Comments on the draft report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Non Nationals

By Brendan Hennessy, Immigrant Solidarity

21/7/98


The Inter-Departmental Committee has produced two reports, one its Interim Report published in 1995, and two its recommendations which have been published in the way of an answer from the Minister of Justice in Dáil Eireann (see Appendix below).

At the time of writing the full final report of the inter-departmental committee has not yet been published, however, and critically, there is a striking difference in the tone of the interim report and the proposed final recommendations. Accepting that there has been four years between the interim report and the final recommendations one must none the less question the actual concern raised in the interim report with the conclusions implied in the recommendations to the Minister.

In 1995 the Report practically endorsed criticisms published in an Amnesty International report in 1991. The Amnesty International report decried the inefficiencies and lack of transparency in Irish refugee policy despite the actual numbers arriving to the country.

'The fact that in practice few asylum-seekers actually seek protection in Ireland, compared with the numbers seeking asylum in other EC member states, does not diminish the need for the deficiencies in the asylum procedures to be addressed without delay.' (Amnesty International 1991 : 13)

The Interim Report commented that 'the State's treatment of asylum seekers and refugees has remained essentially a matter of administrative practice which cannot, as such, be seen to be fully in line with best international practice.' (ICNIN 1994 : 19)

Four years later the same committee has introduced the most restrictive legislation without comment. The twelve areas of proposed change critically damage the legitimacy of asylum by introducing penal measures to combat a proposed threat. Although it is difficult to analyse the nature of the change between 1994 and 1998 it would be true to comment that little short of a sea change has occurred in the Committee's thinking.

The recommendations follow a trend which has become synonymous with the term 'refugee' in Ireland: criminalisation. Of the twelve proposed changes seven are expressly negative dealing mainly with issues of repatriation and perceived abuses of Irish citizenship, while the remaining five deal with proposed change at departmental, national and international level. Only one of these five could be considered positive (no. 3).

Although the recommendations have not yet been implemented their effect on asylum seekers will already have been felt. Those asylum seekers who, for example, had pinned their hopes on being accommodated within a general amnesty must now return to preparing for their appeal. By the end of the first month of 1998 there were 4325 outstanding cases. In 1997 no appeal cases had been heard, these totalled 3991 individual cases.

The recommendations will also have effects on Irish nationals, particularly civil servants. Section ten of the recommendations puts the onus on 'providers of publicly funded services...[to] notify the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform of applicants of these services who do not have the appropriate documentation'. Issues surrounding the difficulty for asylum seekers to obtain 'appropriate documentation' both in Ireland and in their country of origin have been highlighted. These issues included fear of officials both in the host and sending country, language barriers and institutional delays (and racism). The recommendations would also appear to demand suspicion from Irish citizens and could create a dangerous climate of 'informing' and ,indeed, mutual distrust. Such distrust will not help promote even the smallest level of tolerance which one would presume would prevail in the Irish democracy.

Section three of the Inter-Departmental Committee's report, the only positive section, is also not just a token gesture towards tolerance but a limited one also. 'All appropriate assistance...to facilitate integration' should be afforded only to 'persons recognised as refugees or given [humanitarian] leave to remain...' If positive moves towards facilitation should be given to some, what should others expect ? The answer is in no means ambiguous. Section four of the document argues that as repatriation is 'necessary to preserve the integrity of the asylum process'. Interestingly the committee felt it necessary to use the name of the UNHCR ('..among other bodies') to make this point (The right of the UNHCR, a body which represents the interests of refugees, to make claims on repatriation will be taken up in a later section.). However, the same section which acknowledges the UNHCR only states that 'as far as possible [repatriation] should be on a voluntary basis'. (One asylum seeker who slit his wrists to avoid deportation was removed from hospital two hours after his admittance and deported.)

On an international level the recommendations prepare the way for a change in Irish legislation to facilitate the introduction of EU asylum policy. It is widely recognised that EU asylum policy is geared towards the construction of 'fortress Europe', somewhat akin to a western (white, middle class and capitalist) super-state.

Two of the twelve sections have already been acted upon at legislation level, namely section seven and section nine. Section seven which proposes the removal of citizenship rights of non-nationals married to Irish nationals is aimed at deterring the 'marriages of convenience' which make the nationals involved generally something between a hundred and a thousand pounds richer. The government is also putting through legislation to stop its own sale of Irish passports to non-nationals for a million pounds. At present it is unknown how many of these marriages occur but it is unlikely to be high as there are not many contacts already existent between the asylum community and Irish nationals. The second proviso of section seven is more frightening as it attempts to give legitimacy to the belief that there are 'deliberate arrangements of births to non-national parents here'.

Again there are no figures in existence to verify this phenomenon its inclusion will definitely help to further isolate the asylum seeking community in Ireland. Irish societies difficulties with all issues surrounding child birth are notorious. To portray children born of foreign parents as a threat, and as illegitimate in the eyes of the state, is not only dangerous to all asylum seekers but to most non-white children (and their parents, foster parents and guardians) in this state.

Section nine, for which legislation has already been drafted, highlights the way the Department of Justice is conceptualising the proposals and the criminalisation of asylum seekers. The legislation which followed this recommendation dealt with the 'trafficking in illegal immigrants and to penalise persons who employ such immigrants'.

A fifty thousand pound fine was imposed as the penalty against employers. The magnitude of this levy must be understood in three ways: employers will not run the cost of employing immigrants, legal or illegal, when such a fine is threatened. Asylum seekers will be further impoverished as they do not benefit from the dole but rather emergency assistance, and without the informal links that many Irish welfare recipients have their existence becomes even more costly. Irish society through its media will continue to portray immigrants as work shy scroungers who enjoy generous state benefits and continue to stir up intolerance, hate and fear. Parallel with this nationals on welfare will be ostracised, criticised and told that the meagre amounts they receive are generous.

The restrictions on the arrival of asylum seekers further enhance the public image of immigrants as illegal, and consequently criminal. The recent legislation rightly targets criminal gangs who do profit from the 'immigrant trade', however, it does little to help, or even envisage, the reality that people fleeing persecution will take the path of least resistance for their own safety. By introducing fines against official people carriers, such as aircraft and ferry companies, the government a) forces immigrants to move through informal, and dangerous, channels, b) highlights the fact that its restrictions are mainly against immigrants rather than traffickers, c) creates an unofficial border by making airline/ferry staff practical immigration officers and d) heightens the tensions for those immigrants who do actually 'make it in'.

The final comments on the Ministers reply to the Dáil reads 'The Government accepted these recommendations and agreed that the new legislation referred to should be brought forward on a priority basis. Work is proceeding on this'.


APPENDIX: The recommendations of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Non-Nationals

1) An amnesty should not be granted to asylum seekers.

2) When the additional staff for processing asylum applications are in place, the majority of the staff should be allocated to dealing with applications already made but a sufficient number should be allocated to deal quickly with new applications so as to bring about a speedy and effective system for dealing with new applications while cutting the backlog.

3) All appropriate assistance should be given by the relevant public bodies to facilitate the integration into Irish society of persons recognised as refugees or given leave to remain in the state on humanitarian grounds.

4) Repatriation, acknowledged by the UNHCR (among other bodies) as necessary to preserve the integrity of the asylum process, should, as far as possible, be on a voluntary basis.

5) Ireland should participate in the work of the International Organisation of Migration and the intergovernmental consultations on Asylum, Refugee and Migration policies in Europe, North America and Australia.

6) Ireland should conclude re-admission agreements with appropriate countries.

7) Legislation should be examined to see what changes might be possible to eliminate abuses of Irish citizenship law in regard to post nuptial citizenship and the deliberate arrangement of births to non-national parents here.

8) New legislation should be brought forward on immigration matters which should cover visas and other pre-entry clearance systems, admission and refusal of admission, residence permits and the regulation of employment, long term inward migration and a more straight-forward system for removal of persons who have no permission to be in the state.

9) Legislation should be put in place to criminalise trafficking in illegal immigrants and to penalise persons who employ such immigrants.

10) When a new system of residence permits is in place, the providers of publicly funded services such as social welfare health, education, employment training and accommodation should notify the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform of applicants for these services who do not have the appropriate documentation.

11) The proposed new immigration legislation should make suitable provision to regulate the immigration of persons who do not need to come in contact with State services.

12) A comparative study between Irish legislation and that of the EU partners should be carried out to ascertain what changes might be necessary to the Refugee Act to align Irish policy more closely with that of EU partners.