Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for Justice and Equality his views on the humaneness or otherwise of the system of direct provision here in which vulnerable refugees are kept for years in cramped and inadequate accommodation, deprived of cooking facilities and provided €21.60 per week to live on in view of his condemnation of the US policy of separating children from their parents at the US border and condemnation of inhumane policies towards vulnerable refugees. [27551/18]
245. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for Justice and Equality his plans to replace the system of direct provision with a humane system for persons seeking asylum here (details supplied). [27571/18]
Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Charles Flanagan): I propose to take Questions Nos. 231 and 245 together.
As the Deputy may be aware, the Direct Provision system encompasses the range of State services including accommodation, food, health and education directly provided to international protection applicants through all the relevant Government Departments and Agencies. It is a whole-of-government support system for those seeking international protection in Ireland, although the term is more often used to describe the Accommodation Centres provided by the Reception and Integration Agency of my Department. Notwithstanding the criticisms levelled at the system, particularly in terms of length of stay, it has proven effective in ensuring that those who come to our country seeking international protection receive food and shelter and have immediate access to our state services. Over 60,000 people have been provided with shelter since its inception.
It is not possible to predict how many people may arrive in any given year seeking international protection. However, the system ensures that all applicants can be offered immediate shelter, full board accommodation and a range of services, such as health and education while their applications are being processed. Not every person who seeks international protection chooses to accept this offer, and some choose to live independently or with friends in communities across the country, as they are entirely free to do.
If the system was simply disbanded, as some have been calling for, without a viable alternative, the risks of consigning vulnerable people, who know neither our country, its systems nor our language, to poverty, exploitation and homelessness are multiplied. The Government cannot countenance that. I have not heard a viable alternative put forward as to how a person, who has unestablished needs and turns up here unexpectedly, can be immediately provided with shelter and an acceptable level of care.
In the absence of an alternative, any commitment to abolish a system that offers instant shelter and support would pose a serious risk to the wellbeing of protection applicants and undermine our international obligations.
As the Deputy will be aware, the system has already been subject to a complete review in 2014. Mr. Justice Bryan McMahon chaired a Working Group comprised of advocates and officials and made 173 recommendations for reform of the protection process including direct provision. The report was accepted by Government and three separate itemised progress reports on these recommendations were published on my Department’s website, resulting in change being achieved across 98% of the recommendations.
The improvements to living conditions for applicants for international protection have been significant over recent years. These include the implementation of self or communal catering arrangements in a number of accommodation centres. As a result of this initiative, over 1,500 residents are now able to prepare meals of their own choosing. In addition, there have been improvements to a number of outdoor playgrounds and football pitches to provide for ‘all-weather’ facilities and the introduction of teenagers rooms in centres to provide social areas for this age group. Friends of the Centre groups have also been established in each centre. This initiative aims to bring residents, community and voluntary groups together with a view to increasing integration opportunities and providing for the development of greater community linkages with the residents and the centre.
Following on from the McMahon Report, a Standards Advisory Group was set up in 2017. The work of this group is to build on the recommendations of McMahon and to develop a set of standards for accommodation provided for those people seeking the protection of the State. The Standards will meet the minimum standards set out in the Recast Reception Conditions Directive and EASO Guidance on Reception Conditions: Operational Standards and Indicators and will also take account of national developments in the provision of services to those in the protection process. They will take due cognisance of the responsibility to promote equality, prevent discrimination and protect the human rights of employees, customers, service users and everyone affected by policies and plans as defined by the Public Sector Equality and Human Rights Duty. The group is comprised of members from a range of organisations supporting refugees as well as staff from a number of government Departments and will deliver a Working Document in September 2018, following widespread consultation.
Of course, individual problems and issues can and do arise when any individual interacts with a service provided by the state but, in such circumstances, where complaints are made and applicants are not happy with how matters are resolved, international protection applicants now have full access to the services of the Ombudsman and Ombudsman for Children.
Following on from the improvements made arising from the recommendations in the McMahon Report, the Government has looked to further consolidate those improvements and build upon them. In particular, the decision to opt into the (recast) Reception Conditions Directive represents another major reform of the process. I am satisfied to report that the opt-in process has proceeded quickly and, on Tuesday 22 May 2018, the decision of the EU Commission confirming Ireland’s opt in to the EU (Recast) Reception Directive was adopted. The decision was published in the Official Journal the following day. The opt-in process is continuing and will be concluded shortly. This will allow the European Commission to conduct its assessment of the management and conditions pertaining to our Direct Provision system and present their findings in the future.
I can assure the Deputy that the Government is committed to the on-going reform in relation to Direct Provision or any other aspect of our asylum system that may be required in order that we have a system in Ireland that reaches or exceeds the standards required by the Reception Conditions Directive and that will compare favourably with the best systems of our EU partners.