Written Answers. - Asylum Applications.

Pat Rabbitte

Ceist:

131 Mr. Rabbitte asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform his views regarding the call made by the Irish Refugee Council, with the support of the ICTU, IBEC, the INOU and others, that asylum seekers should be granted the right to work once they have spent six months here; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23204/01]

I refer the Deputy to my replies to Parliamentary Questions Nos. 67 and 180 of 12 April 2001, Nos. 61 and 152 of 7 February 2001 and No. 88 of 15 November 2000 which dealt with the issue of the entitlement of asylum seekers to enter into paid employment. As I previously informed the House, it is not proposed to allow asylum applicants who are not covered by the Government's decision of July 1999, which was a once-off arrangement, to take up paid employment pending a final decision being made on their applications.

The call made by the Irish Refugee Council, IRC, that asylum seekers should be granted the right to work once they have spent six months here was but one of a number of policy recommendations contained in a policy document entitled, The right to work = the right to dignity, which was published on World Refugee Day, 6 June 2001. In addition to the call for the right to work, the IRC also called for,inter alia, applicants granted the right to work to be allowed to remain in the State even if their application for asylum is unsuccessful. This is notwithstanding the fact that the IRC, in the same policy document, acknowledges that deportation is an inherent part of any asylum processing system – a fact also generally acknowledged by the UNHCR. I should stress that the expectation which is central to the integrity of our asylum and immigration process is that applicants who are not successful in achieving refugee status after a full and fair determination of their applications, including the possibility to appeal and to take judicial review proceedings, will return to their countries of origin.

The Government has, over the past years, given very serious and extensive consideration to this issue before deciding that, as a matter of public policy, asylum seekers should not be allowed to work while their applications are being considered. With the accumulated experience garnered over the passage of time in dealing with the asylum seeker issue and all its complexities and in the light of the situation which arose following the Government decision of July 1999 to delimit the prohibition on the right to work, I am more convinced than ever that there should be no further departure from stated Government policy. For the avoidance of any misunderstanding on the part of those who have called for a change of heart on this policy, I want to make it clear that I do not doubt the sincerity with which they hold or express their view on this very complex and difficult issue. I assure the House that, if it was my belief that the public interest would be best served by changing Government policy on this issue, I would recommend such a course of action.

There are a number of key reasons why I believe that the present policy in relation to access to work by asylum seekers should not be changed: first, section 9(4)(b) of the Refugee Act, 1996, as amended, provides, inter alia, that an applicant for asylum shall not seek or enter employment. It must also be borne in mind that, under the Act, asylum seekers only have temporary permission to remain in the State pending the determination of their applications. However, we must face the fact that, despite its humanitarian purpose, large numbers of persons are seeking protection under the Act, which gives effect to the State's obligations under the 1951 Geneva Convention, for the purpose of avoiding legitimate immigration controls in order to gain a foothold in the State for economic reasons. Similar trends are being experienced by other EU states. In 2000, over 90% of the claims for asylum were not upheld after processing through a fair and transparent system in the State.
Second, I am convinced that any extension of the right to work arrangement would greatly undermine the Government's asylum strategy which is aimed at greatly increasing processing capacity to deliver more speedy decisions in relation to applications for refugee status. I refer the Deputy to my reply to Parliamentary Questions No. 110, 125 and 930 of 3 October 2001 which provided clear evidence of significant progress being made in relation to the implementation of this strategy – I have today provided further information to the House, in response to a question from Deputy Broughan, regarding the current position in relation to processing of applications. The majority of the 370 additional staff sanctioned by the Government for the asylum and immigration areas are in place and processing capacity is now exceeding current intake leading to major progress towards the achievement of the strategy. The UNHCR recently acknowledged the significant increases in staff and resources put in place in the asylum area in the past few years and recognised that time should be allowed for the system to become fully efficient.
Third, I believe that extending the right to work, as suggested by the IRC, would have a very negative impact on asylum numbers as was experienced in the aftermath of the July 1999 decision to do so. The immediate effect of that measure was a threefold increase in the average number of applications per month leading to a figure of 1,217 applications in December 1999, compared with an average of 364 per month for the period January to July 1999. This represented the highest ever number of applications received in the State in any month to date. Indeed, I would point out that, since the various public calls by the IRC and others for the extension of the right to work last June, we experienced upward pressure in terms of asylum applications from early June onwards.
Fourth, any significant increase in applications, would also have a significant negative impact on our capacity to accommodate asylum applicants while they are awaiting a determination of their claims. As things stand, the ongoing provision of services to meet the reception, health and welfare and accommodation needs of asylum seekers is an enormous challenge for all the State agencies who work in this area. The information at my disposal indicates that all these services are at full stretch in dealing with the existing intake and that any sudden surge of applicants would quite simply overwhelm the system.
Fifth, I believe that the proposal as outlined by the IRC, in addition to becoming a pull factor, would generate a very large surge in economic migrants claiming asylum as the preferred route into the labour market to work illegally. It would also provide an incentive for applicants to use every available opportunity to delay the asylum process to get to the proposed six months benchmark. It could, indeed, totally undermine the current and effective work permit system, particularly when many current asylum applicants are from countries, for example, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, Moldova, the Czech Republic, Poland, Croatia and other Central and Eastern European states, whose nationals are gaining significant employment access through this system. The proposal by the IRC would, in my opinion, further widen the gap in a negative manner in terms of reward between those who access the labour market legally through the work permit and work visa channels and those who simply abuse the asylum process to gain entry.
Sixth, it is a well established fact that those engaged in trafficking and those seeking to access the labour market without going through the appropriate legal channels are very quick to identify any perceived attractiveness of a country as a preferred or easily accessed destination. It is clear from the profile of applicants, and the results of the determination process, that a significant number of people have come and sought asylum in Ireland with a view to seeking work. Many people are already working illegally. It is my very strong belief that any extension of the right to work to all applicants, even if it was after six months in the determination process as suggested by the IRC, would be portrayed abroad by people traffickers to potential victims as a cast iron guarantee of a right to work as soon as they arrive in Ireland irrespective of the amount of time they spend in the asylum process.
I would have to stress the need to avoid any action which jeopardises the progress made to date in the implementation of the Government strategy. As I have already stated, while I recognise the sincerity of those calling for the introduction of the right to work, the reality of the impact of such an initiative does not seem to be fully appreciated. Any measures or signals which activate surges in intake numbers would not only put very great strain on the already overburdened asylum system both in terms of numbers to be processed and accommodation needs of applicants but would increase the overall cost of this system which, of course, has to be funded by the Exchequer. This would be a particularly unwelcome scenario given the current global economic situation from which Ireland is not immune.
I believe that the greatest service we can provide to those who should be recognised as refu gees is to ensure that their claims are decided speedily and that nothing is done which undermines this policy priority by attracting large numbers of non-genuine applicants to the detriment of genuine applicants. I am satisfied that the structures currently in place provide the State with an asylum system that meets the highest international standards and which allows us to continue to fulfil our international obligations under the 1951 Geneva Convention to those seeking asylum. Overloading the process with large numbers of new applicants who come here under the misguided expectation that they will be able to work immediately would be totally contrary to these obligations and could completely negate the major investment in effort, time and resources which has gone into bringing our overall strategy to its current status.