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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move 

N° 94,  April 2004, pp. 185-188

“Give Leadership on Asylum and Migration 

during EU Presidency”

(Irish Bishops Call on Their Government)

Irish Presidency of an expanding EU

On 1 January 2004 Ireland assumes the Presidency of the European Union. On 1 May 2004 the EU will be welcoming ten new states members. Ireland’s privilege in holding the Presidency at this historic moment is both an opportunity and a responsibility. As Ireland did thirty years ago, these ten states will be joining what in world terms is a haven of political stability and economic prosperity. Prosperity, however, has its obligations as well as its advantages.

In a world with millions of people on the move, the twin factors of stability and prosperity make the EU a magnet for asylum seekers and immigrants. A further, powerful, contributing factor is the growing need of the EU for the workers which its member countries are unable to provide. In the existing EU states, including Ireland, fewer children are being born and the population is growing older.

Labour Migration

In recent years the Irish State has been giving permits annually for over 40,000 people from outside the EU to come and work here. Such permits are granted because the input of immigrants is needed to sustain our economic growth. Immigrants often accept work for which Irish people are unavailable or which they are unwilling to undertake. Without the contribution of these immigrants, we would be poorer not just economically, but also socially, spiritually, politically and culturally.

However, there is a difference between importing machines and taking in immigrants. Each immigrant is a human being, and as such, is immediately entitled to respect for his or her dignity and rights. Immigrants, even though not citizens, have rights - the right not to be discriminated against, the right to a just wage, the right to family life, the right to security of the person, and many others. Immigrants cannot be treated as simply economic units. We in Ireland, With our emigration history are well‑placed to understand the importance of respecting the rights of migrant workers and their families.

Right to Asylum Inviolable

Independently of its labour needs, the EU has various responsibilities under international law. Its individual members, including Ireland, have ratified the Geneva Convention on Refugees and accepted the obligations which it imposes. These include accepting and processing applications from people claiming to have a justifiable fear of persecution on political and other grounds - in other words, asylum seekers.

Asylum seekers and economic immigrants are often mistakenly regarded as a single group in the public mind. At times, politicians and the media contribute to this confusion. It is possible that Ireland would need immigrant labour, even if there were no asylum seekers arriving at our borders. Equally, even if immigrant labour were not needed, the State is at all times duty-bound under international and national law to accept and process requests for asylum.

Much depends however on how, in practice, the state interprets this right to asylum. Under international law people are entitled in good faith to enter the country and apply for asylum. The fact that their application may eventually be turned down does not mean that they were not entitled to make it in the first place. Irish people would object if, for example, all unsuccessful applications for social welfare benefits were to be described as “bogus” simply on the grounds that they had not succeeded. Despite this, we often see references to ‘bogus asylum seekers’ on much the same grounds. It should be remembered that, as the UN High Commission for Refugees has repeatedly emphasized, a person who does not possess adequate documentation can enter the State, make a valid application for asylum and reside legally here while the application is being processed.

It is true that a high percentage of asylum applications fail. While the great majority of asylum applicants are seeking to escape from desperate situations, the grounds for refugee recognition under the Geneva Convention are extremely restricted. The possibility of giving leave to remain on humanitarian and other grounds is open to the State but is an option which is little used in Ireland, in comparison with other countries. Because Ireland, in common with many other EU states, has no comprehensive immigration legislation, many would-be immigrants have no option but to use the asylum channel. But the fact that some people may try to bend or defeat the asylum system is not justification for diluting or abandoning the underlying principle.

Family Unity: Issue of Profound Concern

Were we come to a specific concern of the greatest urgency. Today in Ireland, in the shadow of Christmas, a significant number - almost 10,500 - of non-EEA*  parents of Irish citizen children are in a limbo-like situation. Those are the people whose applications for residency were pending when the criteria for granting residency were changed following the Supreme Court judgement of January 2003. Many had made their residency application a year and longer before that date. As well as that others who had applied on similar grounds and about the same time were granted residency. Those whose applications have not been processed are now confronted by a stark choice. On the one hand, they can stay together as a family, but only at the cost of foregoing the effective exercise of the undeniable right of some of their members to citizenship. On the other hand, their children’s right to citizenship can be exercised, but only at the cost of breaking up the family. On the eve of Christmas, the family feast par excellence,we appeal for administrative procedures and decisions which are just, humane and prompt. Such an approach would be justified not only in the light of the Christian Gospel but also of the Irish Constitution, and of our international commitments under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Irish Presidency: Policy Imperatives

The Irish Presidency of the EU comes at a time when decisions have to be reached at an Irish and European level on many humanitarian issues with far-reaching moral and political consequences.

We therefore appeal to the Government during Ireland’s Presidency of the EU

  • to ensure that the harmonization of key legislation in relation to asylum and immigration, due to be finalised during Ireland’s EU Presidency, upholds the highest human rights standards and is in accord with all international obligations under UN Conventions. The existence of tight EU deadlines cannot justify the elimination from legislation of provisions that are essential to the protection of the rights of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants. Ireland has the opportunity to lead its EU partners in making legislation of the highest standard its priority, even if this entails revising existing deadlines.
  • to regularize the situation of some 10,500 non-EEA parents of Irish children who, when they, made their application, had a legitimate expectation of being granted residency
  • to uphold the right of all those who wish to seek asylum to enter the country and to have theirasylum application processed, and to guarantee accountability and transparency at every stage of the process, from arrival at our shores onwards
  • to grant leave to remain on humanitarian and other grounds to persons who may not qualify fo refugee recognition but who nevertheless are clearly in need of protection. Many, for example come from countries currently at war 
  • to put in place a comprehensive, fair, transparent and sustainable immigration policy to facilitate those wishing to immigrate to Ireland and their families
  • to take a lead by being the first member state of the EU to sign the UN Convention for the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members ofTheir Families

At the Heart of Christmas - the Refugee Family of God

At this Christmas time we remember how God’s only Son was born in poor surroundings, away, from home. We remember how, with Mary and Joseph, Jesus was forced to flee for his. We remember how this refugee family needed shelter until it was safe for them to return to their own country. If we are to truly celebrate Christmas, the birth of Jesus in all its details must touch our hearts. So too must the profound meaning of Christmas as the sign of God's love calling all of humankind into a single family, family of God, sisters and brothers of Jesus, sisters and brothers of one another, sharing the one universe.

The Word was in the world...

And the world did not recognise him...

But to those who did accept him

He gave power to become children of God.

Jn. 1. 10. - 12

* EEA ‑ European Economic Area which is the EU and Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein.