Immigrant Council of Ireland: Probing the Citizenship Regime
This post is contributed by Ruth Evans, Media and Communications Officer at the Immigrant Council of Ireland.
Earlier this year, a woman came to the Immigrant Council of Ireland for information about a particular issue when, almost as an aside, it emerged that she had applied for citizenship of this country by naturalisation.
She is the single parent of several young children and earns less than €500 a week. Clearly, she would be granted social welfare assistance of some kind if she applied for it but, knowing that to do so would rule out any chance of her citizenship application being successful, she has never applied for State benefits and struggles by under her own steam. Making a decision not to access social welfare despite financial hardship, even if caused by redundancy, is not unique to this client. It is something we hear repeatedly from callers to the ICI’s Information and Referral helpline.
Accessing social welfare payments is one of the grounds for refusal of citizenship applications in this country.
After waiting two years for her application to be processed, our client received a letter from the Government, which she assumed would contain the Minister’s decision whether or not her application was successful. Citizenship decisions are made at the absolute discretion of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
There was no decision in the letter. Instead, our client was informed that the Minister had deferred making a decision for another 12 months so that he could ascertain that she remained in employment and financially independent of State funding during that time.
A comparison between countries of the proportion of citizenship applications that are successful is worrying.
Ireland processed 5,912 citizenship applications in 2008, of which 52.7 per cent were approved. According to the Government, the average length of time taken to make a decision is 23 months. (Answers to Parliamentary Questions 155 and 156, April 7 2009.)
The UK processed 164,635 applications in 2007 and approved 91.3 per cent. The UK standard is to process 95 per cent of applications within six months.
While in Australia, 101,787 applications were processed in 2007-08, of which 91 per cent were approved. The Australian Government processes 85 per cent of the applications within 90 days.
Interestingly, the UK, Canadian and Australian Governments publish statistics on citizenship applications received, processed, approved and rejected in annual reports or other publications, while the statistics for Ireland were released in response to a Parliamentary Question.
It should be pointed out that a Government official was recently quoted in a newspaper as saying 9 per cent of valid citizenship applications it receives are refused, with many applicants submitting invalid or incomplete forms. Far from being reassuring, if the reason that comparatively so few applications for Irish citizenship are successful is because very significant numbers of people are submitting incomplete or invalid applications, then this statistic just reinforces our view that the process is in need of an overhaul. If the Government official’s figures are right, then the process is demonstrably unclear and difficult to navigate.
The main reason, in our view, for the huge discrepancy between the success rates for citizenship applications is that the Irish Government specifies only the criteria a person must meet in order to apply for citizenship. Even if he or she meets all of the criteria, whether or not their application is approved is a matter for the discretion of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Other countries provide the criteria applicants must meet in order to be granted citizenship – a very significant difference. In Germany, for example, applicants who meet the eligibility criteria have a right to be granted citizenship.
Take the requirement that applicants be of “good character” for example. In Australia, applicants are told what this means. In Ireland, in the absence of any clear guidelines or criteria, coming to the “adverse attention” of a member of An Garda Síochána, in any way, can rule a person out, even if this adverse attention did not result in a charge, let alone a conviction, fine or even having their drivers licence endorsed with penalty points. This is not a theoretical scenario. We have a client whose application was refused in these circumstances.
There is no independent appeals tribunal for migrants to turn to in order to challenges a refusal of their application.
If an applicant for naturalisation receives a favourable decision, the process does not end with their letter granting approval. They must swear an oath of fidelity at a District Court. Swearing the oath takes a couple of minutes. However, some people are waiting up to six months for appointment at a court to swear the oath. While the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service points out that the oath can be sworn at any District Court, some courts are refusing to hear oaths from people who do not live in the locality.
There can practical hardships caused by this added delay but one of the disturbing issues for us is the message that these delays, rejections and deferrals send to people who are trying to make a lasting commitment to this country.
The Government says that the granting of Irish citizenship by naturalisation is a privilege and an honour. We have no argument with that. The Government says it is crucial that the integrity of the system is maintained. We have no argument with that either, although we would question why other countries are able to maintain the integrity of their systems and manage to process applications far more quickly.
Nowhere in the process is it evident that Ireland sees any benefit or honour being bestowed in return by the fact that migrants want to make the strongest commitment they can to this country. Nowhere is there a sense that the Government sees a benefit in having migrants commit to Ireland’s values and future by becoming citizens.
The sense of hurt, frustration and anger migrants who are trying to navigate this process feel is clear. Equally clear is the injustice and unfairness of the Irish citizenship process.