Singled Out for Fast-Tracking, Georgian Asylum Seekers Struggle to Access Legal Advice in Time

In late December 2022, when Nini Metreveli and her husband filled out an asylum questionnaire at the International Protection Office (IPO) on Mount Street Lower, there was no one there to give them legal advice.

“Just a Georgian translator,” said Metreveli on Sunday morning on a Zoom call.

No one told them about their right to have a lawyer to advise them on their subsequent asylum interview either, she says. They heard about that randomly from another asylum seeker.

“One person who already had an interview said, ‘You need a lawyer. Why you don’t have a lawyer?’” Metreveli says.

Once they heard, she says, they applied for one. But time wasn’t on their side. Their main asylum interview came and went last week, before they got representation.

“We just told our story,” said Metreveli. They still need a lawyer, she says.

On 8 November, the Department of Justice rolled out a new policy to speed up the asylum process for people fromeight countries Ireland considers safe. Among them is Georgia.

On 29 July, while ironing out the plan, Department of Justice officials said Georgians would likely be first to be fast-tracked, prioritised even within this already-prioritised group, showdocuments released under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.

Since 1 November, the Legal Aid Board has had 444 applications for legal support from Georgians seeking asylum here, said a spokesperson. (They didn’t say how many of those cases were assigned lawyers.)

But between November and 19 January alone the IPO got 507 asylum applications from Georgian applicants, according to Department of Justice figures.

Those figures heighten concerns that current moves to speed up the asylum process threaten people’s right to legal support, an issue raised by immigration lawyers as the changes kicked in.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice didn’t say why Georgian asylum-seekers were singled out to move through the process quicker than others on the list of safe countries. But they said that everyone coming from countries on the safe list is now going through the fast lane.

“Each applicant for International Protection is given information on the Legal Aid Board and a map to their office in Dublin,” said a spokesperson.

Since the new fast-track process kicked in, they said, 500 asylum interviews for people from safe countries have been scheduled, and 220 went ahead.

“Information on how many applications from Georgian nationals have been processed since the introduction of the new procedure, broken down by decision, is not yet available,” they said.

A spokesperson for the Legal Aid Board said it is monitoring the impact of the changes, which may affect its services, and it plans its resources accordingly.

Too Little Time

Fiona Hurley, the chief executive officer of migrants and refugee-rights centre NASC, says everyone has a right to apply for asylum, access legal support, and have their claim assessed rigorously and individually.

“These rights also apply to people from Georgia,” said Hurley.

NASC has been public about its concerns that people from countries seen as safe may not have enough time to get a lawyer, she said.

They may also not have time to get medical reports, which can be vital to the success of asylum applications, Hurley said.

Getting those is often key to applications, she said. Especially “if someone has experienced torture, trafficking or sexual violence”, said Hurley.

But it can take months before people get to the top of the queue for those, she said.

A spokesperson for the Legal Aid Board didn’t say how many of the 444 applications for legal support from Georgians over the last two and a half months had been fulfilled.

But they said that it recognises that some cases, like international protection, need urgent attention, and so they prioritise them.

The legal aid board only has three law centres dedicated to accepting asylum cases in Dublin, Cork and Galway, with a small full-time staff and so is heavily reliant on private solicitors on its international protection panel. Private solicitors have said in the pastthat fees offered by the board don’t come close to the time and effort representing asylum-seekers requires.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said that fast-tracking the asylum process “as a matter of administrative practice” is in step with EU laws, and many member states do that.

Policies like that shorten the timeframe for getting a decision on asylum cases, making sure that people who qualify for international protection can make a fresh start in Ireland, they said.

“While also ensuring the integrity of the immigration system can be upheld in respect of those whose applications are refused,” the spokesperson said.

Beyond Stereotype

In media reports and government briefings in Ireland, it is often implied that asylum seekers from Georgia are exclusively “economic migrants”.

Yet as researchers of migration have pointed out, separating out economic and political motivations into discrete drivers of migration can be problematic. Economic migrants and asylum seekers may have common reasons for leaving somewhere.

Research carried out in 2020, based on roughly 20 interviews with Georgian asylum seekers to Europe – in this case France and Germany – suggest much more complex answers to why people have left and why they ended up in particular countries.

“The decisions were based on fear for their and their families’ safety,” the findings say.

Rather than immediate physical threats though, a recurring reason shared with the researcher was poor-quality and costly healthcare. Some interviewees said they had been victims of medical negligence and misdiagnosis.

One was wrongly operated on after a misdiagnosis of cancer, she said. “After that, abscesses have occurred in the stomach area, and my skin cells started dissolving,” it quotes them as saying.

They said: “Georgian doctors were unable to diagnose me. I am 26 years old, I want to live a little longer and this is a reason why I left Georgia.”

Others said they had left Georgia because of violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, lack of access to basic services for persons with disabilities, and political violence.

There’s been a noticeable upward swing in the number of Georgian asylum claims lodged in Ireland, according to IPO figures. In 2022, a little over 2,700 people filed asylum applications from Georgia, up from around 340 compared to 2021, the figures show.

Albeit the number of Georgian asylum applications increased in Ireland and the United Kingdom in 2022, it saw a downward shift in other European countries, says a recent report by the Economic and Research Institute (ESRI).

The report attributes the uptick to the influence of the Russian state’s war in Ukraine, on Georgia.

The visa barrier for Georgians in Ireland and the UK, which doesn’t exist in several other European countries, could be another factor why Georgians submit asylum claims here, says the ESRI report.

“Other factors, such as conditions in Ireland and network effects, may also be playing a role,” it says.

Meanwhile, Freedom House, US-based non-profit working to promote democracy around the world, classes Georgia as a “partly free” country. Abkhazia recognised by most countries as part of Georgia but effectively occupied by Russia since the early 1990s, is similarly classed as “partly free”. Occupied South Ossetia is “not free”.

The report also says that “LGBT+ people face societal discrimination and are increasingly the targets of serious violence.”

A report last year for the European Union Agency for Asylum noted concerns about media freedom, and politically motivated prosecutions.

That report also pointed to the impact on Georgia’s economy, including food prices and rents, of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “The invasion of Ukraine has been a key factor influencing the increase in Georgian nationals applying for international protection in the EU+,” it says.

Wendy Lyon, partner and solicitor at Abbey Law, says singling out Georgian asylum seekers and fast-tracking their cases within an already prioritised group puts them at an “inherent disadvantage”.

But she’s also worried, Lyon says, that it pushes forward the harmful stereotype that no Georgian asylum seeker can be in real need of refuge.

She has had clients from Georgia with genuine claims who were granted refugee status here, she says.

“It certainly does create a popular narrative that no one from Georgia has a legitimate claim,” Lyon said.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said that all asylum-seekers, including those from safe countries, get a shot at making a detailed case before the IPO.

“All applications are considered on their merits based on the applicant’s individual circumstances regardless of the country of origin,” they said.

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Shamim Malekmian: Shamim Malekmian covers the immigration beat for Dublin Inquirer. Reach her at [email protected]

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