Sustained on subsistence payments while barred from working, many asylum seekers have spent years in legal and economic limbo. Scott Millar reports.
ON Tuesday morning Caesar Carlos, 33, travelled from Monaghan to the main entrance of the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) centre at Mosney.
He was eagar to show his nine month old son’s new RIA asylum seeker identity card.
“This is my baby, Benjamin, he was born in Drogheda. He has been forced to now seek asylum. The baby was born here why must he now seek asylum?”
In 2005 the Irish public voted to remove an immediate right to citizenship to children born here. Caesar finds this unfair.
“I’m not afraid to speak out. I’m tried. I’m almost five years here. If they want to put me back to the Caribbean they can.”
Caesar arrived with his wife and other son in October 2005. He claims that due to violence between indigenous Guyanauns and Afro-caribbeans, such as himself, he cannot return to the small South American country.
He surrendered his passport and travel documents when he arrived in Ireland and has not seen them since. The family was moved from a centre in Galway to Monaghan last year and now live in one room.
“The system is based on whether they believe you or they don’t believe you. It is game of luck, seeking asylum. Some tell them the truth and still they don’t believe them, some lie and they do.”
“We are not here to live an extravagant life, but why can’t the government deal with our case instead of keeping someone five years. It’s unfair. If I could even work to feed my family it would be better. But it is just like an open prison with a time to eat, a time to go out, a time to come back. I just want my decision. Yes or no? The Irish people need to know what is going on.”
The direct provision and dispersal system, within which Oscar’s family finds themselves entrapped, was introduced by the then Minister for Justice John O’Donoghue ten years ago.
The justification for replacing the system of providing asylum seekers with social welfare benefits available to other Irish residents was that the UK, with which we share a common travel area, was introducing a voucher system in April 2000.
The minister was clear about the new system’s aim – to discourage the growing influx of asylum seekers into Ireland – telling an interdepartmental group prior to its implementation: “The welfare scheme must not act as a pull factor for non-genuine asylum-seekers.”
The state had been experiencing a massive increase in immigration. Until 1997 asylum applications were dealt with by the UNHCR. The system worked well when dealing with fewer than 60 a year but by late 1999 the figure had jumped to nearly 1,000 applications per month.
It was clear that at least some asylum seekers were economic migrants looking for better prospects rather than fleeing threats in their homelands.
In 2000 two of the three countries providing the highest number of asylum-seekers, Romania and Poland, were soon to become EU members.
As well as the economic cost, the influx was also producing tragedies.
In the worst incident eight undocumented immigrants, including two children, were discovered dead in a freight container in Wexford in December 2001.
Under the new direct provision system asylum seekers were provided with accommodation, meals and laundry facilities, along with some other exceptional needs payments. Their cash payments were reduced to €19.10 per adult and €9.60 per child. This has not changed in ten years of the system’s operation.
Dispersal saw over 6,000 people moved to areas outside of greater Dublin, where 85% asylum seeker had initially established themselves.
The newly established RIA contracts private companies to house asylum seekers in over 60 converted hostels and hotels.
The Department of Justice was at pains to stress that unlike detention centres in operation in some countries, these “reception centres” provided for freedom of movement. However human rights groups are quick to point to the pressures the system, and a harsh adjudication process, was putting on asylum seekers.
A 2008 report by the Cork based Irish Immigrant Support Centre (NASC) described several of the centres as little more than “open prisons”.
Residents are unable to cook there own food, or bring it to their living quarters and are often forced to share rooms with people with whom they are unable to communicate.
Meanwhile the adjudication process has also be criticised for its abrasiveness and failure to adequately cater for female victims of violence.
These pressures were initially only to be borne for a period of months as the scheme was rolled out alongside commitments to speed up the asylum process.
While most initial applications are refused, they are followed by an inordinately slow appeals process resulting in over 4,000 people being housed in these conditions for over 2 years, and many for over five.
In other EU states there is a time limit of one year before asylum seekers can take up employment and move out of the direct provision system.
However only Ireland and Denmark have availed of the ‘Reception Directive’ opt out clause to avoid bestowing asylum seekers with this right.
Consultant psychiatrists who have dealt with asylum seekers within the direct provision system have argued that it could, in some ways, do as much long-term damage to asylum seekers’ mental health as the trauma from which they fled.
Support groups such as Residents Against Racism have also long attempted to highlight the trauma experienced by asylum seekers who were being transferred between centres with no warning and no right of reply.
The RIA regularly refuse outside groups access to the centres and rely on a Department of Justice inspection system to ensure secure and humane conditions are being met.
However despite the controversy which initially surrounded the decision to turn the former Butlin’s’ Holiday camp at Mosney into the state’s largest reception centre, with accusations the state was creating ‘seaside ghetto’, its bungalow accommodation and facilities have proven more suitable than several other sites.
Over the four years of its operation the number of asylum-seekers placed at Mosney has increased from 200 to 800 and with that the growth of sense of community as well as degree of integration with the wider population.
Those who the RIA unilaterally declared must move to central Dublin last week have been vocal in their anger and despair at the brutality of the move.
Asylum seekers such as Mary Oti, 25, from Ghana believe the RIA is not listening to the human story. Mary experienced the loss of a young child who is now buried nearby.
“I’ve been living here in Mosney for three years. My child died here when he was six weeks old and he is buried in Drogheda. I don’t want to move away from here to go to Dublin. I want to be able to visit his grave as often as I do now,” she said.
As the numbers of asylum seekers arriving in Ireland has declined significantly, a system that leaves recipients completely dependent on the State and demands that their children be raised in hostels, is once more under scrutiny.
In his new Immigration Bill Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern has ruled out giving the right to work to asylum seekers who have been here over a year.
Those who will continue to gain from such an approach include the asylum centre’s private operators.
In 2008 the main companies involved in providing accommodation for asylum seekers were Bridgestock Ltd, East Coast Catering (Ireland) Ltd, Mosney Irish Holiday plc, Millstreet Equestrian Services Ltd and Campbell Catering.
According to former integration minister Conor Lenihan the legal profession has also benefited greatly from the present system. In January 2008 he compared the “industry” surrounding asylum appeals to the long-running controversy over Army deafness claims.
Unfortunately, the people who benefit most from the disjointed asylum process are unscrupulous employers who use asylum seekers to undercut the wages and conditions of other workers.
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