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Asylum seekers, refugees, migrants – understanding immigration systems

Who is an asylum seeker?

An asylum seeker is a person seeking to be granted protection as a refugee outside their country of origin, and is awaiting the determination of his/her status.  If granted this status, the person is recognised as a refugee and is no longer an asylum seeker. In Ireland, the asylum process is a legal system which decides who qualifies as a refugee and is then entitled to remain in Ireland and under its protection. Those judged not to be refugees can be deported back to their home countries. Others may be granted leave to remain or subsidiary protection.

Who is a refugee?

A refugee is someone who has had to leave their country of origin because of “a well-founded fear of persecution because of reasons including their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.Ireland is a signatory to the “1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees”, which obliges us to provide protection to people fleeing their country for the reasons above. At the end of 2006, the population of recognised refugees in Ireland was 8,500. Refugees are entitled to apply for ‘family reunification’ to bring their immediate family members (within certain criteria) to Ireland.

The terms asylum-seeker and refugee are often confused: an asylum-seeker is someone who claims he or she is a refugee, but whose claim has not yet been definitively evaluated.


What is an asylum seeker entitled to in Ireland?

Asylum seekers generally live in direct provision accommodation centres around the country, meaning they are provided with accommodation and food, but with little privacy or independence. Asylum seekers receive €19.10 per week per adult, and €9.60 per child to cover essential items such as toiletries, clothes, phone calls and local travel. Asylum seekers are not allowed to hold any type of paid employment while in the asylum system. This is in contrast to most other EU Member States. Adult asylum seekers cannot avail of free state third-level education courses (including Post-Leaving Cert courses (PLCs), or FÁS etc). Asylum seekers are not allowed to leave the country while still in the asylum, leave to remain or subsidiary protection process.

The numbers of people applying for asylum in Ireland has been falling since 2002 (when 11,634 people applied for asylum). From 2005 – 2008 there were approximately 4,000 applications per year. By 2010 the total number who applied for asylum was 1,939. Approximately 1% of all asylum seekers in Ireland currently receive refugee status. In 2011 there are approximately 5,500 asylum seekers resident in direct provision centres. The efficiency of the asylum system is key. In Ireland, it can take several years for decisions to be reached. Nearly 2,000 of the 5,500 residents living in direct provision centres have been awaiting a decision for more than 3 years (information from RIA).

What about young asylum seekers?

Children are housed with their parents in direct provision centres. If a child under 18 years arrives in Ireland without parents or guardians, and seeks asylum, he/she is called a ‘Separated Child Seeking Asylum’ (previously called ‘unaccompanied minors’). These children are in the care of the HSE and can attend school until completing the Leaving Certificate. They will usually be placed in foster care homes throughout the country. They are not entitled to free state education beyond secondary school. Once they turn 18, they are housed in Direct Provision Centres with other adult asylum seekers.

What is a refugee entitled to in Ireland?

Once granted refugee status, a refugee can stay in Ireland indefinitely and enjoy rights and responsibilities similar to those of an Irish citizen. Refugees also have the right to apply for family reunification in Ireland with immediate family members (within certain criteria) who may be in different countries. A refugee is entitled to apply for Irish citizenship when they have been resident in Ireland 3 years from the date of their asylum application. A refugee can apply for a Travel Document which allows refugees to travel and return to Ireland without a re-entry visa. However, a refugee may not travel to the country they have been declared a refugee from for 5 years.

Who is a Migrant Worker?

A migrant worker is a person who is working in a state of which s/he is not a national. A migrant worker can be documented or undocumented.

What is a Work Permit?

A Work Permit gives permission for a migrant worker to be employed in a specific job. The employer must show that there are no Irish or EU candidates available to fill the position. A Work Permit can be applied for either by the employee or the employer. It is normally issued for two years and can be renewed for three years.

What is a Green Card?

A Green Card is a type of work permit issued for selected professional areas and for jobs with a salary of €60,000 and over. It is valid for 2 years.

What about the children of migrants?

There is a considerable degree of misunderstanding around the immigration rules in relation to children. Non-EU children living in Ireland must register with the Garda National Immigration Bureau (GNIB) when they turn 16 where they will be issued with an immigration stamp. However, there is a lack of appropriate, clear regulations on what the appropriate stamp should be. Some young people can be issued with stamps that are for second level students who come to Ireland for education (Stamp 2A). Others will be issued with Stamp 2 which is for 3rd level students coming to Ireland to study. Neither of these is appropriate for young people living in Ireland several years. Sometimes the child will be given a Stamp 3 which is issued to dependents. Some stamps (2A and 3) will mean the young person cannot work. Schools also can be confused about whether a child should be expected to have a registration card and can often request one when the child is under 16 or they might assume to ask for one even though a child might have become an Irish citizen.


Who else can stay in Ireland?

Long-term Residency

An individual who has been legally resident in Ireland for over five years (60 months) on the basis of an employment permitcan apply to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform for a five-year residency permit. In calculating their 5 years/60 months in the country, only time spent on an employment permit is counted. Time spent as a student or undocumented is not. Once granted a long-term residency permit, the individual no longer needs a work permit.

Leave to Remain

Persons can be given ‘Leave to Remain’ or ‘permission to remain’ in Ireland. This means a non-EEAcitizen is permitted to remain in Ireland. (EEA is any country outside EU, Norway, Switzerland or Iceland)  It is given on behalf of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform in the form of a stamp on the person’s identification card. This is often referred to as ‘Stamp 4’, which is a stamp placed in a person’s passport. The individual is also given a Certificate of Registration from GNIB (Garda National Immigration Bureau). The main grounds upon which further permission to remain can be obtained are:

  • for employment
  • to study
  • to operate a business, or
  • as a dependant family member of an Irish or EEA (European Economic Area) citizen residing in the State.

Another type of leave to remain ishumanitarian leave to remain, typically granted to an asylum seeker who does not succeed in being recognised as a refugee through the asylum process (according to the definition above). However the person is recognised as having humanitarian grounds on which to stay in Ireland. This is similar in practice to what is known as ‘subsidiary protection’ granted through the Courts.

Parents of an ‘Irish-born Child’

Until January 2005, any child born on the island of Ireland was entitled to Irish citizenship (this law had its roots in the conflict in Northern Ireland in that it allowed anyone born in one of the 6 counties to claim Irish citizenship).  The term ‘Irish born child’ (IBC) usually refers to a child born in Ireland whose parents are not Irish or EEA citizens and who was born before January 2005. Following the Citizenship Referendum in 2004, legislation was

passed so that it was no longer possible for persons born in Ireland to automatically obtain Irish citizenship. Parents of Irish-born children are entitled to stay in the State until their child reaches the age of 18.

Why do we sometimes hear a person is ‘illegal’?

Migrants who do not have a valid work permit or visa in Ireland are sometimes described as ‘illegal’. There are a number of reasons why someone could find themselves in such a situation, for example people who have been trafficked or a worker whose employer did not renew their work permit. In this context, an alternative and more accurate term to use is  the term ‘undocumented’. For instance, there are estimates of approximately 25,000 – 30,000 undocumented Irish workers in the USA.

 Asylum seekers are sometimes described as ‘illegal’. Asylum seekers cannot be illegal as everyone has a recognised human right to seek asylum. Asylum seekers have a right to be in Ireland while their case is being decided.