Dr Liam Thornton is an assistant professor in UCD School of Law. Liam regularly contributes to public debate on issues relating to Irish law and human rights at www.liamthornton.ie.
The Free Legal Advice Centres report, Direct Discrimination?, was one of the first legal evaluations of the system of direct provision and the rights of asylum seekers. This 2003 report could be reproduced almost verbatim today, and still be of relevance to policy makers and rights advocates. For eighteen years, the direct provision system existed in a state of legal limbo, with no legislative basis for this system. In the intervening years since FLAC’s seminal 2003 Report, we had the Ombudsman, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC), the Ombudsman for Children (OCO), the Child Rapporteur, countless civil society organisations, media investigations and a huge number of documentaries on the system of direct provision. At the international level, we had various UN human rights bodies note the detrimental impacts that the system of direct provision has, in particular on asylum seekers socio-economic rights. Since the introduction of direct provision in April 2000, the weekly payment to asylum seekers has existed on a non-legislative basis, and now stands at €21.60 per week per adult and child.
Throughout this time, several political parties who opposed the system in opposition, became its most vocal supporters in government, and vice-versa. From its establishment by the Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrat coalition, direct provision was expanded by the Fianna Fail/ Green Party coalition. The Fine Gael/Labour coalition saw direct provision as necessary to the integrity of the State’s asylum system. Very few political parties can claim the high moral ground on how Ireland treats asylum seekers. The real test of political resolve on direct provision cannot be tested by platitudes’ while in opposition, nor “yes equality moment” reports completed, but of course not implemented. The stark reality is that Ireland has a miniscule number of persons seeking asylum, yet the system of direct provision continues to grow. The backlogs in applicants, whereby asylum seekers on average must wait 20 months before their first interview before the International Protection Office, will eventually see similar delays at the International Protection Appeals Tribunal.
This sorry state of affairs, whereby the Oireachtas barred asylum seekers from working, and withdrew rights to practically all social welfare payments, was upheld by the High Court in 2013. Therefore, the fact that Ireland will now opt-in to the EU’s Reception Directive is exceptionally welcome. This decision to opt-in was promoted by the Supreme Court’s decision that the absolute prohibition on asylum seekers entering employment will be declared unconstitutional on 9 February 2018. The interim scheme on the right to work, that will be applicable until Ireland completes the opt-in process, is concerning, from a legal and human rights perspective. Going passed the exceptionally limited interim right to work, how will the rights of asylum seekers improve post the opt-in, which should occur by May/June 2018?
The EU Reception Directive is far from perfect, but Ireland’s opt-in is highly preferable to the non-legislative nature of direct provision that has existed until now. The EU Reception Directive will, in my view require a number of actions that will have to happen prior to Ireland’s opt-in: