Cathal Malone scrolls up and down a Frequently Asked Questions page on the website of the Department of Justice’s International Protection Office (IPO).
Malone, a barrister in the city, is frustrated, he says, about new rules for seeking asylum in Ireland that can limit people’s access to legal advice.
But the new rules come with a requirement that impacts everyone’s access to lawyers – even if they’re not from countries with an official safe label.
Asylum seekers must now complete questionnaires on the same day that they submit their asylum applications to the IPO.
Before that, Malone says, people could pick up forms from the IPO, take them away to fill out with a lawyer’s help, and file them later.
“If you write the date in the wrong format, or if you get anything wrong, then this is going to be a credibility issue when you’re being interviewed,” Malone says.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said people seeking asylum are encouraged to seek legal advice at any stage of the application process.
They said that the Legal Aid Board is examining its resources to see if it can beef up the presence of lawyers at Timberlay House, the IPO building, on Mount Street Lower.
“To offer early legal advice at the application stage and the completion of the applicant’s questionnaire,” the spokesperson said.
But the Legal Aid Board, which only has three law centres that accept asylum cases across the country and a small full-time staff, is already heavily reliant on private solicitors to meet needs.
A spokesperson for the Legal Aid Board hasn’t yet responded to queries about the recent changes.
On 7 October, they said that its case referrals to private solicitors had jumped by 500 percent, from a little over 880 in 2021 to almost 3,750 between January and October 2022.
Says Malone: “Are they going to go to private lawyers and say, ‘Sorry, lads, you have to come and live in the IPO for the rest of your lives?’”
For Malone, there are questions too about whether these policy tweaks will even work, when the growing number of asylum seekers is a result of a deeply unstable world – with escalating conflicts, extreme flooding, drought and starvation – or just make Ireland a more cruel place for those inevitably seeking refuge.
Searching for Lawyers
Before the new rules kicked in, asylum-seekers on the day they sought asylum at the IPO would fill out a short basic form and get fingerprinted and photographed for their files and temporary residency cards. If there was enough time, they’d get a quick interview on the day too.
They would get invited to pick up a longer questionnaire, which they could bring back two weeks later, says Malone
“You could leave with the questionnaire and they’d say contact the Legal Aid Board, where you might get some help to fill it out,” he says.
The questionnaire involves giving an accurate version of why one is forced to seek asylum, and omitting or misremembering tiny details can lead to a refusal, Malone says.
Since the changes, Malone says he’s worried that people who speak languages less common in Ireland would feel pressure to fill out the vital asylum questionnaire without interpreters on the day.
“What happens if I walk in and I’m, you know, let’s just say Eritrean, right? The odds of a Tigrinya interpreter being available on the day? Zero? Less than Zero?” he says.
But a spokesperson for the Department of Justice said they have already ironed out complexities like that.
If someone speaks a rarer language, they will get an invite to go to the International Protection Office on another date to complete the questionnaire “to allow for a suitable interpreter to be present”, they said.
If asylum seekers have left out important information, they can make a submission to the IPO “at any time prior to their personal interview” too, and there is also the option of sending a personal statement to go with the questionnaire, the spokesperson said.
The IPO uses “cultural mediators” to help applicants fill out the asylum forms alongside interpreters too, they said.
“The role of the cultural mediator is to independently assist and support the applicant in the process but not to provide formal legal advice,” they said.
Malone says that if the IPO hires those cultural mediators, their independence is a matter of dispute. “These people are going to be giving advice on a substantial legal document without the presence of a lawyer.”
Still on the List
Ireland has eight countries on its list of safe countries, which was drawn up in April 2018, with the United Kingdom added in December 2020,
If a country is on the list, decision-makers presume that its citizens don’t need refugee status – unless they can rebut that.
The political factors influencing the designation of any country as safe make it a thorny issue in the European Union. Member states have yet to agree on a uniform list, and the EU Commission withdrew its latest proposal in June 2020.
Despite the “safe” label, citizens of these countries continue to seek and can be granted asylum around Europe.
Malone, the barrister, points to the United Kingdom with its tough stance against migration, where currently a little over half of Albanians, whose country is on Ireland’s safe list, get their asylum applications approved.
“Because Albania is a country which has a huge issue with human trafficking,” Malone says.
Here in Ireland, citizens of perceived safe states have also successfully appealed refusals of their asylum applications, official figures show.
In 2021, the International Protection Appeals Tribunal (IPAT) overturned 27 percent of negative decisions on asylum applications from Albanians. The rate was 18 percent for Georgians.
Under the new asylum process in Ireland, access to lawyers for people from designated safe countries is threatened beyond the initial interview and questionnaire stage, says Malone.
In the new system, people will get interview dates the same day they apply for asylum. “Which will reduce their waiting time for an interview to a matter of weeks,” the IPO’s website says.
But Malone says it’s unlikely that applicants could find lawyers at such short notice, effectively stripping them of their right to legal aid.
He says it’s incredibly stressful for any private lawyer sitting on Legal Aid Board’s international protection panel to hurriedly offer meaningful legal advice for something that is sometimes a matter of life and death.
“Of course, the department will laugh at this and say, ‘We’re not talking about an Iranian woman here’, we’re talking about some Albanian,” he says.
“But some of these people are genuine refugees, and if you get it wrong, some of them will be genuinely killed and tortured,” he says.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said there is no difference in the application process for both groups of asylum seekers “other than the timeframe for interview and decision”.
“The new procedure will also allow for speedier processing for those fleeing countries with a recognised threat,” they said.
The Department of Justice was examining plans to introduce the new accelerated asylum process for people from perceived safe states back in July, according to documents released under the Freedom of Information Act.
Albeit heavily redacted, minutes of an internal department meeting held on 19 July 2022 shows one agenda item related to rolling out new measures in response to issues with international protection.
It mentions the suspension of visa-free travel to Ireland for people who’d been granted refugee status elsewhere and speeding up the asylum process for people from countries on the safe list.
Malone, the barrister, says he understands that the government is using these policies to make Ireland a less appealing destination for citizens of perceived safe states.
But people desperate to get out of their countries are not paying attention to these policy tweaks, he says.
“Do you think all Georgians are members of a WhatsApp group called Georgians Seeking Fake International Protection, and they regularly post frequently asked questions from IPO on there?” says Malone.
He says rushing asylum applications through the system and undermining people’s access to lawyers isn’t going to stop them from coming here.
Asylum numbers have jumped because the pandemic faded into the background, but the world became a more desperate place, he says.
“We’re living in an increasingly unstable world. I mean, is it two-thirds of Pakistan still underwater? There is a war in Europe, there is food insecurity, there are soaring energy prices,” he says.
The conflict in Ukraine has strained Ireland’s asylum resources, Malone says, but the government introduces policies to punish non-Ukrainians.
“We have essentially just had a 20-year number of people arrive in the space of a year. Is that causing problems? Yes, but that’s not Albanians,” he says.
He says the open-border policy for Ukrainians is the right thing to do, but having others pay the price for it isn’t. “We can’t just turn around and say, ‘Oh, it’s the Albanians’ fault.’”