Human Rights in Ireland is pleased to bring you this guest post from Claire McCarthy, Policy & Campaigning Officer, at Nasc, The Irish Immigrant Support Centre.
Ireland’s human rights record will be examined by our peers in the UN this coming October, when our turn comes up in a new UN process called the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Human rights organisations have submitted their concerns and recommendations for the consideration of the country representatives who will examine our record. Having examined most of them, the reception of asylum seekers appears to be by far the most widespread concern, affecting as it does children’s rights, women’s rights, mental health, social inclusion and general civil liberties. A range of organisations concerned with Ireland’s human rights standards have already made submissions that will inform the country representatives who will ask questions, and make recommendations to Ireland about how we might improve our human rights record. Some of those organisations have taken the opportunity presented by the UPR to consult with as many concerned citizens as possible in order to prepare truly representative submissions. You may have participated in public consultations that were organised by the Irish Human Rights Commission (IHRC), Ireland’s national human rights institution. Consultations were also organised by a civil society coalition of 13 major NGOs and trade unions under the campaign identity of Your Rights, Right Now (YRRN). The YRRN steering group included amongst others the Children’s Rights Alliance (which has 90 member organisations), the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, the Irish Senior Citizens’ Parliament, the Immigrant Council of Ireland and Amnesty International. The submission it prepared was endorsed by more than 100 Irish NGOs.
While both of the submissions referred to above, as well as a separate submission made by Amnesty International Ireland (AII), deal with a broad spectrum of human rights and civil liberties issues, some organisations and coalitions took a more focused approach. Fifty NGOs working on a broad range of community and human rights issues with a focus on anti-racism and non-discrimination contributed to and endorsed a submission made by the NGO Alliance Against Racism (NAAR). The Immigrant Council of Ireland (ICI) made a submission affecting general immigration issues. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) prepared a submission dealing with protection issues, as did an NGO coalition led by the Irish Refugee Council (IRC).
Read together, the submissions prepared by these organisations present a remarkable opportunity to assess Ireland’s human rights landscape. The Irish government will soon embark on its own UPR consultations. The civil servants responsible for organising the events have recently moved from Community Affairs to the Department of Justice, Equality & Defence, under Minister Alan Shatter, and we understand that dates and venues for public consultations on human rights in Ireland will be announced shortly.
In the meantime, we have examined the submissions described above, and have drawn up a list of the concerns and recommendations that appear most often in them. The top issues were: access to non-denominational schools (ICI, IHRC, NAAR, YRRN), the need for an independent appeals mechanism for protection and immigration decisions (ICI, IRC, NAAR, YRRN), the habitual residence condition (IHRC, IRC, NAAR, YRRN), and the grant of work permits that do not tie the permit holder to one employer (ICI, IHRC, NAAR, YRRN). However, the issue that appears most often (in seven submissions) is the reception conditions of asylum seekers. Recommendations were made that payments which have remained at €19.10 per week per adult since they were introduced in 1999 should be increased (IHRC, IRC), and that residents should have access to an independently monitored appeals system (IHRC, IRC, YRRN, NAAR).
The UNHCR expressed its concern about the effect of “long stays in the direct provision accommodation system, originally designed for stays of up to 6 months”. It went on to point out that more than 40% of current residents have lived there for 3 years or more, and that stays “of such extended duration have an adverse impact on the well-being of residents, particularly on their mental health, family relationships and integration prospects” and to recommend that the state “adopt a flexible approach to asylum seekers who have been awaiting a decision on their case for a substantial period of time, in particular to facilitate access to educational opportunities and access to the labour market.”The IHRC recommended that “no one is kept in the system in excess of one year.” A very strong consensus emerged that asylum seekers should be given some form of access to the labour market if they have been waiting for longer than six months for their claim to be finalised (IHRC, IRC, YRRN, NAAR), as they would if Ireland had not opted out of the EU Directive on Minimum Standards for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (Directive 203/9/EC, opting in to which was recommended by IHRC and YRRN).
Several of the submissions (IHRC, IRC, NAAR) point out that the UN committee that monitors Ireland’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) has recommended that Ireland should review the system of direct provision. The IHRC, NAAR, YRRN, ICI and UNHCR all call for a review or audit of the system – in the words of the YRRN submission, “the state should carry out an audit of its policy of direct provision and dispersal to ensure it meets human rights standards in Irish Law and in international human treaties that it has ratified.” Of course the underlying issue is the length of time that applications for protection currently take in the state, due to the fact that applications are heard in several distinct stages. The YRRN, IRC and the UNHCR submissions all recommend the introduction of a “single procedure.” The last government tried and failed to introduce one, and the current government has committed to building on the progress that has been made in introducing a new piece of legislation.
In the meantime, asylum seekers in Ireland, and their children, remain in residential institutions for years at a time, and it would appear inevitable that the matter will appear high on the agenda in October. Both of the partners in our new government have expressed an intention to carry out just such a review in the past; Labour passed a motion to abolish the system at its last Árd Fheis, and Fine Gael’s Alan Shatter has also publicly expressed reservations about the system. Perhaps the human rights debate which has been precipitated by the UPR will encourage them to have the courage of their convictions, now that they have the power to make changes.