Shutting Out The Asylum Seekers


90272235(Alan Shatter at a Citizenship Ceremony in the Convention centre, Dublin, last year)

In January 1999, the High Court ruled that Section five (1) (e) of the 1935 Aliens Act, under which the State deported 60 people in 1998, was unconstitutional.

In May of the same year, the Supreme Court upheld this rule.

And in early July, when Fianna Fáil and the PDs were in coalition, the Dáil passed an Immigration Bill before summer recess, with 74 Government and Opposition amendments taken in one vote, which passed 73-64.

The overriding purpose of the bill was to give the Government statutory powers to resume deporting asylum seekers.

However, much of the discussion in the Dáil in relation to the Bill centered on debating one of the amendments regarding whether asylum seekers should be allowed to work or not.

[Then Justice Minister} John O’Donoghue said this was an amendment that the Government was still considering).

In one of the exchanges, Labour’s Jan O’Sullivan called for asylum seekers, who had been in the country for three months, to be allowed to work.

The Irish Times reported at the time:

“Mr Ivor Callely (FF, Dublin North Central) opposed the amendment because “it would give an asylum seeker false hope if, after going through due process, his or her application was unsuccessful. It would create a lot of difficulties and would be unfair.”

He pointed out that 80 per cent of people with disabilities were unable to find employment. “I do not hear people shouting on their behalf or saying they should be given an opportunity to work.”



“Mr Alan Shatter (FG, Dublin South) said Mr Callely’s suggestion of false hope for asylum-seekers was “an extraordinarily asinine argument. Allowing them to work allows them the dignity of earning a living while awaiting a decision about their future, no more and no less than that.”


In late July, 1999, the FF/PD coalition decided to allow any asylum seeker who had entered Ireland and applied for asylum before July 26, 1999, to work – on the basis that the asylum seeker had been waiting for a decision on their application for refugee status for 12 months or more.

The Department of Justice estimated that this would allow between 2,000 and 3,000 asylum seekers work.

At the time, there reportedly were up to 6,000 asylum seekers awaiting a decision, while the average waiting time for a new application was 12 months.

The move followed public disagreement between Minister O’Donoghue, who was opposed to allowing asylum seekers work, and the then Tánaiste Mary Harney, who supported the campaign to allow people in that category to work.

As Mr O’Donoghue put it:

“Giving a right to work would simply create another ‘pull’ factor which would put further pressure on the asylum-processing system and continue to delay recognition for genuine refugees in need of protection.”


So, how did the work permit scheme go?

Not very well.

The right to work was on a restricted, non-transferable basis, meaning the asylum seeker was not allowed to work independently of a job specified by a prospective employer, essentially leaving the asylum seeker open to being exploited.

The employer also had to pay a monthly fee of £25 or a one-off annual fee of £125 to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment.

Also, prospective employers had to prove that the vacancy could not have been filled by an Irish or other EU national – both deterring measures by all accounts.

A study by the Irish Refugee Council, in 2000, found that DoETE figures showed just 67 work permits were issued between July 27, 1999 and December 15, 1999.

The non-transferable work permit system ended in December 1999, to be replaced with a system whereby the Department of Justice would provide a letter confirming their right to work. The letter would be shown by the asylum seeker to the prospective employer.

The IRC found that, by the end of June 2000, 1,032 out of 3,241 asylum seekers entitled to work had either found a job or had stopped claiming social welfare – meaning two thirds of those eligible had still to find a job, a year after the scheme was devised.

Earlier this year, in March, as part of Ireland’s EU Presidency, Justice Minister Alan Shatter announced revised EU laws on the processing of asylum claims.

This is part of the Common European Asylum System which has been designed to maintain consistent and equitable treatment of asylum seekers across Europe.

But Ireland has opted out of this.


Explaining Ireland’s decision in the Dáil, Minister Shatter said:

“The principal reason for Ireland’s position is the provisions of Article 11 of the 2003 Directive which deals with access to the labour market for asylum seekers. Article 11 provides that if a decision at first instance has not been taken within one year of the presentation of an application for asylum, and this delay cannot be attributed to the applicant, Member States shall decide the conditions for granting access to the labour market for the applicant.”

“This is contrary to the existing statutory position in Ireland which provides that an asylum seeker shall not seek or enter employment. This prohibition in Irish law is maintained in the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill, which I intend to republish.

“Extending the right to work to asylum seekers would almost certainly have a profoundly negative impact on application numbers.” 


And on it goes.

Shatter transcript via

(Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland)