By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — As plans to disperse asylum seekers to towns and villages throughout the country meet with increasing local opposition, Justice Minister John O’Donoghue is finalizing the updating of legal powers that will allow him eventually deport more than 10,000 foreigners already in the country.
Deportations were suspended last year following a court challenge to the procedures. Hundreds of deportation orders have been signed and are awaiting implementation.
Only 108 people were deported between 1994 and the end of March 2000.
The minister said that about 75 percent of asylum seekers who had been processed were found to be illegal immigrants with no entitlement to asylum or permission to remain in the country.
"I don’t relish deporting anybody from this jurisdiction," O’Donoghue said. "It is not a very pleasant task, but it is part of the law, it is part of the process."
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With new reception and assessment procedures still struggling to come to terms with the accommodation crisis, groups of asylum seekers, many of them from Eastern Europe, are being moved to hostels and hotels around the country.
With some communities getting less than 24 hours’ notice of their arrival, emergency meetings of local residents and pickets placed on accommodation centers have revealed widespread opposition to foreigners arriving and, in some cases, outright racism.
A recent arson attack in Clogheen, Co. Tipperary, damaged a hotel where 40 asylum seekers are to be housed.
A meeting in the town heard demands they be told whether asylum seekers had criminal records, whether they were rapists, pedophiles or murderers and what their health status was in regard to illnesses like TB and AIDS.
There has also been intensified opposition in Tralee, Kildare, Tramore and Corofin.
The difficulty for the government in placing relatively small numbers of asylum seekers in hostile communities is being intensified by the growing numbers arriving.
The minister said 175 people applied for asylum last Tuesday alone — more than four times the number involved for Clogheen.
O’Donoghue has rebuffed a suggestion by the Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Asylum Seekers and Refugees that would grant amnesty to thousands of people who have arrived in recent years.
The bishops refer to a "deepening administrative nightmare." "The longer it is left unresolved, the more morally questionable will any eventual mass deportations be."
In a statement, the bishop’s said there were two groups — a growing backlog of asylum seekers whose applications have not been processed and those whose applications have been processed and rejected, but who, for various reasons, have not yet been asked to leave the country.
Up to the end of March, the bishops said the two groups totaled about 15,400 people.
Of the 11,400 asylum seekers whose applications have not yet been processed, about 2,500 have been in the country for up to four years.
The bishops said that on present trends it, it can be estimated that seven-eighths of these applications will be rejected at some future date.
The second group — whose applications have been rejected between 1994 and this year — involves an estimated 4,000 people.
The bishops maintain that with official estimates that there will be at least 12,000 applications this year, the additional resources sanctioned by the government several months ago will not be sufficient to cope with processing even these new applications. In all probability, therefore, a further 300 are likely to be added each month to the backlog of unprocessed cases.
The statement refers to the considerable uncertainty, anxiety and stress created by the current situation.
"The resultant insecurity eating away at those in this situation must be addressed and resolved in a humane and Christian way," the statement sad.
To deal with the situation, the Bishops suggest:
€ granting refugee status en bloc to all who applied for asylum by a given date;
€ giving asylum seekers who applied for asylum by a certain date the alternative of applying for immigrant worker status for a stated period;
€ granting humanitarian leave to remain in the country.
They say that the total of 15,400 is small in comparison to estimates that Ireland will need between 160,000 and 200,000 outside workers to meet the economy’s demand for labor.
O’Donoghue said he had a fundamental difficulties with the bishop’s statement. If he were to adopt any of the three suggestions he would be granting asylum en bloc and ignoring international best practice and the 1951 Refugee Convention.
He said it would be incorrect to give people who illegally entered the State the right to work.
Granting humanitarian leave to remain in Ireland would effectively be giving an amnesty. It would reward people who sought to abuse the asylum process and the trafficking people across Europe.
"It would also be a pull factor which I would not be able to reverse."