Hidden from View: Asylum & Deportation in Ireland

Date:

This article was prompted by a number of recent events.  Firstly, the Irish Refugee Council (IRC) organised a meeting on April 3rd to organise a campaign aimed at ending the inhumane system known as Direct Provision . And secondly, ADI (Anti-Deportation Ireland) held a workshop at Dublin’s Anarchist Bookfair on April 6th, followed by an ADI public meeting in Dublin on April 11th.  Both ADI events aimed to build a campaign against deportations in Ireland.

Perhaps the most notable feature of asylum and deportation in Ireland in recent years is that they have, bar a few notable exceptions, effectively gone off the radar.  Anyone campaigning on behalf of asylum-seekers, or people facing deportation, will have faced an uphill struggle to get any traction in the media.  In recent months racist attacks on residents of Balseskin Reception Centre in Finglas drew a limited and short-lived media focus.  The issue of the maltreatment of Irish women in the Magdalene Laundries encouraged a few commentators to remind us of how we currently treat asylum-seekers.  Despite these exceptions, however, asylum-seekers have become largely invisible, and deportations occur well away from any level of public scrutiny.

At one level it might be argued that the lack of media focus on asylum helped stem the rise of anti-asylum-seeker racism which had been fuelled by sensationalist reporting on the part of some journalists.  This racism was also encouraged and enabled by some politicians, including Government Ministers, who effectively cast asylum-seekers in the role of ‘suspect communities’ from the mid to late 1990s.  Having created an aura of suspicion around asylum-seekers through endless repetition of terms like ‘bogus refugees’, and scaring the Irish public into believing that we were being ‘flooded’ by asylum applicants, the Irish authorities set the scene for the introduction of draconian measures aimed at deterring others from seeking refuge in Ireland.

I believe that the effective disappearance of asylum as an issue of public discourse has enabled successive Irish Governments to operate with impunity as they trample on the human rights of a very vulnerable community.  A cloak of invisibility has hidden from view the dreadful conditions that asylum-seekers are forced to live in, and allowed the mass deportations of men, women and children, including children born in Ireland or who arrived at a very young age, and have no experience of the countries to which they were deported.  This has occurred without a whimper from the Irish media.

Direct Provision
The system known as Direct Provision was introduced in 2000.  Under this system asylum-seekers were dispersed around the country in accommodation centres.  For the most part these centres are run by private operators on behalf of the State.  They are run on a for-profit basis and have seen these private companies make hundreds of millions of euro.  The accommodation centres included a former holiday site with chalet-type housing (Mosney), mobile homes (Athlone), as well as a range of what were formerly hotels or hostels.  The standard of accommodation varies greatly, from those that are deemed reasonable, to others that can only be defined as sub-standard.  None of these centres were ever designed for long-term stays, yet there are people housed in them for up to twelve years.  At a minimum, each asylum-seeker can expect to spend upwards of three years in these places.

In these centres, accommodation and meals are provided, leaving asylum-seekers with no control over what or when they eat.  Complaints about food feature highly in the long list of difficulties residents face, as the fare offered is seldom to their liking and very different to what many asylum-seekers are used to. In fairness, some centres have attempted to meet the demand for variety in the fare offered.  Others have failed miserably in this regard.  It remains the case, however, that asylum-seekers are at the mercy of individual managers and have no control over their own diet.  ‘Canteen food’ served at set times means that asylum-seekers must eat what they are given and when they are given it, or else go hungry. 

The only regular cash payment asylum-seekers receive is €19.10 per week (or half that for a child).  This amount has not increased by one cent since it was introduced thirteen years ago, a unique feature in the Irish Social Welfare System.  This cash payment was paltry when first introduced in 2000, it is effectively worthless today.  That this payment never increased throughout the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years speaks volumes about the ‘value’ the Irish State places on the lives of asylum-seekers.  These voiceless and hidden away people, a third of whom are children, are thus treated with total disregard for their wellbeing. By the Irish State’s own standard measurements, asylum-seekers live below the poverty line.

Families share one small room, regardless of the sex or age of the children.  Couples wanting to maintain an intimate relationship are faced with the outrageous situation of having to do so in a bedroom shared with their children.  In some hostels there is no play area for children, and kettles or irons are forbidden in the rooms.  Those unlucky enough to live on the third floor of a former hostel/hotel must trundle up and down the stairs to have something as simple as a cup of tea or coffee.  Children grow up never seeing a parent go to work or cook a meal, and never have the ‘luxury’ of being able to invite a friend home from school.  Indeed, serious child protection issues have emerged in these centres, with at least one minor becoming pregnant by another resident. Unmarried asylum-seekers are normally obliged to share their small room with at least three other strangers, often from different cultures and speaking different languages.  Toilets are shared and private space is non-existent.  Inevitably, such confined living leads to disputes between residents, who are then branded as trouble-makers.

Despite a high incidence of depression and other mental health issues arising from these conditions, and calls by virtually all NGOs for the abolition of Direct Provision, the Irish Government has steadfastly refused to budge, claiming that to do so would act as a ‘pull factor’ attracting more asylum-seekers to Ireland.  This clearly demonstrates the role of Direct Provision as being primarily concerned with deterrence rather than caring for asylum applicants. Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, stated in the Dáil that forty-nine asylum-seekers committed suicide in the past decade. It has also been noted by many NGOs that even those lucky enough to be recognised as refugees are effectively institutionalised after years trapped in Direct Provision. When he was on the opposition benches Mr Shatter was a regular critic of Direct Provision.  However, he has failed to review the system since becoming Minister for Justice in 2011.

Asylum-seekers are not allowed to work or study and are effectively incarcerated in these open prisons with a regime of enforced idleness.  Most EU States permit asylum-seekers to work after six months if their cases have not been processed.  Ireland continues to refuse this minimum right to people seeking asylum here.  Those housed in remote areas away from urban centres are condemned to spend hours aimlessly hanging around the accommodation centre in which they live.  Many accommodation centres are located well outside the nearest town, making travel anywhere difficult.  The paltry cash payment means that even those people located in urban centres are totally restricted both in terms of mobility and activity.  An asylum-seeker lucky enough to be invited to stay overnight outside their designated accommodation centre must seek permission to do so.  Staying away for more than one night without permission could result in an asylum-seeker being deemed to have withdrawn their application for refugee status.  It is, therefore, no exaggeration to describe these centres as open prisons.

In these centres the staff wield absolute power.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that some staff have abused this authority, and questions have been raised about the dearth of intercultural training for staff members.  Profit remains the key objective of the private companies running these centres with the only oversight coming from the Department of Justice who, at the very least, have a vested interest in downplaying the problems inherent in this type of forced institutional living.

Perhaps the greatest scandal surrounding Direct Provision relates to the costs involved, and the enormous profits made by the few private companies operating accommodation centres.  It is estimated to cost €70,000 per person, per year to keep an asylum-seeker in one of these centres.  These costs have been used by unscrupulous politicians to scapegoat asylum-seekers, by focussing on the cost to the State.  The reality, however, is that the Irish State could reduce the costs by approximately two-thirds if they gave full social welfare and rent allowance to people seeking asylum in Ireland.  This would have the added benefit of giving these very vulnerable people a modicum of control over their lives and perhaps thereby reducing the levels of mental anguish experienced by people living in this inhumane system.  The fact is that the Irish State chooses to squander taxpayers money in order to maintain a punitive system aimed solely at deterrence. Direct Provision is not only an abomination, it is a deliberate one.  Even worse, it is being done in our name.  And, by isolating them, corralling them into a type of prison camp, the true awfulness of Direct Provision is hidden from an Irish public which has already been primed to view asylum-seekers with suspicion.

Accessing Asylum Claims in Ireland
Ireland’s asylum process involves an initial written application which must be submitted on arrival or shortly thereafter. This written application will then form the basis on which the applicant is judged at a subsequent interview or series of interviews (a process that normally takes several years).  If an application is rejected the asylum-seeker may lodge an appeal in writing.  A decision on this appeal is then made without any further interviews, as asylum-seekers do not get to attend their appeal, which is based purely on the written information provided by the applicant and his/her legal representative.  In most cases applicants will have submitted their initial asylum application form without any legal advice or assistance whatsoever.  Given the fear, disorientation, and lack of understanding of the system, many asylum-seekers have relied on poor but well-meant advice from other applicants.  This has frequently resulted in applicants being found to have given false information on the initial application form.  With their credibility thus reduced, many people deserving of protection have had their applications rejected.  With limited resources, organisations like the Irish Refugee Council have attempted to offer legal advice to applicants prior to their filling in their initial asylum forms.  Despite numerous calls for applicants to receive legal advice at this crucial stage of the process, most asylum-seekers do not receive such advice and thus find their chances of obtaining refugee recognition greatly reduced.  It is difficult to avoid concluding that the Irish State is determined to hinder at every turn the right of an asylum-seeker to receive a fair hearing.

That fact that Ireland has one of the lowest refugee recognition rates in the entire EU has drawn criticism from a wide variety of international organisations including the UNHCR.  In 2010, for example, Ireland rejected 98.5% of all applications, the highest rejection in all EU 27 States. And this occurred at a time when the average EU refugee recognition rate was in excess of 25%.  The Irish Refugee Council has accused the Department of Justice of having ‘a culture of disbelief’ and of operating an appeals process that is covered by a ‘veil of secrecy’ preventing any independent review of its decisions.  Achieving refugee recognition is effectively a lottery, with very few winners.

The Irish State has resisted all calls to allow an independent examination of how decisions are determined. The extent to which the Irish State has isolated and excluded asylum-seekers is evident in the fact that the remit of the Ombudsman and the Children’s Ombudsman do not extend to the asylum system.  Similarly, asylum-seekers are excluded from protection under the terms of Irish equality legislation.  The only recourse open to many asylum-seekers has been to seek judicial reviews of their cases through the Irish courts.  Forced to seek the assistance of the Irish courts, asylum-seekers are then castigated for doing so.  People who take this route in desperation have been accused by successive Justice Ministers of abusing the asylum system.  The fact is that judicial reviews are the only mechanisms available to them to assert their rights.  Asylum-seekers are thus further publicly castigated for merely exercising their legal rights.  In these circumstances, it is little wonder that many members of the Irish public continue to view asylum-seekers with suspicion.  Hidden from public scrutiny by design, and deliberately shrouded in suspicion, Direct Provision Centres are the Magdalene Laundries of twenty-first century Ireland.

Asylum-seekers remain trapped in this opaque system unsure of what is expected of them and living in dread of the often aggressive manner in which cases are assessed.  Numerous research reports based on the experiences of asylum-seekers suggest a process which is weighted heavily against the applicant.  Achieving the holy grail of refugee recognition in these circumstances is extremely difficult, and lacking any guarantee of fairness, like an independent examination of how decisions are made.

The Irish State has proven determined to hide asylum-seekers from view and to prevent them from having contact with the wider Irish society.  Unable to penetrate how decisions are reached by those adjudicating on the lives of asylum-seekers, Irish NGOs have repeatedly pointed to the unfairness and unreliability of the refugee recognition process.  Without doubt, this deliberately opaque system suits an Irish Government determined to reject as many asylum applications as possible and, combined with the awfulness of Direct Provision, discourage people from seeking asylum in Ireland.  It is not only shameful, but a negation of the spirit of the 1948 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol.  The clear message is that Ireland’s renowned and much publicised Céad Míle Fáilte does not apply to desperate people seeking refuge.

Deportations: People Disappearing in the Night
A number of speakers at the Anti-Deportation Ireland events gave harrowing accounts of how deportations are effected by the Garda National Immigration Bureau (GNIB) who are charged with rounding up deportees and escorting them to Dublin airport and onward to their final destination.  GNIB members normally arrive at the Centres in the middle of the night, giving deportees just thirty minutes to pack.  Word spreads quickly throughout the accommodation centre with most residents roused from their beds in terror at the prospect of being lifted for deportation.  Ugly scenes of GNIB members wrestling people to the ground and handcuffing them are witnessed by traumatised children.

The most cruel and inhumane aspect is the forced deportation of children with their parents.  This includes children who were born in this State.  The deportation of children who arrived in Ireland at a very young age, and have no memory of the countries to which they are to be deported, and who have spent years in Ireland, is a commonplace occurrence.  These deportations are effected in the middle of the night or at week-ends to prevent any last minute appeals through the Irish courts.  The method of deportation seeks to deny deportees access to any legal protection.

A very worrying aspect of deportations involves the use of a medical doctor on board some flights to forcibly sedate any unruly deportee.  Stories abound about deportees being refused permission to use the toilets during these flights or being obliged to leave the toilet door open while a member of the GNIB stands outside.  In one particularly harrowing flight a plane was delayed at Athens airport for over twelve hours before having to return to Ireland with the intended deportees.  Virtually no food or refreshments were provided for these ‘passengers’ by the GNIB.  In order to hide deportations from public view deportees are secreted through the airport avoiding the main passenger terminals.  Flights carrying deportees are facilitated by an organisation called Frontex in conjunction with EU States.  These are deportation flights carrying only deportees, and their police ‘handlers’.  These flights normally stop off in a number of EU States to pick up more deportees  en route.

In the past attempts to deport people using standard chartered flights have resulted in passengers and/or airline staff refusing to carry such passengers.  There is no independent scrutiny of what takes place on these Frontex flights.  We can only imagine the horror of an aircraft full of unwilling men, women and child deportees with a variety of EU police force members ready to enforce compliance with their expulsion.  The insistence on secrecy suggests that these are anything but pleasant occasions.  Governments remain fearful of the potential public outcry if such operations were open and transparent.  At a minimum all such deportation flights should have an independent observer to ensure the human rights of deportees are not infringed.  All requests for such independent oversight have been resisted by Ireland and the other EU States.  If there is nothing to hide, they why refuse all requests for independent oversight?

Discord Among Organisations Campaigning for Asylum-Seekers
At both the ADI meetings, and the one organised by the Irish Refugee Council, a palpable fear was evident among people in Direct Provision Centres that they will be targeted by the Irish authorities if they are seen to campaign for the right to be treated decently.  This targeting can take the form of transfers to other accommodation centres around the country, or the denial of a transfer to a preferred location.  There is also a strong belief among the residents of Direct Provision Centres that speaking out will have an adverse effect on the asylum application and will ultimately hasten their removal from the State.  Such is the strength of this conviction among asylum-seekers that it is difficult not to believe that there is merit in this assertion.

This very real fear has made asylum-seekers fearful and therefore unwilling to actively campaign for their rights, thus effectively silencing them.  Given the secrecy surrounding how decisions are reached, it is perfectly understandable that asylum-seekers are fearful of speaking out.  In fact, anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that residents who dare to vocalise their frustration are summarily transferred to remote accommodation centres.  Unfortunately, the reality is probably that quiet compliance with the stringent conditions of Direct Provision is unlikely to improve asylum-seekers chances of achieving refugee recognition either.  Building solidarity among Direct Provision residents and their supporters outside has to be the key feature of any successful campaign to end this cruel incarceration.  There is perhaps a key role supporters can play in highlighting any occasion where residents are targeted in this way.  In order for successful solidarity campaigns to be developed, however, trust must be built up and maintained.

Given the level of fear and mistrust among asylum-seekers it is incumbent on all NGOs and support groups to work together to overcome this aura of suspicion.  Discord between support organisations only serves to enable the Irish State to ‘divide and conquer’ and thereby continue to mistreat asylum-seekers and achieve maximum levels of expulsions from Ireland.  It has been suggested that some of those holding a more radical position in relation to no deportations have engaged in sowing mistrust among asylum-seekers regarding less radical NGOs.  Such comments do a great disservice to asylum-seekers and undermine efforts aimed at improving their living conditions and campaigns aimed at making the Irish asylum system more transparent.

I have long been against deportations and immigration controls that are, in my view, usually inherently racist in their application and primarily directed at impoverished people.  Despite holding these views, however, I will gladly work with those organisations, like the Irish Refugee Council, who have the best interests of asylum-seekers at heart. I worked as Liaison Officer for the Irish Refugee Council from 2002-6 and I know it to be truly independent and a thorn in the side of the Irish State.  Organisations that seek to improve the asylum system are not the enemy just because they are constitutionally bound to accept deportations once a fair-hearing and due process has been applied.  Castigating these organisations or worse, presenting them as somehow being in cahoots with the Irish State, is not only totally untrue but serves to confuse very vulnerable asylum-seekers.  Spreading such untrue rumours to an already fearful and vulnerable people can only be described as playing with the lives of asylum-seekers.  Those spreading such rumours are never themselves going to face the consequences of their actions.  It is the individual asylum-seeker who is may ultimately pay the price for not harnessing all the support available.

A second issue that seemed apparent to me at these meetings is the tension between the need for refugees/asylum-seekers to lead all campaigns, and the sense of helplessness felt by many in Direct Provision.  I fully support the emergence of an ‘own voice’ for persons caught in these dreadful conditions and actively campaigned on this matter for years.  But there remains a lack of clarity of what exactly is being asked of Irish supporters.  For example, should we act independently in support of asylum-seekers or wait for direction from the ‘own voice’ leaders among the asylum-seeker community?  I realise that there are no easy answers to these difficult questions.  But with a modicum of goodwill on all sides there is no reason why asylum-seekers and their supporters can’t find added strength in their combined numbers.  At the very least, the bad-mouthing of NGOs who are basically on the same side will hinder the development of campaigns aimed at asserting the human rights of asylum-seekers.  They may even succeed in damaging the potential solidarity between desperate asylum-seekers and those supporters willing to help in campaigning on their behalf.

By way of conclusion, let me finish by re-asserting my personal adherence to a ‘no borders’ position.  However, while I support all campaigns for the removal of immigration controls, I don’t believe that this will be achieved easily or quickly.  In the meantime, it is extremely important to support efforts aimed at improving the lives of asylum-seekers, even if they are led by people or organisations who hold differing views.  Discord among organisations working to help asylum-seekers can only benefit those who are intent on preventing any change in the abhorrent system of deterrence and deportation.  Such discord will only enable the Irish State to continue to hide from view the true awfulness of what is being done in our name.

Guest Writer:: Pat Guerin
Photo:  License AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by El Itinerante

 
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Pat Guerin works for Near Fm, a community radio station serving NE Dublin.  From 1998-2002 he was PRO for the Anti-Racism Campaign, a group that campaigned against deportations and successfully stopped over sixty deportations. From 2002-2006 he worked as a community development worker with the Irish Refugee Council and visited many of the larger Direct Provision Centres.  Pat still supports a no deportations policy, but believes that campaigns like the one to end Direct Provision should be fully supported by all people claiming have the interests of asylum-seekers at heart.

For anyone interested in reading more on the arguments for the dismantling of immigration controls I would highly recommend two works by the long-time British activist Teresa Hayter:
www.noii.trick.ca/TheCaseAgainstImmigrationControls
or Open Borders: The Case Against Immigration Controls. 2000, Pluto Press. London.

Comments

Anti Deportation and the Left - Emma per cap

Good article and information. One of the most infuriating things about left groups is the lack of organisation or interest in getting involved with anti racism/anti deportation work. An odd time a meeting is called to discuss a meeting but nothing practical is ever arranged.

GNIB and Europe is far more organised than it has ever been, Europe wide deportations take place like one on 24/4/2013 - it is getting worse not better.

Just to add the Irish Refugee Council are funded and can only come out and say so much without a fear of funding cut backs for being too radical. When it comes to the practical side of things they are hopeless, where it matters for support or direct action on behalf of asylum seekers.

Great to write articles and give information to general public who may not be aware but a better question I think is what can or what will we do practically for those living in these circumstances now?.

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