Direct Provision System
First Stage: 17 Sep 2014
Oireachtas Link: http://oireachtasdebates.oireachtas.ie/debates%20authoring/debateswebpack.nsf/takes/seanad2014091700026?opendocument
Thursday, 22 January 2015
I welcome the Minister of State and welcome the fact that we are debating this issue again. We debated it in September and again on 23 October in light of the Private Members' Bill. It is very helpful to have regular updates from the Minister of State on the issue of direct provision because it is matter of great concern to many of us on both sides of the House. We have always worked very constructively together to try and improve on the situation for those people who are in direct provision.
There have been many criticisms of the system and I share the critiques. It was, as we all know, introduced in November 1999 as something of a stop-gap measure to ensure there was not a homelessness crisis for people seeking asylum. It then turned into a much more long-term entity than was originally envisaged. FLAC has described it as a flawed system and I think we all accept that. I was delighted, as we all were, to see a commitment in the statement of Government priorities last July that this would be a priority issue to address, to ensure that asylum seekers are treated with humanity and respect and to ensure that the direct provision system is made more respectful to the applicant and so forth. I know it is also a particular personal commitment of the Minister of State.
In October, we also welcomed the establishment of the working group chaired by the former judge, Mr. Bryan McMahon, a hugely eminent person. Indeed, a wide range of NGOs and stakeholders are represented. I welcome the Minister of State's update today on the process that has been ongoing and in particular the fact that the group has been engaged in an ongoing direct consultative process, visiting centres and speaking directly to residents in the months since it has been established. I note that we are hopeful the group will report at Easter. I had understood that was a deadline, I think the Minister of State has clarified that in fact it is a hope. It would be very welcome if they were to do so and if we were to see changes made as a result.
It is very helpful to see the work programme of the group and the sort of things it has been looking at. To speak on the sort of changes that could be made, there are two overarching issues. One is the issue of conditions in the centres, and Senator van Turnhout and others have pointed that out, and the other is the determination process by which people's applications are processed. To speak first on the reception conditions, the working group is talking about two themes: improvements to the direct provision system itself, namely, the living conditions in the designated centres; and improved other supports. On the first theme, one of the issues that has been of most concern to many of us is catering facilities. There are 34 centres in total and two of them are self-catering. Senator van Turnhout asked this question. Questions have been asked about the economy of self-catering facilities as opposed to facilities that are catered. It seems to me from the limited figures we have that the cost to the State of the two commercially-run self-catering centres was €480,000, as compared to €44 million for 25 centres that were commercially run. It is very hard to compare like with like - they may be different sizes and so on - but it does not seem as if the spend on the self-catering centres was huge. Certainly the social cost and the cost to family life for those who are not in self-catering facilities is a huge issue. It seems to many of us the biggest encroachment on children's rights and family rights that people cannot prepare their own food for their own families. If we could change one thing on that theme, I think that would be it. I know there is no issue for the providers if they are told by RIA to establish self-catering centres. There might be some cost associated with conversion but there is no other issue there.
There are also issues around transfer and complaints procedures that Mr. Justice Mac Eochaidh raised. There are also child protection issues, in particular the question of aged-out minors and how they are cared for, and separation within hostel facilities, so that families and children are not side-by-side, perhaps, with single men. That is a very practical issue on the ground in centres.
The second theme of educational opportunities is hugely important, as is access to the labour market.
I agree with my colleagues who asked why allowing asylum seekers access to the labour market under certain conditions would be a pull factor in Ireland when it is not a pull factor elsewhere. I have never seen this explained in all the Government briefings and I would like it to be explained. It seems we could facilitate access to the labour market for particular categories of asylum seekers - those who have been here for certain periods, and so on.
I also want to raise the issue of integration with local communities. I visited my local centre in Hatch Hall. Many local community groups have links with different direct provision centres, but we could be doing more to encourage that through school communities, local community groups, sports groups, and so on. We must look at that.
Regarding the determination process and how we fix it, others have pointed out the inordinate length of time people are staying in direct provision - 45% for five years or more, 55% for four years or more. I welcome the Government's promise to publish the international protection legislation, which will streamline procedures for the future. There is a subtext that it might be possible to enable that legislation to apply to certain groups of applicants already in the system. I would like to see that happen. We need to be more creative in respect of those who are languishing in the system, who have been there for many years. Senator Conway spoke of an amnesty. Personally, I support that. There are ways in which that could be done, perhaps without using the term "amnesty" - for example, where somebody has a lengthy judicial review application that has been going on for many years due to court delays and due to inadequacies at first instance. Ireland has had one of the lowest levels of recognition of asylum seekers at first instance. That is the root cause of the long periods that many people spend in the system - five, six or seven years. We could say to those people, "We'll settle your case at the door of the court. If you withdraw your application, you will be given leave to remain here." That is a practical, case-by-case way of addressing the issue and ensuring that people are not languishing for long periods of time. I think it is in keeping with the Government commitment to ensuring that people are treated with humanity and respect.
Wednesday, 17 September 2014
Sen. Bacik: I am pleased to have an opportunity to welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, to the House in his new capacity. As other speakers acknowledged, he has an impressive track record in speaking up in a highly critical fashion about direct provision and for the rights of those in direct provision centres. I have great confidence in his ability to make changes to the system in his new capacity.
I welcome those in the Gallery who have come to hear this debate. The Seanad debated this issue previously. As Senator O'Donovan noted, the Seanad speaks in a united fashion on this issue and all Senators have been highly critical of the system of direct provision. Senators Ó Clochartaigh,van Turnhout, Mac Conghail and others have a long track record in speaking out about direct provision and condemning many aspects of the system. On 23 October 2013, a motion on direct provision tabled by Senator van Turnhout and a number of her colleagues was not opposed by the Government side because we wanted to work together in a spirit of constructive criticism to find out how improvements could be made to the system. It is in that spirit, one in which none of us seeks to defend the indefensible, that I will second the amendment. All of us agree with the sentiments expressed in the motions tabled by Senators Mullen and Bradford and I commend both Senators on raising the issue. The amendment essentially seeks to give space to the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, and Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, both of whom were appointed in the period since the debate took place in October 2013.
I remind colleagues that since the new ministerial team was appointed, the Government, on 11 July 2014, issued a statement of priorities which specifically addresses the direct provision system and acknowledges that it must be made more respectful to the applicant and less costly to the taxpayer. The Government agreed in its statement to reduce the length of time applicants spend in the system through the establishment of a single applications procedure and an independent working group.
The amendment to the motion acknowledges the problems with the system of direct provision. As we know, it has existed for 14 years and was introduced by a previous Government. We were rightly critical when in opposition of that Government because of the flaws in the system but it was introduced in order to meet what was seen as a very short-term crisis in housing. It was not envisaged at the beginning that people would remain in direct provision for more than approximately six months. A key concern is the length of time so many people spend in the system, particularly families and children. The amendment acknowledges this and that the Ministers have agreed on the need to review the current system. It is also noted that over half the residents in the system have been there for over four years, which is clearly unacceptable.
The motion, as amended, would welcome the solid commitments to establish the independent working group. I know the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, will speak more about that, and there is to be a preliminary roundtable meeting to get the group up and running this Thursday. That will involve non-governmental organisations and those who are involved on the front line. It is envisaged that there will be a very short timeframe to report on improvements to be made in the system, and I hope issues like the right to work will be dealt with, as I anticipate they will, within that working group. I welcome that measure.
I also welcome the commitment to introduce a protection Bill as a matter of priority. There are three issues for all of us concerned with this issue. The first takes in the conditions in direct provision centres about which others have spoken so eloquently. These conditions are unacceptable, particularly for families and children. There is a lack of cooking facilities and so little privacy and space, as has been highlighted by Mr. Carl O'Brien and others familiar with the system. The conditions must be addressed as a matter of urgency and any centres providing inadequate accommodation, particularly for children and families, should be closed. As I have said, we should also consider moving families with children out of direct provision centres altogether and into independent accommodation. Some facilities operate on a self-catering basis, as the report from the Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, notes. We should consider improving that system, allowing people to have their own cooking facilities and greater privacy and space. We are addressing this matter of conditions in centres and the amendment to the motion gives the Government space to do so. In the Seanad we should look to hold the Government to account on that and ensure the matter can be addressed within a short timeframe.
The second issue concerns the length of time involved, and other colleagues have spoken eloquently about this as well. It is unacceptable that people spend this length of time in the system. I know there has been discussion of children born into direct provision who are now eight or nine years old; they have lived all their lives in the system, which is unacceptable. The matter can be addressed through the mechanism described in the amendment of a single protection procedure to be introduced through a piece of legislation which will essentially be taken from the immigration, residence and protection Bill and fast-tracked through these Houses. I hope we will hear something about the timeline of that process. The legislative programme states that this will be introduced early in 2015 and I anticipate it should be passed by Easter 2015. Perhaps the Minister of State will speak to it.
The absence of a single protection procedure has been a major problem within the Irish system and Ireland remains out of step with the rest of the EU because there is a procedure of refugee status determination divorced from subsidiary protection. That slows the process and has made it extremely cumbersome and difficult for applicants within the system. That has contributed extensively to delays. The Irish Refugee Council produced an excellent document last year setting out the history of direct provision, pointing out that the single protection procedure is important and that steps to bring it forward are very welcome. Its absence has meant that people have spent far longer in direct provision than they should.
A third issue is more long term and it must be acknowledged in the debate. The overall process is deeply flawed, as has been acknowledged not just by this Government but also by the previous Government. We need to seek to progress and expedite the bigger immigration, residence and protection Bill so as to ensure our system of determination of claims is fair. There is much concern about the low numbers of people who receive positive declarations of refugee status through the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner, ORAC. I considered the RIA report, which states that over the ten years from 2002 to the end of December 2012, only 6% of those who made applications for declarations of refugee status received positive recommendations. There have been international critiques of Ireland's low rate of recognition of refugee status. It is important that we provide for a single protection procedure to speed up the process but we must also ensure the process is fair and people will get a fair hearing. There has been much concern in the past about the absence of a fair hearing and what seemed to be a rather dismissive rejection of applications.
Improvements have been made to the ORAC system but we must acknowledge the need for reformed legislation. I am conscious that litigation exists on this and a judgment is due in the High Court by December this year. The CA and TYcase challenges the legality of direct provision and will have an impact on the report of the working group in terms of conditions in direct provision and the mechanism itself.
All of us want to see this system changed. If we cannot abolish it we must ensure direct provision is in place for as short a period as possible. People, especially families with children, must be dealt with swiftly and there should be a single protection procedure. The conditions in centres must be adequate so that people are treated humanely and with the sort of privacy and dignity we all deserve and require.
Wednesday, 23 October 2013
Senator Ivana Bacik: I welcome the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter. I also welcome the opportunity to have this debate. I commend Senator Jillian van Turnhout and her colleagues in the Taoiseach’s nominee group because it is an important debate to have. I further thank the Minister and the Government for not tabling an amendment. As Senator Averil Power said, it is appropriate that we take a constructive cross-party approach on the issue. This is exactly the type of issue we should be able to constructively debate in such a way in the Seanad. It is good to do so just after we have had a full debate on Seanad reform with the Taoiseach. This is a model of how things might be done. It is particularly appropriate on an issue such as this that we do not take a partisan approach along party political lines.
It should be a matter of great shame to all of us that we have had a system of direct provision in place for 14 years, since November 1999, in which there may well be abuses. We are certainly conscious of inadequate facilities, at a minimum. There have been many reports and official criticisms of the direct provision system. The Minister, when in opposition, voiced criticisms also. Rightly, people are critical of the system. Former Ombudsman Ms Emily O'Reilly stated in July this year that direct provision imposes a significant cost in terms of impact on physical and mental health, family, relationships and the ability to participate in society. She cited a particular case that she said would have been a major scandal had it happened in the case of an Irish citizen's family. It was a case involving the refusal by the HSE to pay supplementary welfare allowance to a mother of two in direct provision accommodation in a hostel. One of her children had attempted suicide. The child was put into care but the family remains separated because the woman was denied a welfare payment.
The FLAC report from 2009, which looks back over ten years of direct provision, states direct provision entails a flawed system and that it has failed to protect adequately the rights of those seeking asylum and protection in Ireland and should be abolished. It made practical recommendations as to how the system could be improved if it were to be retained. It is a matter of great concern and shame to all of us that the system continues to be in place. We need to examine practically how we can best reform it, if we are not to abolish it. The motion tabled by the Independent Senators is a really practical and constructive one because it seeks to address this very practical concern.
Let us examine the numbers. There has been a change and an improvement over the 14 years in that we now have much smaller numbers in direct provision accommodation. I am interested to note that the numbers have fallen since the figure in the Independent Senators' motion, 4,624 residents, was published. The figure is now 4,367 residents. Admittedly, it is not a very great reduction. The RIA report of 2012 states that in that year there were 4,841 persons accommodated in direct provision centres. This, in itself, marked a decrease of 11% from the same date in 2011. There certainly have been reductions in numbers, which is very welcome. However, the real concern, which the Minister shares and which is very honestly expressed in the report of the RIA, is the length of time for which people remain in direct provision accommodation. By the end of 2012, almost 60% of those in direct provision accommodation had been there for more than three years, as we have heard. The average length of stay, according to the report, is just under four years, or 45 months. The detailed figures suggest over 400 people were resident in direct provision accommodation for seven years or more at the end of 2012. These are the really shocking figures on delay.
The motion very rightly pinpoints issues associated with children in direct provision accommodation. We know that approximately 1,700 persons in direct provision accommodation are children under the age of 18 years. The RIA figures suggest one third of those in direct provision accommodation are single adults, but two thirds of the 4,300 people in direct provision accommodation, or 66%, are in family units. It is really the people in family units about whom the concerns must be most serious. The issues Senator Fiach Mac Conghail spoke about so eloquently, including privacy and normal family routines, are particularly at issue regarding children in direct provision accommodation. In the past, I have worked with groups that are particularly concerned about the plight of unaccompanied minors. I acknowledge there have been improvements in the conditions of unaccompanied minors, namely, children who are not living in a family unit and who are clearly the most vulnerable. Great efforts have been made to ensure that there are supports and protections for all children resident in direct provision centres. The RIA sets out in quite a lot of detail the measures that have been taken. However, we still should be examining in a practical way how we can address real concerns about inadequate supports and provisions for children who are currently in direct provision accommodation, many of whom have clearly been in direct provision for many years. A colleague alluded to the case highlighted in the newspapers today, that is, the case of the child who was born in a direct provision hostel and who, at the age of eight, was still there. These are real concerns about real children whose circumstances we need to examine now.
Is it possible, in the short-term, to consider moving families with children out of direct provision centres into independent accommodation? To be practical, we should at least examine the cases of those who have been in direct provision accommodation for more than three years. By way of pointing out an exceptional figure, the RIA states nearly 60% are in direct provision accommodation for over three years. Mine is a practical suggestion. Senator Power referred to the issue of the right to work of people who have been in the system for so long. Work would ensure they would not be a burden on the State. That could be a factor also.
The Minister stated a number of times that he will be introducing an amended immigration, residence and protection Bill. Clearly, in the longer term, that must be done to introduce a streamlined process for the resolution of asylum claims. The bigger picture, of which direct provision is just a part, is that we have a very poor record of positive decisions being made on asylum claims. A very low number of claims have been upheld over the years. There are serious problems with the mechanisms for determining asylum applications, which problems have been well publicised. A large number of judicial reviews of the process have been before the courts. Clearly, in the longer term, this matter needs to be addressed. I am delighted the Minister will be doing so. He is committed to it but there have been unfortunate and unavoidable delays in bringing forward the new legislation. In the short term, let us examine some practical ways to support and provide assistance for families with children in direct provision accommodation for a very lengthy period. If we do not do so, we will be facing future scandals and State apologies, as others have said.