Putting wrong to rights: Asylum seekers and freedom to work in Ireland

MASI right to workSarah Bardon in the Irish Times has reported that the Irish Government is to significantly enhance the freedom to work for asylum seekers. From this report, it appears that asylum seekers will be granted access to most forms of employment, excluding posts in the Gardaí, defence forces and civil servant positions. Those asylum seekers entering employment will also have access to social security payments (such as working family payment and/or job seekers benefit) assuming they meet the qualifying criteria applicable to all. Nearing thirteen months since the Supreme Court decision that found the absolute prohibition on permitting asylum seekers to seek and enter employment, this is a significant shift in Irish government policy.  The response to the Supreme Court decision had been mean-spirited and so restrictive, that not one asylum seeker has thus far been able to meet the conditions to enter PAYE employment. Just over 500 asylum seekers have been permitted to enter self-employment.

If (and the devil will be in the detail) the details contained in Sarah Bardon’s report are an accurate reflection of the new scheme, this represents a significant shift in government policy. This shift goes well beyond the very limited freedom to work that asylum seekers have under European Union law.

For over 20 years, successive governments have resisted any calls for asylum seekers to be granted access to the labour market. When the Refugee Bill 1995 was being discussed, the then junior minister Joan Burton justified the prohibition on employment for asylum seekers for the following reasons:

Another consideration I have about allowing asylum seekers to work is that I honestly believe such a facility could be too easily abused. For example, an employer could arrange for a group of workers from a low wage country to arrive in Ireland, seek asylum and be allowed to work without complying with statutory requirements. Such workers could be paid extremely low wages and, in all probability, would leave the country on completion of their contracts.

Other Ministers’ with the Justice portfolio sought to engender a notion that Ireland would be under siege if any sort of freedom to work for asylum seekers was to be granted. John O’Donoghue stated in 1999,

[t]here are tens of thousands of asylum seekers in the United Kingdom, with which we have a common travel arrangement. One could arrive at a port, apply for asylum, wait three months and then have the right to work.

Michael McDowell stated in 2003, that  granting asylum seekers the right to work in Ireland, due to the Common Travel Area would result in “mind-boggling” numbers seeking to enter Ireland. In 2010, Dermot Ahern made clear that Ireland would not be bound by EU law in relation to reception conditions for asylum seekers, as Government policy was against recognising asylum seekers right to work. This concern with protecting the common travel area is one that has been repeated ad nauseum by successive Ministers for Justice. It appears that Brexit might have finally allowed officials (and the Minister) to realise that we needed an asylum policy at least somewhat divorced from our neighbours in the United Kingdom.

Post the Supreme Court’s freedom to work decision, the Government has now committed to being bound by the EU’s Recast Reception Directive. Not even the McMahon Report on the system of direct provision and rights of asylum seekers went as far as recommending a human rights based approach to the freedom to work. After 20 years of ignoring asylum seeker and civil society calls for the recognition of the freedom to work for asylum seekers, it may now be that Ireland will adopt one of the most progressive freedom to work schemes for asylum seekers compared to other European Union countries. Yes, the regressive and repressive system of direct provision will remain (for now), but its time to celebrate the achievements of asylum seeker activists and civil society organisations who have so long called for a robust freedom to work for asylum seekers.