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History of Ireland's Refugee and Asylum-Seeker Protection Regime

An Important Distinction in Irish Law: Refugees Versus Asylum-Seekers

To gain international protection in Ireland under the current system, applicants must first apply for refugee status. If their application is unsuccessful, that person may apply for subsidiary protection,[1] and if unsuccessful again, they may apply for humanitarian “leave to remain” (Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission 2014, 4). Only after a person is granted some kind of protection are they allowed to leave direct provision and enter into independent living arrangements (Ibid.). The government has accommodated almost 52,000 residents in the direct provision system since it was introduced 16 years ago (Ibid., 6).

In recent years, Ireland has transformed from a country of net emigration to a country of net immigration, having experienced appreciable asylum flows in the past decade (Thornton 2007, 87). As early as 1997, however, news headlines proclaiming that Ireland was being “flooded, swamped or invaded by an influx of asylum seekers tap[ped] into visceral fears,” and the arrival of a few thousand asylum-seekers was reported as a “national crisis” (Fanning 2002, 321). Ireland’s geographic isolation and its lack of colonial power status added to the puzzle of increased asylum applications during the 1990s and early 2000s (Thornton 2007, 93). In line with a general increase in migration into Ireland during that period, the numbers of people seeking asylum rose from a mere 39 applicants in 1992 to more than 11,000 by 2002 (Ogbu et al. 2014, 256).

The distinction between refugees and asylum-seekers is important to consider when tracing the development of direct provision, in particular, the exclusion of them and their children from Ireland’s welfare apparatus (Thornton 2007, 86). Ireland historically has allowed refugees[2] but not asylum-seekers[3] to work. For example, between 1992 and 1998, Ireland’s first state-funded refugee program was established, accepting those fleeing armed conflict in the Balkans and giving them permission to work (Ibid., 88). Even Kosovar arrivals, who were not granted the status of “program refugee,” were still allowed to work and receive social welfare benefits (Ibid., 88). By not allowing asylum-seekers to work until they receive a positive decision on their asylum claim, Ireland is an outlier among European Union (EU) member states, most of which allow asylum-seekers to work after a certain period of time (Human Rights Watch 2015).

Ironically, because Section 9(4)(b) of the 1996 Refugee Act prohibits adult asylum-seekers from seeking employment, I argue that the government created the “culture of dependency” it originally sought to avoid (Quinn and Joyce 2014, 17). Prior to 1999, asylum-seekers with children were eligible for the Child Benefit Allowance, giving them the right to access funding for clothing, food, school supplies, toiletries, and other necessities for children, in the same way Irish citizens could provide for their own (Arnold 2012, 23). Asylum-seekers also could access mainstream social service benefits, including housing allowances, enabling them to live independently (Ibid., 11). By 1999, in an effort to make Ireland a “less attractive” destination for asylum-seekers, the government approved restrictions to social service access (Fanning 2004, 90). Although asylum- seekers possess an authorized presence in Ireland, they exist as a unique category of immigrant with no statutory or constitutional rights to social support. The full-board accommodation system of direct provision was introduced by the government as a means of meeting the basic needs of asylum-seekers and their children, while addressing popular concerns about them “leeching off” of the state (Ibid., 93).

  • [1] Subsidiary Protection is an European Union (EU) protection category given to a third-countrynational or a stateless person who does not qualify as a refugee but in respect of whom substantialgrounds have been shown for believing that the person concerned, if returned to his or her countryof origin, or in the case of a stateless person, to his or her country of former habitual residence,would face a real risk of suffering serious harm as defined in Article 15 of 2004/83/EC, and towhom Article 17(1) and (20) of 2004/83/EC do not apply, and is unable or, owing to such risk,unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of that country.
  • [2] A refugee is “any person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race,religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion is outside of thecountry of his or her nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, unwilling to avail himself orherself of the protection of that country.”
  • [3] An asylum-seeker is a person who is seeking to be recognized as a refugee.
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