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UN says Ireland needs to take 'immediate action' to cut asylum waiting times

Some people are waiting over two years for a decision on their asylum application.

Yvonne Tshala, six, who has been living in a Direct Provision centre in Cork with her mother for over three years, pictured at a demonstration calling for the end of DP (November 2017)
Yvonne Tshala, six, who has been living in a Direct Provision centre in Cork with her mother for over three years, pictured at a demonstration calling for the end of DP (November 2017)
Image: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

THE UNHCR, THE UN Refugee Agency, has called for immediate action to reduce the length of time people are waiting for a decision on their protection applications.

Asylum seekers wait, on average, 19 months to be interviewed by the International Protection Office (IPO) at the Department of Justice and Equality.

Many asylum seekers “may now expect to wait two years before they will receive a decision on their asylum claim”, the UNHCR said.

Enda O’Neill, Head of Office with UNHCR Ireland, said research carried out by organisation shows that long periods of time spent in State-funded accommodation is “leading to dependency and disempowerment among many people seeking protection” and “hampering their integration prospects”.

“The introduction of a more general right to work from June, for those who can avail of it, should ease some of the stress people experience while waiting. Ultimately however, they need certainty about their fate to move forward with their lives,” O’Neill said.

In February, the Supreme Court formally declared that the absolute ban on asylum seekers working was unconstitutional. The Cabinet had agreed to lift the ban last November, in line with a European directive.

Some groups have been critical of the restrictions that will placed on employment for those seeking asylum, with the Immigrant Council of Ireland describing the limitations being placed on the scheme as a “missed opportunity”.

More than 5,000 people live in 34 Direct Provision (DP) centres around Ireland while they await a decision on their status. Some asylum seekers have been living in such centres for years due to delays in the process and seeking appeals.

People in the centres are provided with meals and given a weekly allowance of just €21.60. The system was set up as a temporary measure 18 years ago.

Some 2,926 people applied for asylum in Ireland last year, of which 515 arrived on the relocation programme from Greece. In 2016, 2,244 people applied for asylum in Ireland.

There are now 5,096 people living in DP centres, with space for another 134, according to the Reception and Integration Agency. This is an occupancy rate of 97.56%, up from 89.1% in December 2016.

Attempts to reduce processing times 

Provisional statistics from the Irish authorities indicate that there were approximately 5,200 people awaiting a decision from the IPO at the end of 2017.

“This is up more than 1,000 over the course of the previous 12 months in spite of the introduction of a new single procedure in December 2016 intended to reduce processing times to six months,” the UNHCR noted in a statement.

European Union law requires states to ensure that decisions are made on applications as soon as possible, and in normal circumstances within six months.

“Many countries have laid down such time limits in national law with a majority of countries setting the limit at six months.

“Under Irish law, where a decision has not been taken within six months, all that is required is for the Department of Justice and Equality to provide the applicant, upon request, with an estimate of the time it is likely to take to reach a decision,” the UNHCR said.

O’Neill said shorter processing times would result in savings for the State, noting that it costs €10,950 to house a person in a DP centre for 12 months (as highlighted in the Working Group report on Direct Provision and the Protection Process, which was chaired by former High Court Judge Dr Bryan McMahon and published in June 2015).

“The cost of processing is a fraction of this amount. Investing in decision-making not only improves outcomes for refugees, but also makes financial sense,” O’Neill said.

He added that much of the focus on DP in Ireland of late has been on the accommodation system itself, stating: “The key underlying issue is not the accommodation necessarily but rather processing times.

Ireland is to be commended for its ongoing efforts to improve conditions in refugee accommodation centres, but when Direct Provision was introduced in 2000, the intention was that it should only be for a short period of time. This must be our goal again.

‘Radical improvement’

TheJournal.ie has asked the Department of Justice for comment on the situation.

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan previously told the Dáil: “The key recommendation underpinning the McMahon report was to address the length of time taken to process applications, which consequently leads to long stays in State-provided accommodation.

“With the commencement of the International Protection Act 2015 on 31 December [2016], we now have a single application procedure.

This is the greatest reform to our protection process in more than 20 years. It means applicants will have all aspects of their claims, refugee status, subsidiary protection status and permissions to remain examined and determined in one process.

“Our intention is to provide first instance decisions in the shortest possible timeframe. I have put in place significant additional resources to facilitate this at first instance and appeal levels, and I expect further resources to be assigned over the coming period.”

Flanagan said there has been a “radical improvement” in terms of reducing the length of time asylum seekers are waiting for a decision on their status.

“When the McMahon report was published in 2015, 36% of applicants were in the direct provision system for three years or less. This figure is now 72%, which represents a radical improvement. We continue to work hard to improve the situation further. There is no room for complacency, and there will be no complacency,” he stated.

These and other issues will be explored at O’Beyond McMahon – the future of asylum reception in Ireland, a conference taking place at University College Cork today.

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Órla Ryan

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