Report reveals abuse of asylum seekers rights
BY ROISIN DE ROSA
What is going on in the asylum division of the 26-County Department of Justice? It is here, under the authority of the Refugee Applications Commissioner, that asylum seekers' applications for refugee status are determined.
When Peter Findlay SC resigned as the head of the tribunal last December, it was evident that there was something very wrong indeed. He said at the time that the process was a travesty of justice and abusive of human rights.
On Thursday, 7 September, the Irish Refugee Council (IRC) launched a detailed report on how the determination procedures are applied to initial applications for refugee status. It makes disturbing reading.
The report investigates why it is that 95% of those applying for refugee status are refused in the first instance, yet on appeal, some 36% of applications are then granted. It is more than an anomaly. There is something wrong.
A refugee must wait often over a year to appeal this first decision, in fear, desperation, on an income of £15 a week, in enforced idleness, often in an atmosphere of increased racial tension and hatred. This situation is exacerbated by government ministers saying that 95% of refugees are `bogus'.
The report, Asylum in Ireland - A report on the Fairness and Sustainability of Asylum Determinations at First Instance, by Laura Almirall and Ned Lawton, is an outstanding bit of work. It looks for the first time at the reasons stated by the Assessor as to why refugee applications were rejected.
The study, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, is based on 100 randomly selected `judgements' made within the Asylum Division of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform (DJELR).
Each a travesty of justice
Take any case dealt with in the report. Each raises the curtain a little way on what is going on behind the closed doors of the asylum division and a secret process over which there is little redress, and less accountability. The Supreme Court's judgement that Justice minister John O'Donoghue's bill (which limits the time asylum seekers have to appeal) was constitutional, simply copperfastens this process, and keeps decisions out of the courts and the public eye.
Take the case of a Nigerian lady seeking refugee status. She had been detained, interrogated, kept in solitary confinement many times, when she had been raped. The Assessor comments: ``If true, this must have been a dreadful ordeal for her, however it is evident that this alleged rape was a criminal act perpetrated on her by the guards. It was not connected with any political opinion she may have held.''
The Assessor further goes on to say that ``the case was referred to the Rape Crisis Centre by the IRC, but I am not aware that she has attended; she said she had an appointment, coincidentally, for the day following the interview....'' Her claim was rejected.
Or take the case of a Nigerian child who claimed asylum on the grounds of the ethnic strife in Nigeria. The child stated that her father had been shot dead during confrontations between the Yoruba and the Hausa, and that her mother had been killed as they sought refuge in Sierra Leone. The assessor comments that ``the present Nigerian state is in no way responsible for, or a contributor to, these bitter feuds that have continued for decades''.
A further assessment, confirming the original assessor's judgement states: ``With regard to unaccompanied minors, there is a view in other EC countries that families arriving in one EC country will send an older child into another European country to apply for asylum with a story in hope that the child will be granted, and then the family will arrive seeking family reunification. Such a scenario would not appear unlikely in this case.''
The IRC report takes issue with this sweeping finding: ``The assessor does not source his information concerning the case in other EU countries'', and further that ``since the applicant had claimed that both her parents had been shot dead in front of her, it would be extremely difficult for this minor to apply for family re-unification.''
Or take case 66, where a Tajik national claimed protection on grounds of racial discrimination on the basis of his Jewish origin. He claimed that following continuous harassment he requested a discharge from the army, which was refused. He then went AWOL and subsequently was attacked by four men and his house was burned down.
The assessor determined that ``it is quite possible that he was subjected to racial taunts throughout his life, and endured minor forms of discrimination, but, if his own account is to be believed, there is no way that any of these amounts to persecution.''
Or, the case of a Moldovian, who claimed persecution, again on ethnic grounds. Although he established to the satisfaction of the Assessor that his fear of persecution was well founded, his refugee application was rejected because ``there was no evidence of any official persecution, and all indications are that the Moldovian state is making great efforts to support Jewish culture''.
You'd wonder what world these interviewers are coming from. Mostly the world of the Department of Justice itself. Unlike the recruiting practice in other EU states, where relevant qualifications and a university degree are sought, the Department of Justice refers to ``ability to or experience of interviewing persons'', and eligibility is limited to ``former members of the civil service, Garda Síochána or similar relevant public service employment''.
The report points out that ``the targeting of Gardaí begs the question whether the Department links the skills required in the interviewing of asylum applicants and making assessments with the skills required in police work''.
This fact may well explain the concentration of the assessors upon the question of how the asylum seeker has got here and on the veracity of their statements. In many of the cases quoted in the report of the assessor's conclusions, doubt cast on the veracity of the asylum seeker is used as a reason for failing to deal with the claim.
This conclusion is supported by the researchers' interviews with 30 solicitors who have been involved in asylum applications. Of these legal professionals, 83% agreed that as it stands the interview is primarily a credibility test.
The research into the views of solicitors is revealing. No less than 76% of solicitors found the standard of analysis of the claims inadequate. Not one of them thought the analysis of the claims to be correct in law, or reasonable.
Each case adds up to a catalogue of shame. Minimum legal standards laid down in international resolutions and agreements are not adhered to by the Department. The study makes 52 recommendations, pinpointing the inadequate protection given to asylum seekers and the failure to respect their human rights.
Telling omissions, like the right to an interpreter, the right to legal representation, the right to translation facilities, the right to be informed of rights, the right to a full interview, the need to have assessors properly trained, qualified, and informed about the countries from which the applicants come, are all amongst the report's recommendations.
The study also notes the disturbing increases in cases treated under the category of ``manifestly unfounded'', which rose from 6% of cases in 1998 to 23% the following year. These cases are simply rejected out of hand without even reference to any interview whatever.
This Report cannot be praised too highly. It provides incontrovertible evidence of the travesty of justice which the processing of asylum claims represents. But the question remains: what will the Department of Justice do to rectify the situation?
What, after all, did the minister do shortly after Peter Findlay's resignation? He introduced an amendment to the 1966 Refugee Act, which is still not implemented in full, that the Commissioner no longer needs seven years experience as a practising barrister or solicitor as a qulification for the job.
``The law is an ass'' is one thing. To dispense with it altogether is another.