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Department of Justice sounded warning over plans to almost double allowance for asylum seekers living in direct provision

Officials said changes to allow residents of asylum centres to work had created “most generous” system in EU.

THE DEPARTMENT OF Employment Affairs and Social Protection wanted to almost double the rate of payment for asylum seekers in direct provision, internal records have shown.

However, the Department of Justice had urged caution over the increase, saying such a hike in rates had originally been suggested when asylum seekers did not have the right to work.

That had subsequently changed following a Supreme Court ruling with one senior immigration official saying: “[Those] rates were recommended at a time when there was a total ban on accessing work.

“We now have the most generous access [to the workplace], including that children will retain their allowances regardless of the parents’ earnings. Have you considered such a radical change of economic circumstances?” asked the official.

Internal correspondence also reveals that the “take-up” rate for the right to work by asylum seekers was reported to be “very poor” by the Department of Justice.

The same immigration official speculated that this may be because many asylum seekers were working in the shadow economy.

The official wrote that this “may indicate that they are already working in serious numbers” during discussions over increasing the daily expenses allowance.

In advance of the budget, an internal briefing paper from the Department of Employment Affairs had suggested the weekly payment for adults in the system could be doubled to €40.85 from €21.60.

This was in line with the recommendations from the McMahon report on overhauling the Irish asylum system.

The payment was ultimately raised to €38.80, which was based on doubling the original rate that applied when the allowance was first introduced in 2000.

A smaller increase of around 50% in rates was also applied to the rate for children bringing their payment up to €29.80 per week from €21.60.

The estimated cost of its provision was €4.5 million for the higher rate, and €4 million for the slightly lower rate.

FOI Request

The records were obtained by Noteworthythe investigative journalism platform from TheJournal.ie, using FOI.

The Department of Justice had said in their initial response that payment of these allowances was not a matter for them and that the FOI request should instead be directed to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection.

It was only after Noteworthy provided a copy of emails already obtained in a separate request that the Department went back and found it did hold records relating to planned changes to the allowance.

Department Discussions

An internal briefing explained how the original rate of the allowance for asylum seekers had been tied to what is known as the supplementary welfare allowance (SWA).

However, while the SWA had increased over the years, the rate of payment to asylum seekers had changed just once in nearly 20 years.

The briefing said: “Increasing the rate … will provide a substantial increase in disposable income enhancing people’s quality of life and social inclusion.

Increasing the child rate will have a positive effect on families who are protection seekers and will contribute to the reduction of poverty.”

It said the cost of increasing the allowance would be between €4 and €4.5 million a year, depending on which option was chosen.

Another possibility of increasing the payment by €5 per week was also put forward in internal emails, but was not costed.

One official wrote: “Possible alternatives are to go half way to McMahon recommendations or increase by €5 if there is a general round of increases.”

High Level Meeting

Notes of a meeting of a “High Level Group” on immigration outline how the number of asylum seekers coming to Ireland was on the increase.

By the end of September last year, more new applications for asylum had been made than in the entirety of 2017, the notes said.

“I believe that if an announcement to increase the rates is being considered,” wrote an official, “it will require consultation between our minister and the Minister for Justice.”

The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection said it was not the case that officials from the Department of Justice had influenced the final decision. A spokeswoman said:

During the course of annual discussions and negotiations on the Budget, various policy proposals are considered and developed on many issues. Final decisions on the content of the Budget package are made in the context of available resources and the prioritisation of these policy options within those resources.”

The Department of Justice said the increase in the allowance had been the first increase proposed since the right to work for asylum seekers was introduced.

A spokesman said: “This department was keen to ensure that the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection was fully appraised of all relevant facts before making its final decision.”

He said Ireland was one of only a small number of EU member states that provided access to the employment market for asylum seekers, with restrictions only on joining the public sector, the gardaí, and the Defence Forces.

The spokesman said: “This level of access to the labour market compares favourably with conditions imposed in some other member states.”

He also said that while take-up rates had initially been low, the numbers applying had risen significantly as applicants and employers became familiar with the system.

He said: “The numbers applying have increased and total applications now stand at nearly 3,700. The Minister for Justice … has, to date, granted almost 2,500 labour market access permissions to eligible applicants.”

There are still “considerable challenges” however for asylum seekers in accessing work.

In March, theJournal reported how significant difficulties like getting driving licences, the remote location of direct provision centres, and opening bank accounts were all presenting problems.

Separately, the Department of Justice has also apologised for its failure to find the records when Noteworthy originally looked for them.

It said: “[The] request was assigned by a member of the FoI team to the Reception and Integration Agency, who are responsible for those living in direct provision, as they were of the view that they dealt with this issue.

“Upon receipt of [Noteworthy's] follow-up email, the unit then became aware that the records were held by a different division.” 

For more about how to support Noteworthy’s work, visit our website.

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Ken Foxe

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