Ireland’s Asylum System – Hard Labour for Asylum Seekers

Richard Herlihy, Orla Dwyer and Donal Corrigan.

JR3 Public Affairs Journalism

Are Irish prisons working? Is Ireland’s asylum system fit for purpose? Final-year DCU journalism students conducted in-depth investigations into these two major questions in Irish public life. Working with School of Communications Journalist-in-Residence, Ursula Halligan, and Chair of the BA in Journalism, Declan Fahy, students worked in teams to produce a set of original multi-media articles on these pressing, but under-reported, public affairs topics.

Saleh Abo Safie faced a long journey when he was forced to leave war-torn Syria at the age of 16.

From the seaside town of Latakia where he worked as a kitchen designer and lived with his family, Saleh journeyed from Turkey to Greece, before finally landing in a small town 5,000 kilometres away on Ireland’s west coast.

Saleh now lives in Ballaghaderreen, County Roscommon – residing in one of Ireland’s 37 direct provision centres for asylum seekers and refugees.

Until last year, Saleh was able to find work in his profession. A job as a kitchen designer in County Mayo should have been the perfect fit. But as The College View’s reporting has found, work for those seeking refuge is rarely quite so simple.

The remote location of Ballaghaderreen meant a three-hour round trip for Saleh each day in his friend’s car. Though he was lucky to find employment and a lift to work, life in direct provision added extra pressures.

The centre where he lives does not allow him to cook for himself, and visitors cannot visit him in his room. He said these pressures and his lengthy commute led to him giving up this job in September 2018.

In July 2018, following an 18 years-long ban on work, asylum seekers in Ireland were finally granted the right to seek employment. But eight months later, a number of hurdles for the new jobseekers remain – with less than one in six adult asylum seekers accessing work under the scheme, according to figures released by the Department of Justice.

Labour market access

As of January 2019, Ireland’s Direct Provision system was at 95% capacity – with 6,148 asylum seekers and refugees living in emergency accommodation.

While over 2,000 people awaiting asylum decisions have been granted permission to work under the new scheme, just 39% of those (846) have found jobs.

Rory O’Neill, Integration Project Manager at the Irish Refugee Council, helps current and former asylum seekers secure jobs and housing. He says that the right to work has raised the morale of many asylum seekers.

“It gets them out of the hostels and gives them a sense of purpose, a sense of self-worth even if it is below their basic skills,” says O’Neill.

“There is no homogeneity within the asylum community; you have a whole spectrum of skills, backgrounds and everything else. We work with people who are doctors, nurses, lawyers in their home country.”

A key challenge under the new system, he adds, has been finding stable work and educating employers about the scheme. “It’s about finding employers that understand these people are allowed work.”

“It’s the dignity of being able to work, to support oneself, and to have opportunity,” says Carol Sinnott, an immigration solicitor who has represented a number of asylum seekers.

Before the right to work was introduced, many in the system lived in poverty, receiving an allowance of just €21.60 (recently increased to €38.80), says Sinnott.

 “Most people want to work and they do not wish to be a burden on the state,” she adds. But sometimes, “people don’t even have the money to start work”.

“Many barriers remain”

Direct Provision centres are often located in rural areas across Ireland such as Ballaghaderreen which is more than 30 kilometres from the nearest large town. For many residents here and elsewhere, intermittent bus services are the only way to get to work, limiting job opportunities.

Despite a lifting of the ban against work, a similar ban still exists which prevents asylum applicants from driving.

“I think it’s ridiculous that I am paying taxes but I can’t access a driving license,” says asylum seeker Owen Chance, who works as an accountant. Chance came to Ireland from Jamaica in 2014 and was housed in Direct Provision, settling in Monaghan.

For four years he sat idle, unable to work. But once he was granted permission to search for work, transport became a major sticking point. Owen found that the only jobs available were in factories that were not on the bus routes in Monaghan.

Eventually, he turned to self-employment and found opportunities as a personal finance accountant. But his work now takes him to Cork, a five-hour commute from Monaghan. Each week, he takes a bus to Dublin, followed by a train to Cork – a situation necessitated by his reliance on emergency accommodation.

“A lot of them can’t take up employment because they can’t commute to work,” says Rory O’Neill of the IRC. “If they are working anti-social hours or they are working in remote locations, that becomes problematic and infringes on their right to work.”

During a Dáil debate in September 2018, Minister for Transport Shane Ross announced that, based on legal advice: “It would be possible to issue asylum seekers with driving licences”.

But he noted that technical hurdles remain to be solved amid concerns over identity verification and mechanisms for cancelling licences of rejected asylum seekers.

Language barriers also present a significant challenge. Many asylum speakers don’t speak English.

 Although some can access language lessons in Early Training Board centres, Rory O’Neill says that they mainly absorb English from being in the centres.

The Ombudsman’s most recent report on Direct Provision residents cites two complaints received in 2018 about limited language training.

“Residents in one centre raised the lack of English language classes available in their centre,” the report says. Another complaint details the frustration of residents unable to attend classes in the nearest large town due to buses not coinciding with class times.

Some refugees have taken it upon themselves to self-teach. Saleh Abo Safie from the Ballaghadereen Direct Provision centre says that he learned English independently through YouTube language courses.

 The mental pressures of living in Direct Provision are also significant drain on many who receive the right to work. Lucky Khambule from the Movement of Asylum Seekers Ireland (MASI) is particularly critical of long wait times faced by asylum seekers seeking a final decision on their refugee status.

“[For] some people it took ten years and in those ten years you have nothing to do, and when I say nothing to do, I mean nothing to do. You eat, you sleep you eat,” Khambule said at a talk given to students at DCU.

Though wait times have improved since a revamped decision system was introduced to speed up asylum claims, the average wait time for a first instance decision still sits at 19 months.

18 years of limbo

Until 2018, Ireland was one of just two European countries which held a total ban on employment for people awaiting asylum decisions. The change, when it came, was sparked by a Supreme Court ruling which struck down the 18-year ban as unconstitutional.

The Irish government then opted into the EU Reception Directive, which guarantees certain rights for asylum seekers, including a mandate that countries must give access to the labour market within 9-months of the start of an asylum claim. Following the trial of a self-employment scheme in February last a year, a full Labour Market Access scheme was drafted and introduced in Ireland from 2 July, 2018.

“This [new scheme] resulted in a very broad and generous access to the labour market being granted to qualifying asylum seekers,” says a spokesperson for the Department of Justice.

The nine month wait

“The Labour Market Access scheme [is] an excellent idea in that it allows people to work, but the difficulty is it’s too limited in scope,” says Carol Sinnott, an immigration solicitor who has represented a number of asylum seekers.

After they make their initial request for asylum, applicants must wait eight months to apply for permission to work and another month before they can begin employment – the longest delay allowed under the EU Reception Directive.

“That makes no sense to me – why wait eight months? Surely it must benefit the state [if asylum seekers are working], as opposed to not contributing,” says Sinnott.

She adds that the months-long wait for permission to work is keeping qualified people from taking up work.

 “This rules out a lot of candidates who would only be too happy to work and contribute to the economy and the workforce whilst their decisions are pending,” she adds.  

Lucky Khambule from MASI believes the nine-month wait for asylum seekers to access employment is unnecessary, instead advocating for no delay.

“At MASI, we don’t agree with [a nine month wait]. We believe that people need to be given the right to work immediately, simple as that,” Khambule says.

 “It is really, really a waste of time […] If you are going to give them the right to work, give them the right to work.

 “They have nothing to lose by giving the right to work straight away, nothing at all, in our view.”

When the scheme was being drafted last year, the Irish Refugee Council recommended a maximum six month wait before asylum seekers could apply for permission to work.

But many countries who opted into the Directive grant access to work sooner after applying for asylum.

Sweden, for example, allows asylum seekers to take up work immediately, while Germany gives some asylum seekers access within three months.

By contrast, the UK has the strictest limits on employment for asylum seekers within the EU. If a claim has been outstanding for over 12 months, they may be granted the right to work but only in certain occupations in short supply such as classical ballet dancers, orchestral musicians and engineers.

By contrast, the Irish scheme grants broad access to all occupations except the Defence Forces, An Garda Síochána and the Civil Service. Ireland also offers access to self-employment – a practice not allowed by many other countries in the Directive.

So why did Ireland opt for the longest possible delay of nine months?

 “This is the norm established by the Directive,” says a spokesperson for the Department of Justice. “Some other countries have different time limits but [that] can involve a reduction of supports.”

 “By opting-in to the Directive, Ireland not only guaranteed ongoing supports but also provided for services to be maintained to partners and children of workers, for example.”

 One factor in the government’s decision to slow access to employment by nine months may be a fear of “pull factor” – the idea that generous conditions for refugees may encourage others to travel to Ireland.

“Ireland has one of the most open and flexible labour markets in Europe,” says the Department of Justice spokesperson.

“Granting instant access to the labour market for those seeking International Protection could result in the asylum system being utilised by those who wish to migrate to Ireland solely for economic reasons.”

The cost of accommodation

Rory O’Neill from the IRC believes that although the government allowed the right to work after the High Court ruling, another factor was likely a shortage of people in the labour market. In 2018, Ireland continued to slide towards full employment – with unemployment now sitting at 5.7%.

“If things were to progress again, they would make the right to work more restrictive,” he suggests.

A Department of Justice spokesperson says that there are no plans within the Department to “restrict the existing access to the labour market for Protection Applicants”. As Ireland is now legally bound by the Reception Directive, the spokesperson says, the EU Commission can take action against Ireland if it concludes that Ireland is failing to comply with the Directive.

One thing that will change, however, is a plan within the legislation to charge working asylum seekers for their emergency accommodation. According to an information booklet issued by the Department of Justice, asylum seekers will have to contribute to the costs of their accommodation in Direct Provision – ranging from €15 to €238 per week in addition to standard taxes depending on how much they earn.

Back in Ballaghaderreen, Saleh found a new job at a meat factory after he was forced to give up his kitchen designer work. But once again, he ran into troubles with his commute, forced to travel long distances and work under physically-demanding conditions.

He left this job shortly after and tried to find work closer to the small town, where an additional 105 asylum seekers, including 22 families, have resettled over the past three months.

Once he can find accommodation, he has dreams of moving to Dublin where he will have a better chance of finding work with the benefit of frequent public transport.

Saleh has not seen his family in seven years. Work is a means to an end for the refugee who still hopes to one day return to Syria and rebuild the life he lost. “Home is home”, he says.

Richard Herlihy, Orla Dwyer and Donal Corrigan.