Madhvi Ramsing arrived in Ireland with her son about 34 months ago, in January 2019.
But they are yet to have their asylum interview at the International Protection Office (IPO), a key step in the process that asylum seekers go through when seeking refugee status here.
As Ramsing waited and the years passed, her son turned 18. As a minor, his asylum application had been part of her claim – now, though, he’s an adult and has to fill out an asylum questionnaire and apply for a work permit himself.
While Ramsing is living in direct provision in Mayo with her two-year-old daughter, her now-adult son is attending TU Dublin. Since he’s still in legal limbo, though, he can’t get a work permit, and doesn’t have money to rent a room – so he’s stuck staying with a friend
“It’s temporary,” says Ramsing, crying.
Ramsing’s case is taking longer to be heard than many, suggest Department of Justice statistics.
The IPO’s median processing time for cases that were wrapped up in the third quarter of 2021 was 23 months, said a spokesperson for the Department of Justice.
One reason for that might be Covid-19. Restrictions disrupted the interview schedule, said the spokesperson, and meant none happened from the start of 2021 up to the first week of May.
But it’s hard to say for sure. It’s unclear why some asylum seekers are called to interview faster than others, says Stephen Kirwan, an associate solicitor at the law firm KOD Lyons.
“You see, some of them have gotten interviewed quite quickly. Others have been waiting for many, many months,” he says.
Solicitors say that the IPO’s order of calling people for an interview can be inconsistent, and a lack of appropriate legal aid often prolongs delays – leaving vulnerable asylum seekers who don’t know they qualify as a prioritised case in limbo.
Not long after Ramsing arrived in Ireland with her oldest son, the one who is now 18, she found out that she was pregnant with her youngest daughter, she says.
That meant she had to cancel an interview she was set up with in 2019, she says. “Because of my due date.”
She got a new date for June 2020.
But in May 2020, the IPO cancelled that because of Covid-19. “We will be in contact in due course with a new date for interview,” says the cancellation letter.
Ramsing says she’s still waiting for a new date.
It’s been stressful, she says. Since her husband is not in Ireland, she says, she has to rely on her teenage son for support and it’s unfair to the boy.
“My son he has grown up before his age to handle myself, to look after myself, to help me look after my daughter,” says Ramsing.
She can’t work as she has to look after her younger child full-time, she says.
Uncertainty as to her asylum case means she can’t reunite with her husband anytime soon. “Without him and his support, I won’t be able to stand,” says Ramsing.
Ramsing says she was diagnosed with Bell’s palsy – a condition that prompts temporary episodes of facial paralysis – in February 2021 and has been dealing with problems triggered by thyroid disease for a while.
It’s not clear what medical conditions qualify for a fast-tracked hearing.
But Cathal Malon an immigration barrister in Dublin, says the International Protection Act 2015 obliges the IPO to set up a medical practitioners panel that can help when “a question arises regarding the physical or psychological health of the applicant.”
“It’d be entirely appropriate to use it to expedite interviews,” he said.
The IPO’s failure to set up the panel led to a recent High Court challenge against the Department of Justice, where a judge ordered the IPO to establish it, “on or before 1st December 2020.”
Malone says the Justice Department had been seemingly in contempt of court for failing to meet the judge’s deadline. “The panel was only recently set up.”
The International Protection Office has guidelines to work out whose cases should be heard faster than others.
They work concurrently through two streams, said a spokesperson. In the first stream, they take cases by time on the list, starting with the oldest first.
In the second stream, they prioritise cases that meet other criteria: if an application is from an unaccompanied child, or somebody more than 70 years old and not with family, for example.
Cases in the second stream also include those that are likely well-founded, based on a medico-legal report or on the country of origin, or on health grounds.
The Department of Justice aims to have decisions made “as soon as possible”, said the spokesperson.
“This ensures that those who are found to be in need of our protection can receive it quickly and begin rebuilding their lives here with a sense of safety and security,” they said.
Kirwan, the associate solicitor at KOD Lyons, says interview delays won’t affect everyone equally.
Some asylum seekers are busy working and studying, or have valid student permissions, which give them some security, he says.
“Sometimes they say, Look, I’m not in any immediate rush to have the asylum case heard because I’m still here validly as a student,” he says.
Others are keen to get a sharpish hearing, says Kirwan.
Ramsing didn’t know that it was possible to get cases fast-tracked on medical grounds, she says.
She has a legal-aid solicitor, she said, and she didn’t think to bring up her medical issues to her. The solicitor didn’t ask about her health, she says.
The legal advice she got, Ramsing says, was to be truthful about her story once she’s called for an interview. “I paid just €10 for my solicitor.”
The Legal Aid Board would have paid the solicitor more on top of that. But, in general, solicitors have said that the Board doesn’t pay enough, which can mean asylum cases aren’t given enough time and care.
Kirwan says solicitors can help fast-track a case if an applicant is vulnerable. But inappropriate and late access to legal advice means many remain unaware of their rights, he says.
When he has applied for prioritisation on medical grounds, the IPO has reacted appropriately, he says.
In one case, though, he said a client became so ill that he died without being heard.
“I put in a request for an expedited hearing on Monday, and in fairness to the IPO, they came back to me on Friday and said, Yes, no problem, we will on an emergency basis, and he had died on Thursday,” says Kirwan.
Albert Llussà, partner and solicitor at the law firm Daly Lynch Crowe & Morris Solicitors, said: “If the delay is inordinate, over 12 or 18 months, we may threaten court proceedings. As a general rule, the IPO then proceeds to schedule an interview for our clients.”
Kirwan says that a lack of appropriate legal advice means those with other routes to residency are also taking up space in the system, worsening delays.
They remain unaware that they have other options, he says. “I mean, I just can’t believe the amount of clients with Irish citizen children looking for asylum.”
Parents of Irish citizen children can apply for permission to remain on the basis of their children’s citizenship.
Identifying Vulnerable People
Some European countries have vulnerability assessment schemes to identify asylum seekers needing support, and those assessed as vulnerable can have their asylum cases fast-tracked.
They “prioritise access to the asylum procedure for persons with special needs, either by granting them priority in the regular process of registration or through separate registration channels”, says a European Council on Refugees and Exiles briefing on the concept of vulnerability in European asylum procedures.
But a vulnerability assessment programme, set up recently in Ireland by the Department of Children and Equality, and carried out by its International Protection Accommodation Services (IPAS) won’t help vulnerable applicants get a speedier hearing.
“IPAS carries out vulnerability assessment as part of determining the most appropriate way to meet their reception needs, within the resources available,” said a spokesperson for the department.
“These focus particularly on accommodation and health needs,” they said , and it’s not part of an international protection application.
“No information is shared with the Department of Justice in relation to a person’s vulnerability assessment,” they said.
Malone, the immigration barrister in Dublin, says: “My entire experience of vulnerability assessment has been more like, ‘Will this person need a ground-floor room because they have trouble walking’, or whatever.”
Kirwan says if the vulnerability assessment were to be carried out early and appropriately, along with proper legal advice, vulnerable applicants could then get a speedy hearing.
“If early access to legal aid and early access to vulnerability assessment was granted in every single case, I think you would be able to aid the system, not hurt it,” he says.
Ramsing says she wasn’t asked to take a vulnerability test. (The vulnerability assessment programme only began as a pilot in December 2020.)
While waiting on an interview, she says, she minds her daughter, takes online courses and dips into her weekly allowance to buy supplies to draw.
“It’s just a way to make me happy and busy,” she said. “In January, it’ll be three years.”