Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 19 May 2016
Committee on Housing and Homelessness
Irish Refugee Council
I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
The opening statements submitted by the witnesses will be published on the committee website after this meeting. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I remind the witnesses and colleagues to turn off their mobile telephones or put them into flight mode.
I welcome from the Irish Refugee Council, Ms Sue Conlan and Mr. Rory O'Neill. They are both welcome and I thank them for their attendance. While the committee has to hand the council's opening statement, I invite the witnesses to make a statement or summary, after which I will invite colleagues to ask them a number of questions.
Ms Sue Conlan:
I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to appear before the committee to address issues regarding the reception and housing of asylum seekers and refugees. I apologise for the late submission of the documents, which members may not have had time to read in full. While I will not repeat what is in the document and would welcome any questions arising from it, I wish to draw attention to a few points. The way in which Mr. Rory O'Neill and I will divide up the subject is that I will speak about the initial reception of asylum seekers and refugees and he then will deal with the issues relating to the transition of people once they get their papers or of those who are moving from the initial reception centres for refugees.
I will start with a story because it helps to illustrate the reality we are discussing. Two days ago, I spent a couple of hours with a young man in his late 20s from a country that is well known in the news at present for giving rise to refugees. I spent time with him because he was in Dublin for an interview in connection with his asylum claim that was to take place the day after. He had come to Dublin the day before because he would not otherwise have been able to make it in time for a 9 a.m. interview. It was the second time I had met him and as I spent time with him, he spoke to me and showed me photographs of his home, of people with whom he went to university and of his wife and their daughter. We spoke about what had led him to leave - it was all of his own violition - and his hopes that, eventually, he will be able to get his papers here, he has been here for a relatively short period, and to bring his wife and daughter to join him because he is feeling very isolated. The emphasis of the point he was making to me or that came across was that while he hopes to get his refugee status quite soon and then to be able to bring his wife and daughter, the problem will be that he is in a direct provision centre. They will not be able to live with them in that centre. He studied English literature at university, is already well aware of the housing situation here and wonders how long it will be before he is able to get accommodation that would facilitate him being reunited with his wife and daughter. This is one reason this housing situation is so key to people who are expected to get refugee status and to make Ireland their home.
However, I wish to mention another factor pertaining to him, which is that I met him again on the day after. I took him to the direct provision centre in Dublin at which he was staying the night before, accommodation having been arranged for him, and asked him how he got on. He replied that he had not slept. He had been put into a room with two other people he had never met before who were from different countries and who already had been living there for a while. The accommodation simply did not suit him that well.
He had a roof over his head and a bed to sleep on, but this was before probably the most important interview that he was due to have. The thing we forget about direct provision and the accommodation of asylum seekers is that accommodation is part of an important process. Unless one is accommodated in a place that enables a person to engage properly with that process, a wrong decision can be made.
Two weeks ago, I met with someone who after eight years has finally had a decision on his refugee appeal. That is the first of three applications in this country.
I want to touch on one other thing, which is already on the public record. There is a group at a mosque in Dublin, the Dublin Islamic Foundation of Ireland, which has requested access to Muslim refugees in an emergency reception and orientation centre in Monasterevin in County Kildare. The reply on record to that from the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, given on 17 May, indicates the restrictions they put in place for the purposes of protection of privacy. There is a statement in that reply, however, which is fundamentally wrong. I want to read that statement. It says: "It is required under law to protect the identity of refugees." That is not true. Section 19 of the Refugee Act 1996, which is still in force, and section 26 of the International Protection Act 2015, due to come into force in July, refer to protecting the identity of applicants under the Acts. In addition, the 2015 Act refers to those who have been applicants under the Act.
Refugees being transferred from Jordan to Lebanon have never applied under any Act in this country. They are being brought in, already recognised as refugees. Therefore, the newer refugees who are coming to these emergency reception and orientation centres are wrongly being denied the opportunity for greater integration with local communities. The reason the mosque sought an approach was because Ramadan is coming up and they want to help facilitate those people in having access to wider Muslim groups. I just wanted to put those two things on record.
Let me now come to other issues. Anything that we say is already in full knowledge of the difficulties that are being faced by people already in the country who are seeking housing or have been made homeless. One of the things that the homelessness situation has drawn attention to is the fact that others, such as teachers, are beginning to speak out about the impact quite soon on children of being in hotels, and not having the privacy or space they need. Yet, generally, this is the situation that asylum seekers have been facing for many years.
As we say in the first line of our presentation, being a refugee is the most extreme form of loss of home and displacement. It is the ultimate in homelessness. They are in a country they do not know, separated from family who themselves may be spread in many other countries. Since last September, a two-tier system has developed in Ireland, and there is a danger in that. We are beginning to see people fleeing wars, the real refugees, and the others who come for other reasons or from countries that are not so prominent in the news, such as South Sudan and Burundi, as perhaps not being as entitled to protection as refugees. That is wrong in itself because refugee status can arise, for example, because of sexual orientation.
Because we are focusing on what the EU is doing, with an emphasis of course upon Syria for obvious reasons, given the numbers who have fled and are now fleeing that country, we have two systems. We have a direct provision system for people who come of their own volition and claim asylum. We also have the emergency reception and orientation centres and further resettlements for those being brought into the country either from Jordan and Lebanon as recognised refugees, or relocated from Greece and Italy.
Ireland made a commitment to take about 4,000 either by way of resettlement or relocation. So far, a family of ten have come from Greece but more are in the pipeline to be relocated from Greece and Italy. The difference therefore is quite stark between those in direct provision and those in the emergency reception and orientation centres. I will touch on that a little more when it comes up.
The direct provision centres are overseen by the Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, which is part of the Department of Justice and Equality. RIA's website states it "seeks to ensure that the material needs of residents, in the period during which their applications for international protection are being processed, are met." RIA continues to accommodate people post protection application, as well as those who have a deportation order against them but have not yet been removed from the country. To some degree, it reduces homelessness.
As I indicated in my story at the beginning of my submission on accommodation for those awaiting a decision on an asylum claim, it is not just their material needs which need to be met. It is not just a question of a roof over one's head or food in one's belly. I asked a young man in an accommodation centre about the food there. He goes for one of the three meals a day. He already knows a bit about Ireland and joked he is already integrating well into Ireland as he sometimes just eats potato because he has got a taste for them. Often, he does not like the food, however. Both direct provision centres and emergency reception and orientation centres share characteristics with accommodation for homeless people where residents lack autonomy, control, privacy, security and the ability to engage properly with friends or people from the community.
RIA has given us up-to-date statistics, which are not available publicly due to staff shortages. These show more than 600 people have been in direct provision for more than eight years, 13.4% of the total population of direct provision centres. These centres comprise hotels, chalets and mobile homes. More than 1,500 people, one third of the population of direct provision centres, have been in direct provision for more than three years. The average length of stay in direct provision centres is 38 months. This has a significant impact when it comes to people moving on.
The post of a Minister for integration has not existed since the previous Government came into power in March 2011. There are no plans for the integration of asylum seekers. Whatever status they get, many of these people will remain in Ireland. To a degree we are building problems for the future because we are not providing them with the support to move on, whatever length of time they have spent in the system. RIA’s title is, therefore, misleading because the integration element of the agency’s remit has not existed since 2007. Nearly ten years on, no one is addressing the integration of asylum seekers. In addition, on 28 March 2014, the Minister for Justice and Equality announced a review of Ireland’s approach to the integration of migrants. We have yet to see the publication of that integration policy. To be fair, the interdepartmental group conducting the review took submissions on the matter. While it may yet come, it still has not happened. Accordingly, we have not seen whether there will be an attempt to integrate a significant population with varied needs.
To date, two emergency reception and orientation centres have been opened, one in Monasterevin, County Kildare, owned by existing direct provision centre owners, and one in Dungarvan, County Waterford, owned by a company not previously involved with asylum seekers and refugees. Orientation takes place between eight to ten weeks before people are moved to more long-term accommodation. One group is about to go to Kerry. Mayo County Council has announced a group will go to Mayo. There are plans to move some to Limerick and some have already gone to Mallow, County Cork.
The exception with that group is that there was no real provision of support for it. The committee will have heard more about their stories in the news because when they linked up with local people, some of the information about the process came out and the way they were beginning to adapt to life in Mallow.
An unfortunate feature, which is reflected in the answer to those parliamentary questions, relates to the Office for the Promotion of Migrant Integration, which oversees settled refugees and the relocation of asylum seekers from Greece and Italy. While the office's title clearly relates to the promotion of integration, unfortunately, it has taken secrecy and privacy to a new level to the extent that access is exceptionally difficult for people who want to engage with those new communities and enable them to begin to learn what life in Ireland is like. I made an application for the Irish Refugee Council to join forces with a very large company - during its charity month - in order to spend a day or part of a day at one of these two centres. I have been informed that the request has gone to the principal officer at the Office for the Promotion of Migrant Integration. That is not something that needs to be dealt with by a principal officer. It can be dealt with if people in these centres are properly trained. Of course, one does not want people going into the centres who will abuse and attack others but individuals who are offering a welcome, as we have seen in other countries, should be not be set back and rendered unable to offer the support that is needed, including companies that are doing it as part of their corporate social responsibility.
I will deal briefly with the recommendations on page 4. We have made a recommendation that, in respect of the Reception and Integration Agency and the Office for the Promotion of Migrant Integration, the resettlement of refugees should be moved from the Department of Justice and Equality to the new Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. I may be wrong but I assume that the housing needs of everyone else who has made submissions to or is due to come before the committee are probably being dealt with by this new Department. Why would we, therefore, separate this group of people and put them under the remit of the Department of Justice and Equality? I do not know if the Taoiseach has made announcements about the new junior ministries. I know one of them was due to relate to housing. Clearly, this is a prime issue, hence the existence of this committee. Therefore, why not move responsibility for the housing of asylum seekers and refugees to that Department, particularly as it includes local government, which is key to the integration of these refugees who have been resettled around the country?
The second recommendation relates to the integration strategy that has been in the pipeline since March 2014. It would be good to see a commitment to publish it and, of course, to include asylum seekers within it. We also recommend phasing out direct provision along the lines we have previously proposed. We have created a link, which members will only be able to see in the electronic version, to a second proposal regarding what reception for asylum seekers should be. The first proposal was made in 2011. The proposal before the committee dates from December 2013. It sets out what an alternative reception system for asylum seekers should be. That document addresses quite a number of points and I will leave it for members' attention.
Finally, we recommend that companies and organisations which receive public funding should be required to operate transparently to bring about proper accountability. Paragraph 2.1 on page 2 relates to the 35 centres across 16 counties. The largest of these companies with capacity to accommodate more than one-third of direct provision residents are registered as unlimited rather than limited liability companies. Therefore, they do not have to file publicly accessible returns with the Companies Registration Office. Of course, if it is a private business, it is entitled to some degree of privacy but huge amounts of public money are being put into direct provision. On average, we have calculated that approximately €48,000 would be provided per year to accommodate and support a family of four in one of these direct provision centres. How much of that could be used to allow that person to live in a community or at least give them greater autonomy and control by living in units where they are able to cook?
I would have thought that it was a basic principle that public money should only go to companies where there is some ability to see how it is being used and how much is being used for the benefit of the people they are accommodating. That is, therefore, a further recommendation that we make. I have taken more time than I wanted but if there is time, Mr. O'Neill will briefly address-----
Mr. Rory O'Neill:
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute. Currently, more than 500 people in the direct provision system have their papers and are entitled to leave. This is, obviously, because of the national housing crisis. The transition from a long-term shared institutional existence in direct provision to living autonomously in the community is seen as another precarious journey in the lives of asylum seekers and refugees. After years of enduring an institutional existence, the relief of receiving a positive status and being able to move is short-lived. The realisation that people now have to fend for themselves following years of living a life that allowed for no self-determination, freedom or independence is daunting and problematic as they make this transition. While we support and welcome the recommendations that others have made to this committee in regard to rent control, caps on rent, the increase in capital spending on social housing, increases in rent allowances and rent certainty among others, the issues of housing and homelessness affect many other groups of people.
We are here to acknowledge and illustrate the problems that face the migrant community and those who have been through the asylum process and are entitled to avail of the social entitlements that are applicable to their situation and individual requirements. They have particular and exigent needs which they are struggling to meet and address. Without access to suitable housing, this cohort of people will struggle to become productive and contributing members of society and will remain disenfranchised, which will further contribute to social injustice and inequality.
Even without suffering from the residual effects of institutional living, transitioning from direct provision is fraught with difficulty. A catch-22 situation exists for most people, whereby when they try to access social welfare payments, they are unable to do so because they do not have an address. They have to be out of the direct provision system to obtain an address. They are, therefore, caught in a vicious cycle where they cannot access social welfare to get housing unless they can get out of the hostels. Some people are able to access social welfare while they are in the direct provision centres, thus giving them the ability to save for a deposit, but in the main, this is not the case. It should be remembered that people in the asylum system are not allowed to work - a prohibition maintained in the International Protection Act 2015 - and receive an allowance of €19.10 per week, which has enabled them to save for a deposit.
In many cases, landlords do not accept rent allowance, even though they can no longer discriminate under legislation. However, this is a common problem for people exiting direct provision. They are unable to get references to access accommodation. The issue of sourcing accommodation that allows people to live close to family, schools and support networks is extremely difficult. As the committee will be well aware, the rental market for accommodation is in extreme short supply. This is further compounded by the fact that landlords will not accept rent allowance. Rules forbidding asylum seekers from working and attending college exacerbate the isolation and social exclusion living in direct provision involves and precludes them from moving on properly when they get their papers.
I thank Ms Conlan and Mr. O'Neill for their presentations. Like a number of colleagues, I represent a constituency that has a significant asylum and direct provision community in Clondalkin. I work a lot with the residents of the Clondalkin Towers Refugee Centre, including those who are stuck in the asylum system and the approximately 40 families who have their papers and are yet to be housed. I fully support many of the council's recommendations but they are beyond the scope of the limited role of the committee. We will, however, return to some of them when the housing committee is established.
We have to make a report to the Dáil and, ultimately, to the Minister in a few weeks which will attempt to examine immediate interventions to alleviate the worst aspects of the housing and homelessness crisis, including for the group of people we are discussing.
There is a particular set of difficulties which the witnesses know more about than I do, but I will put them on the record. When people get their papers, even after six or eight years in the direct provision system, the specific difficulties they have even getting on to social housing waiting lists, let alone getting access to housing, are far more burdensome than for non-asylum seekers. There are huge language barriers and the waiting time in most of the big urban local authorities to get a housing needs assessment is now four months. That is even before there is a formal decision on it. Navigating that system is incredibly complex.
The social welfare issue is also very complex. I know of many cases of people who have gotten their papers in Towers and have been awarded jobseeker's allowance while still resident there. They are getting the reduced rate jobseeker's allowance which is the same level as they were getting under the direct provision payment so it is a slightly different description of the same reality the witnesses have described. What measure or measures could be put in place immediately, presumably via the local authorities, to try to assist the transition process and meet the specific needs of the post-asylum process individuals we are talking about? If we were able to fix that bit or make a very good, strong recommendation to the Dáil and the Minister, even on that bit alone, it would be a huge help.
When one gets on the lists in most of the Dublin local authorities it is a ten-year wait, irrespective of household size. In terms of accessing private rental accommodation with State supports through HAP or whatever, and with the recommendations we have to make to the Dáil and the Minister in mind, do the witnesses have any specific recommendations on how to overcome the particular barriers that post-asylum application individuals are currently experiencing?
I thank the witnesses for coming in. Their insight is very useful and the real examples they use in their presentation are very helpful. In terms of their recommendations on housing and the housing needs of the groups they represent, the reason they are here today is because this group decided that this is an area we need to address. The witnesses have allies in here.
I agree with Deputy Ó Broin that we have limited scope in what we can do but in terms of their first recommendation, it would seem to me that any recommendation from us to say that the RIA should move to the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government might land on deaf ears. It might be a difficult objective to achieve. I would like to see the situation pertaining to the housing needs of the group coming within that scope. Will the witnesses think again about that particular recommendation? Could they have a fresh look at it and structure it differently so that we could go off and recommend some element in terms of housing needs to the Minister which would address their concerns on the housing element of it?
On the same point, I accept that it would be very difficult to achieve that but it is worth trying. The Department of Justice and Equality is not really the right place for it. I have serious reservations about how the Minister for justice is handling anything to do with refugees. This area is definitely something we should support moving into the new Department.
Deputy Ó Broin really hit the nail on the head. This committee was established before the Government was and has a remit to report by 17 June 2016. While the witnesses have spoken on a range of issues, the focus of this committee is on the housing issue in particular. It is not that we are not conscious of other issues, but our reporting will be on housing. The recommendations and issues that the witnesses have highlighted in that area are of paramount concern to the committee. I am not being disrespectful to or neglectful of the other issues but the focus of this committee is on the housing issue. Will Ms Conlan address the particular question that Deputies Ó Broin and Ryan asked?
Ms Sue Conlan:
We did not refer specifically to the recommendations that followed Mr. Rory O'Neill's but perhaps before I come to those I will try to address the particular issue that has been raised.
When I referred to a two-tier system at the beginning, it was the difference between people in direct provision and those in emergency reception and orientation centres. The difference with those asylum seekers being brought to the emergency reception and orientation centres is that when they get their papers, housing is found for them; they are not just given their papers and left to go on their own way. Recommendation No. 7 on the final page of the submission is to, "Provide people leaving direct provision with proper support for a minimum period of three months, including housing support workers as required." We know from those who have worked with people coming out of prison, other institutional environments or homelessness that it makes a huge difference to have somebody help navigate through the system, go to appointments with landlords and put documents together. It is a major step for somebody that makes quite a big practical difference to somebody. It helps to bridge a little of the hierarchy developing between a group which we deem to be possibly more in need and deserving of protection and those who do not, regardless of whether they are the same nationality.
Deputy Ó Broin made the point about people in Clondalkin getting social welfare. If those people have the protection of refugee status or subsidiary protection, the Act actually refers to social welfare, not reduced amounts. There is a major issue concerning the legality of the decision to reduce their payments to the €19.10. It is not uniform across the country that people can access social welfare or full social welfare payments in order to build up a bit of capital. There is a long wait even for social housing. We are not arguing that this group should jump a queue but it is about having equal access, even to the private rented market. I apologise if this is slightly outside the committee's remit but that really helps people to get on their feet in whatever housing exists. Therefore, they can perhaps compete on a more equal footing, if we ignore the additional disadvantages they have.
Members will have to forgive us for putting some issues on record, even if they do not come under the remit of this committee. It concerns us that when we speak about accommodation and housing, it does not really make sense to divide it. There are particular needs of certain communities and I know representatives of Pavee Point and an organisation dealing with people coming off or on drugs will also come before the committee. There are particular needs in communities but in a sense, they are very basic. I was in front of the Central Bank on Saturday when we ran a refugee rights desk. We invited people to come up and leave a message of solidarity. Some people we met were homeless and one guy turned up with his sleeping bag. He left a message to refugees to "stay strong". That is out of recognition that there is not necessarily a distinction. I take the point and we will put something very briefly to address more particularly issues coming from the committee. I hope the two recommendations might be of some benefit.
Mr. Rory O'Neill:
It is about starting to involve the local communities in the integration process when people move out of direct provision so they can move on, providing support services when people are making the transition to negotiate social welfare and access to housing. It is one of the big blocks for people. Those granted refugee status, subsidiary protection or leave to remain should have access to social welfare while in direct provision, as has been mentioned. This is so they can start building some capital and have the ability to move on. The Department of Social Protection or the Reception and Integration Agency should provide information to people when they receive papers on how to negotiate the systems and structures in place and impeding them in accessing housing. All of that would be very beneficial and make a difference.
Ms Sue Conlan:
If a person has been in full board and lodging, including bedding, he or she would not have the basics when moving to rented accommodation. That person must start with towels, duvets and sheets. All of these add up and a person might struggle even to get those together. There should be access to that initial funding or some assistance in that way. A task force was set up to respond to the working group and the protection process last year.
It produced a document which contained useful information about the Citizens Information Board, the Money Advice and Budgeting Service and so forth, but information alone, unless it is tangible and can help somebody access something, does not necessarily mean much. That points to somebody being put in place. In other countries the equivalent of the Reception and Integration Agency could tell them what group they now needed to approach to tell them about access to social welfare, help them access it and help them navigate the housing market. That type of assistance can make a huge difference. It means that although one is still joining a queue of 20 when looking at private accommodation, at least one is joining a queue rather than floundering about where even to find the accommodation.
I thank the witnesses for their report. Are the numbers increasing, decreasing or remaining steady? How is the current crisis in the Mediterranean affecting people coming here, wanting to come here or trying to get here by whatever means? The issue of the 500 people who are in direct provision centres but are qualified to move out is worrying. One would think that after spending so long in a direct provision service a person would do literally anything. The witness made the point that getting off the ground is very difficult. It is very difficult for anybody. My background is working with people at local authority level. I helped many people to get local authority housing. The local welfare office and the local council office provide assistance to people getting started with regard to cooking equipment, bedding and the like. Is the same service not available to refugees who have received their papers?
Ms Sue Conlan:
It is not so much that it is not available, as I am sure local authorities would make it available without discrimination or distinction. The issue is that people do not know. As mentioned in the document we produced, one is given a letter that says one has got one's papers and 21 days to move on, although the Reception and Integration Agency allows people to stay longer because it recognises the difficulties they are in. That is the gap. There is the euphoria that one has finally got something, but then what? People who are in the system have said: "We are in Ireland but we are not of Ireland". If they are not integrated from the beginning, what they need when they leave is almost a "welcome to Ireland" pack for the first time, which would point them in the direction of the existing services. Perhaps the local authorities could be a little more proactive when they know they have these direct provision centres in their localities.
With regard to numbers, the number is increasing. In 2013-14, the number arriving and claiming asylum reduced to under 1,000, but it started to grow in 2014-15. In 2015, approximately 3,500 sought asylum in Ireland. In addition, on two occasions last year the Government entered into commitments to take an initial group from Lebanon, Jordan, Greece and Italy and then increased that. The commitment is 4,000 over two years, although that is moving very slowly. The numbers are increasing but because of Ireland's geographical location and the difficulty of getting in - as we know the borders have gone up and 50,000 are stuck in Greece - we are not seeing as many that could even make their way of their own volition. There are officers assisting the Greek authorities to determine applications. Officers from the Department of Justice and Equality are going to countries such as Greece and Italy to try and identify people who could be located here. However, I suspect the numbers will stabilise from this point on because of difficulties in travelling. They did increase quite significantly, but nowhere near the peak of 11,500 in 2002. I do not expect them to go anywhere near that.
The recommendation about ability to work is the key issue. Refugees and asylum seekers would have a great deal to offer society and they should be given the opportunity.
Whether we like it or not, there is a latent begrudgery out there. If asylum seekers are seen to be provided for - that is not what they want, but it is what they are forced into - it generates an attitude that is an unfortunate part of our society, but which is there. The ability to work would greatly alleviate that. I am sure many of the people concerned would be very beneficial to Irish society and they should be given the opportunity to contribute.
Is there any country that has managed to deal with this issue successfully and has a model of best practice in place that we could adopt? It seems to be a crisis everywhere. Is there any shining example out there of a government or a country that has done things right in this regard?
Are residents officially deemed to be homeless when they go into direct provision and the emergency reception and orientation centres? At what stage do they become homeless? Is it when they leave those centres?
In respect of integration, is there no system of integration the moment people arrive in the reception centres or the emergency orientation centres? Is integration not a part of their assimilation?
I have two points arising from Deputy Brassil's contribution. One of the problems, for example, is that there is a requirement when a person from outside Ireland is applying for social housing to provide documentation to prove they do not own property in another country. Obviously if that person has fled a country due to war or whatever, providing that documentation is almost impossible. Some local authorities will accept an affidavit, but an affidavit can cost between €20 and €50 and if someone is only getting €19.50 a week, that is a huge barrier. That is just one small thing.
The second issue, which the witnesses might comment on, is that all the local authorities provide exactly the same advice and information service to anybody who goes in, but not everybody who goes in has the same ability to understand that advice and information. If one has grown up here, one understands what Revenue is and what a PPS number is, whereas if one has been trapped in direct provision for eight years and is now "out" officially, understanding all of that takes far more than the standard information and advice that good quality local authority clerks will provide. Do the witnesses feel there is a need for advocacy organisations to provide that additional support? Do they think it should be provided within the existing statutory agencies or do they have a preference?
I am probably cheating a bit by going off the subject, but given that the witnesses have a very good understanding of the issues, do they think the Government could look at the idea of screening unaccompanied minors in camps like Calais and Dunkirk? With EU policy and the Greece-Turkey deal, a situation in which only Syrians are really being entertained, those being pushed back from Greece are being replaced by Syrians who have not come over already. What can be done about, for example, people like the Kurds from Iraq and Afghans, whose country has absolutely collapsed and is divided up between the Taliban and ISIS at the moment? Is there any way the notion that the EU will say no to the Kurds and the Afghans can be challenged or addressed?
Ms Sue Conlan:
On the question of whether there is one country we could look to, unfortunately there is not but there are models of good practice that we can learn from. We are in a situation where we have direct provision and emergency reception and orientation centres but we have to move, if the will is there, to a different model. There is a link on the electronic version of our submission to the 2013 document to which we referred. That document takes examples from different countries. It suggests, for example, what could be part of the system in the context of the vulnerability of victims of torture, people who have special medical needs or for people coming from certain countries. There are different models in operation.
The Germans took in 1 million refugees last year and employed 8,000 German language teachers because they recognised that language was key to integration. This links to the point Deputy Harty made about integration in the emergency reception and orientation centres. In Monasterevin, for example, the Department of Justice and Equality has contracted the Kildare Volunteer Association to assist with integration. However, it can add another barrier when others want to be involved, if it is being - at its crudest - policed in that way. Integration services do exist but not for the direct provision centres. That said, the language support that was needed in Monasterevin and other places has not been provided. Of course, it is an issue of resources. I know that those involved in education in Monasterevin met before the centre for resettled refugees opened and asked for extra support for children who do not speak English and extra language teachers so that they could engage with the parents. I believe an interpreter is visiting once a week but that is not sufficient.
Deputy Harty asked whether people are classed as being homeless when they are in direct provision. They are not but they can be classified thus after they leave direct provision and we know of some people in that situation. One of the big problems with direct provision is that there is no statutory framework for it. We have just passed the first major legislation on refugees in almost 20 years, namely the International Protection Act 2015 but there is no reference to the reception, accommodation and support of asylum seekers and refugees in that legislation. So we are still working on an administrative basis, which on one level means that making changes is a little easier but it also means a lack of oversight by elected representatives to the extent that one might expect if there was a statutory basis. Direct provision falls outside everything.
I am conscious that I am answering all of the questions and invite Rory to butt in.
Mr. Rory O'Neill:
In the context of homelessness, it is during the transition from direct provision that people need help. If they got help with integration while they were in direct provision, that would make the transition a lot easier. They need to learn about the systems and structures they will have to negotiate once they get out. The big issue is integration while they are in the direct provision system. That would make life easier.
Ms Sue Conlan:
In terms of advocacy, I would favour a mixed model. I would include local authorities in particular, as well as NGOs who specialise in certain areas. Good experience is now being built up as a result of refugees being resettled in greater numbers in Ireland, in places such as Thurles and Portlaoise. There are examples of inter-agency approaches which involve the voluntary sector, local authorities and central Government. If that can be developed, it can work well. We do not want to reinvent the wheel. We should use the resources we already have, like Citizen's Information offices, which are used to dealing with a variety of different issues. We should bring the various resources together, including the voluntary sector. That would not involve an organisation like ours because we operate at a national rather than a local level. However, we work with the National Learning Network, for example, which has 50 centres around the country and could be involved in helping people to gain access to employment. Indeed, we worked on a pilot project with that organisation recently. I would recommend an inter-agency approach in this regard.
I think I have addressed all of the questions related to housing ---
Ms Sue Conlan:
I will deal with Deputy Wallace. I am aware that he has been to Calais and the impact that had. One of the great things about Ireland and Irish people is that they do not wait, they go. Dublin to Calais refugee solidarity group and others have been out to Calais in order to provide direct assistance to people who were there. I have also done work with haulage companies and lorry drivers on the grounds that they have picked up fines for bringing people in inadvertently when they never intended to. I have done it on the grounds that we should not penalise somebody for doing their job when there are not people smugglers or traffickers; they just cannot police their vehicles the whole of the time. Various bits of work have been done.
One of the groups that has been to Calais, Dunkirk and also to Cherbourg, because at Cherbourg one can get through to Ireland more directly, is the Immigrant Council of Ireland which followed a UK lawyer's model of seeing whether there were people attempting to come to Ireland who had family members there. Most of the people it came across wanted to go to the UK. I have no doubt that if any identify themselves as wanting to join family, an attempt will be made to persuade the Irish Government to allow them to come without waiting for their asylum claim to be dealt with in France 18 months later . That includes unaccompanied children and, unfortunately, France falls down when it comes to unaccompanied children. The reason there is such a large number in those camps in Calais is that it does not address them as a specific group despite its need for them. I think there are people looking at how to do that.
There are people in Greece who are indicating they would be willing to come to Ireland and so the Department could say, "Let us be a little more proactive". Portugal put it out there that it would take people. It produced a video inviting people to come to Portugal. As Portugal has lost so many Portuguese, it knows it needs people for the labour market to rebuild the country. Things like that could be done even in countries such as Greece to say it is open, that it is not anywhere near the commitment it has made to take 2,900, so let us be more proactive in Greece and actually determine who can come and avoid the necessity to end up in camps such as at Calais.
The issue of the Kurds and the Afghans is a huge question. I am sure I am not expected to answer it in full. The big concern about the EU-Turkey deal is that, again, Syrians were prioritised. Turkey has no commitment not to return Afghans and Iraqis to those countries. We know already that they have prevented Syrians from crossing as well. Children have been shot dead at the border with Turkey and many have been beaten by Turkish border guards. That is part of a much wider debate on the whole issue of refugee and forced migration. What we must avoid, which is why I commented on it at the outset, is a two-tier system where we say deserving refugees and undeserving refugees or refugees and economic migrants because these are all on a continuum at some point in time. That is part of a much bigger refugee question and Ireland is co-hosting a UN conference in September in New York on the whole crisis. That goes beyond the remit of this committee but that is where the Dáil and Seanad can say what they want to on the hosting role. It is rather like being a chairperson and remaining neutral but it is a great opportunity for us to say what Ireland is doing that someone else can hold up as a model or can work towards. That conference in September is key to the questions and the issues we have discussed here but also those much bigger issues that we do not differentiate. What we are seeing is people claiming to be Syrian who are not Syrian because they know that Syrians are getting preferential treatment. That does them no good and it does the Syrians a disservice as well but it is bound to happen. If one can get through the gates by being a Syrian, one will try to do that to save oneself and one's family or to be reunited. I cannot do justice to that question because it is much bigger but I would be happy to touch base with the committee on that issue.
That concludes this session. I thank Ms Conlan and Mr. O'Neill for their attendance and their submissions. With regard to the housing element, and in particular the homelessness issue, if there are any recommendations which the witnesses feel could be of use to the committee, time is short and I ask them to forward their recommendations to us as a matter of urgency. The committee will conclude its work in the next couple of weeks and it is that aspect in particular that we would welcome. I thank the witnesses, once again, for their attendance today.