Seanad Éireann - Volume 159 - 22 April, 1999

Adjournment Matters. - Asylum Applications.

Mr. Costello: This matter relates to education. My concern is that refugees and asylum seekers should be treated equitably throughout the education system, whether at primary or second levels or when accessing further or third level education, the two sectors we have discussed in the past two days.

It has come to my attention that there are hurdles for those wishing to access education. I understand there is no problem accessing primary education. In a number of north Dublin inner city primary schools in my constituency, between 10 per cent and 15 per cent of students are non-nationals, that is, asylum seekers or refugees. Teachers and communities welcome this presence and it is an excellent way to integrate non-nationals into communities.

There does not seem to be a problem accessing second level education either, but a problem has arisen in relation to further education, particularly post-leaving certificate courses which are largely funded by the ESF. Apparently a directive, written or oral, was given or a statement was made by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform that a non-national or somebody from outside the European Union applying to those courses is not entitled to access them unless they pay the non-national fee which is in the region of £2,000.

This is another blow to people fleeing persecution and looking for a safe haven in this country. Whether their applications are being processed by the authorities or they have been accepted, we should not impose such hurdles which simply cannot be overcome. People have come to this country with few or no material assets and are not in a position to pay significant sums of money for education and training.

We have always prided ourselves on our good education system, which is open and democratic. If asylum seekers are to acquire skills and become beneficial and progressive members of the community, we must help them through the education system as early and for as long as possible, so that they get the benefits of whatever skills are required to earn a living.

The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform is taking a very heavy handed approach. My information is that it is not the Department of Education and Science which is at fault but the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I do not know whether the Minister can clarify the matter, whether that policy has been looked at again or whether the Department of Education and Science can give a commitment that an asylum seeker or a refugee may apply for a course in a further education colleges or a third level institution, be received and not have to pay [151] exorbitant fees. That is the nub of the problem. In the circumstances, instead of putting obstacles in the way of access to education and training, we should provide incentives.

Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science (Mr. O'Dea): I thank the Senator for raising this important issue and for the opportunity it gives me to outline different areas where the Department of Education and Science is acting to help ensure that the education system can respond to the needs of asylum seekers. In the first instance, I would like to stress that no distinction is made between refugees and asylum seekers in relation to primary and post-primary education. It is not the policy of the Department to refuse any of these children full access to the education system and specific steps have been taken to help schools which serve significant numbers of these children.

All such pupils are welcome to participate in the education system, which they are doing. In a survey carried out by my Department, it emerged that there were 1,641 non-English speaking non-national pupils in primary schools alone. That figure refers to September-October of last year. The numbers involved would have increased since then.

In addition to welcoming non-nationals into our schools, the Minister has been able to sanction the appointment of an extra 14 teachers to provide additional support specifically to those pupils with English language deficits. These additional teachers are being assigned to schools attended by relatively large numbers of non-nationals. The non-national pupils will be integrated into ordinary classes but will be withdrawn on a regular basis for intensive one to one or small group tuition in English by the extra teachers assigned for that purpose. The posts were allocated solely on the basis of the survey I mentioned and the Senator will know a number of schools in his constituency have benefited from this move.

In schools where an additional teacher has not been appointed specifically to cater for the needs of non-national pupils, such pupils have access to the support of the remedial teacher as well as their class teacher. In addition, the school is free to apply for the supports for children with special needs for their non-national pupils who have special needs other than the issue of language competency. In the case of post primary pupils, additional hours can be applied for and will be sanctioned where the need arises because of the [152] enrolment of non-nationals with English language deficits.

With regard to third level support, all programme and convention refugees and those who have been granted leave to remain, have the same rights to third level education as the native population. In so far as the adult refugees of any category are concerned, my Department funds the costs of providing English language classes for those who require them. Tuition and transport is provided for and it has so far been arranged through the Refugee Agency, with the English language schools providing the tuition.

The system for delivering an English language service to non-English speaking non-national pupils at first and second levels and to adult refugees will be further developed and refined as a result of the recent establishment of the refugee language support unit. This unit is being operated by Trinity College and funded by my Department.

Overall, the Department of Education and Science is working at a number of levels to ensure that it is responsive to the issue of the significant increase in the number of non-nationals living in this country. It is the Minister's intention to examine further ways of improving the Department's response in the coming year.

Mr. Costello: I thank the Minister for his reply. Clearly, the distinction is evident after primary and post primary levels. The Minister indicated third level support applies only to programme and convention refugees. What about asylum seekers, to whom there is no reference, good, bad or indifferent? Those are the people to whom I referred and who seem to be discriminated against. There is no problem with primary or secondary education and the Department goes out of its way to make provision in this regard. All that is provided at third level is English language tuition, which is not really third level education but primary or secondary education. What about asylum seekers who want to do a further or higher education course and who are in a position to do so? They are not covered.

Mr. O'Dea: I will inquire about that.

Mr. Costello: The Department of Education and Science is charging those people in the region of £2,000 per course. That is where the problem arises.

Mr. O'Dea: I will make inquiries about that and will ask the Minister to write to the Senator directly on that matter.

The Seanad adjourned at 12.40 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 28 April 1999.