and negative aspects of their asylum system.

As the Commission Co-chair Sir John Waite remarked:

For the public to have faith in an asylum system, it has to reflect their values – they have to feel that they have been listened to and understood… it is as important to know how ordinary citizens feel about asylum as it is to know how the system itself is operating.

The CITIZENS SPEAK commission’s work has now concluded with more than 180 recommendations “to safeguard people who seek sanctuary” in the UK, “while restoring public confidence in the UK’s role as a place of sanctuary for those fleeing persecution.”

While this approach is a significant step in the right direction, asylum seekers and recently accepted refugees should be included in such discussions together with the general public and professionals involved in the asylum process. This approach would assist in the development of improved links between the two communities. In the long term, such assemblies and encounters might lead to eliciting greater public support for improved economic and social support for asylum seekers. Most importantly of all, it is crucial that asylum seekers are furnished with the opportunity to present their cases and develop relationships with the general public.

As a nation that has provided the world with a huge outpouring of its people over the centuries, principally in the guise of economic migrants, it ill behoves us to turn our backs on the sufferings of those who arrive at our shores seeking asylum. Let us hope that the current recession does not see us raise our drawbridges even higher to deprive those in desperate need of the opportunity to start a new and better life.

Photo is a still from the documentary Seaview, courtesy of Still Films.


11 Responses

  1. Sceptic

    February 25, 2010 7:02 pm

    Unfortunately migrants wont get a fair hearing in Europe until there is a clear plan of how many migrants will be accepted into each country.

    This is unescapable fact and we either face up to it or just pretend its not an issue to be tackled.

    The only danger is that if we, the left, dont face up to this issue people will disregard our analysis as having a big hole in the middle of it.

    Thats going to give room to negate interpretations on this issue

  2. may

    April 12, 2010 5:47 pm

    Thanks for your reviews Mr. Justin. But, Unfortionnatly not all people like you.could feel what we feel. or see what we see. its un Justice, rude, unpolite life that we living. we dont even have the right to study except English and Computer. so how the country expect to know if we would be active and a good help to the society if they have not gave us the chance.
    However, living in a hostle was one of my worst nightmare ever. and no one could explain what others go through unless you’ve been there your self. where you see people fed up of life and go crazy or committe a scucide. and you think when its going to be your turn.

  3. Justin

    April 13, 2010 2:33 pm

    Hi May,

    Thanks for your comment. I am very sorry to read about the experiences you have had in the Irish asylum system. As you say, it is an extremely inhumane system and must be very distressing for people who have to suffer through it. The worst thing is that too many people in Ireland – and elsewhere in the ‘west’ – are only too willing to come up with excuses and justifications as to why it is the way it is. They like to ignore that in fact the ‘west’ does everything it can to bar asylum seekers while the ‘poorer nations’ are forced to bear the majority of the burden. The worst is that often the cause for so many asylum seekers/refugees is because of the actions of the ‘west’ in other countries – Iraq and Afghanistan are good examples. There are millions of refugees from these two countries alone – with very few making it as far as the ‘west’/Ireland – while the majority are forced to find refuge in neighbouring countries.

    I am truly sorry for what you have had to go through over here May and would like to wish you all the best and hope that everything works out alright for you in the end.

    Take care.


  4. Zahoor ul Haq

    April 16, 2010 4:26 am

    Thanks Justin. By reading your article, I’ve known at least someone who can see the error. I am an asylum seeker from Pakistan, left my country and bounties of life just to be alive. I’ve seen many western countries as tourist but couldn’t notice any flaw in the so called human rights system in the west. Now I may suggest that human rights of asylum seekers are violated in the west as much as they can be. I’m certain if there are no people like yourself, the lives of asylum seekers would definitely be at stake. Some of the staff members at accommodation centres pretend to be godparents despite the fact that they are fully paid by the government for their services. The food at these centres is extremely tasteless and insufficient, and all other provisions are substandard. In our centre at Park Road, Killarney, we are forced to share a small room with three persons and two persons must use a double deck bed because of lack of space in the room. And if we complain the answer is “live or leave.” We don’t have any choice of food and the policy here is “eat or die”. No doubt the government is spending a lot on asylum seekers but the question is what an asylum seeker get? A meagre amount of € 19.10 a week with which we can’t eat or drink what we wish, we can’t travel if we want to see a part of this country. If curbing the movement of humans, if forcing humans to eat what they don’t like, if forcing humans to sleep uncomfortably, if forcing humans to feel inferior and if forcing the humans to become psychopath is called human rights then it’s on the peak here. We should be thankful to the goverment for our accommodation, food, medical and cash supplement of € 19.10 and other provisions but at the same time this is worth mentioning to ask the goverment that who is the real beneficiary? If asylum seekers are legally permitted to work, the goverment can save these expenses and earn tax in return as well. This will help asylum seekers to live a dignified life with choice of place to live in and food to eat. This will also highly reduce grievances of those citizen who think that asylum seekers are consuming their resources.

  5. Justin Frewen

    April 16, 2010 9:34 pm

    Hi Zahoor,
    Thanks for your comment and feedback. Also, your willingness to share your experiences at the disgraceful treatment you – and so many others – have received at the hands of the Irish asylum system is very much appreciated. I can only apologise at the manner in which you have been and continue to be treated. It is hard to believe that a country such as Ireland, which has long relied on its people being welcomed in other countries during our years of emigration – and which may well be starting again – would appear to have no empathy or understanding of those from other countries who likewise need to leave their countries – for whatever reason. It is also a source of shame that in our Celtic Tiger Days we could not see our way to establishing a system which treats asylum seekers with respect. You raise an excellent point with respect to the fact that the Irish government might indeed be spending a relatively significant amount on asylum seekers but that asylum seekers themselves do not benefit from this expenditure! I would like to finish by wishing you the very best in this difficult situation you are going through!

  6. alam

    April 19, 2010 11:14 pm

    well first of all i would like to thanks mr Zahoor ul Haq he summarized what i would like to say I’m an asylum seeker residing in waterford viking house accommodation actually, actually there is a myth surrounding the asylum seekers here in Ireland and most of irish people fail to realize that we are forced or crammed in small rooms with 4 or 5 people and let alone the treatment we have been endured forexample here in the viking house we have been bullied by the eastern European staff, the quality of food is really bad the conduct of the staff at it’s best is awful when you raise the issue with the manager of the viking house(which he is polish ) he simply say to you if you don’t like it leave it

  7. A A

    May 24, 2010 12:07 pm

    just feel like commiting suicide everyday.. but my God will blame me.. all just because i live in a so terrible.. social welfare (Helen) in tramore is not even helping the matter..God will need you in this matter

  8. i for i

    May 26, 2010 11:57 am

    Hi to all,yes being an assylum seeker,in ireland,is a crime.We leave ours countries to seek refuge here,but it better to die over where we come from,then to live in this condition were people look at you like a fool.we are educated people,i’m an assylum seeker here over five years,what my life will be if i had right to work?how much i will contribute to the economy of this country?How can a parent live with the kids in the same room?in the irish society,is not allowed,within assylum seekers,is different.AA,(helen in tramore is a bomboclat),she got no kids,she just jalous of the childrens,She better change a job.But god will help us,mandela become a president after 27yrs in jail.we r african,humble people.

  9. tony

    July 9, 2010 8:35 pm

    I notice that nobody here mentioned the irish that are paying for RIA. over 100 million a year to house 7,000 asylum seekers. Not to mention the cost to the tax payer of the 30,000 asylum seekers who already got their papers. They will live here for the rest of their lives and the irish have to pay for them. Now before you all start ranting and raving just think about it for a moment. I would greatly apreciate it if an asylum seeker here would consider the situation from the irish perspective – in the present economic climate. We are being broken by our government with tax’s and cutbacks. Irish ARE commiting suicide now more than ever before. For me personally i find it dam ungreatful for asylum seekers to be complaining.

    Again I would apreciate it if an asylum seeker shared their thoughts about how they expect the Irish to feel with this massive cost that you all encure on us.

    Thank you.