The influx of refugees seeking asylum in Ireland has reached a record high. But as their numbers swell, so too do are the obstacles they must face on arrival…
For Patrick and his wife, Linda, their new life in Ireland means they can’t legally work, support themselves or provide as they’d like to for their young daughter.
The couple came to Ireland in 2003 from Ghana in West Africa seeking asylum.
Due to personal problems in Africa, they say they had no choice but to leave their home, their families and jobs.
They were put up in a hostel specifically designed for asylum seekers and refugees by the authorities after they arrived, and Linda, who was heavily pregnant, gave birth to their daughter there.
As they cannot return to Africa, Patrick and Linda hope to stay legally in this country, although at the moment they are uncertain if they will be granted leave to remain.
With the tightening of the residency laws in Ireland, Patrick is finding life difficult.
“The process is so complicated. You apply to remain in this country on humanitarian grounds which is at the discretion of the Minister for Justice,” explains Patrick.
“But the system is not effective. I have not heard anything from the Minister. People are always left hanging, never knowing what to do. You’re never told anything.”
Following the passing of the new Nationality and Citizenship Act on 1 January, children of non-national parents living in Ireland, will no longer be automatically entitled to Irish citizenship.
However, in mid-January, Irish Justice Minister Michael McDowell, announced that applications to remain in Ireland, from non-national parents of Irish children born prior to January 2005, would now be given consideration.
While Patrick and Linda have applied to remain under this new scheme, they do not know if they will be successful.
“Until then, we are not entitled to anything,” Patrick says.
“You don’t have any ID card or papers. You’re more or less like a bat, hanging on a tree. You just don’t know what will happen to you next and worst of all, you don’t have any right to work.”
Under Irish law, asylum seekers are not legally permitted to seek employment.
There is a social benefit for those who choose to live in registered hostels where they receive food and board and the government will pay each person approximately €19 per week.
If you have a child, that figure will increase to €28 per person, per week.
Patrick, though, is despondent.
Articulate and intelligent, he explains that for African men, work is more than a wage package at the end of the week. It is a matter of integrity, of pride.
“In Africa we believe that a man is supposed to take care of his family. We don’t have a social system where we are entitled to benefits.Our social system is more or less non-existent,” he explains.
Patrick refutes the criticism often aimed at asylum seekers that they simply want to live off the benefits given to them by the government, and therefore have no desire to work.
He believes it would make more economic sense for the government to allow asylum seekers the opportunity to support themselves.
“I’m put in the situation where I’m not allowed to work, to take care of my family, I feel like I’ve lost my dignity, I’ve lost my reason as a man.”
When he speaks of his abandoned life in Ghana, Patrick still has an affectionate light in his eyes, a nostalgic warmth in his voice.
In Ghana, he was an educated professional. He felt he contributed something to the community.
“Before coming to Ireland I was a general manager of a radio broadcast show. I was doing fine,” he says.
“I never had any high expectations about what life would be like in Ireland. All I wanted to do was to get away from the trouble I was in, and honestly, when you’re running away to seek refuge, you don’t have any expectations. All you hope for is that as time goes by, you might be able to achieve things.”
Patrick explains how his situation leaves him feeling anguished.
“From Monday to Sunday there is practically nothing for you to do. It is so frustrating,” he says.
““You can get involved in voluntary activities. But most of us would rather spend the time with our families.”
Educational opportunities are limited for both asylum seekers and refugees. Under Irish law, immigrants like Patrick and Linda cannot legally embark upon third level education.
However, they are permitted to take classes in language skills and certificate courses, both of which Patrick attends in the university in Galway.
As his daughter was born prior to the introduction of the new immigration laws, Patrick is hopeful his family will be granted residency.
Both he and his wife Linda already meet the criteria outlined by the government needed to apply to live in Ireland.
But Patrick has to face the fact their application could be refused.
“I came to this country for a reason”, he anxiously explains.
“I was seeking protection from the state and if I should be forced to go back, I’m going back to a very bad situation again and I don’t see why I should be made to return.”
“I will not be happy. I’m not sure what I will do.”