COLETTE BROWNE: Draconian asylum and immigration system needs reform, Mr Shatter

JUSTICE Minister Alan Shatter has rightly decried the “inconvenient truth” that the State’s doors “were kept firmly closed to German Jewish families trying to flee from persecution and death” during the Holocaust.

However, maybe he should ask himself if the State would be any more welcoming if the same desperate refugees were fleeing here today?

Speaking in advance of National Holocaust Memorial Day on Sunday, Mr Shatter pointed out that in the 1930s, “practically all visa requests from German Jews were refused by the Irish authorities” and, following the war, “only an indefensibly small number who survived the concentration camps were allowed to settle permanently in Ireland whilst entry and permanent residence was refused to many more”.

“I would hope that as a State we’ve learnt an awful lot from that experience and [that] the manner in which people were treated in the 1930s and 1940s in very difficult circumstances would not again be repeated in the future,” he said.

Unfortunately, his hopes appear to be unfounded because Ireland has one of the most restrictive regimes in the world when it comes to granting refugees asylum with just 1.6% of applicants being successful in 2010 compared to an EU average of 24%.

To put that figure in context, although Ireland accounted for 0.7% of all decisions on asylum applications in 2010, it was responsible for just 0.04% of those who were granted asylum. Those refused asylum are entitled to appeal to the Refugee Appeals Tribunal but, in reality, they have very little chance of success as that body has a refusal rate of over 90%.

The net effect of this zero-tolerance approach is that Ireland has the dubious distinction of rejecting over 98.5% of asylum applications — a truly astonishing figure explained, perhaps, by the revelation last year that Fianna Fáil TD Brendan Smith, the former Agriculture Minister who moonlighted as Minister for Justice for six weeks after Brian Cowen’s disastrous cabinet reshuffle, authorised 200 deportations on his last day in office.

Consequently, in an eight-hour working day, the outgoing Minister would have studied the merits of each case for approximately 2.4 minutes. Accused of permanently excluding hundreds of people from the country in a despicably cursory manner by the Irish Refugee Council, a defiant Mr Smith was adamant he had given “all of them careful and appropriate consideration”.

The Irish Refugee Council is not alone in its criticism of the State’s overzealousness. The staggeringly high refusal rate in this country has also prompted the former president of the Law Reform Commission, Mrs Justice Catherine McGuinness, to express her unease about the lack of transparency in our immigration and asylum system. She said the high refusal rate has resulted in the courts being overburdened with hundreds of appeals as applicants have no option but to seek a judicial review of their case in a last ditch effort to remain in the country.

Since a seminal European Court of Justice case in 2011, which outlawed the State’s policy of denying residency to foreign parents of children born in Ireland, it is now practice to try to deport heavily pregnant women before they give birth and get residency rights.

Late last year, the State tried to put a Pakistani woman, who was over eight months pregnant and had recently been released from hospital, on a ferry to the UK in the middle of December. Her barrister described the new policy as “not so much no room at the inn but no room at the stable” before she was ultimately deported to the North of the Ireland.

In a separate incident, a woman who had just suffered a miscarriage was taken directly from the hospital and put on a deportation flight despite medical advice that she was unfit to fly.

Since 1999, asylum seekers must live in privately operated, but state-funded, accommodation centres which provide them with three meals a day and a small cash allowance of €19.10 per adult and €9.60 per child. The cramped accommodation conditions are supposed to be temporary, lasting for a maximum of six months, but people can often languish in these residential institutions — unable to work, educate oneself or spend more than three successive nights away — for over five years while their applications are being processed.

Last year, the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed concern at the negative impact direct provision had on the welfare of asylum seekers. It said delays in processing applications meant asylum seekers spent lengthy periods in these centres, often leading to health and psychological problems, including serious mental illness.

This concern was regrettably borne out by Mr Shatter’s revelation last year that 49 asylum seekers committed suicide, while living in these direct provision centres, over the past 10 years.

Meanwhile, a separate study published in December by Dr Syed Irtaza Hussain, a registrar at St. Stephen’s Hospital in Glanmire Co. Cork, found that up to 90% of the asylum seekers in one such centre had some form of psychiatric disorder.

Dr Hussain spoke to people from Sudan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Bangladesh and Nigeria and discovered 80 to 90% suffered from chronic sleep and anxiety problems; 70% suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, 30% suffered from depression, and that even though 40% of the centre’s population comprised children there was no playgroups or playgrounds for them.

Of course the department has long known about research of this nature and a 2007 study in the Irish Medical Journal stated that asylum seekers were five times as likely as public patients to attend with psychiatric conditions.

In fact, Ireland’s own National Intercultural Health Strategy 2007-2012 states: “It appears that prolonged length of stay of people within the direct provision system may have a direct negative effect on overall wellbeing … [and] has an additional detrimental effect on mental health”.

Despite the broad consensus that agrees prolonged stays in residential institutions are harmful to people’s mental health, family relationships and integration prospects, there is little chance of the regime in this country changing — largely because it has been greeted with widespread approval.

Damaging, and pervasive, stereotypes of asylum seekers coming here to fiddle the system, and sponge off the State, mean that there is little sympathy for their plight — despite the fact that some will undoubtedly have suffered appalling human rights abuses before arriving in Ireland seeking help.

Furthermore, the erroneous notion that a beleaguered State is struggling with a deluge of asylum applications is not supported by the facts, with the rate of applications falling from a high of 12,000 in 2001 to less than 2,000 in 2010.

Mr Shatter cannot undo the State’s anti-Semitic past, but it is within his power to do something to immediately improve the lives of those persecuted people seeking asylum in 21st century Ireland by reforming our draconian asylum and immigration system.

© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved

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