NUI Galway on RTÉ Brainstorm: How Ireland's asylum system commits violence against women

Image: RTÉ Brainstorm
Oct 31 2019 Posted: 09:47 GMT

Author: Carol Ballantune, PhD researcher at the Centre for Global Women’s Studies

Opinion: the Irish state has accepted its responsibilities to eliminate violence against women, but it is enabling further violence in its treatment of migrants 

Migration is rarely out of the news, and refugee and asylum seeker stories tend to garner most attention, both positive and negative. Often it is necessary to remind people of the many types of violence that play a part in forcing people to migrate from their home countries.

At the recent European Conference on Domestic Violence (ECDV) in Oslo, the focus fell on a different kind of harm: the violence perpetrated by European states against asylum seeking and refugee women. Trends that have been documented in other European countries are clearly present in Ireland, where asylum seekers are offered "direct provision" of accommodation with few basic rights, and the average length of stay in direct provision in two years (though stays of up to 12 years have been recorded). These conditions are themselves responsible for increasing women’s structural vulnerability to sexual harassment and assault, and especially to intimate partner violence.

This year, Ireland introduced legislation against the offence of coercive control. This legislation breaks new ground in recognising how violence is often exercised in the homeplace and in intimate relationships. It often involves no physical force, but a pattern of dominance, power and control that eliminates individual freedom.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Della Kilroy speaks to a woman about her experience of coercive control in a relationship, and Mary Wilson talks to Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan about the new Domestic Violence Act

At the ECDV, Jenny Phillimore, principal investigator of a research project on gender based violence in the refugee crisis, described the irony of governments legislating against coercive control in the home, while exercising a comparable and connected control over the lives of refugee and asylum-seeking women. She highlighted the fact that our systems of "international protection" themselves constrain women’s space for action and do harm to the very people they claim to protect

I am not suggesting that all migrant women are victims nor all migrant men violent perpetrators - far from it. Rather, I am highlighting the structures in Irish society that empower violent and controlling men and disempower migrant women. Migrant women often travel as part of a family, financially and sometimes linguistically and socially dependent on husbands or family members. Their dependency can extend to legal status, if their visa or leave to remain is dependent on their spouse. It is internationally recognized that this situation is easily exploited by violent and controlling men. Leaving a violent home can put migrant women alone in the asylum system if they want to be allowed to stay in the country.

Under the Istanbul Convention, it is recognised that the state bears a duty to protect everybody – including migrant and refugee women – from gender based violence. Yet time spent in Ireland’s lengthy asylum process undermines resilience and increases vulnerability – this is equally true for men, women and children. Department of Justice policy is to disperse asylum seekers away from urban centres, housing them in remote locations. While awaiting a decision of the international protection tribunal, residents of direct provision centres and, increasingly, emergency accommodation, are unable to access a driving licence, leaving them dependent on Ireland’s limited public transport system. Such isolation is always problematic but, in the context of an abusive relationship, it is catastrophic. As Phillimore argues, the state finds itself in collusion with abusive men to keep women dependent on them. 

From RTÉ 1 News, the Government ratifies the Istanbul Convention to mark International Women's Day

Aside from isolation, asylum seekers are also held in conditions of forced poverty, allocated €38.80 per week for all non-food or housing related costs. Following a European court ruling, last year the government extended the right to work to asylum seekers according to certain criteria, but the law is so limited and the barriers to working so many, that relatively few individuals are able to access work in practice. Although the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar recently asserted that nobody is obliged to live in direct provision and that all residents are "free to go", this is an empty freedom. The state controls the lives of international protection applicants. Contrary to the stereotype of the "welfare scrounger", the African women I interviewed for my PhD research would do anything to avoid the humiliations of the social welfare system – but dependency was all that was on offer to them. 

Experiences of the asylum system are all too often experiences of violence perpetrated anew. It is internationally recognised that refugee status can be conferred on the grounds of gender-related claims; and yet making such claims is often difficult. The international protection process has been described by the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI) as "adversarial at its core". A national network of migrant women living in Ireland, AkiDwA, have also documented women’s experiences of international protection hearings. Incidents included being invasively questioned about traumatic histories; being rushed and harassed through the hearing and not having access to translation services for their hearings or, worse, being represented by hostile translators. In one case, a woman seeking refuge from persecution in Iran was represented by a translator from the Iranian embassy. 

Controlling relationships are underpinned by coercion and threat, and so too is Ireland’s migration system, like all such systems in Europe. People awaiting asylum decisions live in a state of perpetual uncertainty, characterised by the constant threat of deportation on the one hand or destitution on the other. The power of the state over the life chances of asylum seekers is absolute and indefinite. We need to recognise this for what it is: symbolic and structural violence, enabling violence at the interpersonal level. 

From RTÉ's Explained by Prime Time, Della Kilroy and Fran McNulty outline changes to Ireland's domestic abuse laws 

The Irish government has been slow to respond to the realities of violence against women. But with the ratification of the Istanbul Convention this year, the announcement of a new national survey on sexual violence and the introduction of new domestic violence legislation, it is becoming harder to avoid addressing the problem. Yet the state continues to empower violent men and increase the vulnerability of migrant women. This contradiction can only be resolved by granting asylum seekers basic rights.

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