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Column: Why are asylum seekers protesting?

Protests by asylum seekers are not a manifestation of greedy migrants looking for more entitlements from the state, but the symptom of a deeply flawed and failing immigration system, writes Matt Canon.

Dr Matt Cannon

RECENTLY ASYLUM SEEKERS in Millstreet Accommodation Centre, Cork and Hanratty’s Accommodation Centre, Limerick, protested against their living conditions.  The general reaction to this tends to be one of surprise on the part of most Irish people – why are asylum seekers protesting? Don’t they get free accommodation, food, and a weekly cash allowance?

I suppose this is fine if your ambition is a subsistence existence where you raise a family in cramped one room accommodation and have no possibility for work or societal integration. These protests are not a manifestation of greedy migrants looking for more entitlements from the state, but the symptom of a deeply flawed and failing immigration system.

Well-trodden myths about asylum seekers

Too often the debate about immigration, integration or racism descends into a collection of well-trodden myths that obscure the need for a complex response to an evolving international challenge.  This on its own is indicative of poor public and government appetite for the topic of immigration reform in Ireland.  This vacuum has been filled by a somewhat alarming trend of what appears to be growing public support for the “send them all back to where they came from” position.

The current debate is unhelpful and prevents a substantive discussion about how we deal with specific areas, such as the asylum process and, more broadly, the inability of successive governments to address immigration; an issue that will not simply “go back to where it came from”.

While the belief that you can close Ireland’s borders seems like a simple solution, the truth is that is simply not possible.  The Irish State does not exist in a vacuum and the challenge of immigration is a global phenomenon, not a national one. International immigration into Ireland is a result of global movement of people and our commitment to the International Declaration on Human Rights and obligations under the European Economic Area means that we have as much an ability to close our borders to immigration as we do to covering Ireland with a weatherproof shield.

Direct Provision System

The protests in Cork and Limerick draw attention to an area that is illustrative of the wider debate on immigration, and are wrapped up in the misconceptions around those seeking asylum and the operation of the direct provision system.  At the core of these misconceptions is the notion that the asylum system is abused by those who are seeking to benefit from a State which has opened its doors to floods of migrants.  In this instance asylum applicants are equated with the bogus migrant: someone who has left their country and arrived in Ireland purely for economic gain.

Contrary to populist discourse on the subject, asylum seekers are not driven by economic pull factors but more severe push factors.  This is borne out in the lengthy application procedure that an applicant must endure which requires them to demonstrate the push factors which drove them to leave such as political oppression, human rights abuse, violent conflict and state failure.

It is hard to understand how the long slow application process that is involved in seeking asylum would act as a pull factor for a migrant seeking economic gain.  At Doras Luimní we bear witness to the fact that asylum application cases can run anywhere from eight months up to eight years or longer.  The current system requires the completion of an application where the applicant must prove they were persecuted on grounds of race, religion, nationality, membership of a social group or political opinion.

Left in administrative limbo

Only after this procedure ends must applicants raise their fear of returning home where they may be tortured or killed as part of making a case for leave to remain, and in so doing, start a whole new application procedure.  This structure, where only one application can be made at a time, leads to further delays in the system. There is no getting around the fact that this is an inefficient system which costs the state and taxpayer and keeps asylum applicants in an administrative limbo.

Asylum and direct provision are not the only examples of the problems associated with immigration, but they are one of the areas where the lack of good procedures are most evident.  We are currently working with outmoded tools to deal with evolving issues of immigration.  The legislation which structures our immigration policy is poorly designed to deal with our current immigration needs, and this does not just apply to the needs of asylum seekers, but is also evident in broader issues of work permits, citizenship and social integration.

The current system is detrimental to both immigrants and the Irish public

The current system is slow, costly, and detrimental to both immigrants and the Irish public, but what will drive the legislative change needed to fix this? The Immigration Residence and Protection Bill has been on the agenda several times, with versions of the Bill in 2008 and 2010, and the current government stating that they planned to publish a revised Bill in 2012, and yet we are still waiting.

The protests in Cork and Limerick accommodation centres highlight serious challenges in the asylum system which are largely misunderstood, and result in a lack of public support to drive reform.  Many outside of the asylum system are unaware of the long stays, inefficiencies and lack of social integration which are inherent in an outmoded system.  The Immigration Residence Protection Bill could be a crucial piece of legislation with the potential to change the way we manage asylum and more broadly immigration.

In the end it is not a panacea, but it is a good start to fixing a flawed system – if we could only see it on the agenda.

Dr Matt Canon is the integration policy officer with Doras Luimní, an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organisation working to support and promote the rights of all migrants living in Limerick and the wider Mid-West region. He is also a lecturer at the University of Limerick.

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Dr Matt Cannon

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