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How the political mood music on asylum issue is changing

Parties fear flaws in asylum-processing system will be exploited by far-right groups

Last month, Fianna Fáil TD Pádraig O’Sullivan submitted a set of standard parliamentary questions to Minister for Justice Simon Harris.

One asked Harris to outline the longest processing time for an application seeking international protection. The reply was astounding.

“The longest application processing time for 2022 was 170 months,” replied Harris. In other words, the person made the application in 2008 but a first instance decision was not made until 2022, a full 14 years and two months later.

The reply did not specify whether the application had been successful or not. If refused, because it was a determination of first instance, the applicant would have had a right of appeal.


Harris, in his reply, outlined some reasons why the case might have taken such an inordinate length of time to process. They included the possibility of judicial review, uncontactable applicants, missing children or lack of co-operation by applicants. The case was clearly an outlier but it shone more unwelcome light on an asylum-processing system that has come under enormous pressure in recent months as the number of people seeking international protection has increased substantially.

There were 13,651 applications last year, the highest annual number on record. It was a 186 per cent increase on 2019, the last comparable pre-Covid year. The sharp rise in numbers, of course, was in addition to more than 70,000 refugees who have come in from Ukraine since the Russian invasion last February.

Even if housing was not an issue, the authorities here would have struggled badly to accommodate such a deluge. But the existing housing crisis meant that the Department of Integration was overwhelmed within two months.

On a political level, the response has played out on three levels.

The first and most immediate has been the scramble for emergency accommodation. Authorities have sometimes had to resort to accommodation that would normally be deemed unsuitable. There has been a lack of consultation in some cases – which is perhaps unavoidable, given how desperate the situation is – leading to friction with local communities and a burgeoning number of protests.

The second political dimension has revolved around the political asylum process in light of the spike in people from other countries other than Ukraine seeking protection. The three aspects that have become political are: the disclosure that 40 per cent of applicants lose or destroy their passports on their final passage into Ireland; the number of applicants from countries deemed to be safe places of origin; and the glacial pace at which applications are processed.

The third has been the emergence of an anti-immigrant and xenophobic movement in Ireland. Until now it was minuscule. While still peripheral, that movement is no longer irrelevant in the political context. Its members have been quick to exploit local fears, to infiltrate community protests, and to make the fact that passports are being destroyed, that some immigrants are “unvetted” and that some people come from “safe” countries, into tropes.

What has been the response of more established political parties? There has been across-the-board opposition to the anti-immigrant and far-right elements but it has ranged from adamant and outright on the left, to more nuanced among centrist parties, and among rural Opposition TDs.

The main pinch point has been the perception that some people are “gaming” the international protections system in order to gain entry to the State. The issue was raised at the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting this week for the third or fourth time in recent weeks. Minister of State Patrick O’Donovan raised the issue of asylum seekers losing or destroying passports while flying into the State, saying airlines should be fined more over these practices. He was one of several TDs who expressed concern about the impact of increased immigration on access to services. That’s become a recurrent theme at Fianna Fáil meetings too.

To put into context, while the numbers are historically high, it is still a small cohort of people. The preliminary results from census 2022 show us that there are 703,700 non-Irish nationals living in the State, accounting for 13.8 per cent of the population. The reality is that our economy and our society need immigrants to work in every sector. Once the Ukrainian war ends and the housing crisis begins to ease, Irish society could easily absorb the 19,000 or so people in the asylum system.

That, however, relates to Irish migration policy and if it should be more generous to those who come from developing countries. For now, politically, the question relates to the integrity of the international protection system and if it holds up to scrutiny.

From speaking to politicians of all hues this week, the consensus among TDs in the “traditional” parties, and Independent TDs from the broad gene pool, was that something needs to be done, particularly in terms of “tightening up” the asylum process.

The destruction of passports is a particularly sensitive issue. Some TDs in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have argued that those whose passports have vanished on the flight should be put on the next plane home. Human rights lawyers have said those people are still entitled to make an application, including those who arrive undocumented. However, the passports don’t spontaneously combust. It’s an issue that needs to be addressed.

Direct provision (DP) was introduced in 2004 as a means of reducing the “pull factor” of Ireland as a destination for migrants. Those who applied for asylum were provided with accommodation, meals, and a small weekly allowance (currently a meagre €38 per week) while going through the process.

DP was designed as a temporary measure, but it has proved to have a look of permanency about it for some people. A total of 4,500 people who have attained full status – in other words, who are entitled to remain in Ireland permanently – are still living in DP. That is mainly attributable to the housing crisis but there is a bit of institutionalisation there too.

There are flaws in the process and they are being exposed at a time of crisis. As one Fine Gael TD outlined privately, once a person actually succeeds in making a claim, it could take a decade or more for all appeals to be exhausted. By that stage, the TD said, the rationale for staying will be a completely different one than the one that was made at the time of the initial application – that the person has put down roots in the community.

The TD’s argument was that it’s a lengthy, costly and inefficient system, badly in need of modernisation.

The responses from the Department of Justice sometimes look like questions on a Leaving Certificate honours maths paper. It is hard to navigate through “median” processing times, correlating the year of application and the year of decision, and the gap between deportation orders issued and those actually affected.

The Government’s policy, at present, is not dissimilar to the ‘triangulation’ used in the 1990s by, among others, US president Bill Clinton and Britain’s Tony Blair

During the course of 2022, the Government moved to respond to the growing numbers and the accompanying controversies. Minister for justice Helen McEntee suspended the right of refugees with convention travel documents to travel to and from other EU countries without a visa. She also approved a system that had the aim of reducing the processing time for applicants from safe countries from more than two years to three months. It began on November 8th.

Since taking over the justice brief in December, Harris has certainly toughened the rhetoric. He has reintroduced inspections at the bottom of steps for arriving flights to check for destroyed passports (albeit only twice a week at present).

Last weekend, he said that the Government would continue to “accelerate” the processing of asylum applications, especially those of people from countries that are deemed safe, such as Georgia. He also said that deportation orders had been stepped up, although one Fine Gael backbench TD pointed out that a deportation order being issued did not mean the person left the jurisdiction. The TD argued that many subject to orders have stayed on. There are no absolute numbers available to confirm that assertion.

This week, in a hardening of rhetoric, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar called for EU borders to be secured to prevent human trafficking and for rejected asylum seekers to be deported. “Refugees are welcome in Ireland. People who need our protection should get it. We also need to be firm with people who come to Ireland with a false story or false pretences,” he said at an EU summit in Brussels. “Lots of people coming into Europe gain refugee status or the right to remain, but others don’t, and they should be returned.”

The Government’s policy, at present, is not dissimilar to the “triangulation” used in the 1990s by, among others, US president Bill Clinton and Britain’s Tony Blair. Both administrations introduced much tougher policies on crime and immigration with a view to prevent support seeping to opponents further on the right.

Mainstream parties in Europe have applied similar strategies to immigration policy in recent years; in other words going further to the right in an attempt to prevent increasing support for right-wing parties. It remains to be seen if such a strategy will work here.