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Seanad Statements on Direct Provision
4 October 2017
Opening Statement by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Charlie Flanagan TD
I am pleased to be here today to speak on this important topic and I thank members of the Upper House for this engagement on this important matter which I take a very personal interest in.
At the outset, I feel it is important to clear up some misunderstandings about what Direct Provision is. The regimes operated by some countries around the world are quite notorious and I feel it is often the case that assumptions are made that all countries use the same approach.
Indeed, some people believe that the accommodation offers constitutes a detention centre. This is not the case.
Direct Provision is the system whereby State services are offered and directly provided to protection applicants through the relevant Government Department or Agency, hence the name ‘Direct Provision’. We do not know who or how many will arrive on our shores today or tomorrow in need of or claiming protection – however, I can say that at present approximately 50 new applicants arrive in Ireland every week. What we do know is that all applicants, on behalf of the Irish people, are offered immediate shelter, full board accommodation and a range of services such as health and education while their application for international protection is being processed. Not every person who seeks international protection in Ireland chooses to accept this offer and of course many chose to live with colleagues, family or friends in communities across the country, as they are entitled to do.
If the system was simply disbanded, as some members of these Houses and advocates call for, then the risks of consigning vulnerable people, who neither know our systems or language, to poverty and exploitation are multiplied. It can only exacerbate the risks for unprotected people as they join the lengthy waiting lists for social housing or enter the private rental market with little hope of finding affordable and secure accommodation in the context of the current housing crisis. We as a government will not leave vulnerable people at greater risk while we are urged by some to abandon our international obligations to provide shelter and essential services to applicants.
The Direct Provision system is a guarantee that every person who walks into the International Protection Office today will tonight have a bed, food, a shower, medical care, information and access to a wide range of services. They will not be forced to spend the night on the streets or be left to their own devices to look for emergency housing as in the early years under previous governments. They will not be vulnerable to ruthless criminals stealing any welfare payment that would replace direct provision and leaving them in abject poverty. I have yet to hear a credible alternative being proposed in almost two decades to the current system.
All that being said, I recognise that the way this system operated for many years was wholly unsatisfactory. It was beset by problems as the State sought to grapple with a large volume of asylum applications, something that this country was not used to. The previous Government made very important strides in improving the system and my colleague, Minister Stanton and I are totally committed to fully implementing our programme of reform, which our governments initiated for the protection process and the Direct Provision system. The landscape of our international protection process has radically changed for the better since we asked Justice McMahon and his expert group to report to us in 2015. I want to take this opportunity to place on the record my sincere gratitude to Mr Justice McMahon and all those who served on his expert group for their invaluable service to the State.
All systems require continuous review and improvement. Minister Stanton and I are working with our Department officials and across government to continually enhance and develop the entire system so that the best possible set of facilities and services can be provided to those in our care. We have published three item-by-item accounts on our implementation of the recommendations in the Justice McMahon Report. The final report in July shows the very considerable progress made with 98% of the recommendations advised as being implemented in full or in progress. The commitment in the Programme for a Partnership Government to reforming the system, with a particular focus on families and children is further testament that Fine Gael and our partners in Governments are the ones pursuing meaningful reform throughout the protection process.
The key recommendation underpinning the Justice McMahon Report was to address the length of time taken to process applications, which consequently leads to long stays in State provided accommodation. With the commencement of the International Protection Act 2015 on 31 December last, we now have a single application procedure. This is the biggest reform to our protection process in two decades. It means that an applicant will have all aspects of their claim, refugee status, subsidiary protection status, and permission to remain, examined and determined in one process. Our intention is to provide first instance decisions in the shortest possible timeframe.
I have put in place significant additional resources to facilitate this, both at first instance and appeal level and I expect further resources to be assigned in the coming period. The landscape of processing and delay has substantially changed. When the Justice McMahon Report was published in 2015, 36% of applicants were in the Direct Provision system for three years or less. This figure is now 72%, which represents a radical improvement and we continue to work very hard to improve things more. There is no complacency.
Substantial reforms to the living conditions of applicants who are provided with shelter, accommodation and services in the centres have also been made. Most significantly, in the Mosney Centre we have established a Food Hall where residents can obtain appropriate food which in turn they can cook in their own homes. On a visit to Mosney for the Friends of the Centre Family Day in July, Justice McMahon praised the centre, saying it provided a template for other Direct Provision centres to follow. Cooking facilities have also been provided in centres such as Kinsale Road, Clonakilty and Millstreet, in Cork and St. Patrick’s in Monaghan to enable individual families to cook for themselves. This is an important part of everyday family life and, indeed, it is particularly important for families and I am very conscious of children in this regard. An increase to the disposable income for adults and children living in Direct Provision was provided in August. Since the Justice McMahon Report, we have more than doubled the weekly rate of Direct Provision Allowance for children. Adults who will soon have access to the labour market will also see their capacity for economic independence enhanced in line with the finding of the Supreme Court.
Residents have also been given access to the services of the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for Children, which is a very important step forward.
There has been a great deal of criticism of Direct Provision over the years. Much of it has been warranted and many experts have engaged constructively with Judge McMahon to deliver real improvements. However, some criticism has not been warranted. All States have to set and implement rules about people coming to the State. Asylum seekers must apply for international protection status under international law on defined grounds. When an asylum seeker comes to Ireland seeking international protection status, they enter a legal process and it is during this time that we offer Direct Provision to those who choose to avail of it.
Alongside the asylum process, we have significant commitments to welcoming refugees fleeing harrowing conflict in Syria and other regions. Refugees who come to Ireland under the Irish Refugee Protection Programme are initially provided with shelter at Emergency Reception and Orientation Centres (EROCs).
Regrettably we have been experiencing some difficulties in identifying suitable Centres. My officials, who work in this area on a daily basis, are of the view that the blunt condemnations of the system of shelter is acting as a serious disincentive for people coming forward to offer their properties for rent to the state. This means that vulnerable refugees that we have already screened to come here under resettlement or relocation may remain in camps abroad this winter. That would be a very regrettable situation. My Department will shortly be publishing a call for tenders for the provision and management of EROCs and I would like all members of the House to assist in identifying any suitable locations they may be familiar with and to encourage possible applicants to tender.
I am also very open to following the European model and inviting NGOs who are active in this area to focus their coalitions towards providing practical support and positively responding to one of our open calls, for which have designated funding, to run a Direct Provision centre. Seventeen years on and three years into the current crisis, we are unique amongst the EU Member States in this regard in that it is solely the State that offers this shelter and support. I understand that one NGO/housing association partnership has recently expressed some interest in exploring the possibility of becoming involved in this area. I very much welcome this initiative and would encourage others to think along similar lines. If you want to affect your changes in this area, what we need are practical partnerships and constructive engagement to deliver tangible supports,. The management of a centre by an NGO or NGO grouping would provide an opportunity to embed the type of ethos NGOs may wish to see implemented, funded of course by the Irish taxpayer from State resources. , To NGOs, I say: I would welcome that cooperation that is the bedrock of so many other countries’ humanitarian response.
I look forward to hearing the contributions of Senators to this debate. While I appreciate that this is an emotive topic, what we need are constructive solutions. I urge colleagues to be mindful of the possible impact of their statements, particularly in respect of reinforcing negative stereotypes in respect of asylum seekers. It is important that Members are accurate in their statements and acknowledge the context both in Ireland and internationally.
I would again emphasise the urgent need for greater accommodation supply. I want to reiterate my absolute commitment to ensuring the McMahon Report is implemented and that we operate a humanitarian system that upholds and respects the law and human dignity.