Government "identifying options" for granting asylum seekers right to work

The Supreme Court has found that in certain circumstances the ban on asylum seekers working is unconstitutional

Government "identifying options" for granting asylum seekers right to work

File photo, protesters at the national day of action to end institutional living for asylum seekers, .23/04/2013. Image: Laura Hutton/RollingNews

Updated 17:25

The Department of Justice has confirmed that officials are examining options to allow asylum seekers access to the labour market “in certain circumstances.”

It comes after a landmark Supreme Court ruling that found that the law banning asylum seekers from gaining employment can be seen as unconstitutional.

In a potentially landmark ruling, the court found that, as there is no time limit on the asylum application process, the outright ban on working is “in principal” contrary to the constitutional right to seek employment.

In a statement this evening the Department of Justice said the ruling is “clearly an important judgement, which may have significant implications for our asylum process.”

It said the Tánaiste had recently instructed officials to begin “identifying the options for and barriers to asylum seekers accessing the labour market in certain circumstances.”

“This judgement gives this work increased emphasis and priority,” reads the statement.

The Department warned however, that legislators will have to be mindful of any issues that could affect the Common Travel Area and ongoing Brexit negotiations.

Direct provision

Asylum seekers in Ireland spend on average more than three-and-a-half years in the 'direct provision' system, with many waiting as long as a decade before a decision is made on their refugee status.

Asylum seekers are not allowed to seek employment and instead are provided with a weekly allowance of €19.10 per week (€15.60 for children) as well as full-board accommodation.

Conditions are often bleak and overcrowded with families living in cramped spaces, with no facilities to cook or provide for themselves.

Supreme Court ruling

Today's ruling follows a case taken by a Burmese man who spent eight years in the direct provision system – and was offered employment at the centre he was residing at.

The State had argued that allowing asylum seekers to work would create a strong “pull factor” encouraging more applications, warning that on a previous occasion - when a limited period was introduced entitling applicants to work - there had been a significant upsurge in applications.

In giving his judgement, Supreme Court Justice Donal O’Donnell found that the State is entitled to restrict the employment of asylum seekers who have not yet been granted refugee status.

The ruling noted that the labour market is “very much linked” to the economy of the State adding that the right to work could arguably only be applied to citizens or those with some established connection to Ireland.

However, the court ruled that the lack of a limit on the time spent in direct provision makes the ban on employment unconstitutional in principle.

It found that restricting the right to work for an unspecified period of time does not just severely limit the right to seek work – but amounts to an unconstitutional “absolute prohibition” on employment.

Justice O’Donnell said the damage to the man’s self worth and the evidence of depression, frustration and lack of self-belief included in his submission to the court backed up the findings.

He said if a legal limitation was put on the amount of time it takes to process an asylum application, the ban on employment could be permissible.

While Justice O’Donnell stated that he would “in principle” be prepared to hold that the employment ban is unconstitutional where there is no time limit to the asylum application process, the court has withheld its official order for a six-month period to allow the government to consider how to legislate for the ruling.

Huge breakthrough

The Irish Refugee Council (IRC) said today’s ruling represents a “huge breakthrough in recognising the basic, fundamental rights of people seeking protection in Ireland.”

The council called for the government to “act promptly” and extend the right to work to the over 3500 men, women and young people currently living in direct provision in Ireland.

Nick Henderson, IRC chief executive said the right to work is “fundamental to a person’s dignity and self esteem.”

“It simply doesn’t make sense to prevent people from entering the labour market,” he said.

“People don’t want to be reliant on the State; they want to be able to fulfil their potential. Allowing people to work would also be of benefit to the exchequer in terms of tax and spending power and would be off huge benefit to integration.”

The Immigrant Council of Ireland (ICI) welcomed the ruling as “unqualified good news” and insisted ending the ban on employment would be beneficial for both asylum seekers and Irish society.

ICI chief executive Brian Killoran said Ireland is one of just two EU states that has a blanket ban on asylum seekers working.

“From working with asylum seekers over the years we know the impact of the work ban goes much further than simply being denied the right to get a job,” he said.

“It affects self-esteem, mental health, their children, limits them to a life lived in poverty and affects their opportunity to integrate into Irish society.”

He said asylum seekers often have professional qualifications but are “denied the opportunity to practice and progress in their area of expertise because of this ban.” 

“The Immigrant Council strongly believes asylum seekers should be granted the right to work at six months – which is the time limit within which they are supposed to receive a decision on their application and therefore is fair and fitting,” he said.