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Criminalising asylum-seeking in Ireland: the case of Walli Ullah Safi

The harsh institutional approach to asylum seeking in Ireland is indicative of a mentality that places a severe and punitive burden of proof upon the asylum seeker.

Hassan Ould Moctar
21 August 2015
Girls on front of murals in belfast. Flickr:Anna & Michal. Some rights reserved.jpg

Girls in front of murals in Belfast. Anna & Michal/Flickr. Some rights reserved.On 13 July, a 21-year-old Afghan man by the name of Walli Ullah Safi was discovered on the side of the M7 road in Naas, Ireland. He spoke no English and had no knowledge of what country he was in. He ended up there after leaving his home country three months previously and allegedly travelling across Europe in a container as a stowaway. His ordeal was not to end at this point however; two weeks later, he would find himself imprisoned, taken hostage and subjected to brutal mental and physical violence. His experience is the product of an inefficient, ineffective, and inhumane Irish asylum system, and it embodies Europe’s collective failure to respect basic human rights in addressing the issues of migration and asylum. 

After being found on the M7, Walli was arrested and charged on the grounds of being a ‘non-national’ without any documentation. He was subsequently sent to Cloverhill prison, before briefly being released and then immediately rearrested for the same offence. In spite of clearly being a candidate for the asylum process, no such application was made on his behalf, with authorities opting to treat him as a criminal rather than a potential refugee. In a radio interview, his solicitor argued that the Gardaí (Irish police) had no choice other than to place him in custody. He also stated that Walli’s personal story of how he ended up in Ireland was of no professional interest or value to him, unwittingly reflecting the degree of official concern with accommodating asylum seekers in Ireland.

Welcome to Ireland

Portobello area of Dublin. Flicr:William Murphy. Some rights reserved.jpg

Portobello area of Dublin. William Murphy/Flickr. Some rights reserved.On 30 July, a riot broke out in Cloverhill prison, during which Walli was viciously assaulted and taken hostage by prison inmates.  His arm was broken and his face slashed with a make-shift knife during the attack. The day after this incident, a demonstration was organised by the Anti Racism Network Ireland outside the Department of Justice and Equality, demanding that Walli be immediately released from prison and placed within the asylum process. The demonstrators argued that he should never have been put in prison. Their demands were partially met, as Walli was then allowed to formally apply for asylum. He remained in a high support unit of Cloverfield until a court hearing on 5 August. He has since been granted bail and released.

Even when granted access to the asylum process however, the prospect of entering into the asylum-seeker accommodation system, known as ‘Direct Provision,’ by no means implies that the indignity and human rights violations that Walli has thus far endured will be completely alleviated in the coming months or even years. Direct Provision accommodation centres are privately run facilities designed to house those awaiting an asylum decision. In May of this year, a government report into Direct Provision found conditions in the centres to be "cramped" and "intolerable", concluding that the system was "not fit for purpose". Asylum seekers in Direct Provision are denied the right to work and are instead given a weekly allowance of €19.10 and provided with paltry canteen meals at fixed times throughout the day. The average duration of stay in this system is five years, with some reportedly waiting up to eleven years for their applications to be processed.

Reforms, or 'pull factors'?

Frances Fitzgerald - Irish Minister for justice. Flickr: DoCE. Some rights reserved.jpg

Frances Fitzgerald - Irish Minister for justice. DoCE/Flickr. Some rights reserved.The detrimental psychological and social effects of what is effectively a system of state-sanctioned poverty have been well documented. A radio investigation in September revealed that female asylum seekers housed in Direct Provision centres have resorted to prostitution in order to make ends meet, while in May the Health Information and Quality Authority concluded that Direct Provision was a "toxic environment" for children to be raised in. Among the issues identified by the Irish Refugee Council facing children in the Direct Provision system are: poverty, social exclusion, malnutrition and inadequate access to education and developmental opportunities. In spite of all of this, the state refuses to consider abolishing or even substantively reforming this system, with the Minister for Justice recently arguing that such reform could create a "pull factor" for migrants and asylum-seekers coming to Ireland. In other words, state-sanctioned poverty is to be cynically used as a deterrent to prevent others from daring to seek refuge in Ireland from war and persecution.

The harsh institutional approach to asylum seeking in Ireland is thus indicative of a mentality that places a severe and punitive burden of proof upon the asylum seeker; those who apply for protection must undergo a period of effective imprisonment while the slow process of investigating the validity of their claim takes its course. The prevalence of this mentality serves to explain why the immediate reaction on the part of Irish authorities to the discovery of a young, clearly distraught Afghan man on the side of a road was to treat him as a criminal, rather than even entertaining the infinitely more plausible possibility that this was a person who had fled a conflict zone and should therefore be treated as a refugee. The Irish asylum system will continue to generate stories like Walli Ullah Safi as long as a mentality of hostility and suspicion rather than of compassion and empathy informs the approach to migrants and asylum seekers that arrive in our country.

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