In 1999 Alan Shatter criticised the Department of Justice for it’s ‘disgraceful reputation’ in dealing with refugees and demanded a right to work for asylum seekers. Now he sings a very different tune. Aisling Twomey asks will the real Alan Shatter please stand up?
During the passage of the Immigration Act of 1999, questions arose as to the possibility of asylum seekers gaining employment. The Bill was rushed through the Dáil and little time was given for debate, but some opinions found their way into the Dáil record.
Alan Shatter was present in Dáil Éireann on that day. He stated that the Department of Justice had a “disgraceful reputation in dealing with refugees and deportation issues.” He also outlined his belief that people entering the state should be treated with “a degree of humanity and common sense in the manner we would like our people to be treated when they seek work outside the EU.”
The Director of the Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland, Siobhán O Donoghue, shares the view posited by Shatter in 1999.
“When a group of people are systematically segregated, denied the right to an independent life, subjected to enforced destitution and allowed to be ridiculed through media and public channels the conditions for deep oppression are created,” she stated.
In 1999, Alan Shatter was very clear in his belief that asylum seekers should have the right to work.
“People who have come here seeking safety and asking to be allowed to stay should be allowed, within a reasonable period of coming here, to work while awaiting a decision to be made,” he said.
What a difference 14 years makes. The Alan Shatter of today believes nothing of the sort.
This year, as part of Ireland’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union, the Minister was a key part of negotiations to further develop an EU Directive from 2003, relating to the basic allowances and human rights of asylum seekers across the EU.
When Sinn Féin TD Mary Lou McDonald asked Mr. Shatter why his Department has never opted in to that Directive, the Minister said that this was because of the provision at Article 11 which deals with access to the labour market for asylum seekers.
Article 11 of the Directive provides that if a decision has not been taken within one year of an asylum claim, Member States shall decide the conditions for granting access to the labour market for the applicant. This is contrary to the existing statutory position in Ireland which provides that an asylum seeker shall not seek or enter employment.
Mr. Shatter has promised a large immigration reform bill, the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill of 2010, which has been working its way through Dáil Éireann with snail-like agility for an absurdly lengthy amount of time , and doesn’t seem likely to come back on the radar with any immediacy.
Mr. Shatter has alarmingly forgotten his 1999 commitment to human rights.
“Extending the right to work to asylum seekers would almost certainly have a profoundly negative impact on application 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 is a phenomenally simplistic explanation of the rise in asylum figures in 1999. Minister Shatter should be able to recall the situation in Kosovo at the time, and the huge displacement of civilians in the area. Ireland actually invited 1,000 refugees from Kosovo, which would seem to put a slight dampener on Mr. Shatter’s figures.
Mr. Shatter also neglects to be entirely truthful about that right to work extended to asylum seekers in the 1999 Act. It allowed for a work permit scheme, which has widely been forgotten about, possibly because it was atrocious.
The Irish Refugee Council reported that just 67 work permits were issued to asylum seekers between July and December 1999. That number is insultingly small, when you consider that there were up to 6,000 asylum seekers, many of whom would have been eligible.
Of course, today, there is no right to work for asylum seekers in Ireland. Just 458 people claimed asylum in Ireland in 2012, out of 330,000 claiming asylum in the wider European Union. The average asylum seeker now waits in the Direct Provision system for over three years for a decision in their case. They cannot work, they cannot seek further education, they cannot settle. They are treated like dirt; in fact, they now have fewer rights than they had in 1999.
SIobhán O Donoghue remains certain that the right to work is a pivotal step to fair treatment of asylum seekers.
“They are amongst the most destitute members of society. Allowing the dwindling number of asylum seekers the right to work would be an important step towards recognising that enforced dependence has no place in a modern democracy.”
So the question is, what made Alan Shatter change his mind?