From top: Protest outside Leinster House earlier this month calling for the end of Direct Provision; Imran Khurshid
As the new government is formed, we all have an opportunity to set forth; what matters to us, what kind of society we are and above all ask, do we treat others equally.
Ireland has a troubled history with its own identity for generations. There’s no denying that. The cultural divisions from the civil war are only now perhaps being laid to rest with this new government. The national division of families who prefer rugby over GAA (and vice versa) is potentially ending as Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil enter a coalition government.
What was once thought of as unthinkable, has now changed and ‘changed utterly’. Indeed, change has to be accepted before you can change anything else. That’s life and well… politics.
One aspect of Irish life that can and must change, is our immigration policy. It’s wasteful and at times, unjust. I’d like to address a few issues we can and should change in the near future.
Across Ireland, there are approximately 47 ‘Direct Provision’ (DP) centres to house and feed over 7,000 who seek international protection within Ireland.
Adults and children within them get a state allowance of €38.80 and €29.80, respectively, a week along with medical care. As well as those in ‘DP’ there are over 1,600 in emergency accommodation. It’s expensive.
Hotels, B&Bs are all included in the bill which cost €129.4 million last year. Even then the total costs of providing legal and other state supports must be quite high on top of that.
That said, for those in need and considering the wider problems of affordable accommodation, it does have its advantages as a stop gap for those awaiting their decision. The problem is that applicants are caught within the system for years unable to progress in their lives as a result of this system.
While only recently the Supreme Court did decide that those in direct provision could work after waiting for nine months if they hadn’t received a decision on their asylum application, albeit in a highly restricted manner designed to limit employment opportunities.
One of the positive takeaways from the Covid crisis is that the former government sought recommendations from the former secretary general of the European Commission, Dr. Catherine Day.
She proposed extending the right to work, reducing the application process times, a move to alternative housing and funding models among many other potential changes. Proposals no doubt welcomed by so many caught within the system.
Sadly during the past while, most of the conversation in the media was taken up by a substandard Kerry DP centre becoming a cluster of Covid cases.
Unfortunately, the former Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar merely conceded that there was some substandard accommodation within DP centres during a recent Dáil debate about the matter.
Now, let’s change that conversation.
At the heart of it all, let’s think long term about this. Let’s ask, what do we want as a country? Do we want genuine integration and diversity within Irish society to strength it with a sense of empathy versus sowing the seeds of division and nativism?
Is it fair for the Irish Government to lobby for Irish immigration reform in the USA while millions of other nationals there would become ‘others’ in the political conversation about immigration policy?
If Ireland adopts alternatives to the current system and work proactively at integration efforts from day one, we would reduce the overall cost of the system and create opportunities for applicants to share their skills and expertise within our economy.
While the current accommodation crisis means it would be unfeasible to end DP immediately, there is a lot we could do.
For instance, compulsory language and culture classes within DP centres, the right to work from the date of application, registration with relevant authorities for employment and volunteer opportunities can and, in my opinion, should be done. In many other countries similar programmes take place and it is time we accept that we can learn from such expertise.
As our offices, bars, hotels and restaurants slowly reopen as we enter Phase 3 of our reopening plan, we must consider the wide variety of workers who depend on our work permit system. There are two procedures, the work permit application and the visa application on top of it, if you are so required.
A work permit begins with an application to the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation (DBEI) which requires a number of application documents. If they’re successful, they then apply for a work visa if so required by their nationality. A work permit alone may cost an employee a non-refundable €1,000.
Though if a work visa application from the Department of Justice and Equality gets denied: they are caught short. Often in my legal practice, assisting clients in such cases they are repeatedly informed that their employer’s reference letter is not sufficient on the basis of the quality of the paper or that the use of a Hotmail or Yahoo email account for the business are not accepted.
Not all businesses have the capacity or time to set up their own email domain and it is frankly ridiculous to have physical paper quality determine if a willing and capable worker is denied the opportunity to contribute to Ireland’s economy.
If the DBEI accepts employment and supporting documents, why can’t Justice do the same? Are there no interdepartmental guidelines on such matters?
From my experience dealing with a diverse range of clients, I believe there are none. To change it, I suggest that one department carries out the full checks and a subsequent department is not able to object to them.
This would save applicants their fee and the considerable resources used by the state in this convoluted system. Consistency and the rigours of fairness must apply to all applicants under the law.
Naturalisation is the process of becoming an Irish citizen after fulfilling the legal criteria. Recently, there was a change to the system and applicants no longer have to wait years for their decision.
Yet in my experience, while most applicants only need few months to hear the result of their application decision, some wait years. That’s outright unfair and unjust.
Occasionally these delays result in Judicial Review proceedings, which are challenges on the delay or process that the applicant has endured. Court orders to command the Minister of the day to make decisions in these matters, happen. However, like many other aspects of Ireland’s immigration policy in practice, it is extremely costly on everyone.
Applicants have to ‘take it on the chin’ that for years their lives, will be in limbo. This has profound financial, social and mental health impacts on applicants. For most, it means their families remain divided as the onerous financial criteria on applicants stay until they become citizens.
As the world economy adapts to many international changes after the Covid crisis, we should take stock of how we accept others in Irish society with these potential changes.
After all, we are changing our government, so let’s change this too.
Imran Khurshid is a solicitor practicing in the area of immigration law. He contested the local elections for Fianna Fáil in Dublin’s north inner city in 2019.