UN World Refugee Day – Pro bono partnership providing early legal advice to asylum seekers
The COVID-19 pandemic and the recent anti-racism protests in the US and across the world have drawn attention to the plight of those in direct provision in Ireland. It seems appropriate today, on World Refugee Day, to share our experience of working with people seeking international protection. Our pro bono partnership with the Irish Refugee Council Law Centre (IRC Law Centre) has seen us represent more than 60 clients as they navigate the asylum process. Below we discuss the purpose of our partnership and some of the most pressing issues our clients face.
Early legal advice
Early legal advice is an essential pillar of a meaningful asylum system. It is a highly distressing experience to seek international protection in a new country where your rights are limited, and where, by definition, you are seeking asylum from persecution in your country of origin. The asylum process places a considerable burden on those seeking protection. They are required to substantiate their application as soon as possible, cooperate with the decision-maker and meet a particular standard and burden of proof governed by a complex web of international and domestic legal instruments. An alien and often debilitating experience, it can exacerbate the trauma of those seeking protection. The IRC Law Centre and ALG intervene at the earliest stages of the asylum process to provide legal advice for these vulnerable people.
One of the most serious issues affecting our clients is the slow and cumbersome asylum process. Prior to the additional delays brought about by COVID-19, people seeking international protection waited eight to ten months for their first instance interview. There is a further wait of a number of months for a recommendation from the decision-maker and for the letter from the Minister for Justice confirming their permission. This delay is at the root of a number of entrenched problems. Most gravely, it means that people remain in the direct provision system waiting for their case to be processed and determined.
Direct provision is Ireland’s system of accommodating those in the asylum process. It was originally intended to make basic provision for people for a maximum of six months. However, due to delays and lack of resources dedicated to processing applications, applicants now spend an average of three years there. During this time, our clients suffer with severe anxiety and depression with no certainty on their legal status and limited opportunity to move on with their lives. The issues with direct provision have been well documented but they include: substandard accommodation, overcrowding (with up to twelve strangers sharing a bedroom), limited/no cooking facilities, a lack of sufficient care services and supports and a limited right to work. The trauma which led to the person fleeing their country of origin in the first place is compounded by delays in the system. You can read more about the policy work undertaken by the IRC Law Centre on the issue of direct provision here.
Although Ireland opted into the EU's Reception Conditions Directive in 2018, many of the guarantees of the directive which seek to ensure a minimum threshold of a dignified standard of living, are still not in place in practice. Regulation 8 requires a vulnerability assessment to be carried out within 30 days of a person's arrival to identify and act on a person’s ‘special reception needs’. No vulnerability assessment has been carried out to date in the State. This meant that during this pandemic, when the Department of Justice needed to cocoon vulnerable persons, there was no understanding of which people in the direct provision system were in particularly at-risk categories. We have also seen people being moved from one direct provision centre to another at short notice and with no regard to the support services they require. For example, we have worked with clients with underlying health concerns who were informed they were being moved to a remote centre with limited on-site supports. In some instances this was only prevented by our advocacy and a series of letters explaining our client's condition and the need to access services in their current locality. If people's special needs, such as disability, pregnancy, serious illness, mental disorder, experience of torture, or rape were considered initially, this would ensure that accommodation and supports appropriate to that person’s needs could be provided from the outset.
The Irish Refugee Council first called for the abolition of the direct provision system in October 2001. Under the programme for government announced on Monday, we are one step closer to achieving this aim. The Irish Refugee Council will continue its advocacy to ensure that a new, not for profit system takes into account our EU obligations to provide a dignified standard of living for those seeking international protection. Delays in processing and determining applications must be addressed as a matter of urgency.
To learn more about the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the various ways in which you can support it please visit their website here.
This article has been written by Niamh Lucheroni, Solicitor at ALG and Katie Mannion, Managing Solicitor at the Irish Refugee Council Law Centre.
Date published: 19 June 2020