The McMahon report of 2015, commissioned by the last government, made several recommendations for improvements that could be made to the protection process and the system of Direct Provision. While the core issue for the working group was the length of time applicants spent in the protection process, access to education was an issue that featured strongly in the consultation process between the residents and the working group. The working group noted during the consultation process that many were frustrated that school-going residents couldn’t proceed onto third level education because they were unable to fund international fees.
In a system where each adult receives a personal weekly allowance of €19.10, this is not difficult to believe. The working group thus recommended that access to education be improved, and that student supports be extended to those students in the Direct Provision system who had been in the Irish education system for five years or more. Trinity News spoke to Caroline Reid of the Irish Refugee Council about how the recommendations of the report have been implemented since its publication.
Access to Education
“Last year, 39 students applied to the Student Support Pilot. Only 2 of those applications were successful.”
Reid explains that the extension of student supports to those in Direct Provision, as recommended by the report, came in the form of a “Student Support Pilot”. This pilot provides fees and maintenance to those who are successful in their application. To be eligible, a student must not only have met the academic requirements for their chosen studies and been accepted onto a course, but must also have spent at least five years in the Irish education system and in the protection process. This criterion thus excludes those students who entered the Irish education system aged fifteen, for example.
This is especially contentious, she adds, when you consider that those people that apply normally for Irish residency (not through the asylum process), must have lived in Ireland, or another EEA member state, for at least three years before being eligible for ‘‘free fees’’. The Irish Refugee Council has submitted parliamentary questions to the minister asking for this time period to be reduced, but unfortunately to no avail. Reid makes it clear that students shouldn’t have to work for five years to meet this requirement, and that it is in fact indicative that the process shouldn’t even have to take that long. Last year, 39 students applied to the Student Support Pilot. Only 2 of those applications were successful.
Students who do avail of the Student Support Pilot face other difficulties in pursuing third level or post-Leaving Certificate Education. Students can have trouble transferring to another Direct Provision centre once they’ve accepted their place at an educational institution that might be in another county, and they have the added pressure of trying to ensure their family can move with them. Travel costs add yet another weight to the financial burden of further education. Unlike many students who work part-time during the college year, students in the protection process don’t have the right to work, and so must solely rely on the funds provided by the pilot.
The prospects are narrower still for those who cannot avail of the Student Support Pilot. Residents only have access to a limited number of FETAC courses. The level of the FETAC course itself is also restricted to lower levels such as FETAC Level 4/5. The Irish Refugee Council are grateful that they often receive grants from community groups to fund access to education projects, and they received a grant last year from The Community Foundation of Ireland for this purpose. Those education funds were used to pay for resident transport, for class materials, and for FETAC level courses. The fact remains, there still aren’t enough opportunities for training and upskilling for one to occupy oneself for five years spent in the protection process, as Reid remarks.
School life itself, prior to encountering these problems at school-leaving age, is an isolating experience that disenfranchises many young people in the system. Students living in Direct Provision cannot simply go over to their friend’s house after school, hang around town in the evening, or go to the cinema. They envy their peers who have passports, who can sit down with their family at the dinner table to eat, and not at a table in a cramped and noisy cafeteria. Many of the residents live in isolated rural areas, with poor transport links. Reid recalls the remarks of one student who, along with other young residents of a Direct Provision centre, was treated to Supermac’s one Friday night by a local Foróige club. He told his youth leaders that that was the first occasion on which he had spent a Friday evening in town with his friends.
The Irish Context
“New Emergency Reception and Orientation Centres (EROC) have been established […] This has developed a two-tier system in the protection process, where some nationalities are considered more deserving of asylum than other nationalities, and their applications are quickly processed.”
Reid explains that asylum applicants in the Irish protection process come from various countries both north and south of the equator, and this by no means only includes those escaping war in the Middle East. Refugees, she says, are not only born of war, and their reasons for leaving a country are not always clear cut. There are people applying for asylum on grounds of gender, and many from South America who are at risk of persecution because of trade union membership. Another example of those applying for asylum are those who come to Ireland on student visas, and a change of circumstance in their home country means that they would fear persecution if they were to return.
Many refugees arriving in Ireland in recent years have come through a process of resettlement or relocation. Under the resettlement programme, refugees are transferred here from UNHCR camps. Others are being relocated from refugee camps in Greece and Italy. This is a slow process, with Ireland only welcoming 40-60 refugees every month. Reid compares Ireland’s commitment to accept 4,000 refugees with the case of Lebanon, a country with a similar population, that has hosted over one million refugees. Granted, its proximity to the conflict does explain the sum of those seeking refuge there, but it remains clear that Ireland has the resources and the space to accept far more than they do.
In fact, Ireland has developed a new system in the wake of the increased pressure on our asylum system. New ‘Emergency Reception and Orientation Centres’ (EROC) have been established, where applications for asylum have been fast-tracked. These centres, according to Reid, are Direct Provision centres in everything but name. This has developed a two-tier system in the protection process, where some nationalities are considered more deserving of asylum than other nationalities, and their applications are quickly processed. This is grossly unfair, Reid contends, on those who have already spent years in the asylum process.
Reid maintains that the current crisis in Europe was not created by the refugees. The real crisis, she says, is Europe’s response. In the history of movement and mass displacement, the numbers seeking refuge in Europe is manageable. It is worth considering the number of people that are born in Europe each year (5.23 million babies were born in Europe in 2012) with the number of refugees arriving on our shores (one million refugees in 2015). Similarly, the ‘’crisis’’ in the Irish asylum process was not created by those who chose to seek refuge here, rather by Ireland’s management of the system. There are currently approximately 4,284 people currently living in Ireland’s Direct Provision system. On average, people spend three to four years waiting for a final decision on their case.
Ireland has a shared responsibility along with other EU member states to offer refuge to those fleeing persecution. However, it also has the responsibility to provide a more efficient and dignified protection process. No one becomes less human when they cross the Irish sea, and they are not in any way less deserving of their human rights than we are.