Irish emigrants returning home can face ‘extreme hardship’ and find themselves at risk of homelessness and poverty.
More than 105,000 Irish citizens have returned to Ireland from overseas since 2014, with many experiencing great difficulty in reintegrating back into local communities, several charities and outreach groups told Irish politicians last week.
Delays in administration, housing supply problems and inconsistent applications of procedure are plunging returning emigrants into “crisis situations”, according to representatives from emigrant support programmes.
Crosscare Migrant Project, Safe Home Ireland and the Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas presented their findings to the Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade last week.
Crosscare, an information and advocacy service for immigrants and emigrants, gave evidence to the committee that showed returning emigrants are being impeded by the Habitual Residence Condition (HRC) system – a set of requirements one must fulfil before they can access certain welfare payments.
Danielle McLaughlin, Crosscare’s Policy Offer, told the Irish World that the HRC system is “complex” and that its application is “highly inconsistent”.
Returning emigrants do not have, and are not provided with, sufficient information about welfare requirements, she said.
“In the majority of the cases that we deal with, the individuals are experiencing very vulnerable situations such as homelessness or at risk of homelessness with no income or support networks,” she told the committee last week.
McLaughlin noted how cases were being “incorrectly refused” and when appeals were taken by Crosscare on behalf of claimants, overturns happened in 100 per cent of the cases.
“Documents can be difficult to come by for people who return in crisis. Being able to obtain certain documents – like proving you don’t have property abroad or their income ties – is difficult,” McLaughlin said.
“There are criteria and sometimes a decision is heavily weighted on one of these criteria instead of a balance of all five. We’re seeing issues in inconsistency across the country, not just in Dublin.”
Crosscare has previously put forward recommendations to Ireland’s Minister for Social Protection, Regina Doherty, following a highly-critical report the organisation published earlier this year.
A survey of emigrants and returnees – carried out by Indecon – showed that 52.9 per cent of respondents found it difficult to demonstrate habitual residence in Ireland.
The government committee was then approached, according to McLaughlin, to attempt to “press the minister for political leverage” due to inaction.
“It causes extreme hardship and distress for people,” McLaughlin added.
Crosscare, who are funded by the Emigrant Support Programme in the Department of
Foreign Affairs and Trade, deal with many instances of such hardship with many individuals slipping into homelessness or reporting abject poverty, McLaughlin said.
Respondents to Indecon online survey also said that the HRC process was ‘intimidating,’ ‘demeaning,’ and ‘humiliating’.
Irish emigrant support organisations abroad, McLaughlin said, have for years expressed that there is “misconceptions among Irish emigrants about their rights and entitlements”.
One such example of hardship involved the case of an elderly couple who had returned to Ireland after spending many years in the UK.
They were forced to wait four-to-five months in establishing the HRC and the decision, which went against them, came about due to fact that the elderly man had lived away for so long.
This decision, McLaughlin explained, contravened the official HRC guidelines which state – after some lobbying from Crosscare almost a decade ago – there is now recognition of returning emigrants providing they can prove “resumption of residence”.
“That is obviously quite difficult. Funds are low, documentary proof can be hard sourced,” McLaughlin said.
“Particularly in cases where people don’t have accommodation, they’re subjected to huge delays with the homeless services because they’re inundated with the crisis there at the moment.”
Another Crosscare client, a carer and an Irish citizen, had been looking after her mother abroad for just two years. She was eight months pregnant on return and “was refused everything, even one a once-off payment”, ending up homeless during a “very vulnerable time of her and her child’s life”.
When her baby was born, she had no option but to return to homeless services. “It took five months for the decision to be overturned and, all the while, she was borrowing money from all the people she could,” McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin warned that people considering moving back to Ireland from overseas should weigh their options very carefully and look at “all potential avenues”.
The Oireachtas committee also heard that many people with children or a partner from a non-European Economic Area are “deterred” from returning to Ireland because they do not automatically receive a visa.
When applying for the visa from Ireland, McLaughlin said, the partner is not eligible to work.
“They’re coming back with families from places like Australia after leaving post-graduation during the recession and they had been working and now wish to return, possibly with children,” she said.
“They’re facing long delays because their partner needs a visa to work and its usually around six months. It’s actually deterring people from returning because there’s only one income.”
Safe Home Ireland, who provide a housing relocation service, has assisted 2023 people with returning to Ireland and securing accommodation since being founded in 2000.
It found similar issues in relocating Irish citizens, its CEO Karen McHugh told the committee last week.
Ireland’s spiralling housing crisis, increases of Irish citizens returning home in a crisis situation, and computer illiteracy, which discouraged welfare applications, were among its chief grievances.
“We know the current housing crisis affects all citizens, however, we are finding it more difficult to secure housing for our applicants and many are not able to return home under this scheme,” said McHugh.
“This is particularly applicable for those seeking to return to cities/towns. Traditionally, if there was a delay in us being able to secure suitable housing, some of our applicants would consider returning to housing in the private rented sector…Sadly, the avenues open to older Irish emigrants seeking to return to their homeland under our programme are now quite restricted.”
McHugh also said her organisation is concerned about the delays in initial assessment for Carer’s Allowance and Disability Allowance, which, she said, can be “up to six months” long and appeal processes are “lengthy” if an assessment is failed.
Both Crosscare and Safe Home have recommended to the Oireachtas committee that policies be clearly harmonised and that clients have all necessary information – online or otherwise – available to them before leaving for Ireland.
They also suggested that Department of Social Protection front-line staff undergo additional training so that guidance on the habitual residence condition to applicants at initial application – and local review stages – is consistent to avoid “lengthy appeals”.
Earlier this year the CSO reported, amid fear and uncertainty about residency status post-Brexit, that the numbers of Irish emigrants returning to Ireland had surpassed those emigrating abroad for the first time in nine years.
Safe Home – along with the Crosscare Migrant Project – have observed increases in contact queries, requests and assistance in recent years. Notably, queries have increased steadily since the UK voted to leave the European Union.