6 January 2000 Edition
Fears of detention centres for refugees
Refugee voucher scheme the equivalent of yellow stars
``The government proposal to introduce `direct provision' through food vouchers to refugees in place of cash payments is effectively to introduce a form of apartheid into Irish society. It is discriminatory, unconstitutional and a demeaning proposal,'' said Pat Guerin, of the Anti Racism Campaign (ARC).
He was speaking at a recent news conference called by the National Federation of Campaigns Against Racism press conference to launch ARC's submission to the Department of Justice on the proposal to introduce food vouchers, which has been submitted to the Interdepartmental Committee established by the 26-County Department of Justice to consider a policy for Refugees.
Under the proposed voucher scheme, asylum seekers would receive a food voucher which could only be used in certain shops. It would mean asylum seekers standing in separate queues, for separate goods, available only in certain designated shops, where there would be no choice in how to meet basic requirements.
Sorin Costica of the Community of Romanians in Ireland said how the scheme reminded him exactly of the system imposed in Romania under Ceauscescu.
Donncha O'Connell of the ICCL said it was arbitrary and invidious, discriminatory and doubtfully constitutional. It would separate refugees from others in the community, he said, precisely what the minister claimed to be anxious to prevent.
Derek Stewart of the Irish Refugee Council quoted the minister's declaration that ``the government's aim is to provide an immigration and asylum system which assures protection for refugees, respects and upholds the rights of all immigrants, provides open, fair, consistent and efficient procedures, minimises the recognised risk of abuse''. Stewart said the voucher proposal does ``exactly the opposite''.
On 15 December, John O'Donoghue announced ``a reception centre for the purpose of short term accommodation etc. needs of asylum seekers, pending their transfer to other accommodation nationwide.'' Asylum applicants, the minister said, ```would have their initial processing dealt with during their stay at reception centres''.
The minister's statement goes on to add that he is considering using ``unoccupied state properties for the purpose of accommodating asylum seekers in the longer term, and that the Department of Justice and Office of Public Works are pursuing this as a matter of urgency.''
The minister's statement on `reception centres' was raised at the conference by Sue Richardson of ARC, and a number of speakers from the floor, including Orla O'Sullivan from Amnesty and Ann Moroney from Access Ireland endorsed the fears of Donncha O'Connell and Derek Stewart that the proposal looked like the introduction of detention centres for refugees, ``warehousing a class of people'', as Donncha said, ``in a way which integrated Ireland yet further into `Fortress Europe''.
``To claim as a justification that such measures are already policy in the EU is specious. A lot of things are done in the EU, which doesn't make them legitimate, or acceptable, here,'' Donncha pointed out. ``Mandatory `dispersal' to reception centres is only one step away from imprisoning refugees in detention centres - the system which already exists in some EU member states, with appalling consequences. It has to be asked whether this is the minister's intent.''
One of the most disturbing apects of the formulation of refugee policy within the Justice Department has been the absence of any consultation. ``There been no consultation whatsoever with NGOs,'' said Derek Stewart, nor with refugee groups themselves.
As Pat Guerin, who chaired the conference on behalf of the National Federation said: ``A voucher system would be akin to sticking a yellow star on asylum seekers to set them apart from Irish citizens.'' Tom Hyland in his introductory remarks commented: ``If people only knew what was being done in their name there would be an outcry.'' He called on Minister O'Donoghue to call a halt to such discriminatory measures, which are illegitimate and abusive of the human rights of refugees.
ARC rejects vouchers
The Anti Racism Campaign's submission to the Interdepartmental Committee on Refugees and Asylum Seekers deals with the food voucher scheme which the Minister of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has proposed to introduce by April this year.
Under this proposal refugees would not receive cash payments as other welfare recipients do, but instead would get a voucher to cover the purchase of essential items.
ARC submitted that the proposal is discriminatory and contravenes Article 40 of the Irish Constitution and could not meet the equality proofing requirements set down in the Belfast Agreement. The scheme runs counter to the ethos of the UN Convention on Human Rights, where all citizens, as human persons are to be held equal before the law.
ARC also points out that introduction of such a discriminatory measure would further damage race relations and warns of the government creating racial tensions as in England and the United States, as evidenced in race riots over the last decade. The submission concludes that the minister's sole guiding principle in assessing policy for the treatment of refugees is to keep them out of Ireland altogether. His policy is to make sanctuary for refugees in Ireland as unpleasant an experience as possible by way of discouraging refugees from ever coming here in the first place.
Instead, the submission proposes that Ireland, as a relatively high per capita income nation, should take on its obligation to contribute at least a share of sanctuary for those who have fled persecution in their own countries, estimated by the UNHCR at over 50 million people worldwide. It is estimated that the government is at present assessing some 8,000 applicants for asylum here. This represents a bare 0.016% of the world's refugee population.
ARC proposes that the government should take these obligations seriously. It should consult with relevant NGOs and the refugees themselves in order to provide proper conditions and facilities to welcome those who have been forced through persecution to flee their own country. The welcome accorded to Kosovan refugees and to programme refugees like the Bosnians show how this can be done.
The proposal says: ``As a nation of emigrants, Ireland should set a lead amongst EU states in developing humanitarian policies which respect the dignity and rights of refugees, and welcome cultural diversity. Ireland should not slavishly follow the lowest standards obtaining in the EU, or pander to the racist ideologies of securing ``Fortress Europe'' for white skinned Caucasians.
``Ireland should aim to place itself amongst those EU member states which are in the forefront of the battle for the protection of human rights of people forced to live in exile, by not introducing such discriminatory measures as currently proposed by the government, such as food vouchers, mandatory medical examinations, forced dispersal, fingerprinting of all refugees.''
Callely stays despite `get tough' calls
There was much song and cry about a resolution which Labour Party TD Roisin Shortall was to bring to the Eastern Health Board meeting calling for the resignation of Ivor Callely, Fianna Fáil TD, in consequence of his remarks calling on the government `to get tough with asylum seekers' and `to throw out illegal immigrants'.
As it turned out, Roisin Shortall, seconded by Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown Councillor Jane Dillon-Byrne, instead called on the health board to disassociate itself from Callely remarks, on the grounds that they fuelled racism.
In the end, far from removing Ivor Callely from the chair of the EHB, after a lengthy debate the EHB even rejected this motion.
Councillor Christy Burke said: ``It is an appalling indictment of the EHB, which has the responsibility of caring for refugees who seek asylum in this country, that its chairperson should be allowed to carry on despite the attitudes to refugees which he expressed.
``It is extremely disturbing, particularly in view of the wide powers and responsibilities of the EHB. The EHB is a quango, accountable to no one but themselves. Its membership consists of councillors drawn from the respective regions, and members of the medical professions. It administers an enormous budget and has responsibilities for community care, welfare, homeless, hospitals, young people in need of care, fostering, and mental hospitals, all areas where the failure of government has been most evident in recent years.''
``Councillors who sit on the Health Boards do not even report back on their meetings to the councils which nominate them to sit on the boards'', Christy points out. ``The health boards are a travesty of democratic government.''
Nothing exemplifies the racist attitudes of the current government more clearly than the current policy towards work permits.
In the context to several thousand refugees who seek asylum to this country, the government has refused work permits to all except those refugees who have been waiting in this country for over a year for the processing of their asylum applications.
At the same time, the Ministry of Enterprise and Commerce has happily co-operated with industry in issuing short-term work permits to many people who come from Eastern Europe to fill jobs in such areas as fruit picking, the meat processing industry, or hotel/bar tourism, which are often too poorly paid to be easily filled amongst Irish people seeking work. These work permits stipulate conditions on the employer to provide housing and guarantee work for the duration of the permit of one year.
Why does the government actively seek to `import' Eastern European workers and at the same time refuse those seeking asylum here to have the same opportunities? Could it be explained by the colour of their skin?