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Column: It is wrong to assume all asylum seekers are faking it - and the media is to blame

Thousands of people applied to become Irish citizens last year – but the media only focuses on scare stories about immigration, writes Greg Straton.

Greg Straton

How many read or heard the news that over 25,000 people from 112 countries applied last year to be citizens of a state with a banjaxed economy? Or that 164,000 people from outside the European Economic Area, most of them from India, applied to live in that state?

It would seem newsworthy to report that so many people from so many countries would want to become citizens of such a state. After all, one would expect people to be leaving an economically challenged country.

But it is Ireland, in fact, that is the aforementioned economically troubled state. However much distraction was caused by the fact that Ireland was supposedly overwhelmed last year by 1,250 people who came here seeking protection from tyranny, torture and fear; the much maligned asylum seeker.

It is amazing that those 1,250 applications for asylum made up barely one percent of the 164,000 applications for visas, citizenship and protection received by the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service in 2011 – however they received the most attention.

How the media missed the real story of immigration in Ireland in 2011

The phrase “missing the wood for the trees” springs to mind when looking at how the media covered Minister for Justice Alan Shatter’s statement on immigration in Ireland in 2011. The Irish Times put on its front page on Wednesday that the number of asylum seekers had fallen due to the recession and tougher controls. The Irish Independent reported that over 4,000 people were deported from Ireland in 2011. Actually only 280 people were deported. The other 3,700 people were refused entry to the state when they arrived at our airports. Radio stations and news websites used the Irish Times report and focused on the number of asylum seekers rather than other aspects of the statement.

In a wide ranging statement from the Minister, there was much to report. There was, for example, the more than 25,000 people from 112 countries applying to be citizens, the fact that our cash-strapped state earned €29 million from issuing visas and other registration fees, or that 32,000 non-EEA people resident in Ireland are students who attend our financially beleaguered education institutions and pay international fees.

The announcement that through the visa waiver programme Ireland is targeting particular key tourism markets (i.e. countries such as Brazil and China) to encourage people who intend to visit London during the Olympic Games this year to also visit Ireland. Another little reported story is that civilian staff will perform immigration control at the airports instead of Gardaí. There was ample material in the Minister’s statement to report on but for some reason the media chose to focus on a tiny portion of the migrants who arrived in 2011.

When the media chooses to focus its attention on those seeking asylum it perpetuates many of the false ideas about asylum seekers, such as the simplistic assumption that all asylum seekers are simply economic migrants abusing the system to gain access to the labour market.

At the Spiritan Asylum Services Initiative (SPIRASI) we provide services for survivors of torture and others who have been subjected to serious human rights abuses, to work with them to overcome the impact of their experiences. Of the 1,250 people who sought asylum in the state in 2011 14 per cent were referred to our Centre by medical and legal professionals and were clinically assessed and admitted to our services. We have cared for over 3,200 people since 2001 and have an active caseload of 700 people – men and women, who have survived some of the most unimaginable atrocities that leave deep physical and mental scars.

It is simply wrong to assume that all asylum seekers are faking it so that they can avail of better economic opportunities.

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Not all immigrants as asylum seekers – despite the media perception…

The further injustice caused by such reporting is the perception that all immigrants are asylum seekers. Asylum seekers are a tiny minority of the larger non-EEA national group that currently reside in the state, which has been estimated in the statement at 130,500 people; of this group asylum seekers in direct provision constitute only 5,400 or 4.1%. The next time you see or interact with someone from a non-EEA country the overwhelming possibility is that they are a student or economic migrant, not an asylum seeker.

It is understandable why this happens. Asylum seekers are a soft target. They are vulnerable and completely dependent on the state. By law, asylum seekers are forbidden to work, and are by design, forced to avail of direct provision accommodation. This makes them open to accusations of sponging off the state or being indolent or lazy. Asylum seekers have absolutely no power to change their situation and are subject to the policies of the state. There is no negative fallout to bashing asylum seekers at a time when sentiment, understandably, is to look after ourselves before others.

It is time for the debate and discussion around these issues to become much more rooted in fact and less concerned with the sensationalistic marginalisation of a very vulnerable group.

Greg Straton is the Director of the Spiritan Asylum Services Initiative (SPIRASI) based on the North Circular Road in Dublin which assists asylum seekers and refugees. It is the only organisation in Ireland that provides care for survivors of torture.

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Greg Straton

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