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Asylum seekers: conditions in direct provision

Several senators raised the situation of asylum seekers, starting with Trevor O Clochartaigh (SF, agricultural) (Seanad Eireann, Debates, 3rd October 2013, 535-7).  He complained about the lengthy delays in bringing forward the Immigration, Residence and Protection (IRP) Bill which added to the lengthy delays that asylum seekers experienced in direct provision, delays which cost more than €3m in 2011.  Replying for the government, the Minister of State at the Depatment of Jobs, Enterprise & Innovation John Perry told him that the IRP Bill would update legislation going back to 1935 and that work of the Bill continued amidst the many competing legislative priorities and it was expected that it would be ‘advanced for publication in the new year’.  In the meantime though the minister would introduce secondary legislation for the processing of subsidiary protection applications, which would transfer responsibilities to the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner (ORAC) and the Refugee Appeals Tribunal (RAT), with personal interviews and the right to appeal.  Trevor O Clochartaigh welcomed this but still felt that the government was dragging its feet.    The Bill had been promised for the end of this year but it would now be next year and people were still languishing in the direct provision system.  The minister of state, though, insisted that the government was not delaying.    


The issue was raised in the Dail under a topical debate by Michael McCarthy (Lab, Cork SW) (Dail Eireann, Debates, 9th October 2013, 440-5).   Serious questions must be asked about direct provision centres, he said, following an Irish Times article which pained a bleak picture of lax health and safety standards, poor hygiene and gross overcrowding.   About 5,000 people were in direct provision, of whom 1,700 were children.  Families were often housed in one room with faulty heating, with shower and toilet facilities shared.  They were prohibited from work but could be moved without consultation at a moment’s notice.  He had visited a centre in Cork and he considered the conditions there to be inhumane.  Concerns had been raised by the ombudsman, at the United Nations and in the high court in Belfast.  Patrick Nulty (ind, Dublin W) spoke of how the average time in direct provision centres was 47 months, with some there seven years.  They were not subject to the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) and not all staff were garda vetted.  Aine Collins (FG, Cork NW) described what she called the ‘grim picture’ in some of these centres, which were only envisaged as accommodation for six months.


Responding, the Minister for Justice & Equality Alan Shatter said that the report showed that the inspection regime run by the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) was working, but he did not minimize the report, which was treated with the utmost seriousness.  The newspaper report was based on documents released under Freedom of Information and naturally their worst elements were highlighted, but most inspection reports were positive.  It did not tell the full story.   Contractors had an important duty to comply with the terms of their contracts, but some of the issues raised in the reports arose as a result of some of the residents blocking fire exits and leaving children unattended.    All 34 centres were subject to a minimum three unannounced inspections a year, two by RIA officials and one by an independent company, QTS, as well as by fire officers and environmental health officers.  Staff were vetted.  They were subject to the requirements of the Housing Acts as to overcrowding.  He denied that suicides had been covered up, for there had been only one, which was in a hospital, not a centre.    Inspections from 1st October 2013 would be published and he assured residents that complaints under house rules were legitimate and would not affect their claims.


Michael McCarthy challenged the minister to sign up to the reception directive, while Patrick Nulty told him that if he had to live there himself he might take a different view on protection and facilities.  Aine Collins said that there was no way people should be there seven to nine years, which was a lifetime for a child born in the system.


The minister acknowledged that direct provision was not ideal, but it facilitated the state assisting those seeking asylum economically at a time when the state was in financial difficulty.  There was no open-ended pot of money to deal with the issue.  51,000 people had been through direct provision and 4,500 were there now.  No asylum seeker has been left homeless.  The Irish system was on a par with, or significantly better than other European states.  It has its faults but it was misleading to describe it as inadequate or inappropriate.  It was not possible that they should go into the workforce in which more than 400,000 people were already unemployed.    Some did indeed come from terrible backgrounds, but some were economic migrants pretending to be asylum seekers and others came from places quite different from where they claimed.  He shared the view that they should not be in centres for any length of time, but the legal system was slow and could take one or two years before a case was heard.  His objective was to introduce reforming legislation, but due to huge burdens on the office of the Attorney General, it had not yet been possible to finalize it, but he expected to publish it in 2014.    Then there would be a single application and an independent appeals process.  He would like to get to a position where the vast majority of claims were processed in six months.  As for the reception directive, ‘we cannot sign up to anything until we change our laws’.