Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 5 December 2018
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality
EU Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund: Motion
The purpose in the first part of our engagement this morning is to consider a proposal to opt in, under Protocol No. 21, to a measure in the provision of EU asylum, migration and integration funds. A briefing document has been circulated. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy Stanton, who is a former Chairman of the joint committee and his officials.
Members should be aware that, under the salient rulings of the Chair, they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I invite the Minister of State to make his opening statement.
I thank the Chairman and members of the joint committee for making time available to discuss this proposal. The purpose of the motion is to seek Oireachtas approval to exercise Ireland's option under Protocol No. 21, annexed to the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, that is, the Lisbon treaty, in respect of a proposed amendment to EU Regulation No. 516/2014. As committee members will be aware, Ireland and the United Kingdom negotiated a protocol, known as Protocol No. 21, which provided that they would not take part in measures in the area of asylum and integration and other policies related to free movement, unless either member state chose to opt in to an individual measure. The effect of the protocol is that Ireland is not automatically bound by EU measures in these areas, unless it notifies the Council that it wishes to participate or opt in. Ireland may opt in by notifying the President of the Council in writing within three months of the publication of a proposal in order to vote on and participate in the measure.
Following recent conversations with the European Parliament and the European Council, the European Commission proposed an amendment to the regulation regarding the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund, AMIF. In this case Ireland would have expected the notification period to expire on 15 January 2019. However, it was notified that, in order to allow for the adoption of the amendment before the end of the year, the Council secretariat wished to move the vote in the European Parliament to 10 December. The effect is that if Ireland wishes to opt in to the proposal, the President of the Council of the European Union must be notified of our intention to do so before 10 December. That allows just two months in which to complete the opt-in process which involves a heavy administrative process.
The proposal relates to the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund and is essentially procedural in nature. It will allow unclaimed funds, that is, the asylum, migration and integration funds, which would otherwise be lost by the end of the year to be available for future spending. It will do this by allowing an extension of the period in which the funds may be used and member states to make revisions to their national programmes to use their funds for other actions as defined by the regulation. Ireland has €4.14 million in unclaimed AMIF funds allocated in its national programme for the relocation of asylum seekers which will be lost by the end of 2018, unless the regulation is amended. By opting in to the proposed amendment, if the European Parliament votes it in, Ireland is guaranteed that the money can be allocated by way of a revision to our national programme for the AMIF. It will also have two more years to use the remaining funds.
To outline the background to the proposal, by way of a summary of the funds and the Council's decision in question, the European Commission wanted to establish a policy on asylum and immigration based on solidarity between member states which would be fair towards third countries and their nationals. EU Regulation No. 516/2014 established the fund to provide financial resources to support policy developments in the area of asylum and migration. The fund allows member states to carry out actions in the areas of asylum, immigration, the management of migration flows, the fair treatment of third country nationals residing in member states and combating illegal immigration and the trafficking of human beings.
Ireland opted into the regulation and the EU approved its national programme in this area in 2016. The programme identified the specific objectives for which Ireland would use AMIF funding. Ireland's current AMIF allocation is €52.6 million for the period from 2014 to 2020, which represents the lifetime of the programme. In 2015, in response to the migration crisis in Europe, two Council decisions, namely, EU 2015/1523 and EU 2015/1601 were made, which committed an additional €843 million to member states under AMIF to be used by the end of 2018. This additional funding was aimed at enabling the relocation of applicants for international protection from Greece and Italy and the legal admission of persons in need of international protection from Turkey. These additional AMIF funds facilitated the effective relocation across the EU of 34,705 applicants in need of international protection from Greece and Italy and the legal admission of 5,345 people in need of international protection from Turkey.
The timeframe and the applicability of these decisions are now coming to an end. Of the €843 million originally committed throughout the European Union to deal with the crisis, approximately €567 million remains unspent. Unless the proposed amendment to the regulation is passed before the end of this year, the €567 million will be lost from the fund. Under the two Council decisions of 2015, Ireland committed to accepting 2,622 persons into the State, comprising 1,089 from Greece, 623 from Italy and 910 unallocated. To date, 1,022 persons have safely been relocated to Ireland from Greece. In addition, Ireland has also been operating a programme for resettlement, under which 925 persons have been resettled. Many member states, including Ireland, were unable to keep their commitments to relocate asylum seekers from Italy as no agreement could be reached on security assessments to be undertaken by Ireland on Italian soil. As a result, €4.14 million of Ireland's committed funding remains unused.
The proposed amendment to the regulation has a number of provisions. As I explained, the first objective of the proposal is to enable the use of the remaining unspent amounts committed under AMIF to support EU priorities in the area of migration and asylum, including relocation. Failing to opt in will mean that Ireland will lose out on €4.14 million of our AMIF funding. By amending Article 18 of the regulation, the proposal recommits the amounts in question for relocation. It will also give Ireland the option to transfer these funds to other areas defined in the asylum, migration and integration regulation that are based on Ireland's specific needs in these areas. Therefore, Ireland will have a say in how the funds can be used and will have the option to have them channelled to specific objectives as required. The proposal also inserts a provision into Article 18 to revise the decommitment rule set out in Article 50 of Regulation EU 514/2014, which lays down the general provisions, in order that the remaining amounts can be used for an additional period of two years. As a result, by opting in Ireland will have two more years in which to spend the funds. The proposal also extends the deadline for an automatic decommitment of amounts by a period of six months. This will give the Commission time to complete the necessary procedures and allow member states to identify revisions to their national programmes and include new areas where the funds could be allocated.
This is money that has already been budgeted by the European Union. No additional funding from the budget is necessary for the implementation of the proposed amendments to Regulation 516/2014. Therefore, there will be no additional cost to the Exchequer and the decision to opt in will not have implications for Ireland's contribution to the EU budget.
Concerns were raised with regard to setting a precedent. Italy and Finland have raised concerns about the proposal and have indicated they will not support the negotiating mandate to the Presidency. Their concern relates to their view that a number of member states did not abide, or only partially abided, by their obligations to relocate persons in need of protection to their territories. Italy has also expressed the view that the proposal broadens the scope of the initial provisions by encompassing actions that cannot be considered an expression of solidarity, in contrast with the objects as pursued in 2015.
Concerns have also been expressed by member states with regard to the precedent the proposed amendment may set regarding recommitment of funds due to be decommitted, in other words, handed back. The Minister for Finance has also raised this issue. The matter is addressed by a proposal in the amendment stating this only applies on a once-off basis to the AMIF fund.
The proposal is to be welcomed as it ensures money committed to Ireland will not be lost and that additional funds may be claimed for the Exchequer for the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund that would otherwise not be possible. The proposal does not present fundamental policy difficulties for Ireland. I am of the view that Ireland should exercise its opt-in in respect of the proposed regulation. There are clear benefits to opting in and I see no detrimental effects to doing so. We must also bear in mind the declaration by the European Commission that the proposal will not set a precedent for future AMIF funds. I hope the committee will support the exercise of Ireland's opt-in in respect of the proposed regulation. I look forward to any comments members may have and I will do the best I can to answer any questions people might want to put in respect of this particular proposal.
I thank the Minister of State for coming before the committee and for his presentation. I read the briefing document that was circulated to members. This fund is great in the way it is used to support a number of positive integrative initiatives and I strongly welcome it. There is one piece in the briefing document I want to ask about. It mentions "the efficient management of migration flows". I find this wording a little concerning given the context of the EU-backed agreement between Italy and Libya. On paper, the deal between Italy and Libya is in place to manage migration flows but Sally Hayden, a young Irish journalist, recently won an Irish journalism award for her coverage of what it means in practice. She states it is to stop people arriving in Europe. EU money has funded the Libyan coastguard to return thousands of desperate people to war zones and detention centres in contravention of the principle of non-refoulement. One of the four key pillars of the fund up for discussion today is return. In 2017, we spent €3.2 million, approximately €450,000 of which went to a delegated authority in the repatriation unit of INIS. Will the Minister of State provide information on what this money covers? Will he confirm that none will go towards returns to conflict zones that are clearly unsafe, such as Libya?
Based on figures given in response to a parliamentary question in October with regard to the underspend, the fund has been in operation since 2015 and in that period we have spent approximately €6 million. Today we are being asked to roll over a portion of underspent money for another two years, which comes to approximately €4 million. Will the Minister of State expand on why the money was not spent? I know money can still be allocated until 2019 and 2020 but it seems we will still come in under budget. I have worked with fantastic projects on the list of applicants, from football clubs to refugee organisations. Is it the case that not enough organisations are applying? Similarly, if there is an underspend, is there not a case to be made that we could use this extra money to welcome more refugees than the small number already accepted?
As I said, the proposal will allow unclaimed funds that otherwise would be lost before the end of the year to be available for future spending. It allows an extension of time and allows us to make revisions to our national programmes to use the funds for relocation as well as other actions. We are very anxious to do this now because if we do not we will lose the money.
I am certainly concerned about the situation between Libya and the European Union. Anybody who we return is not returned to a conflict zone. We are anxious to facilitate people coming to Ireland who find they want to go back home and this is paid for. They can be returned to their own home countries if they wish and a number of people do this each year. I can supply the committee with these figures if members wish. People who come here do want to go back.
As I said, there is no cost to the Exchequer but we will have additional funding available because of it. The other questions were-----
The reason was we were anxious to take people from Italy, as I said in my introduction earlier. We had quite a lot of discussion with the previous Minister and Tánaiste, and myself and others at official level had discussions with Italian representatives at all levels, including at ministerial level. We gave a commitment here that we would carry out security checks on people before they came into the country. We did so because we did not want to be in a position whereby if somebody arrived here but something happened and then I would be asked what checks were carried out before they came here. The Italians would not allow us to deploy members of the Garda to their territory to interview people who might come here. We were of the view that we could not bring people from Italy unless we did so. We tried everything to break the impasse but nothing worked. Therefore, we did not spend the money that was allocated to relocate people from Italy to Ireland. That money is unspent. We are trying to use the money for other purposes otherwise we will lose it. This fund is dedicated to relocation.
We are talking about funding that was allocated for a failed plan that took place against the backdrop of desperate need. I shall make a few points and ask questions about the bigger picture in respect of Europe and then I will ask a few questions about Ireland. Perhaps I will split my comments into two segments.
As the Minister of State has said, the fund was adopted in 2014 and added to in 2015 due to the growing crisis. As a result of an increased number of refugees there was a specific goal and commitment given to relocate 160,000 refugees. To date, only a quarter of the relocation has happened across Europe, which is frightening when one considers how people are living. For example, Camp Moria in Greece was originally built to house 2,000 people but housed 8,000 people during the summer. We know that children as young as ten years of age committed suicide and people had to stand in line for 12 hours a day to queue for food. Also, people have been stabbed while queuing for food, and as many as 80 people use the same shower and 70 people share the same toilet. The camp is an absolute hellhole from which people desperately want to escape. Against that backdrop, an underspend is appalling. As the Minister of State has said, €4 million of the fund is due to be given to Ireland.
In terms of Ireland's portion of the funding, we agreed to accept 2,622 people. Unfortunately, we accepted just half of that number. We did not accept anyone from Italy, as the Minister of State has said. Ireland is not the worst in Europe but we are near the bottom of the pile. Hungary and Poland took nobody and Austria took about 15 people.
Given that there are about 60,000 refugees in mainland Greece and 14,000 refugees on the Greek islands, what is Europe's plan to deal with these people? Can the Minister of State give a commitment that we will push, at a European level, to ensure that the refugees who want to get out of Greece will be relocated? Will Ireland continue to relocate refugees from Greece? Ireland's relocation scheme ended in March 2018. Why did that happen?
I note that the European Parliament's amendments to the proposal extended the range of nationalities eligible for relocation. This was a huge issue for the many thousands of people from Afghanistan, Iraq and Sudan, who did not qualify under the scheme. I presume that the Irish Government supports extending the range of nationalities. Will the Minister of State give a commitment that Ireland will fight to support the extension of the number of nationalities covered by the relocation scheme? Can he express his thoughts on the quota system? Recently Donald Tusk talked about quotas being divisive and ineffective. Can we take it from the current fund and the fact that one can spend the money on anything else other than relocation that the EU is moving away from relocating people? Are we leaving people in these Greek hellholes? What is the story? About 23,000 refugees arrived in Greece this year, which is a lot less than the 850,000 refugees in 2015. The decrease is not due to the need diminishing. The decrease is due to the fact that money has been spent on erecting border walls and fences, and the EU-Turkey deal. Is that the EU's policy for dealing with the problem? Does the EU just want to detain refugees in Greece and not let them come in? I would like the Minister of State to comment on the matter. Would the Chairman prefer if I asked my questions on Ireland after the Minister of State responds?
I recognise Deputy Clare Daly's commitment and interest in this area. Certainly, what happened in Syria is shocking and appalling. We know that and have followed what has gone on.
As I said at the start, under the protocol Ireland voluntarily opted into this programme. We were asked to take 2,622 persons into the State, comprising 1,089 from Greece and 623 from Italy and 910 were unallocated by the European Union. To date, 1,022 persons have safely been relocated to Ireland from Greece and another 600 persons will arrive next year as part of the resettlement programme. As part of the programme for resettlement, 925 people from camps in Lebanon have been resettled here and another 200 persons will come here before Christmas. Ireland is a very small country but we are doing our best to bring people here from the camps in Greece and Lebanon. We were unable to bring people in from Italy. We tried very hard to do so and are still working on doing so. As much as 20% of the funding will be for relocation. We also support non-governmental organisations, NGOs, and others with some of this funding.
I put it to the Minister of State that the forgotten story now is what continues to happen in Afghanistan, Sudan and such places. Can I take it from the answer given by the Minister of State that Ireland does not support the extension?
The answer given by the Minister of State strikes me as deeply worrying because there is a range of nationalities who are in danger but are not being accommodated. Let us say that the EU did not give us the other nine nationalities, and we did not make our target because the EU did not give us any, it is indicative of how at EU level the plan is failing, which was my point.
In a recent response to a parliamentary question the Minister of State said that 85% of the refugees who arrived in Ireland as part of the relocation and resettlement programmes have been housed. What percentage of those people who came here as part of the relocation programme have been housed? A percentage close to 85% would be incredible given that €4.14 million remains. Also, given that an amendment to the proposal that we are discussing was made by the European Parliament last week to the effect that member states should be allowed to reuse their recommitted funds on things like developing family reunification and promoting effective integration of third country nationals, as well as for relocation programmes, is it intended that the Government will do this work? I would like to hear more about what the Government plans to do. Will the Government use the funding for purposes broader than relocation? It is great that 85% of the refugees, who are mostly Syrian, who came here as part of these programmes have been housed. However, there are loads of people living in direct provision who have been given their status but cannot leave because they cannot secure housing. Can the money be provided for such work rather than enriching the private owners of direct provision accommodation in our efforts to open more facilities for direct provision? There is a sum of over €4 million available yet loads of people with status cannot get housing. I want to know more about the housing element.
Tomorrow, in the Dáil, we will discuss the International Protection (Family Reunification) (Amendment) Bill 2017 that has passed through the Seanad. I believe that the Government does not support the Bill. Given that family reunification was mentioned a number of times in the European Parliament's amendments to the proposal, would it not be an idea for the Irish Government to change its stance on the funding and use some of the €4 million to allow people to be reunited with their family members?
It is cruel to allow people to stay here but not allow their families to join them. They could be leaving a grandparent stuck in the type of hellhole I described in Greece, or a 19 year old who is too old. There is ministerial discretion and there is money. It is appalling that they are not being used.
The Minister mentioned the resettlement of a further 945 people from the Lebanon. Last year, the European Commission recommended that member states offer at least 50,000 resettlement places by 31 October 2019. How many places have been pledged at European level by member states under this recommendation? Is it anywhere near 50,000? Given the scale of the crisis, can more than 335 this year and 600 next year not be pledged? Has there been any discussion about that?
We have the freedom to use the funding for many of the issues referred to by the Deputy. People in direct provision are, in the main, asylum seekers and are a different group of people from the ones we bring in from Lebanon, Greece or Italy, who are refugees when they arrive here or become refugees shortly after they arrive. Resettlement takes place of people we bring in from Lebanon while it is relocation when they come from Greece. I can go through the pledges so far. Various Government decisions have been made and the total resettlement pledge is 1,985 up to 2019. There may be a further request during the year, which we will examine at that time.
The number I gave in reply to the parliamentary question on housing was correct. I visited some Syrians in Donegal two weeks ago who were being rehoused and they are happy with how they are being rehoused. They also have a settlement worker who stays with them for 18 months and assists then with the reintegration process. Learning English is a major issue and, while children learn English quickly, adults, especially men, find it more difficult and challenging. The resettlement workers help them and there are classes in the ETBs in 19 counties. The housing programme is going well in respect of the programme refugees and the people we bring in from Greece. It is great to see people in homes settling down and getting involved in the community. The community put on a welcome celebration for Syrians housed in Drumshanbo and it was great to see this welcome and the support they gave to them.
We are commencing another programme which has been active in Canada and the UK for a number of years and involves private community sponsorship. The community decides to take a family and comes together under faith groups or community organisations. They locate a house, equip it and do it up and they support the family when they arrive. I went to Manchester and London to see this in action and I met the people involved who said they had never in their lives been involved in something that gave them more satisfaction. When the families came in it was great to see the children running up onto the laps of their new grannies and to see the bonds that had been created. I am anxious to pursue that here as another method of welcoming and integrating refugees in Ireland. When they get off the plane, they go directly to the community without any reception in between. If Deputies and Senators wanted to promote this in their own communities, I would be interested in working with them and supporting this.
The Minister is correct to highlight the positive benefits for communities by adopting a positive approach, particularly when there are worrying developments in Ireland such as a growth in racism and certain elements fuelling hatred around the direct provision system. When Syrians arrived in Monasterevin, the attention given to issues such as integration, English lessons and acclimatising to a new culture worked, and it prepared the people to feel part of the community, in contrast to direct provision where people are isolated. Many of the people in direct provision now have their status and they are stuck there. They cannot get out and they still cannot access the labour market. This is a lesson in how not to do it and now that the Government has additional money, it has to spend it. The people in direct provision should get some of the money to enable them to get out, though that may be a separate argument. Tomorrow, we will take up the argument that the Minister has loads of money to implement the International Protection (Family Reunification) (Amendment) Bill and that is great.
I have a couple of technical questions about the €4 million. Can the Minister give a breakdown as to whether it relates to this year or is accrued from previous years? Has it any effect on the allocations for future years? When money continues to roll over, it can affect future budgetary projections. Can the Minister clarify that?
All parties and politicians have been responsible for migration but there has been an underbelly of commentary, which is worrying, in recent months. What is the Department doing to address that? The Canadian model is decentralised and there is a buddy system for families, which has worked well there and has helped integrate a lot of families. How can we use some of the €4 million to ensure the pattern in other countries does not develop in Ireland? I am glad the body politic has been responsible in this area and has been above some of the negative stuff we have seen.
We are actively working on the migrant integration strategy and I invite Senators and Deputies to read it if they have not done so. It is a living document and if members have suggestions as to how we can add to it or improve it, I would welcome those. The strategy is about integration and addresses anti-racism and a range of actions aimed at precisely what the Deputy is referring to. I chair a working group that oversees work in this area. It includes most Departments along with NGOs, with whom we also work closely. The NGOs are at the coalface dealing with the issues and I have told them that, if they have issues, my door is open to them and I want to know about them first. I invite them to bring any issues they have relating to migration to my attention immediately in order that we can deal with them and sort them out as best and as soon as we can. The strategy takes into account all the issues the Deputy mentioned.
The €4 million is accrued from previous years and the €52.6 million is allocated for the lifetime of the programme, 2014 to 2020. We will lose this funding if we do not go through the process and it is important not to lose it.
The timeframe is tight. We usually have three months but as we are coming close to the end of the year, we have much less time to get it done.
Like the other speakers, I am conscious that today's agenda is a marathon. I share Deputy Daly's view, which she articulately outlined, of the deep flaws in EU policy as a whole on migration and integration. Likewise, while efforts have been made in this area, much more can be done to provide a home here for refugees and asylum seekers.
I do not have many questions as such. Whatever about the wider policy, I appreciate the value of the fund, in particular. Ireland should try to draw as much from that as possible.
Regarding integration, I want to make two particular points in general and then ask a question. They might not be appropriate necessarily to this fund but they are aspects that should be considered. Local authorities have a more significant role to play in the area of integration than they currently play. Some local authorities are probably more proactive than others but given that they are responsible for the location of schools, facilities and so on, they have a more significant role to play.
I tabled a question recently on the forthcoming local elections, which I hope will be taken as an oral question but so far it has not. The Department has done work regarding new Irish communities and, more generally, immigrant communities. I attended one of those events, which was good. By and large, that work is focused on those who have status. Those in direct provision who are seeking asylum in Ireland are entitled to vote in local elections. The Department should be more proactive in informing those in direct provision of their entitlement to vote and facilitating engagement with candidates and councillors. Such measures are invaluable to ensuring integration in our democracy. I would encourage that, not just focusing on those who have status but providing information to those in direct provision who do not have such status.
This fund runs up to 2020. I presume, like most European programmes, the process of beginning a new fund to succeed it has started. Is a proposal for a new fund likely to come before us in the next year or so?
I thank the Deputy for his questions, and continued interest and support on this matter. It is greatly appreciated. It is appreciated by the migrants as well, and other colleagues.
With respect to local authorities, in the past two weeks, we invited all local authorities to come to a seminar in Athlone where we addressed many issues such as how they can get involved and support migrants even more than they currently do. I addressed the seminar, which was good. We are working with the local authorities. The Deputy is correct that they have a major role to play in this regard. They do a good deal of work in this area and we will work with them to increase and improve that over time. The Deputy's question is very timely in terms of the recent seminar on these matters with all the local authorities in attendance.
The Deputy is also correct regarding the local elections. We had a number of meetings throughout the country at which we tried to encourage, support and inform migrants of their right to vote in local elections. We also have documentation in the various accommodation centres. We encourage migrants to get involved in politics, either by supporting candidates or standing as candidates themselves, and to be aware of, and learn about, what is happening in the political process. We are doing the best we can in that regard.
I recall the Deputy's parliamentary question. There is no problem with engagement between candidates in local elections, or any election, and people in various accommodation centres. We would encourage that, but we must be aware that these accommodation centres are people's homes and that there are children living in them. There are safety aspects in that regard but in the communal areas, there is no difficulty in people leaving literature and so on in them or meeting with asylum seekers or refugees. We would encourage that and we support it as best we can.
A new long-term integration social fund to 2027 is being prepared. The debate is ongoing in that regard.
I do not know if the Minister is aware of it but Deputy Daly and I have been in Syria twice in the past two years. When one goes there, the story is very different from what one reads in the media or hears on RTÉ. In the past two years, since the government defeated the jihadists in many areas of the country, more than 1.5 million Syrians have returned. I do not want to go into the politics of it but it was disappointing that European governments and the EU played a part in funding the jihadists who caused so much of the trouble in the first place. I do not understand the rationale behind the Department's position. For example, when we were in Calais, we saw that the most unfortunate and poorest refugees in Calais were Afghan and Kurdish but it looks to us that they need more help than anyone else. Is there a reason the Department has chosen the Syrians and Eritreans for the most needed attention rather than other nationalities? It is only a matter of time before serious numbers of people move from Yemen, where the worst humanitarian disaster on the planet is currently taking place, and we are still supping tea with the Saudis. What is the rationale behind not being more facilitating to those other nationalities?
When we made the pledges at the time, the group of people in most need were Syrians. That is what the European Union asked us to do. We expect the Commission will come to us in the near future, and to other countries as well, seeking pledges regarding some of the countries the Deputy mentioned. That may well happen in the future but at the time the Syrian people who were fleeing in large numbers were in most need. There was a war in Eritrea as well. That was the largest cohort of people in need at the time. Events change, however, and we expect another request from the Commission in the next while to look at other areas.
I accept that the Government was right to take in Syrians but given that more than 1.5 million have returned, and more than 1 million more will return in the next 18 months, would it not reconsider taking in people such as the Afghans and more Kurds?
On another issue, the Minister told us last week that 600 people in direct provision had received their status but cannot get out of direct provision. Is the Government doing anything to make it possible for them to get out by actively finding places for them to live?
We know there is a desperate housing shortage for so many people in Ireland. However, it requires action on the Government's part to get these 600 people out not only to make space for others but also to improve the conditions and end the overcrowding.
Deputy Wallace is correct. We have been very proactive in working to find accommodation. There are certain times of the year when families find it better to move, such as at the end of a school term. We have provided funding to the Jesuit Refugee Service and the Peter McVerry Trust under the fund that we are discussing today. The PATHS Project also provides asylum seekers in transition with housing and support. The South Dublin County Partnership has a two-year housing integration programme, a key part of which is to assist residents with status to access housing supports, and it is also working with the Clondalkin Towers centre. We have also provided funds and work with Depaul Ireland which provides supports to residents with permission to remain in the Hatch Hall and Mosney centres to assist them to secure permanent housing outside the Department's accommodation portfolio. We are providing housing to a number of different NGOs which have considerable experience in providing accommodation for the people identified by the Deputy. The Red Cross has also been working, mainly with single people, to provide accommodation and has been quite successful. Deputy Wallace is correct that it is a challenge. There is no doubt about that, but we have provided funding to the agencies on the ground to do what they can to locate housing. We all want these people to move on as quickly as possible. They have status with a right to stay in the country, and the same rights as everyone else in this room, except that they are not yet citizens, although they probably will be in time. We want them to find accommodation and we are doing our best for them to find homes.
The Minister of State spoke of people coming in to Ireland and going immediately into the community. That sounds great and it is good if it happens. However, is it not the case that we will have a need for some sort of entity like direct provision for a long time yet? The direct provision that we have was never meant to be as permanent as it has become. Has there been consideration at Government level to doing things differently given the level of negative publicity around direct provision which has been found to be lacking in many ways?
The direct provision system has changed a great deal in recent years. I invite colleagues to look at the changes that have been made. We continue to change, improve and upgrade the area. There is a fair bit of pressure due to the increase in people looking for international protection, and therefore we have to find accommodation for them. When someone comes into Dublin Airport tonight seeking asylum, we are obliged to process that claim and to ask the person if he or she needs accommodation and, if he or she does not have accommodation, we are obliged to provide it. A small number of people can stay with friends and relations already in Ireland, and a small number do, but the vast majority cannot. They are guaranteed a bed that night along with a shower, food, security, medical care and whatever else they need. That is what they are provided with immediately. We have streamlined the application process.
Part of the criticism of the system was that people were too long in the process. As the Deputy knows, there were three different ways by which people could apply. We have now made a single application procedure to try to speed that up and for people to have a final decision sooner. The Ombudsman and Ombudsman for Children now go to the centres freely at any time they wish. They can listen to people, take complaints and engage with them so they know how to make complaints. Both of those independent agencies can and do make recommendations based on the complaints they receive. We work very closely with them, encourage and welcome their work and are anxious to hear from them. We are also developing a new set of standards for the centres which we are undertaking with NGOs which are having a big input. We have also put additional staffing resources into the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INIS, to try to speed up the application process as best we can. Much has been done. Many of the centres have teenage rooms and many centres have self-catering facilities, so they have changed.
I will return briefly to the private community sponsorship model with which I am keen for communities throughout the country to engage. If colleagues can activate a community to support a family in that way, we will work with them. The idea is that someone could come from the airport and go directly to the community. That is what I saw in operation in Canada and in the UK.
Direct provision has been criticised over the years and it has been likened to open prisons and so on, which is most unfair. People can come and go as they wish. No one is incarcerated at all and there is no signing in or out, for instance. Staff in the centres are trained. If colleagues are aware of another model elsewhere that works better, they should tell me what it is. They should see me or send me details in writing of the better system and how it would work, bearing in mind the current constraints and that everyone who arrives in Ireland seeking asylum is guaranteed accommodation that night.
The Minister of State said there was no signing in or out and that people can come and go from the centres. I know a refugee who was in Waterford who was studying in Dublin. He was thrown out of the place in Waterford because he was not at the centre for enough nights during the week. That is the truth.
If other Deputies have instances of this, we would be anxious to learn about them, investigate and see what is behind this, and give whatever support and assistance that we can. There are often two sides to every story. Let us see what is going on here.
I will write to the Minister of State. I think that we are generally well aware that there has been a clampdown in Europe and that, rather than facilitating refugees, more fences at borders are being erected to prevent them from getting in. I do not know if the Minister of State is aware of the questions two weeks ago to the Department of Defence when the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, admitted that in recent months the Irish mission in the Mediterranean has been a military one rather than a rescue one. We did some wonderful work there in the early years but the last boat came home without saving anyone's life. The Minister of State admitted two weeks ago, having denied it earlier in the year, as did the Minister, Deputy Coveney, that this was a military mission. What in God's name are we doing involved in a military mission preventing refugees crossing the Mediterranean and sending them back to absolute misery in Libya?
Discussion about the Defence Forces is going outside my remit. The Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe might discuss that with the committee. I know that the navy has done an enormous amount work in the Mediterranean and has saved many lives. Thousands of people have been rescued by our naval service and I have met some of the personnel involved. Some of what they have gone through has also been life changing for them.
I am also aware that people are being exploited by traffickers in the Mediterranean and so on and there is a role to be played in dealing with that. However, that is outside of what we are discussing today which is what we do with this funding when we have it and the important issue of drawing it down and looking after the people who come here, working towards the various integration models and the migrant integration strategy.
We have met many refugees who were facilitated by traffickers to came to Ireland.
I know it was not possible to reach a deal with the Italians. They had a problem with gardaí on Italian soil vetting migrants. Was there an element of the Italians not wanting states coming along and cherry-picking those in the camps in the south of Italy who had just been rescued from the Mediterranean leaving them with people who might be considered more troublesome or difficult? What was their rationale?
I do not know. My understanding is that they did not want to have what they would call extraterritorial security services operating on their territory. We wanted to do this in a quiet way - the gardaí would not be in uniform. It would have allowed us to carry out security checks as we did in Greece and Lebanon where it works well. That would allow me to come in here and confirm that gardaí were involved in security checks that were not very intrusive. It was just to see if there were some there who should not come here because of being involved in terrorism or something else. That is what goes on. The gardaí do that and there is no issue of cherry-picking in any way. We work with the people on the ground there as happened in Greece and Lebanon. That did not arise. It would be the same process as in Greece and Lebanon which worked pretty well.
I welcome the Minister of State. He may recall that when he was Chairman of this committee, we visited Portugal to see how it dealt with reception centres. Back then in 2013 or 2014, direct provision in this country was different from today. Today some of our reception centres compare favourably with what we witnessed in Portugal. Engagement with NGOs has borne fruit. There is probably little any NGO could suggest to be done that is not being done.
There will always be challenges. There was an issue in a direct provision centre in Meelick just outside Limerick where somebody could not get a cup of tea or something. As soon as it was brought to the attention of the RIA, it was dealt with quickly. There will be incidents where incidents happen in reception centres that are dealing with people. It is commendable that when something is raised, it is dealt with. I encourage everybody who is aware of matters that should not be happening to bring them to the Minister of State's attention.
Do any recommendations of the McMahon report remain to be implemented or is he satisfied that at this stage all the recommendations to be implemented have been implemented?
I agree that the accommodation centres have improved quite a bit. We continually strive to find new ways to improve the centres by, for example, opening crèches that children in the locality and children in the centres can use. That also facilitates integration. Another approach is through funding various sporting bodies that include asylum seekers from the centres in sport. Last year, Ballaghaderreen GAA club won an award for its work and other clubs and sporting organisations throughout the country do much of that.
More than 3,000 people in accommodation centres now prepare and cook their own meals in either their own accommodation or communal kitchens. The implementation of this recommendation of the McMahon report will continue until it is complete. We are rolling that out. It is a prerequisite of all new contracts to be awarded under the process.
We are developing a new set of standards. A draft has been prepared and a public consultation is under way. The standards will apply to all centres under contract to the Minister. Diageo has its learning-for-life programme and open-doors project to encourage and support asylum seekers and refugees to get jobs. We are working to see how we can link employers with asylum seekers who now have a right to work.
There is a lot going on. We have not finalised the implementation of all the McMahon report recommendations, but we are 95% of the way there. We continue to explore and look for new ways to improve matters. The two main issues are shortening the time to reach a final decision and, as either Deputy Clare Daly or Deputy Wallace said earlier, trying to facilitate and support people once they have status to move into the community and carry on with their lives.
People will come to our country seeking international protection because our economy is improving and we are rightly seen as a nation that cares. Should the State be running these reception centres directly as opposed to contracting private companies? While it might be something for the longer term, should the State build purpose-built reception centres and run them or at least own them or enter a service level agreement with an organisation to run them? It would give us more control and certainty. It would not just be a yearly contract where at the end of a year the owner of the facility could just decide not to renew it possibly leaving a couple of hundred people on the street. It would bring certainty if we owned the facilities and had more control over the standards and what happens.
At certain times we have many people in the protection system looking for protection and at other times the number can reduce. We do not want to have centres that are closed and not needed. There is flexibility in what we are doing at the moment. I take the Senator's point. We are exploring how we might use State-owned facilities and augment those to provide more and better accommodation for asylum seekers. At the moment it is done by way of competitive tender. We are anxious to ensure that there is value for the State and that it does not cost too much while, at the same time, ensuring the standards are high. That is the challenge.
We watch standards closely to ensure the standards in the centres are as high as we can get them. We need to ensure that somebody looking for international protection has accommodation and will not end up on the streets as happened with people who came to Ireland seeking asylum in the 1990s. That is not happening at the moment.
The situation is improving; it is never ideal. I welcome the insistence on the availability of self-catering. That type of autonomy for people in centres is important for their mental well-being as well as everything else. I thank the Minister of State and hope he can keep up the good work. He might give us a further update in the new year.
Last week, the Minister appeared before us regarding the Supplementary Estimate. He indicated that six new accommodation centres opened in 2018 accommodating some 567 persons. He named the six centres. Members were particularly interested in their locations. The Minister of State referred to tendering. Is another methodology being employed whereby individual businesspeople are block booking accommodation in hotels that are not functioning to capacity and directly involved in accommodating large numbers of people through a network of small to medium-sized hotels in different locations? Has the Minister of State anything to add to what the Minister said? The Minister had nothing to tell us but given that the Minister of State is the line Minister concerning this matter, he might be in a position to shed some light on it.
I answered a parliamentary question on this last week. I will get the information relating to that parliamentary question for the Chairman. He is correct. Our major concern is that people seeking international protection do not end up on the street. There is a great deal of pressure on the accommodation centres that are under contract. There have been times when they have been full. At that time, rather than somebody having no place to go, people could be offered accommodation in hotels on a bed-and-breakfast basis so they would not be on the street and that has happened. I can get the up-to-date figures for the Chairman. I will do so today.
I would appreciate that. As Chairman of the committee, I will circulate the information to members. I know most of them were not aware of what I was focusing on last week. We are not talking about small numbers. In the case of one hotel, we are talking about up to 80 people. I visited this hotel and I am deeply concerned. Senator Conway said that matters are improving but I do not see it when we are moving to this methodology to address the issue. People are seeing business opportunities here and the motivation is questionable. The suitability factor is questionable.
Hotels may offer a bed for the night that is comfortable but the location might be wholly inappropriate and unsuitable because it is remote or because in tandem with that, there is no public transport, it is isolated and there are no outlets or opportunities to develop oneself and follow up on natural exercise and pastimes, etc. I am deeply concerned about it. In replying to us, will the Minister of State incorporate the expected or mean timeframe for the utilisation of these facilities and identify their location? He spoke earlier about inviting communities to come forward through elected representatives or on their own initiative but, in these instances, there is no community consultation whatsoever so there is no community involvement and no invitation to extend the hand of welcome and friendship, which is important. Nothing will be more likely to secure the wrong reaction than ignoring a community. It is guaranteed to elicit a negative reaction whereas properly moulded consultation that lays out exactly what is proposed and seeks community involvement will deliver a much better response. Does the Minister of State wish to add anything?
I have the figures for the Chairman so I can give them to him now. As of 2 December 2018, there were 184 people seeking international protection in emergency accommodation beds. The intention is that these beds will be used for a short period, perhaps one or two nights, before we can relocate them and offer them accommodation in one of the other permanent centres. Rather than having people on the street when all the other centres are full, we guarantee that they will not be without accommodation and food.
In respect of location, going back to what the Chairman mentioned about community consultation, RIA does not ear mark or pick a hotel or centre. RIA and the Department put out a call for expressions of interest. These can come from anywhere. When that happens, the staff inspect the facility to ensure it is up to standard. If the Chairman had an accommodation centre somewhere, was interested in making it available and contacted the Department, the suggestion is that at that stage, the Department should tell everybody else that this particular businessperson had contacted the Department to make the premises available. The Department then inspects the premises. Sometimes it may not be suitable and the owner will be told this and that the Department will not take it on. Alternatively, it may be deemed to have all the features required and to be up to standard.
The question then is whether the community should be involved at that stage. The businessperson or owner of the facility will then work out a contract and terms. Sometimes they will come to an agreement and sometimes they will not. If they come to an agreement, shake hands and say they can do business on these terms, that is when it is made public. I would contend that prior to that, no agreement might be reached. I cannot see how we could involve the public in consultation until we know that we are going to make an agreement. The minute that agreement is made, people are involved. The experience around the country is that the local people are concerned and have questions and we do our best to answer and address them. The experience in all the 37 accommodation centres that are up and running is good.
Under the McMahon report, it was recommended that "friends of the centre" be established. This was done immediately and funded and supported by the Department and RIA. We find that when local people get to know and work with the people in the accommodation centres, the support is overwhelming. The consultation should be done at the earliest time, which is when the agreement is reached or on the verge of being reached with the owner. Prior to that, the owner or Department could easily walk away and say they will not do business. It would not be fair on any owner of a property or the community to say we are having a discussion at an early stage before we make an agreement. It is tricky. We have had these discussions previously and I am sure the Chairman will understand how difficult it is. If the owner of a property contacts the Department, is that when we should say that we have been contacted by "X" who wants to talk to us? There are also commercial and privacy considerations for people. As I said, on 2 December 2018, there were 184 people seeking international protection in emergency accommodation beds.
At the same time, there were 5,607 in contracted capacity.
I do not intend to protract the address of this issue. The suitability of the accommodation or the conditions - the acceptance of the circumstances - is one matter and the question in relation to the suitability of the location is another. The Minister of State must examine the needs of these people in the round. It is not only that there may be a comfortable bed in a relatively acceptable standard of accommodation. There are a whole lot of other issues. There are language issues. There are all sorts of real problems. One must remember that these people did not come here in a single tranche. They are coming from a variety of different backgrounds with an inability to communicate, even among themselves. Among them, there are families with children. The situation, I believe, is not appropriate.
I add this further shocking fact. I am told that, because it is not direct provision accommodation, where an issue arises it is the business person who has block-booked and acquired the hotel accommodation to allow for these 184 unfortunate people who is the go-to person.
I ask for a full and detailed response. I received a reply to a parliamentary question on a specific case that I put to the Minister of State. I expect that the Minister of State and his colleague are the authors of it because the Minister last week knew Fanny Adams about it - that is just a fact. The Minister undertook to come back to me but a week later I have nothing. What I am asking for from the Minister of State, as he indicated at the start, is a detailed reply considering all the points that I have made identifying the locations and what other salient information that the Minister of State can furnish to myself, as chair of this committee, to furnish to my colleagues in turn. I would appreciate that that would be done post haste.
I agree fully with the Chairman that location is important. I would love, as I am sure we all would, to have asylum seekers and those looking for international protection to be accommodated near city centres and near the centres of large towns. That would be ideal. Unfortunately, when we look for accommodation, we do not get people from the centre of Dublin, Cork or other places offering accommodation. We cannot magic up accommodation centres in the centre of Dublin or anywhere else.
I can go through all the accommodation centres that we have. Many of them are in large towns. I can go through the list stating how many were in each one on 2 December, if the Chairman wishes.
I compliment the Chairman on his efforts, in not letting this go and in alerting us. There are different things going on here. It is not only the issue of the accommodation centres. It is the sinister development the Chairman has highlighted two weeks in a row of effective subcontracting and profiteering upon profiteering. It is worrying but I am not shocked. I would expect the Chairman would not get a response from last week and this week, It is disgraceful. I support the Chairman, who speaks for all of us. We are shocked to have the information but glad this is beginning to come out in the public domain.
I can well understand that if the Department puts out a call looking for places, it will not get them in the centre of cities and towns just like that. The cheapest single room on Gardiner Street on Thursday night and Friday night this week is €250. Does that not put it up in lights? The State owns land in the middle of every city and town in this country. It will not appear overnight, but should there not be direct Government involvement in building places? These could be multi-use. They could be used for purposes other than direct provision. They would not be wasted. It makes sense. I accept it would take time to deliver. Rome was not built in a day but, God, it was started.
If I could add to that to demonstrate the cross-party support for what Deputy Wallace has referenced, the Minister of State's colleague, Senator Conway, made this very point in his earlier contribution.
The Minister of State and our colleagues will appreciate that I am conscious of the time moving on. We have a list of invited guests to appear before us in relation to the Bail (Amendment) Bill 2017 and I do not wish to leave them waiting any further.
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, for his attendance, his engagement and his open and frank replies to all the questions posed. I thank the Minister of State in advance of the receipt of the detailed information that I hope he will furnish as soon as possible, and preferably this week. I mean that sincerely.