FLAC: Social Welfare and the Protection Regime
This is a contribution from Saoirse Brady, FLAC’s Policy & Campaigns Officer.
Asylum seekers and other persons seeking protection often appear to be excluded from Irish society. In fact, the Irish government has taken a number of steps to ensure that persons within the asylum and humanitarian leave to remain process cannot easily integrate into Irish society.
By introducing the policies of direct provision and dispersal, the government has added to this sense of exclusion for individuals seeking asylum or another form of protection. “Direct provision” is the scheme whereby asylum seekers and people seeking other forms of protection are given accommodation on a full-board basis with all their basic needs apparently provided for directly. Direct provision residents receive a weekly payment of 19.10 for an adult and 9.60 for a child, unchanged since its introduction in 2001. The dispersal scheme ensures that individuals who apply for asylum are dispatched to different parts of the country. Often they are removed from residential areas or big towns and sent to remote or rural locations. Transport is limited and given their meagre allowance, it is often difficult for them to leave their accommodation centres to socialise or interact with other members of Irish society. This obviously has implications for the social inclusion of direct provision residents. In its concluding observations to Ireland’s first national report, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination noted it “is concerned at the possible implications of the policy of dispersal of and direct provision for asylum-seekers” under article 3, which prohibits discrimination.
Furthermore, the integration of asylum seekers and other direct provision residents does not fall within the remit of the Office of the Minister for Integration, set up in 2007.
In terms of social welfare law, the Habitual Residence Condition, introduced on 1 May 2004, has had an impact on people who live in direct provision accommodation. Before the introduction of the Condition, direct provision residents were entitled to certain social welfare payments, including Child Benefit, but since its introduction they no longer receive this payment. Child Benefit was used by parents in direct provision to provide essential items for their children, such as supplementing their diets. The removal of this universal benefit means that in many cases parents in direct provision can no longer afford to send their children on school trips or participate in extracurricular activities and this can further exacerbate the social exclusion of these already vulnerable children.
While the HRC was initially brought in to prevent “welfare tourism” from the EU accession States, it has clearly been used to stop asylum seekers from accessing any welfare payments outside of the Direct Provision Allowance or Exceptional Needs Payments. In June 2008, the Department for Social and Family Affairs issued guidelines which stated that no asylum seeker or person in direct provision could satisfy the Habitual Residence Condition. FLAC challenged this blanket ban through a number of appeals taken to the Social Welfare Appeals Office. FLAC argued that the relevant legislation did not in fact exclude any group from accessing the payments. The Chief Appeals Officer was asked by the Department to review a number of positive decisions where a direct provision resident was found to be habitually resident; he subsequently held that the legislation must be applied in the same way as in every other case. Each case has to be decided on its own individual circumstances. (For more information, see FLAC’s briefing note at http://www.flac.ie/
It is important to note that asylum seekers are not permitted to work under the Refugee Act 1996. This further excludes this group of people from participating fully in Irish society and interacting with their peers. Apart from the financial repercussions of not being allowed to work, direct provision residents are unable to meet friends or acquaintances in the ways other people usually do.
According to statistics from the Reception and Integration Agency for September 2009, almost a third (32 per cent) of direct provision residents have been in the system for more than three years, 1290 (19 per cent) for more than two years and 1633 (24 per cent) for more than a year. Given the length of time people spend living in direct provision, it is unfair, if not cruel, to expect people not to integrate into the society around them during such periods of time. Children living in direct provision attend local schools and make friends there. Adults often volunteer with local charities or non-governmental organisations, as they are not allowed to take up paid employment. Residents form relationships with Irish people or with others who have made Ireland their home. It is natural that a direct provision resident will form some attachment to Ireland and feel that this is his or her new home if the length of time taken to determine his or her status exceeds a number of months.
The responsible authorities should take appropriate measures to ensure that individuals who seek asylum are not subjected to further isolation. Direct provision residents almost inevitably put down roots in Ireland. If a person is later granted permission to stay here and steps have been not taken to ensure his or her social inclusion both at national and local level, this may have long-term implications for the authorities who have to look after that person’s well-being and for the well-being of society at large. Direct provision residents are here and living in Ireland; this reality should be acknowledged and people should be given the opportunity to feel a part of the society in which they live.
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