Last month, the government opted into the EU Reception Conditions Directive, which among other things allows for a limited right to work for people seeking asylum. Prior to this, Ireland was one of only two EU states that imposed a total ban on access to work for asylum seekers. The opt-in was in response to a Supreme Court ruling in May of last year that found the total and indefinite ban to be unconstitutional.
After two decades during which successive Irish governments vigorously upheld this total ban, the announcement was initially welcomed. For once, there was hope in the Direct Provision centres across the country. Finally, people hoped to have the possibility of escaping the enforced dependency of Direct Provision, where people have to subsist and support their families somehow on 21.50 euro per week, often for years on end as they wait for decisions on their applications for asylum in Ireland.
However, this hope was short-lived and has been replaced by a growing despair. The reality is that this ‘right to work’ remains completely inaccessible to the vast majority of people in the asylum system.
Only people who are still awaiting a first decision on their application for protection after nine months in the system qualify to seek employment. However, Ireland has an abysmal record in getting it right at first decision stage: most applicants are refused asylum in their first application but are then determined to be eligible for asylum here when they appeal this first decision. The majority of successful applications for protection in Ireland are granted at this appeal stage. The seemingly non-sensical limitations on the new ‘right to work’ mean that those who are currently in the process of appealing a negative first decision will not have any right to work in Ireland until they are finally granted protection. Those affected by this exclusion are for the most part the people who have been languishing within the direct provision system for the longest time – in some cases more than seven years of their lives.
As if to add insult to injury the new scheme also means that those who are currently eligible to work and who receive a negative first decision in the future can appeal and renew their work permit until they get a final decision. So we will have a situation where some asylum seekers are denied access to work because they are appealing a decision and some asylum seekers will be allowed work even though they are appealing a decision. It is hard to see any logic or justification for this situation.
As more details of the multiple injustices and irregularities within this system come to light, it will be important that our politicians are prepared to undo the harms that are being done through these ill thought out measures.
Even for those who do qualify for the right to work, the obstacles are proving to be insurmountable. For instance, as an asylum seeker it is almost impossible to open a bank account. The State retains possession of peoples’ passports while they are in the asylum process, and banks will not accept the lD card or papers that asylum seekers can provide. How can a person in legal employment get paid without a bank account? The answer is simple: they cannot and when faced with this situation most employers will just hire someone else.
To take another instance: asylum seekers cannot apply for a driving license, again because of the Kafkesque situation people are up against where they are barred from holding valid, accepted forms of ID. The majority of Direct Provision centres are located in out-of-the-way places with no regular public transport. In places where there are such poor services, how can a person travel to work every day without a car? As people who live in rural areas of Ireland with poor infrastructure know, it is almost impossible even for people who have roots and networks in their communities. For people living in the enforced ghettoization of Direct Provision, the problem is greatly intensified.
These are issues that the Department of Justice is batting away as trivial details, but they are far from trivial. What might seem small issues to many people with resources and citizenship status become insurmountable nightmares for people in the asylum and Direct Provision system.
A further serious impediment to people seeking employment and accessing the ‘right to work’ is the reluctance of employers to take people on under the conditions the government has laid down. In particular, the Department of Justice is issuing work permits for six months only, and an application has to be made in the fifth month to have the permit renewed. Applicants are finding that employers don’t want to take the risk of training an individual, offer a permanent job, only to have the permit potentially withdrawn six months down the line.
The Irish Supreme Court ruling in May 2017 that found the total ban on access to employment to be unconstitutional. The case taken concerned a Rohingya man who had spent eight years living in the Direct Provision system. He has since received refugee status after having had to appeal an initial negative decision. As Bulelani Mfaco of MASI, the Movement for Asylum Seekers in Ireland points out, “it’s ironic that the state’s response would not have enabled even this man who took the test case and won to seek work under the new system.” This surely cannot be right.
It is difficult to get across how soul-destroying it is to be held in a state of paralysis and segregation in Direct Provision, prevented from integrating with other people, prevented from providing for one’s self and one’s family, prevented from living a life with a sense of dignity and purpose. A real right to work would mitigate some of the indignities and injustices people in the system are forced to endure. A real right to work is one that includes all people in the asylum process and supports people rather than putting so many senseless bureaucratic obstacles in their way.
Lucky Khambule is a spokesperson for MASI, The Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland. Anne Mulhall is a lecturer in UCD School of English, Drama and Film and a spokesperson for ARN, the Anti-Racism Network Ireland.