The 2015 Summer refugee ‘crisis’ was the moment when refugees entered the European consciousness as an existential dilemma. Many European media asked if this influx represented the death of the Schengen line, the free travel zone and even of the European project. The pan-European furore that followed contributed to the Brexit vote. Indeed it is difficult to think of that time without being reminded of scenes of refugees at Calais attempting to make their way across the sea to Britain and of Nigel Farage campaigning in front of a billboard depicting long lines of refugees.
However, to a large degree Irish society has escaped the pan-European panic. There have been no terrorist attacks in Ireland, and neither immigration nor the recent refugee influxes have been a major factor in any of our elections. News this week that one of the perpetrators of the London Bridge attack spent time in Ireland is notable as the first time Ireland has featured in international discussions of Islamist terrorism. On the face of it Ireland would appear to have been unscathed by the xenophobic political tensions that have been spurred in other countries.
However, consider Graph 1 on Irish asylum applications. 2015, the year of the refugee crisis, should have been the year in which Ireland accepted its most refugees. And yet it is was in 2002 that applications peaked for asylum, at 11634.
Perhaps the recession led to the drop, yet if we look at the table it really begins to plummet in 2003 and 2004, boom years of great economic prosperity in the Republic, before gradually dropping to a recent low of 916 in 2013.
For the sake of clarity it is important to note that an asylum-seeker is an applicant for refugee status – someone hoping to be declared a refugee. Like other European nations Ireland is obliged through international treaties to accept refugees. Refugees are defined as those who are forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster. The situation in countries like Syria is so bad that many of them are accepted to be refugees, without question: they do not have to go through the process of seeking asylum. For example in Germany in 2016 57% of Syrians entered as refugees.
The figures for people entering the country as asylum-seekers are different from those entering as refugees.
Before 2015 Ireland’s efforts went almost entirely into asylum-seekers rather than refugees. So a big reason for the strange graph is that most of the crisis in 2015 were refugees, not asylum seekers.
The Irish Refugee Programme (IRPP) was set up as a direct response to the 2015 refugee crisis. By the end of 2016 760 refugees had arrived through it. The State committed to taking in 4,000 people over three years through the IRPP. The commitment of the IRPP applies to two different groups of people. The first group is made up of people living in Turkey and Lebanon who have fled the Syrian war and already have refugee status. The second is made up of people who arrived in Greece and Italy by sea from Syria whose asylum applications are to be assessed in Ireland. 520 of the 760 refugees accepted in 2016 belonged to the first group, 240 to the second.
It is most dramatic to note that Germany, albeit with demographic demands, will take a million refugees over the same period.
To further complicate matters it is important also to note the success rates for asylum-seekers in different countries. Ireland’s is particularly low. For example over the period 2012-14 Ireland accepted only 677 asylum applications from asylum-seekers. Norway accepted 20 times as many per head of population. The US accepted 68,317 asylum-seekers in the same period, the most in the world; Germany 48,000; the UK 28,000. During that period the US accepted 16.7% of asylum-seekers; Germany 7.7%; the UK 16%; Ireland 3%. In fact only 21% were rejected with the majority deferred or closed for some reason, including that the asylum-seeker leaves the country.
Separate from asylum-seekers and refugees are ordinary migrants, those who come to Ireland for economic reasons, to make a better life for themselves and their families.
The total figure for non-nationals in Ireland is 584,000 out of a total population of 4.7 m. The figure of 12.5% of the population is substantially higher than that in Britain where it is 8%, a little more than in the US. However it should be remembered that Ireland’s immigrants mostly arrived in the last twenty years. Other richer countries will have accepted generations of immigration.
In recent years the categories have become confused as many asylum applicants are in fact economic migrants attempting to use asylum as a way to enter into wealthy western countries. In spite of how perilous their economic situation can be, abject poverty has not been recognised as a criterion for refugee status. Instead, the Irish State’s suspicion that many asylum applicants are in fact economic migrants in refugee’s clothing lies at the heart of direct provision.
In his paper on ‘Social Welfare Law and Asylum-seekers in Ireland’, Liam Thornton sets out how welfare conditions for migrants decreased considerably after direct provision was introduced in the year 2000. Before 2000 asylum-seekers could avail of social welfare like anyone else in Irish society once they had met the necessary conditions. This included payments for medical conditions, non-contributory pensions if the asylum-seeker was over 65, one- parent family payments and child benefit. Asylum-seekers who did not qualify for pensions or single parent allowances could still avail of the same supplementary welfare allowance that anyone else in the State could qualify for.
After the direct provision system was introduced asylum applicants instead received their supplementary welfare as a benefit in kind in the form of bed and board with an additional small payment per adult per week and an additional smaller payment per child per week.
The meagre accommodations that ground Ireland’s system of ‘direct provision’ are available to asylum-seekers only.
Direct provision was introduced, according to John O’Donoghue, the minister for justice at the time, in order to be in line with changes to the UK’s policies on asylum applicants and to prevent welfare fraud and welfare tourism by asylum applicants.
It was in effect put in place in order to prevent asylum applicants coming to Ireland.
At the time O’Donoghue stated that the 80,000 asylum-seekers in the UK would be “well aware” of the more generous welfare entitlements in Ireland once the UK moved to a non-cash- based reception system. This was supposedly supported by the fact that the U.K.’s change in the UK’s policies towards asylum-seekers in 1996 led to an increase in asylum-seekers in Ireland. O’Donoghue described the welfare provisions in Ireland for asylum-seekers at the time as a magnet that was drawing them in.
It was believed that by replacing the cash payments with the benefit-in-kind system of direct provision welfare fraud would be eliminated. The Minister for Justice’s stated aim was to prevent Ireland’s asylum welfare system from becoming “the object of large-scale fraud planned and executed by internationally organised criminal gangs”.
It is clear then that direct provision as a deterrent has played a large role in preventing Ireland from receiving the influx of asylum applicants that other European countries have.
The graph shows that, as direct provision registers, the trend is downward, most significantly in 2003 and 2004.
In 2004 there was a referendum on the 27th amendment to the Constitution which proposed that children born on the Island of Ireland to parents who were both foreign nationals would no longer have a constitutional right to citizenship. The amendment passed with 79% of the vote.
As a result of that referendum children of asylum applicants- who in many cases have been forced to wait in the direct provision system for years while their applications are processed and appealed- are not automatically afforded Irish citizenship, as they would have been prior to 2004.
That referendum was in part a response to the 2002 influx of asylum applicants, as well as to the fear of so-called anchor babies, a phenomenon where it was believed that non-E.U. nationals would tactically give birth to babies on Irish soil in order to take advantage of their newborn children’s subsequent Irish citizenship. This is the kind of xenophobic thinking that recalls the famous Charlie Hebdo cover of pregnant Boko Haram women over the caption ‘benefit queens’.
In 2015 Germany received 1.5 million asylum applicants while Ireland received 3276 asylum applicants.
To put those numbers in perspective Ireland had a population of 4.641 million while Germany had a population of 81.41 million in 2015. The German population then was roughly 17 and a half times larger than the population of Ireland, yet Germany took roughly 335 times more asylum applicants in 2015.
It is perhaps more instructive to compare Ireland’s intake with other similarly sized European countries. Between June 2015 and June 2016 the Irish State received 2780 asylum applicants. In the same period Norway, with a population of 5 million received 28, 000 asylum applicants. Denmark, with a population of 5.4 million received 21,000 applicants.
So far in 2017 409 letters of intention to deport have been issued to asylum-seekers and 1042 letters of intention to deport have been issued to non-asylum-seekers. Receiving a letter of intention to deport does not mean that the recipient will be deported, rather it is the start of a process whereby the recipient’s case will be assessed before a final decision is made over whether or not to actually deport them.
Those who have been issued with intention-to-deport letters can apply for leave to remain on humanitarian grounds. Not all those who are granted leave to remain have received letters of intention to deport, although according to the Minister for Justice this subset is largely made up of children.
So far in 2017 80 asylum-seekers and 21 non-asylum-seekers were granted leave to remain.
The most recent figures for leave to remain applications have show that 1328 asylum-seekers and 2632 non-asylum-seekers are awaiting decisions over leave-to-remain applications. In 2017 so far 271 asylum-seekers and 91 non-asylum-seekers have received deportation orders. 36 asylum-seekers and 5 non-asylum-seekers have been deported. A deportation order can be revoked after it has been issued if there has been a substantial and material change in the applicant’s circumstances since the deportation order was made.
In an article in the New York Review of Books the novelist Zadie Smith writes of being asked: “You were such a champion of ‘multiculturalism’, can you admit now that it has failed?”. Smith’s reply is to point out that to conceive of multiculturalism as a social experiment while holding cultural homogeneity as natural is wrongheaded. In the case of direct provision that Ireland did not take in the massive influx of asylum applicants that Germany, Finland, Norway or Denmark did in 2015 was the result of policy, not historical accident. There is nothing natural about giving asylum-seekers supplementary welfare as a benefit in kind and confining them to holding centres for years on end. The purpose of direct provision is to deter asylum-seekers, not primarily to accept them. In the guise of preventing unwanted economic migrants we have created a system that dissuades those who genuinely meet the criteria of refugee status from coming here.
We have already had our xenophobic referendum in the form of the 2004 amendment to the constitution. When it comes to refugee acceptance we lived in a world post-Brexit long before Brexit ever happened.
Indeed we may even have our own version of Katie Hopkins. Vogue Williams who despite the international forename is Irish wrote recently in the Sunday World, “Thousands of radical extremists must be locked up in new internment camps to protect Britain”. Williams numbered the potential detainees randomly at around 3,000. As these were “far too many to keep a close eye on” internment was imperative in Britain.
Thankfully there have been some reforms since the Working Group on Direct Provision Report was published eighteen months ago. Over 1000 people who had been in the system of direct provision for over 5 years were granted residency. Although still below the €29.00 per week recommended by the Working Group the living allowance for children has been raised by €5.40 to €15.60 per week. However, the adult allowance of €19.10 remained unchanged in this year’s budget.
Most dramatically, the Supreme Court has determined that a Burmese man who spent eight years living in direct provision had his constitutional right to seek employment, even as a non-national, violated.
While recognising the “legitimate differences” between asylum-seekers and citizens the Supreme Court ruled that “in principle… in circumstances where there is no temporal limit on the asylum process” an “absolute prohibition” on seeking employment is “contrary to the constitutional right to seek employment”.
Following this decision it is possible that many of those who have been living in direct provision for years while denied their right to work will be able to sue the Irish State.
by Luke O’Reilly