Direct Provision System revisited
Posted on January 26, 2015
Last week in the Seanad I welcomed the fact that we were debating the issue of Direct Provision again. Here is the transcript from my contribution to the debate when Minister O'Riordan returned to the chamber to discuss further issues.
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.