Wednesday, 24 September 2014
Direct Provision System
8. To ask the Minister for Justice and Equality the position regarding the working group to review the direct provision system, including membership; when it is due to report; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [35407/14]
This question concerns the working group on direct provision whose establishment has been announced. What will its make-up be? When is it due to report to the Minister? Direct provision has been raised in a couple of questions in the past but, unfortunately, due to meetings I had to attend, I was not able to be here. I hope there will not be too much repetition.
I thank Deputy Pringle. The Government announced in its Statement of Government Priorities 2014-2016 that there would be an independent working group established to report to it on improvements to the protection process, including direct provision, and supports for asylum seekers. I hope to be in a position very shortly to announce a chairman for the group. The Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, and I have asked the working group to report very shortly. This is not a long-term working group. We would like to have a report from it within three to four months.
When I met representatives of the non-governmental organisations, NGOs, last week, we made the point that we want a focus on recommendations that can improve the system in the short, medium and longer term. That will be in parallel with the process of working on the legislation to introduce the single procedure. The terms of reference are to consider what improvements can be made in the system, and the working group will comprise NGOs and representatives of Departments. There will be a mixture of NGOs and statutory bodies. We held the round-table discussion last week with a view to discussing and informing the terms of reference of that working group and seeing what the NGOs, in particular, felt should be the terms of reference. Within a matter of two or three weeks we will name the chairperson and announce the terms of reference of the working group. I expect it will report towards the end of this year or the early part of next year. It is a three to four month project and it is not something we want to take years.
This is about focusing on the direct experience of NGOs, their suggestions for direct provision and what steps can reasonably be taken to improve the conditions under which people are living, while at the same time being realistic, as I have been today. I am warning about unrealistically high expectations about changing the system overnight. This is about accommodation for 4,500 people and the direct provision centres were originally put in place because of a homeless crisis, with 9,500 people arriving in the country with no place for them to stay.
I thank the Minister for her response. It is vital that the NGOs are represented on the working group and I welcome that they will be present. It is very important that the group's composition should not be biased against non-governmental organisations and weighted towards Departments. I am a bit worried that the terms of reference are to consider how the system can be improved, as the system cannot be improved, so the working group should be considering alternatives to the direct provision system. At the very least, the report should indicate how to achieve the alternative. There is no doubt that the system has not worked and it is causing very serious harm to a very large number of people.
I have worked with asylum seekers in direct provision since they came to Donegal town in 2000. I am thankful the centre there closed in the past couple of years, and I would like to see all the centres across the country close because it would be the only fair and reasonable outcome from any review. We should not only consider improvements and we should examine alternatives. I ask the Minister to consider including that in the terms of reference for the working group.
Different countries in Europe take a variety of approaches to asylum seekers arriving on their shores and accommodation varies considerably, as the Deputy knows. In some countries, there are detention centres and in other countries, people are allowed to look after themselves without having any financial support, which is very difficult. That is the case in a number of countries. In Ireland, we provide full accommodation or "direct provision", as it is called. An alternative to that scheme would have enormous resource implications.
The working group will report to the Government on improvements to the protection process, including direct provision and supports for asylum seekers. I have no doubt that comments will be made similar to those of the Deputy and they will be examined. These may consider whether there are realistic alternatives. I know the Immigrant Council of Ireland, for example, has made a point about people who have been identified as trafficked. Amnesty International has identified people in the direct provision system who have been tortured and we should begin to examine those particular categories of people to see if there are alternatives from housing associations or elsewhere. We have housing difficulties in this country and there are 4,500 people living in direct provision centres. I want to make the conditions as humane as possible but this is a large number of people, with 40% arriving now.
We provide shelter and food for prisoners as well and, in effect, the direct provision system is one of open prisons. It is detrimental to anybody who must live in it, and as a society, we should be able to absorb the 4,500 people living in it. I know these people all want to contribute to our society, with many of them very highly qualified and capable. One person has been trying to enrol in a doctorate course for a number of years but he has not succeeded because of his status. Such people can make a major contribution, which we should recognise. The review should take that into account.
I agree with the Deputy that on a personal level, we want to give people as much opportunity as possible while living in direct provision so they can avail of whatever services they can. That is why it is important that children, in particular, are able to go to primary or secondary school. The length of time is the real issue, and it makes things difficult for so many people. If we can deal with applications more quickly, there could be quite a difference. I assure the Deputy we will certainly examine any other initiatives that we can take and act on as many of the recommendations as we can to improve people's current position.
I recognise the potential contribution of these people and I would like to see people being given an opportunity to make that contribution while they are in the direct provision system. Perhaps we can examine some training opportunities or involvement in local communities that could begin to meet some of what the Deputy has described.