Child Asylum Seekers and Access to Further Education in Ireland

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The Higher Education Pilot Support Scheme – Missing the Mark?


The asylum system in Ireland provides sanctuary to those who are unable to remain in their home country because of fear of persecution. There are large numbers of children and adolescents in the asylum system in Ireland who possess certain rights, not least of all access to free primary and second level education. The asylum system has proven to be markedly inefficient in processing asylum applicants which has resulted in many children and adolescents spending years in the system without being granted any clear status. At the age of 18, the overwhelming majority have no rights to State support in pursuing third level education; be it PLC, vocational or undergraduate. As such, children and young people who have spent much of their formative years in this country have no certainty about their futures other than that their education must come to an end.

A Brief History of Education and the Asylum System

In order to respond to the material needs of asylum applicants, the Direct Provision system was established in 2000 as an emergency measure. Direct Provision is operated by the Reception and Integration Agency (a branch of the Department of Justice) and has since become a stable feature of the asylum system in Ireland. Under this measure, the State provides accommodation on a full-board basis for asylum applicants until they are either granted refugee or leave to remain status (at which point they should move into the community), or they are deported or leave voluntarily.

When first established it was estimated that applicants would spend a six month period in Direct Provision as a decision was made regarding their asylum status. (PICUM, 2018, p. 42) In February 2015, there were 7,937 people in the protection system in Ireland:  55 percent had been in the system for over five years; a damning indication of the inefficiency of the system. 21 percent those in the system were children. (PICUM, 2018, p. 42) Following the McMahon Report, which made recommendations in June 2015, there have been improvements. Within a year, 66 percent of those who had been in the system for five years had received a ruling, and over 1,500 people were granted protection. A progress report in February 2017 stated that “almost all” of the cases identified in the McMahon report had been processed. (PICUM, 2018, p. 43)

In addition to a large number of children who entered Ireland with their families, there are also a significant number of unaccompanied minors. Upon arrival in Ireland unaccompanied minors are referred to Tusla, the child and family agency, who assign a social worker to each child to manage their care and affairs. The number of unaccompanied minors seeking protection in Ireland has increased since 2014: “In 2017, 175 unaccompanied minors were referred to the Social Work Team for Separated Children Seeking Asylum [...] up from 97 in 2014.” (Groarke & Arnold, 2018, p. i)

In terms of education, children of asylum seekers and child asylum-applicants themselves are entitled to schooling up to the age of 18. Post-Leaving Certificate education however is not freely available to young people in the asylum system. The Reception and Integration Agency states that: “Asylum seekers cannot access any State supports in order to access courses in the Higher and Further education Sector.” (Education, 2018) In 2001, the Department of Education made clear that, while people with refugee or Leave to Remain status are entitled to support to pursue further education, this is not the case for asylum seekers. (Re: Access to PLC, VTOS and Youthreach, 2001) Tusla provides some support to unaccompanied minors who reach the age of 18 while in care: “As part of aftercare policy, Tusla may cover fees for Post Leaving Certificate courses, which offer level 5 and 6 qualifications aimed at vocational and technological skills”. (Groarke & Arnold, 2018, p. v)

In 2015, limited access to third level education, by means of the Higher Education Pilot Support Scheme, was finally made available to young adults in the process of asylum application:

“[The Scheme] provides supports in line with the current Student Grant Scheme to eligible school leavers who are in the protection system (other than those at the deportation order stage) [...] Applicants in the protection system who wish to be supported to pursue certain courses in further education or at undergraduate level in higher education will be required to meet the following criteria:

  • Meet the definition of a protection applicant or a person at leave to remain stage (other than those at the deportation order stage);
  • Obtained their Leaving Certificate;
  • Have been accepted on an approved Post Leaving Certificate course or an approved undergraduate course;
  • Have attended a minimum of five academic years in the Irish school system, as at 31 August 2018; and
  • Have been part of an application for protection or leave to remain for a combined period of 5 years as at 31 August 2018.” (Student Support Scheme for Asylum Seekers to continue for coming year, 2018)

To conclude this brief sketch of the history of education and the asylum system, although progress has been made in processing applications, there are still significant numbers of children and young adults in the system for too long. The State’s failure to resolve these cases in good time has interrupted the lives of adolescents and barred them from further education. As such, they have a fair expectation that their needs will be adequately met. The Pilot Support Scheme represents recognition of this fair expectation, and attempts to address these needs, but it does not go far enough.

Analysis of the Current Economic, Social, Institutional, Political and Cultural Environment

Asylum seekers, and especially adolescents, possess almost no money and are entirely financially dependent on the Department of Justice. This dependence has left them effectively destitute: they receive a total of €21.60 per week and use a points system to buy food. This allows for no meaningful independent living, and certainly does not allow for the savings necessary to pay for third level education. On 9th February 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that asylum seekers have a right to work, but significant restrictions effectively exclude most from the labour market.

What does it mean for children’s needs and fair expectations to be adequately met? Granting legal access to third level education is meaningless without the financial support to pay for it: “Asylum seekers can access third level education and vocational training if they can cover the costs of the fees, [...] Universities have some flexibility on whether to charge refugees third level non-EU fees or EU fees. Both are expensive but non-EU fees are much more expensive.” (Irish Refugee Council, 2017) The intention of the Pilot Support Scheme is to meet those financial needs by granting access to the same supports as enjoyed by Irish students.

In 2017, a total of 55,770 students sat the Leaving Certificate, (State Examinations Statistics, 2017) and according to Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI): “Last year we processed more than 103,000 applications with in excess of 81,000 students (new and renewal) awarded a grant for the 2017/2018 academic year.” (About SUSI, 2018) Yet, since the inception of the Pilot Support Scheme in 2015 only five students have been able to avail of access to support for third level education (Higher Education Equity of Access and Qualifications Section, 2018) In 2015, only two of 37 applicants to the Scheme were successful. (Irish Refugee Council, 2017) The restrictions that exclude applicants from the Pilot Support Scheme often simply come down to time.

The two conditions of the Pilot Support Scheme that restrict most students from pursuing further education are the requirements to have spent five years in the Irish education system, and to have been part of an asylum application for five years. However, even with delays, such a length of time in either school or application process is unrealistic. By December 2017, a total of 3,167 RIA residents had been in the asylum process for less than two years, while 2,370 had been in the application process for a minimum of two years. Of those exceeding two years, a majority of 1,145 were in the system between 24 and 36 months, a further 644 people between 36 and 60 months, and finally 581 people had been in the system for over 5 years. In total, 1,789 people had been in asylum system between two and five years. (Reception and Integration Agency, 2017, p. 19) Many of the minors who are in the protection system arrived in their late teens; precisely when they are in most need of access to further education, and also precisely late enough to miss their opportunity: “[in 2017,] more than 50 percent of unaccompanied minors referred to [Tusla] are aged between 16 and 17” (Groarke & Arnold, 2018, p. 21) There were 226 RIA residents between the ages of 13 and 17, while there were 762 between the ages of 18 and 25. (Reception and Integration Agency, 2017, p. 5)

The impact of knowing that one’s future is entirely uncertain must have an effect on a young person, as must the knowledge that your education must come to a complete stop. With regards to undocumented minors more broadly, the Migrant Rights Centre has stated: “[we] began to see more and more undocumented children and young people growing up in Ireland impacted by the stress and barriers of having no immigration status.” (PICUM, 2018, p. 44) If their asylum is eventually granted, the denial of further education will have an impact on their integration: “The barriers created by the immigration regime undermine the integration process […] Many are excluded from educational opportunities and future jobs and career prospects open to their Irish and EU counterparts. They are at greater risk of poverty and social exclusion.” (Migrant Rights Centre Ireland, 2011, p. 4)

The power over education and the Irish asylum system is in the hands of the minister, and in real terms in the hands of civil servants, who doubtless do their best to implement government policy. (PICUM, 2018, p. 38) One of the consequences of policy by ministerial discretion is ambiguity about what is permitted which the bureaucracy has failed to clarify: “[The Department of Education] have refrained from issuing any policy confirming that adult asylum seekers are not prohibited by law from accessing education.” (Cumiskey & Hurley, 2015, p. 10) This can be taken as an indicator about the general political-institutional culture within which the asylum system exists.

As aforementioned, the duration of residency required to avail of the Pilot Support Scheme is prohibitive, this is further compounded by decision-making within the system. One of the issues that has the biggest impact on adolescents is the delays that take place in submitting and resolving an application for legal status as noted above. This is not only due to inefficiency, but also to tension between the pursuits of government policy on the one hand and the best interests of the child on the other.

The time delay is particularly marked among unaccompanied minors, whom the existing education policy affects most. This long duration before a ruling is made is in large part due to a delay in submitting an application to begin with. Social workers, who make the application on behalf of the minor in their care, often delay to avoid a situation where a deportation order could be served against the child. This decision is a consequence of the social worker’s obligation to prioritise the best interests of the child in a system which may not necessarily do so. However, the decision to delay carries with it other consequences: “the decision to delay an application may negatively impact on a minor’s entitlements, including [...] access to employment, education, citizenship, aftercare services and other supports and services” (Groarke & Arnold, 2018, p. ii) With regards to the Pilot Support Scheme, it means minors do to meet the requirement to have been part of an asylum application process for a period of five years.

Even asylum applicants who do receive refugee or Leave to Remain status, and therefore ought to be entitled to financial support on the same basis as EU nationals, can find themselves excluded due to the delay in their protection application: “most unaccompanied minors do not receive a decision on an application for international protection before turning 18 years of age [as a consequence they] may be precluded from receiving the [SUSI] grant as they are unlikely to have spent the required three years in the Irish State with a legal immigration status.” (Groarke & Arnold, 2018, pp. ii-v)

Irish culture has long placed significant value on education, perhaps finding its highest material expression in the introduction of free tuition in third level education in 1996. Likewise, our political rhetoric has placed children at the centre of our society’s vision of itself: from the by-now clichéd line in the 1916 Proclamation that we will cherish all the children of the nation equally, to the introduction of children’s rights to the Irish Constitution with the thirty-first amendment in 2012. While the introduction of the Pilot Support Scheme speaks to those cultural values, it also demonstrates the limitations of such cultural expression given the obstacles to accessing it.

The discrete priorities noted above, that of implementing policy versus that of pursuing the best interests of the child, have contributed to a culture in which those working in the system try to find ways around it. Within this institutional culture, further education becomes far less accessible than it might otherwise be. Given that the Minister and bureaucracy possess the decision-making power one must assume that the current asylum system operates in the interests of government policy first. The nature of the benefit accruing from such a restrictive policy would appear to be the deterrence of further inward migration to Ireland. Dr Liam Thornton of UCD has stated as much: “[The] system of direct provision has been justified on the basis that without such a system, Ireland could face an increase in numbers applying for asylum.” (Thornton, 2014) This may be an unfair assessment of the totality of motive, but certainly there is an impetus on the part of the State to deter further entry into the protection system, as well as caution about extending rights that may escalate. It is possible that freer access to educational support might lead to an increase of immigration. However, this raises questions about the cultural values that we espouse: Should we hold children accountable for the decisions of their parents? Should we undermine a child or young person’s future simply to deter further immigration?

What Values ought to inform Policy?

What values do we then aspire to in the formulation and implementation of policy with regards to children and adolescents in the asylum system? Let us begin with fair expectations. All children ought to be treated equally, regardless of their parents’ choice to seek asylum. Children have a fair expectation that if the State is going to allow them to reside here then it ought to grant them the right to continue their human development. Access to further education ought to be made available to adolescents in the asylum system on the basis of their participation in the Irish education system which must have been immersive enough to obtain the Leaving Certificate. Given that they have reached the threshold of third level education while in this country, they have the right to a fair expectation that they will not be turned away at this point. Finally, if the State cannot resolve a young person’s status in a timely manner, either granting them protection or deportation, then the State has a duty to facilitate that young person’s ongoing human development.


The five year threshold for eligibility to avail of the pilot support scheme under the existing policy is too high. It is important to recognise that even two years is a long time in the life of a teenager; the ages of 16 and 17 are formative years. Curtailing a young person’s education simply because they have not been in the education system for a full five years is detrimental to their well-being, socialization and development. For those who can currently avail of the Pilot Support Scheme, it does not guarantee that a student’s status may not change during the course of their studies. This is outlined quite clearly in the text of the Scheme: “Where a student is issued with a deportation order all entitlement to a grant under this Scheme will cease.” (Department of Education, 2018, p. 23) This would not only engender a sense of insecurity in a student, but would also waste the investment made by the State in the student by cutting short their education. Clearly, while the Higher Education Pilot Support Scheme is a humane initiative intended to meet the needs of young people living in our country, it unfortunately misses the mark and fails to have meaningful impact on any significant number of young people living here. A few simple changes to this policy would, however, make a success of it: not least, a reduction in the five year threshold for access, and some guarantee of security of residence while undertaking their further education.



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John McGeady, OLA Justice Officer
4 February 2019