Dáil debates

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Direct Provision for Asylum Seekers: Motion [Private Members]

 

8:15 pm

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal South West, Independent)
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I move:

That Dáil Éireann:notes:
— 2014 marks the 14th year of the existence of the Direct Provision system in Ireland;

— over 4,300 asylum seekers are currently residing in the 34 Direct Provision centres in the State, some of whom have been living in these centres for up to and above 10 years; and

— that more than one third of these residents are children who have spent a great deal of their lives, or their entire lives in these centres, which is having a negative impact on their safety and development;
acknowledges:
— that the Direct Provision system is an ineffective and costly system that is not fit for purpose;

— concerns raised by the United Nations Human Rights Committee regarding the ‘prolonged accommodation of asylum seekers in Direct Provision centres which is not conducive to family life’;

— concerns raised by the Special Rapporteur on Child Protection in relation to the detrimental effect of Direct Provision accommodation on children and on parents’ ability to provide adequate care;

— the social injustice of denying children residing in Direct Provision centres the opportunity to progress to third-level education;

— that the personal allowances of €19.10 per adult and €9.60 per child per week are wholly inadequate to address the cost of living;

— that the proposed Protection Bill providing for a single application procedure for the investigation of all grounds for protection, in itself, will not benefit those who have already begun the process of applying for asylum in Ireland; and

— the Minister for Justice and Equality’s pending establishment of a Direct Provision working group to improve the current system is unnecessary considering the plethora of information available for the Government to act now and provide an alternative system; and
calls on the Government to:
— abolish the Direct Provision system and introduce a legislative framework for specialised reception centres operating as ‘one-stop-shops’ for newly arrived protection applicants, providing access to the necessary services for the identification and assessment of needs;

— provide appropriate self-catering accommodation which respects family life in a system that embodies the best interests of the child, as well as identifying and properly supporting individuals with special needs and vulnerabilities;

— ensure the availability of early legal advice and independent complaints and inspection mechanisms;

— provide for the transfer to independent living within six months if a decision on a person’s status has not been reached by then;

— lift the prohibition on employment to allow residents of Direct Provision centres to work within six months if a decision on a person’s status has not been reached by then, to enable them to be actively participative in society, giving them a sense of worth and purpose in their daily lives which is a basic need of every human being;

— introduce a strategy for implementation of the new system with a clearly defined timeframe to adapt to a reformed system of accommodation for asylum seekers; and

— introduce a mechanism that allows asylum seekers that have already begun the process of applying for asylum in Ireland, and who are therefore unable to avail of the single procedure, to be fast-tracked to ensure no further unnecessary delays ensue.
I am sharing time with Deputies Finian McGrath, Seamus Healy, Ruth Coppinger and Catherine Murphy. I will be using 15 of the allotted 40 minutes and the remainder will be shared equally among the other three Deputies.

"Imagine if we saw the potential of refugees not the imagined risk. The opportunity not the fabricated crisis. Compassion not fear. Imagine." This is a quote from the founder and CEO of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Australia. It is an observation with which it is important to begin this debate and for everyone to keep in mind in the context of the motion before the House.

The number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people worldwide has for the first time in the post-Second World War era exceeded 50 million, which truly is astonishing. When I see this figure it brings to mind the 4,300 plus asylum seekers - over one third of whom are children - in Ireland who are living, if one can call it that, in inhuman conditions not fit for the 21st century in the 34 direct provision accommodation centres throughout the country. This system must end. For 14 years people from these centres have come to me desperate for assistance. At this stage, some of them have been living in direct provision for over ten years. I know from their experience, and from mine in representing them, that these centres are not fit for purpose and they effectively operate as open prisons. In particular, I am concerned about the protection of children in these centres. Many of the children in question were born into this system and know no better life.

While there has been much talk recently on reforming the system, the Government has done little in respect of the matter. The direct provision working group which is being established will not result in the reform that is required because it is being asked how the current system might be improved when what is actually needed is an alternative. Concerns raised about direct provision since 2001 include the lack of any legal basis for the system of direct provision; and reports of poor food quality, infestations, cramped living conditions and individuals institutionalised in the system for several years. Reports relating to prostitution and safety issues in respect of children are nothing new for anyone who has worked in this area, despite the fact that these issues only received media attention quite recently. As a result of the fact that there is a limited choice of food, movement and shared living space, curfews and restrictions on visitors to the centres, it is claimed - and rightly so - that the system breaches the right to private and family life under Article 8 of the Convention on Human Rights. In fact, some of the asylum seekers with whom I have worked are unable to attend the debate tonight and tomorrow night because they cannot break their curfews.

Despite the recent media attention this issue has been receiving - it is about time too - I have been wanting to raise it during my allotted Private Members' time for almost a year. When it began to receive increased attention during the summer and when it seemed clear announcements were pending, I briefly considered whether there was any point in proceeding with moving this motion if we were on the precipice of great change. Then, earlier in the summer, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald, ruled out any consideration of the question of extending the right to work for asylum seekers. Shortly thereafter, the establishment of the working group was announced. Subsequently, the Minister has continued to make reserved comments. Everyone here who has an interest in the direct provision system can indicate what needs to be done because the experts have been informing us about the matter for quite some time. While I am sure there are good intentions on the part of the Minister for State with responsibility for equality, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, this is just another delaying tactic on the part of Fine Gael that will result in a much diluted version of what must to be done. That is just not acceptable.

Most Members will agree that the current system just will not do. I am glad the matters in this regard have moved forward, even though there is still an undercurrent of discrimination against asylum seekers that is being fed by a flow of misinformation. However, the motion is not about fixing the wrongs in the direct provision system. Rather, it relates to constructing an alternative and it is in this light that I want to progress the debate. The motion calls on the Government to abolish the direct provision system and introduce specialised reception centres operating as one-stop-shops for newly arrived protection applicants providing access to the necessary services for the identification and assessment of needs; provide appropriate accommodation which respects family life in a system that embodies the best interests of the child as well as identifying and properly supporting individuals with special needs and vulnerabilities; ensure the availability of early legal advice and independent complaints and inspection mechanisms; provide for the transfer to independent living within six months if a decision on a person's status has not been reached by then; introduce a strategy for implementation of the new system with a clearly defined timeframe to adapt to a reformed system of accommodation for asylum seekers; lift the prohibition on employment to allow residents of direct provision centres to actively participative in society, giving them a sense of worth and purpose in their daily lives, which is a basic need of every human being; and introduce a mechanism that allows asylum seekers that have already begun the process of applying for asylum in Ireland and who are therefore unable to avail of the single procedure to be fast-tracked to ensure no further unnecessary delays ensue.

This issue goes beyond party politics, it is a human rights issue. I, therefore, urge all parties and Independents to accept the motion. In its observations published last July, the UN Human Rights Committee rightly put Ireland to shame regarding its direct provision system when it expressed its concern "at the lack of a single application procedure for the consideration of all grounds of international protection, leading to delays in the processing of asylum claims and prolonged accommodation of asylum seekers in direct provision centres which is not conducive to family life". The committee recommended that Ireland "take appropriate legislative and policy measures to establish a single application procedure with a right of appeal to an independent appeals body without further delay" and that the Government should ensure that "the duration of stay in Direct Provision centres is as short as possible and introduce an accessible and independent complaints procedure in Direct Provision centres". The Government appears to believe that the introduction of the single application procedure for protection will solve everything. However, the proposed legislation will have no impact on the thousands of asylum seekers who have been left waiting years for decisions on their status. The number in this regard continues to grow but we have not yet even been presented with the draft heads of the proposed protection Bill. Regardless of this, there should be respect for basic human rights in any centres which accommodate asylum seekers, however short their stay. By only fixing some of the problem, all the Government is doing is papering over the cracks.

Mrs. Justice Catherine McGuinness put it aptly when she warned that a future Irish Government will be obliged to issue a State apology to and compensate former Direct Provision residents, particularly children. Last summer we learned that social services have been alerted to over 1,500 cases involving young asylum seekers. The issues investigated by child protection staff in respect of these cases include inappropriate sexualised behaviour among children, the inability of parents to cope, young people not being supervised and mental health problems. In addition, the figure to which I refer indicates that the volume of reported concerns over children living in direct provision accommodation are between three and four times the rate for young people who live in the general community. The 2012 report by the Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, highlighted the real risk of child abuse in direct provision accommodation arising from shared sleeping arrangements whereby single parent families are required to share with strangers and teenagers are obliged to share with parents and siblings of the opposite sex.

The "E" grade given by the Children's Rights Alliance in its Report Card 2013 in respect of the right to equality and non-discrimination exemplifies how asylum seeking children are being treated. Article 2 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, UNCRC, requires states to ensure that children are not discriminated against, including in the context of the status of their parents, while Article 7 stipulates that a child shall have a right to a nationality. It has been affirmed that the enjoyment of rights stipulated in the UNCRC is not limited to children who are citizens of a state party and must, if not explicitly stated otherwise, also be available to all children - including asylum-seeking children - irrespective of their nationality, immigration status or statelessness. The UNCRC also calls on states to ensure that all young children are guaranteed access to appropriate and effective services - including programmes of health, care and education - specifically designed to promote their well-being and that particular attention should be paid to the most vulnerable groups of young children and those who are at risk of discrimination. The latter category includes asylum-seeking children. We all know that we are failing miserably in the protection of such children. This is also widely known elsewhere. Last year authorities in the North sought to return a Sudanese asylum seeker and her three children to the Republic, where they initially sought asylum. However, the High Court in the North prevented the move on the basis that returning the family to direct provision was not in the best interests of the children. The presiding judge, Mr. Justice J. Stevens found that "the well-being both emotionally and financially of the primary carer and the importance of that to the well-being of the children in her care would point significantly to the best interests of the children being to remain in Northern Ireland". That is a sad indictment of the system in this State.

Children must be accommodated as a priority in a safe environment where their welfare can be protected and their natural development nurtured. Essentially, parents need to be able to parent and the family should be self-contained as a family unit as much as possible. For child protection to be at the heart of the reception system, appropriately trained staff should be present within the accommodation system and not simply at a national central point with remote access.

As most people know, Ireland is one of only two European Union member states where asylum seekers are prohibited from working after a designated period. The Government argues that extending the right to work for asylum seekers would almost certainly have a profoundly negative impact on application numbers. However, there is no evidence to support this claim. The Health Service Executive has documented the negative health effects among asylum seekers of not being able to work: "Lack of entitlement to work, when this restriction extends over a long period, may further compound mental health, with boredom, depression, sense of isolation and loss of self-esteem commonly reported symptoms," it concluded in a recent report. When a person is denied the right to work, he is denied the right to provide for himself, he is denied his individuality and responsibility and there is no sense of control in his life. The matter was aptly put by an academic and journalist:

To deny the right to work is to deny a fundamental source of human dignity. Work contributes to a sense of self worth that is essential to well-being. It can be a vital coping mechanism, particularly for people who have suffered trauma and upheaval. That is one of the reasons why the right to work is enshrined in international treaties...including the Refugee Convention and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. To deny asylum seekers the right to work is to put their mental and physical health at risk.
The fact is our direct provision system has cost the State an extortionate amount in recent years, but it is providing little in terms of a decent standard of living. The State has given more than €850 million to private firms for the provision of accommodation and food since direct provision was established. Many of these companies are large firms involved in the property, hospitality or catering business. Several have moved to shield their company accounts from public scrutiny and, in some cases, their beneficial owners include companies in offshore jurisdictions such as the Isle of Man or British Virgin Islands. While many cynics would use this information to argue that we already do too much for them or that we should send them all back where they come from, the fact is these costs exist because of the reluctance and resistance to deal with minority groups living in and being processed through an ineffectual system.

If the asylum process did not take so long with residents spending many years in the system, costs would be cut immediately. However, as mentioned previously, the single procedure in itself is not the answer. The introduction of a self-catering system instead of handing-out millions to private companies would introduce more transparency as well as respect for family life. It is not a question of costs as much as how we treat our fellow human beings. There is no denying the cost and transparency element involved which, if rectified, would in fact improve how we treat asylum seekers.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said:
When we oppress others, we end up oppressing ourselves. All of our humanity is dependent upon recognizing the humanity in others.
Where is the humanity in direct provision? What is needed is an alternative system that respects the human rights and basic needs of each individual and family for the duration of their stay, a system which is efficient and transparent and which allows asylum seekers to be productive in society rather than imprisoned living a life of degradation. I believe what is proposed in the motion would do precisely this.

I recognise several Deputies from all parties and none feel strongly on this issue and that the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, had a particular interest in this issue as a backbencher and has stated his wishes to reform completely the system numerous times since entering office. I believe we are similarly minded on this issue and I hope he is given the space to do what he is in the Department to do. We have a responsibility as a nation and as a member of the UN Human Rights Council such that when people come to our country looking for protection they are treated with the dignity and respect that should be afforded to all human beings, and that they can live in the knowledge that they and their children will be safe for however long they remain in our country. Therefore, I call on the Government to accept the motion, introduce a strategy for the implementation of the new system and begin on the path to meaningful reform.

8:25 pm

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin North Central, Independent)
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I thank the Acting Chairman for the opportunity of speaking to this important debate on the direct provision system in Ireland. I take this opportunity to thank and commend my Independent colleague, Deputy Thomas Pringle, on bringing forward this motion. He has shown great leadership and compassion on this urgent matter and all sides of the House should support him and his motion.

I accept that for some people this may not be popular. Yesterday's poll, for example, shows we have a long way to go in respect of changing the mindset of those who are hostile to the sentiments expressed in the motion. I challenge those people tonight. Would they like their son, daughter or brother to live in the direct provision centres with the €9.60 weekly allowance for children? Would they like to see their family in these conditions in a far-off land while waiting for a decision? I put it up to them tonight in the debate.

The plight of the migrant is a major, critical issue in the modern world and it is a fact of life today. It is important to remember them as human beings. We have all seen the recent pictures on our televisions of in the region of 120,000 migrants being rescued by the Italian coastguard off the Italian coast. Of these 120,000 a total of 2,200 died in the crossing and in September alone 750 people died.

We have also seen another aspect of this issue, that is, the complete humiliation and exploitation of these migrant people. Women have been abused and sexually exploited. These issues are important as well as the details of direct provision. We must look into the heart and soul and the words of this motion and turn them into a reality for these families.

When we are dealing with this issue we must speak out against any form of racism in our society. Whether in Ireland or Europe, we must challenge the racists and put an end to this carry on. I encountered an example one and a half years ago in my constituency involving several individuals. I asked an innocent question on direct provision. They photocopied a leaflet and gave it out in a part of my constituency allegedly in a negative way. I put it to those people that I am very proud to stand up and support the rights of people. I am proud to stand tonight with Deputy Thomas Pringle and the Independent Deputies who are standing up for the rights of people. I put it to them that they should consider our history and the Famine. They should consider our families and extended families who had to go to other countries. We all have relations in America, Australia and throughout the world. They had to emigrate as well. We are part of the process. Only in the past week we saw the great Galway man, Marty Walsh, home on a visit to Ireland, Galway and Dublin. He was elected mayor of Boston. I listened to the details of his interview and how he got elected by a cross-section of Boston society. He got a good deal of support from different communities and used his vote in a very positive way. It is important that we use these examples because as I speak there are children in the centres who could be doctors, scientists and leaders of tomorrow. We have to focus on those people and their qualities.

The issue of cost comes up regularly. I gather the figure is between €17 million and €19 million per annum in public money although I am unsure whether that is an accurate figure. People have put it to me that a considerable amount of money is being made on legal fees. We need to examine these figures.

It is important to examine factually the details of Deputy Thomas Pringle's motion. There are over 4,300 asylum seekers in the 34 direct provision centres in the State. Some of them have been living in these centres for up to ten years. One third of the residents are children. The direct provision system is an ineffective and costly system that is not fit for purpose.

Concerns have been raised by the United Nations Human Rights Committee regarding the prolonged accommodation of asylum seekers in direct provision centres. The committee suggested this was not conducive to family life. Concerns were also raised by the special rapporteur on child protection in respect of the detrimental effect of direct provision accommodation on children and parents' ability to provide adequate care. We have seen the social injustice of denying children residing in direct provision centres the opportunity to progress to third level education.

The personal allowances are €19.10 per week for an adult and €9.60 for a child. These are important facts. The Minister has set up a working group. He should get on with the job, given that there is cross-party support for helping these people. There should not be a fudge or any messing around.

We need to consider sensible actions that could be taken. I would like the Minister to provide for the transfer of residents to independent living within six months if a decision on a person’s status has not been reached by then. The prohibition on employment should be lifted to allow residents of direct provision centres to work within six months. We need to introduce a strategy for implementation of the new system and a mechanism that allows asylum seekers that have begun the process of applying for asylum in Ireland to be fast-tracked. If Government Members support justice, equality and respect for the person, they will support the motion at 9 o'clock tomorrow night.

8:35 pm

Photo of Séamus HealySéamus Healy (Tipperary South, Workers and Unemployed Action Group)
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I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate, and I compliment Deputy Pringle, who tabled the motion. He has been interested in this issue for many a long year and he is supportive of a change in the direct provision system. That view is becoming more widely accepted. The system is detrimental to families and individuals and, in particular, children. I am particularly disappointed that the Government has tabled an amendment. It is unnecessary, because the House should not be divided on this issue. There is significant cross-party support for a change to the system and, even at this late stage, I call on the Minister of State to withdraw the amendment and allow the motion to be passed unanimously by the House and implemented in the near future.

I deal with asylum seekers on a regular basis. There is a direct provision facility, Bridgewater House, in Carrick-on-Suir in my constituency. It has been in operation for some time. There are excellent relations and good interactions between the asylum seekers and the local community and there is excellent support from the community for the residents and their children. The children attend local schools and are involved in many local organisations, including the GAA, while also participating in many traditional cultural events. Many of the adults are engaged in education and training and they are supported through the Nano Nagle centre in Carrick-on-Suir. Everybody in the town should be complimented on the good interaction and support provided for the residents of Bridgewater House.

As Deputy Pringle said, this is the 14th year of direct provision. Approximately 4,300 asylum seekers are currently resident in 34 centres in the State, many of whom have been in the centres for up to ten years, while a few have been there even longer. More than 1,600 of them are young people under the age of 18, and there is no doubt the system is having a negative effect on them, in particular, and on families.

There is widespread support for the view that this system needs to be changed, although that view was held in some parts of society from the beginning. A retired Supreme Court judge, the former Ombudsman, Ms Emily O'Reilly, the Special Rapporteur for Children, many civil society organisations, the United Nations Human Rights Committee and numerous politicians have come to share this view. I hope the Minister of State will withdraw the amendment and agree to the passage of the motion unanimously.

A total of 4,360 persons are in direct provision, of whom 2,800 live in 851 family units. Some 1,666 residents are aged under 18, while another 451 are aged between 18 and 25. Although the numbers in the system have decreased over the past number of years, the length of stay in the centres has increased significantly and there is no doubt that now is the time to change the system. The 34 centres are located in 18 counties but only three were purpose-built for accommodation. The remainder are former hotels, hostels or guest houses, convents, nursing homes and so on, which were never intended for long-term residents. This is not good for individual residents and it is particularly negative for children.

Since the introduction of the system in 2000, the weekly personal allowance has not changed. It remains €19.10 per week for an adult and €9.60 for each child. There are serious concerns about the effect the system is having on children. Mr. Geoffrey Shannon, the Special Rapporteur for Children, has mentioned this in his reports. For instance, he stated:

The particular needs of children in the Direct Provision system should be examined with a view to establishing whether the system itself is detrimental to their welfare and development and, if appropriate, an alternative form of support and accommodation adopted which is more suitable for families and particularly children. In the interim, the state should implement without delay an independent complaints mechanism and independent inspections of Direct Provision centres and give consideration to these being undertaken through either HIQA (inspections) or the Ombudsman for Children (complaints)...

Research is needed on the specific vulnerability of children accommodated in the system of Direct Provision and the potential or actual harm which is being created by particular circumstances of their residence, including the inability of parents to properly care for and protect their children and the damage that may be done by living for a lengthy period of time in an institutionalised setting which was not designed for long-term residents.
This is a particularly damning view. The system is detrimental to children and needs to be changed urgently.

The UN Human Rights Committee has also addressed the issue in a report, stating: "The Committee is concerned at the lack of a single application procedure for consideration of all grounds for international protection."

According to the report, the system must be completely changed.

I again ask the Minister of State not to introduce the amendment because Deputies agree more than they disagree on this issue. Rather than divide on the motion, the House should pass it unanimously.

8:45 pm

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Independent)
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I thank Deputy Thomas Pringle for framing and introducing the motion. The Technical Group has a rota for Private Members' business and there is always a long list of issues Deputies would like to discuss. Deputy Pringle was particularly determined that the House would debate the issue of direct provision.

All Deputies will remember the night we had survivors of the Magdalen laundries in the Gallery. It was an unusual occasion because we stood up and applauded these women for surviving what the State did to them. The State also has survivors of industrial schools and mother and baby homes. It seems that those who are in the wrong category at a given time in this State must survive. Many of us have read about the views that prevailed in this country when certain sets of circumstances were allowed to persist. It has been horrifying to learn of some of the values that more or less shaped the policies which resulted in a hidden Ireland in which we sought to hide things away. In many ways, asylum seekers in the direct provision system have also been hidden away as it is only relatively recently that they started to become vocal. People in the direct provision system should not have to survive the State.

Approximately 70 million people claim Irish ancestry. Ireland has not failed in terms of distributing its population to other countries. Many Irish people were not treated well abroad. The way in which Irish people were treated in London and elsewhere in the 1950s and 1960s horrified us. We must ask if what we are doing today is any better.

Direct provision was introduced in 2000 by a Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government as a short-term solution to the changing profile of migration. It was intended to last for perhaps six months. No one anticipated that people would live in direct provision for up to 14 year or that large numbers of children would spend virtually their entire childhoods in these arrangements. We need to visualise what this means for such children. They will not have a normal home or family life and their parents will not have any prospect of securing employment. Ireland and Lithuania are the only countries in the European Union which deny asylum seekers all opportunities to work. The current system essentially steals childhood opportunities from the children of asylum seekers.

Deputy Healy referred to children integrating in the community by participating in sport and so forth. Such integration is difficult to achieve when families receive €9.60 per week for each child. Participation requires charity from the communities in which direct provision centres are hosted. While there is generally good will among such communities, such charity should not be required. We must dismantle the current arrangement which is unacceptable, particularly in the 21st century.

Ireland has a proud record on overseas aid. Even in these tough times, we continue to support some of the most vulnerable communities in the world. It is odd that we are concerned about incurring reputational damage on money markets and so forth, yet our treatment of those seeking asylum is placing at risk the proud record we have built up on overseas aid. Many asylum seekers come here having experienced war and direct violence and it is no longer safe for them to return home. Those who have fled often find it most difficult to produce paperwork because they had to flee in difficult circumstances or at short notice. This makes it difficult for them to corroborate their case, as they are entitled to do.

The rate of acceptance of asylum applications in Ireland is among the lowest in the European Union. I understand the EU average is 12% compared to 5% here. This issue needs to be examined to ensure we do not return people to countries where their lives will be at risk.

The total cost of direct provision fell from €86 million in 2008 to €65 million in 2013. This is a substantial cost for a highly unsatisfactory arrangement. As Deputies are aware, adults in the direct provision system are paid €19.10 per week, while children receive €9.60 per week. We must take account of school, medical and transport costs for children. It is dreadful that people have been placed in a position in which some resort to prostitution.

There is ample evidence that many direct provision centres are not fit for human habitation. Accommodation in some of them is substandard, with some people living in a single room, heating systems are inefficient and spaces are cramped. The situation is reminiscent of the Dublin tenements. It is not extreme to compare the thinking behind the direct provision system with the view taken when the workhouses were established, in other words, they should be made extremely unattractive in the hope that nobody will enter them. That is the type of thinking involved. It is unacceptable that the system was designed in this manner.

I accept what previous speakers said in respect of the Minister of State's bona fides in this area. He will, I am sure, accept that the current system of inspections is inadequate. I hope he will secure the support of both parties in government to take immediate action on the direct provision system. Independent, non-departmental inspections similar to those carried out by the Health Information and Quality Authority must be allowed. The Ombudsman for Children should be given a role in respect of children in direct provision as I believe that office would produce highly critical reports on the system on the basis of the stories and complaints made about it.

Asylum applications must also be processed quicker. If this requires a relaxation in the recruitment embargo, so be it because we must bring closure to asylum applicants and ensure they are given a fair and speedy decision on their cases.

I echo Deputy Healy's view that the House should not divide on the motion. Deputies should be able to find sufficient common ground to enable us to address the issue of direct provision. While the problem affects only a small number of people, the impact on them is very adverse. I call on the Government to rethink its amendment and instead accept this reasonable motion.

Photo of Liam TwomeyLiam Twomey (Wexford, Fine Gael)
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The Minister of State proposes to share time with Deputies Derek Nolan, Robert Dowds and Seán Kyne. Is that agreed? Agreed.

8:55 pm

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin North Central, Labour)
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I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after "Dáil Éireann" and substitute the following :"recognising that:
- the current system of direct provision has existed for 14 years;

- that the Minister and the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, having visited several centres, both agree on the need to review the current system; and

- a key concern identified by those working in the sector is the length of time people spend in the system, with over half of residents being in the system for over four years;
welcomes the commitments in the statement of Government priorities 2014 to 2016 to:
- establish an independent working group to report to the Government on improvements with the protection process, including direct provision and supports for asylum seekers; and

- to reduce the length of time the applicant spends in the system through the establishment of a single applications procedure, to be introduced by way of a protection Bill as a matter of priority.
I genuinely welcome the motion from Deputy Thomas Pringle and the Technical Group. I appreciate his sentiments in this regard.

I welcome the opportunity to speak about the system of direct provision because, as made clear in the new statement of Government priorities 2014 to 2016, the Government is committed to addressing not only the issues arising in relation to the system of direct provision but also the issues which need to be addressed in the context of the wider protection process.

The statement of Government priorities contains a number of interconnected commitments in the area of international protection for this purpose. These include:
- the commitment to legislate to reduce the length of time an applicant spends in the system through the establishment of a single application procedure by way of a dedicated protection Bill; and

- the commitment to establish an independent working group to report to the Government on improvements in the protection process, including direct provision and supports for asylum seekers.
The single protection procedure we will put in place will ensure Ireland continues to meet its international obligations and in a way which is both efficient and fair. This reform will simplify and streamline existing arrangements and provide applicants with a final decision on their protection application in a more straightforward and timely fashion and also, as a consequence, reduce the length of time applicants spend in the direct provision system and the costs to the taxpayer. That will equally allow us to address issues which now arise in the context of the system of dispersal and direct provision.

It is no secret that I have been and continue to be a critic of the direct provision system as it currently operates. I want to see it reformed into something of which we can be proud in a civilised society that describes itself as a republic. I have described it as inhumane, intolerable and a system I refuse to stand over in its current form.

I am particularly mindful of the position of families and children. We need to ensure the facilities we have in place are capable of meeting the needs of families in circumstances where their cases are ongoing for protracted periods. We need to ensure, in particular, that the length of time people are spending in the system does not mean that children's only experience of life is of life in the direct provision system. The needs of children will be a key issue to be addressed in the reform of the system. Therefore, I want change. In particular, I want to see changes made to the system in the short term which will have a direct benefit for those residing in centres as quickly as possible. That is why I very much look forward to working with the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, and my other colleagues in government in taking forward these commitments in my capacity as Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality.

The motion appears to acknowledge that change cannot occur overnight and I welcome this. We need to be sure the changes we make are ones we are capable of delivering on and sustaining into the future. We also need to take account of the fact that the system of direct provision does not operate in isolation from the overall protection process and that it is important that we address all relevant issues in the context of that process as a whole.

There are lessons to be learned from the circumstances in which the system of direct provision and dispersal were introduced and it is important that we do not lose sight of this. Direct provision was the public policy response to a major accommodation crisis at the time. We must be careful not to create a new one in circumstances where there are already considerable pressures in the housing market. The Government introduced the system in 1999 in response to an increase in the number of persons applying for asylum, which rose to 7,724 in that year from a figure of 424 only four years previously. That upward trend and the concentration of asylum seekers in the Dublin area meant that the accommodation services there were, understandably, unable to cope. The Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, was consequently established to put in place arrangements which would enable the accommodation needs of protection seekers arriving in the State to be met. The direct provision system has, nonetheless, succeeded in the period since in meeting the housing and other immediate needs of over 51,000 asylum seekers. No one has ever been turned away or left homeless. The difficulty is that a short-term emergency measure has become long-term policy.

The system of direct provision and dispersal has also enabled the housing, education and health needs of asylum seekers to be met in a manner which has avoided overburdening services in Dublin and other urban areas. It has in this way facilitated the mainstreaming of these services for asylum seekers, ensured they access the same services and that their children attend the same schools as their peers in the communities in which they live. We need to ensure these beneficial aspects of the system are preserved.

The system of direct provision has shown itself capable of responding in a flexible way as the number of asylum seekers arriving in the State has ebbed and flowed. The number of persons residing in direct provision accommodation peaked at 8,080 in 2005. The decline since has meant that the number of direct provision centres has fallen from over 70 to the 34 now in operation. The most recent closure took place in July 2013.

The annual budget for direct provision accommodation, at its highest, in 2008, exceeded €91 million. This year the cost will be approximately €51 million, a reduction of 40%. The number now in direct provision accommodation is approximately 4,300 which represents a reduction of 3,780 persons or 46% compared to the high point. The numbers residing in direct provision accommodation reflect, in part, the number of asylum applications being made. The number of applications had increased from the low hundreds in the early 1990s to 7,724 in 1999 when the decision to introduce the system of direct provision was made and was later to peak at 11,634 in 2002. The number of asylum applications has declined in the period since, reaching 946 last year. The numbers of asylum seekers presenting themselves can clearly have implications for processing times, as well as the nature of the accommodation that can be provided. That is why it is important that we consolidate the improvements made in recent times in processing times. The reducing numbers being accommodated in the system also offer the possibility of improving conditions for everyone.

The average length of time persons spend in the direct provision system has been increasing year on year for some time and is a particular issue of concern to the Government, as well as to me. There are, however, many reasons this is so. An analysis undertaken earlier this year revealed that approximately 50% of persons in the direct provision system had either judicial review applications pending, were the subject of deportation orders, or were seeking leave to remain in the State for non-protection reasons. A recent examination of cases in the direct provision system suggested that, in the overwhelming majority of cases in the system longer than four years, the applicants or their family members had legal proceedings pending, having exhausted all of the processes in the protection system.

I mention these facts for the purpose of setting out the context for the work we have to do, not in any way to apologise for the system as it is constituted. That also explains why we have decided to proceed by way of the establishment of an independent working group to report to the Government on improvements to the protection process as a whole, as well as the system of direct provision and supports for asylum seekers, in particular. The necessary work for the purpose of establishing the working group is well under way.

Both the Minister and I hosted a round-table consultation on 18 September. The round-table discussion brought together a wide range of organisations that have been working in the field of refugees and asylum seekers or have a particular perspective to bring to their needs. I take the opportunity to thank the Irish Refugee Council for its assistance in organising the round-table discussion. The groups represented were the Irish Refugee Council, as well as a representative of its core group of asylum seekers and refugees, AkiDwA, Cultúr, Doras Luimní, the Jesuit Refugee Service, Mayo Intercultural Action, NASC, SPIRASI, Tralee International Resource Centre, the Crosscare Migrant and Refugee Project, Dublin Aids Alliance, BeLonG To Youth, Children's Rights Alliance, FLAG, Barnardos and the Integration Centre. Representatives of the UNHCR and Amnesty also attended. Both the Minister and I benefited greatly from their insights into the operation of the direct provision system.

The main purpose of the round-table discussion was to enable the groups to outline key issues for them concerning the State's current arrangements for asylum seekers and the direct provision system. The outcome of the round-table discussion has helped to clarify the issues the working group will need to address.

The results of the round-table consultation will inform in more detail the terms of reference of the working group, which the Minister will announce shortly along with the membership of the group. The working group is to be chaired by former High Court judge and presiding officer of our citizenship ceremonies Bryan MacMahon.I expect that the membership will include representation from a wide range of interests in this area and include NGOs, advocacy groups working with children and other vulnerable people, refugees and representatives from all relevant Departments that have a role to play in providing supports and services to protection applicants. The Minister's intention is that the working group will be asked to submit a first report to the Government by the end of the year.

In advance of the round-table consultation, we had already identified a number of indicative themes with a view to guiding the discussion without limiting those contributing to those themes. These were the material needs of applicants in direct provision, including the direct provision allowance and exceptional needs payments; the needs of families and persons with special needs in direct provision, with reference to the accommodation portfolio; the arrangements for handling complaints and inspections; how linkages with local communities can be improved; support for residents when transitioning to life in the community; whether limitations should be placed on the length of time persons spend in direct provision; supports for protection applicants, including in regard to education, training, health care, social welfare entitlements and access to employment; and issues relating to the international protection determination process. The final remit of the working group will now be determined in the light of the outcome of the round-table consultation. This will ensure that all relevant issues are approached in a structured and considered way.

There is a sovereign requirement for Ireland to maintain balanced and appropriate immigration controls while at the same time ensuring that those who come to our shores to seek the protection of our State are dealt with fairly, humanely, expeditiously and in accordance with both domestic and EU law and rules. As a country and a people, we can justifiably say we are playing our part in this respect. Over the past 14 years or so, close to 40,000 immigrants who came here and utilised our protection and related processes have been allowed to remain in the State on a permanent basis. Indeed, very many of these have proceeded to become Irish citizens.

We will, of course, continue to honour our solemn international duty in the area of protection. However, we do not have limitless resources and we simply cannot operate an immigration policy which leaves us open to being targeted by those who trade in human misery, no more than we are in a position to provide for the vast number of economic migrants who seek a better life. It would be wrong for us to pretend otherwise or to offer simplistic solutions to what are truly complex and difficult issues of public policy with which governments all over Europe are struggling to grapple.

The statement of Government priorities also includes a second key commitment, which is to legislate to reduce the time an applicant spends in the system through the establishment of a single application procedure by way of a dedicated protection Bill. This is a key Government priority as it will be essential to removing structural delays, which are a feature of the existing protection system. Work on the Bill has already commenced. We are aiming to publish it in January 2015 with a view to its enactment by Easter next year. The key purpose of the Bill is to establish a single applications procedure and, as I indicated, simplify and streamline existing arrangements and provide applicants with a final decision on their protection application in a more straightforward and timely fashion. It will mean that all aspects of protection - asylum and subsidiary protection – in addition to any non-protection grounds that may prevent the Minister from deporting a person in the event of protection being refused, will be investigated and decided upon at the same time. It will, as a consequence, reduce the time that applicants spend in the direct provision system.

There has been some comment on the single procedure being of no benefit to persons already in the system. The benefit of a single procedure would not necessarily be limited to new applicants. The introduction of a single procedure for new applicants would raise the question as to what extent the new procedure could be applied to cases already in the system. The details in that regard are currently being examined in my Department.

I would like in closing to refer to some recent events. As Deputies will be aware, there are a number of ongoing protests in direct provision centres around the country. I fully respect the right of residents to protest and express their concerns about the living conditions or the protection process. At the same time, I am concerned about the impact the protests can have on children and other vulnerable persons living in the centres. Other aspects of the protests have been quite disquieting. These have included the targeting of individuals working in certain direct provision centres and the stopping of people going about their work. I know from my visits to the centres that the persons working there, in addition to those in the Reception and Integration Agency, are working on a day-to-day basis in the interests of the residents and bring real commitment to their work that often goes far beyond what is required of them. I would not like to see the good relationships that exist in most centres undermined.

Issues outside the control of the Reception and Integration Agency and local centre management, such as the time spent in centres and the right to employment, are issues that will be addressed by the working group which is being established. Direct provision, as the motion makes clear, has existed for 14 years now. It is not something that can simply be wished away or ended immediately. The Government has also to take account of the broader context of the challenging picture in regard to the public finances and the competing demands on them.

The Government is nevertheless committed to change and to bringing about real improvements to the protection process and the arrangements in place for accommodating asylum seekers. That is why we will be tasking the working group to report back to the Government within a very tight timeframe. We have form in this regard. We pledged to end the degrading practice of slopping out in Mountjoy and we did so. We pledged to close St. Patrick's Institution for Young Offenders and we have done so. We will not be found wanting in respect of direct provision. I ask the House to allow the working group the time to undertake that work and to support the Government’s counter-motion.

9:05 pm

Photo of Derek NolanDerek Nolan (Galway West, Labour)
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I support the overwhelming desire of the motion and counter-motion to reform the system of direct provision. This is a welcome debate and a matter on which I have campaigned and spoken in the House on several occasions. It is important that, as a Parliament, we reaffirm our belief in the refugee system and recognise our international obligation to those who are fleeing persecution based on race, nationality, political opinion or membership of a social group. We should say we need and respect the system and recognise our duties in that regard because they are often forgotten in the debate.

We need only to note the disturbances and turmoil right across the world to realise there are people who must genuinely flee the place they live because of these kinds of pressures. While we have an international obligation, it is natural to have a system in place to decide who is a refugee deserving of protection and who is not. A call must be made. What we have, however, is a shambles and does not work. In the first instance, we take people very quickly after they get off the plane or other means of transport and throw them into a system without obtaining adequate information or making a correct assessment. There should be proper legal aid, discussion with the asylum seeker, etc.

Second, we have a refugee appeals tribunal which, although it has significantly improved, rejected case after case for years. The Minister of State mentioned the 40,000 people who have been allowed to remain here. I question how many have been granted refugee status. Owing to the inadequacies of the legislation and decisions that are so dodgy that they merit judicial review, people spend years in direct provision.

I came across the plight of those in direct provision before I was even a councillor, back in 2008 when I used to work with Michael D. Higgins. We used to hold a clinic in the Menlo Park Hotel, opposite Lisbrook House, which was then a refugee centre. We used to deal with case after case involving people going through the system. Would the Minister of State believe that I am still dealing with some of them? There are people in the Eglington Hostel in Salthill, which the Minister of State visited with me, who are in the system for ten or 11 years. They have children who are ten years old who have spent their entire lives living in the direct provision system. If ever there were an example demonstrating that the current system is not only in need of improvement but also wrong and not working, that is it.

There are two steps we need to take. First, the working group the Minister of State has set up, on which I commend him, needs to put in place a system that works. Simply putting in place a new combined procedure with subsidiary protection and refugee status and applying it to or grafting it onto the current system is not enough; the current system and its processes, by which people should be treated fairly and in which their applications should be dealt with comprehensively, needs to be examined also. I ask that the working group do so. Second, we need to deal compassionately with those who have been in the system for so long and acknowledge the system we have in place is not working and should be made better. We need to examine the conditions and amount we pay people. What we really need to do is embrace the reality that the people who have been in the system for ten or 11 years and who have children here are going to stay.

I have not come across one such family which has been told to go home. Let us get the system working and treat these people with the urgency required, because the nihilism, waste of human potential and emptiness that existence brings with it, of living in and sharing one room and having limited moneys with which to go out and interact with society, have a damaging impact, not only on people's well-being but also on their mental health and ambitions as human beings.

A number of people have attempted to discuss and do something about this issue. When I used to question the previous Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, about the legislation coming through, he constantly reported that the new protection Bill was just six months away. That was back in 2011, when I was first elected to this House. Every time he was asked about it, it was just another six months away. I am not sure what it is about the Department, but when it comes to reforming this area of law and the asylum system, something is wrong and it cannot get it done. Will the Minister of State be vigilant and ensure he pushes this reform through, because it seems there is a reluctance to reform it?

I am concerned by and uncomfortable with the fact that Ireland has opted out of the EU common European asylum system. This common system sets out basic human rights and nothing more. It guarantees basic reception conditions which incorporate human rights as asserted by the European Court of Justice. One of these basic rights is the reception conditions directive, which mandates conditions to which people are entitled in asylum seeking centres. We have not signed up to that directive. The basic conditions include the right to work and so on. The European Court of Justice has said this is a basic human right and we need to look at that as well.

9:15 pm

Photo of Robert DowdsRobert Dowds (Dublin Mid West, Labour)
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What can I say after that speech by Deputy Nolan? It very much encapsulates my views. I thank Deputy Nolan for the strength of his contribution, both tonight and on other occasions when he has spoken publicly on this issue in drawing attention to the scandal of the system in this country.

I welcome the appointment of the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, and thank him for the visits he is making to direct provision centres throughout the country, including one in my local area. It was interesting to get access to a centre and see it from the inside. I wish the Minister of State luck in making progress on this issue, but he needs to be aware of Deputy Nolan's comment regarding the obstacles he faces, because there are many obstacles to making progress with the system. These need to be overcome as quickly as possible.

I heard Deputy Nolan on radio describe our asylum system as the Magdalen laundries of the 21st century. I wish I could say he was talking rubbish, but I cannot. If the centres are like the one I visited a week ago with the Minister of State, while the basic provision in terms of shelter, accommodation and food is made, it is provided in such a way as to make it difficult for people to live as individuals or families. People live in restricted conditions. For example, last week we saw three unrelated adult women sharing a room. They probably did not even have the same ethnic background. We saw a family sharing a room, with parents and children sharing the room for a considerable length of time. These situations might be fine if they lasted no longer than six months, but they go on. Yesterday, a man who has been in the direct provision system for ten years visited my advice centre. He is still being threatened with being sent home and must appear before the Garda National Immigration Bureau every couple of months.

We need a system in place that will deal with people as quickly as possible. I am aware the Minister for Justice and Equality has plans for a process that will take from one year to 18 months. The shorter the period, the better. The current system is unacceptable. As many contributors on this have said, the fact that children can be born and live in this situation for years is a bad introduction to the world. If these children are granted the right to remain in Ireland, what chance do they have of growing up to be decent, upstanding, well-balanced members of the community? The same goes for their parents. Some of the problems these people must deal with are mental health issues, uncertainty, boredom and the temptation to go down the wrong track. I have heard many allegations of prostitution from some of those living in asylum centres.

We need a solution to this issue. First, people must be granted a quick decision. If we could get to that position, people would either be told they cannot stay and must leave the country or they can join the workforce and begin to live their own lives rather than live with their lives on hold. I look forward to hearing what and how quickly progress will be made. The Minister of State faces a difficult task, but he must get on with it as soon as possible. I have one question for him, namely, what legislation, if any, the direct provision system operates under currently.

Photo of Seán KyneSeán Kyne (Galway West, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State and welcome the debate on this important issue. There are two extremes in the context of a debate on direct provision and the wider area of immigration. First is the view that there should be no immigration or inflow of people, whether immigrant workers or asylum seekers, into the State. The other view is that there should be complete freedom of movement, unfettered and unhindered by national borders. These views are both extreme and ludicrous.

It is the State's sovereign right to define its borders and regulate movement into the State. Our membership of the European Union carries with it a core freedom, the free movement of people throughout the Union. Ireland does not exist in a vacuum. It has an economy that has vacancies, some of which can only be filled by persons from abroad who are accommodated by the employment permit legislation. The jobs in question vary, but they are highly specialised and important for the economy. In an increasingly unstable world, there are human rights violations on an horrendous scale and we have a duty and obligation to assist those who seek help. All of these points impact on the direct provision system.

It is indisputable that there will always be a need for a system to process and address unplanned arrivals into the State. The current system of direct provision is beset with problems and is inadequate for many of those within it. Like others, I have raised the issue of reform of the system on several occasions - in May 2011, November 2011, October 2012, December 2013, February 2014, and most recently in June. Some of the suggestions I have made include permitting the Ombudsman to examine complaints or issues raised by residents in the system, the plans of Ministers to reform the system and the efforts to reduce by as much as possible the amount of time spent within the system.

Thankfully, the numbers in the system have been falling, but it is an unsettling fact that some people have spent years within the direct provision system. Families have been and are being reared in single rooms. Single people must share rooms with people of a completely different culture and in many cases they share no common language.

This is unacceptable. The appeals system in the area of immigration is also a problem. It needs to be streamlined and made more straightforward, but the decisions of the various adjudicating bodies also needs to be respected. We cannot have a system of endless appeals. The State has the right at the end of the day to adjudicate on behalf of citizens.

Since the restatement of Government priorities, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, and the Minister of State, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, have made several important commitments which I enthusiastically welcome. These include the establishment of a working group to report to the Government on the improvements within the protection system, including direct provision, and also to reduce the length of time that people are waiting within the system. I also welcome the fact the round-table talks have commenced, and these will set the terms of reference for the working group. NGOs have outlined a number of areas about which they have concerns, including the allowance for direct provision, the exceptional needs payment, the limitations on the length of time spent, the inspections and complaints procedure, educational issues and the dignity of people within the direct provision system.

It is worth noting that numbers have been greatly reduced but they are still too high, with over 4,500 people within the system. The number of new applicants has fallen greatly from over 2,000 in 2009 to 404 now, although, again, this is still too high. The overwhelming majority of people who have been there for a number of years are there because they have this protracted legal procedure to exhaust before a decision is made. I would welcome any commitment to reduce the time needed for this.

Obviously, the system is not perfect, although I note that it has prevented homelessness in one case. Unfortunately, as a State, we have many other challenges outside of the direct provision system, including homelessness, social housing shortages and problems with rental accommodation. There is also a larger issue that has to be looked at. Sweden is a country that is often looked at as being very liberal in regard to the whole asylum area but it has its own challenges. It was a big issue in the recent Swedish elections and it has required almost a doubling of the budget over the next four years to try to deal with this situation, given it is handling many refugees from countries such as Syria and Somalia.

I wish the Minister of State well. I commend him on what he has done so far and commend the Government on its work. I hope a solution can be found to end the indignity of people having to spend years in direct provision while their applications are being processed.

9:25 pm

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to discuss the motion and the issues surrounding direct provision in Ireland. Fianna Fáil shares a number of concerns surrounding the policy of direct provision, in particular the excessively long waiting time before an asylum application has been decided. It is clear to all of us that there is a significant problem surrounding the length of time a person spends in direct provision. Current statistics show that 46% of residents are there for three years or more and a further 14% have been there for seven years or more. This is clearly unacceptable, in particular for children whose earlier years are being impacted by the unsuitable living conditions of the direct provision facilities for families.

Fianna Fáil sought to pass legislation in 2010 - the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill 2010 - which allowed for a new single, integrated process of application for protection which would replace applications for refugee status, subsidiary protection and leave to remain. This legislative provision has yet to be implemented. The Department of Justice and Equality has stated that the main factor that contributes to upward trends in waiting time "is the length of time in the protection-humanitarian leave determining process", including legal proceedings. We know that one of the biggest factors affecting the time delay in the direct provision system is the lack of a single application process for asylum. It would seem obvious to us that the bringing forward of the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill 2010, or a similar Bill, would go some way towards reducing the delay currently experienced in the direct provision system.

I believe we in this House would all agree with reform of the current system. What we need is a system which is humane, fair, time-efficient and effective in dealing with applications. We need to ensure that Ireland is not seen as a soft target for people who have spurious claims for asylum, in order to protect against people who would seek to abuse our system. Equally, we need to ensure that those with a genuine application are dealt with and granted asylum with speed. We also need to ensure that those who seek to undermine our application system, who are not genuine in their approach and who deliberately abuse the processes laid down by the system, are dealt with in equal speed.

We have a duty, as Members of this House, to protect the interests, safety and well-being of the Irish people while also seeking to fulfil our international duties and obligations by offering our State as a safe haven for those who are persecuted in their own countries. In previous centuries, it was Irish people who sought asylum in other countries at a time when being a member of a particular faith or political outlook resulted in persecution. As a country and a people which has experienced political persecution and mass emigration, we must address this issue with the urgency and seriousness required, informed by our own history. We can only fulfil those duties by putting in place a robust system for dealing with asylum applications and guaranteeing as best we can its integrity and efficiency.

The current system, I believe, falls significantly short in fulfilling those duties despite significant expenditure on direct provision by the Department of Justice and Equality. Although there have been reductions in expenditure, in what I assume is in line with declining numbers in direct provision centres over the past five years, the State still spends over €50 million on accommodation costs for this system. The legal costs per year still exceed €6 million, with judicial review alone costing approximately €2.2 million this year. Yet, the fact our system currently has an average length of stay of 48 months, and that a total of 1,686 people have spent a minimum of five years in the system, is extremely concerning. We also have a situation where approximately 604 people have been in direct provision for seven years or more. This is an outrageous figure and shows there is a failure arising in the State's legal mechanisms to deal with these cases in a manner which is in any way effective, humane or fair.

One thing we must ensure is that any change or reform to the system as it currently stands must also deal with the people who are currently in the system. We cannot allow a situation arise where those who are currently engaged in the direct provision system today will not benefit from any proposed reforms of the system. That would be grossly unfair and something my party could not support. I hope the Minister might be able to give a commitment in this regard.

I also put forward that priority should be given to families in direct provision who have been waiting inordinate amounts of time for their applications to be decided. We cannot allow further delay which may result in young children growing up in Ireland, being educated and making friends here, only to be deported at some unknown date in the future. That is quite simply playing games with people's lives and is just not acceptable. The Minister should have some discretion in this regard and be conscious of the impact such a decision would have on any young family in that situation.

The conditions at direct provision centres for families in general are also a concern. At a recent protest at a direct provision centre in Cork, a number of mothers who have been living there for periods reaching up to nine years stated they had serious concerns about food but also about the effect on people's mental well-being. The indefinite duration of the review of their applications served to create great instability and fear in their lives. While I understand the public finances have been under strain for the past number of years, I consider that proper food should be able to be provided to those in direct provision, given this country's ability to produce some of the best food in the world.

I want it noted too that the budget of the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INIS, has been cut by €5 million since 2011, which may have resulted in further waiting and delay for many in the direct provision system. The budget allocation, including Supplementary Estimate adjustments as appropriate, for the operation of INIS, including wages and salaries and running costs, was €52.5 million, €43.5 million, €49.5 million and €47.5 million respectively for the years 2011 to 2014. In response to a recent parliamentary question which I submitted, it was outlined that the staffing levels of INIS, which forms part of the Department of Justice and Equality, ranged from 615 in 2011 to its current level of 519 full-time equivalents.

That is a loss of almost 100 staff in the space of three years, which is bound to have a significant impact on the processing times INIS is able to provide. The equivalent budget allocations for the direct provision system ranged from €67.5 million in 2011 to €47.5 million this year. I put it to the Minister of State that the cuts to the budgets of both INIS and the direct provision system have resulted in a slowdown in the advancement of applications for asylum, which has resulted in many of the protests we see at centres across the country.

I urge the Minister of State to introduce legislation to create a system for dealing with asylum applications that will be fair, fast and robust. The current waiting times for decisions with regard to these applications are embarrassing and must be addressed immediately. We in Fianna Fáil will support proposals from the Government which will address these issues if they are fair, reasonable and robust. I hope the Minister of State will be able to bring legislation before this House quite quickly.

My party and I are very concerned about this issue. I raised it last week with the Minister as a priority question. In fairness, she is minded to deal with the issue. I also articulated my opinion that HIQA and the Ombudsman for Children should have oversight capacity in terms of reviewing standards. I also mentioned the two direct provision centres in my part of the country. There is one in Mount Trenchard in my constituency and another on the outskirts of Limerick city in Knockalisheen, which is technically in county Clare but is part of Limerick city. Those people have been engaged in protests recently in Limerick to articulate their concerns. I am sure the Minister of State is aware of Doras Luimní, which acts as a support and advocacy agency. I take the opportunity to compliment Doras Luimní because I work with it as much as I can. It refers people to my advice centre. It is a truly fantastic organisation that works not only with refugees and asylum seekers but also with those trapped in prostitution and those who have been trafficked into this country. It is a truly outstanding organisation and I am sure that when the Minister of State visits Limerick, he will meet it. I know he has indicated that he intends to visit Limerick in the near future and I would be glad to accompany him to either of the direct provision centres in the Limerick area when he does so.

9:35 pm

Photo of Pádraig MacLochlainnPádraig MacLochlainn (Donegal North East, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Minister of State's statements on this subject since he took office. I referenced them last week during Question Time with the Minister. I must also put on the record again the sheer frustration we felt when we raised the matter with the previous Minister, Deputy Shatter, over the past three years. Both in this Chamber and in committee rooms, he repeatedly defended this system. He acknowledged some of the challenges but felt it was the best we could offer. It has been a really frustrating number of years, which is why a fresh approach is welcome. I believe the Minister of State will seek to address this issue, but I am a bit concerned about the Minister. I felt she was not using the same emphasis as the Minister of State in her statements last week. On reflection afterwards, I was fearful that we might not have a sense of urgency around this - a need to catch up with three lost years. I made the point to the Minister that, based on her response, I felt that there was a rowing back from some of the statements the Minister of State had made publicly and that there was a more cautious approach and a qualification around some of the comments that were being made. This is why I welcome this motion tonight. There is no legislative footing for these direct provision centres and they can be removed if the Government deems it necessary. I appreciate that the Government needs to put in place some type of system and to deal with the fact that there have been these crazy delays in the application process and that appeals run on for years.

In 1987, I read a book by the late Ray Crotty which revealed that since the foundation of the Irish State, half of Irish citizens who survived childhood - not factoring in those who died during childhood - emigrated. From 1922 to 1987 - 65 years - half of all citizens who survived childhood emigrated from Ireland. That is our legacy. Today, as we speak, emigration is happening again - to Australia, the US, Canada, Great Britain and all over the world. Yet again, we are losing our young people to emigration. We would never for a moment tolerate our young people being treated the way we have treated people who have come to this country. Can one imagine "Liveline" with Joe Duffy and the discussion on every local radio station? There would be documentaries every week on every station in this State telling the stories. We would not put up with it. We would have dealt with it. Of all the nations on this earth, I would say that per capita, very few have our emigration levels. There are very few countries that have had to rely more on their brothers and sisters internationally to give them a future.

I am not advocating an open-door system. There needs to be a process to ensure that people who genuinely need asylum are assessed properly. We have left people in these centres with food that is not culturally applicable. I listened to one of the reports on RTE radio about deep-fried food and frozen food served every day to people who are used to healthy and diverse choices. This is one of the less serious criticisms. I am talking about the way children are treated within the system. This has been ongoing for years and years. The way children are corralled into tight spaces is an appalling indictment of the way we made up that policy 14 years ago in response to very different circumstances. We have not dealt with the fact that they have changed dramatically.

I know the Minister of State is sincere about this and is trying to address it, but I hope his senior colleague has the same sense of urgency about this issue. This will be proved in the next period of time. We need to give the Ombudsman and the Information Commissioner oversight of the direct provision system. They have repeatedly asked for it. The Ombudsman, Peter Tyndall, will appear before the Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions tomorrow and I know he is going to ask for it again. He is also the Information Commissioner. We need to give oversight of this system to the Ombudsman and the Information Commissioner because it is public money but, more importantly, because it is about people's rights. While they are not citizens of Ireland, we have received a welcome all over the world. The least we can do when people are waiting for a decision is to treat them with dignity and have oversight of that. I wish the Minister of State good luck with his work, and if he continues in the same light he will have the support of this side of the House.

Debate adjourned.

The Dáil adjourned at 9 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 1 October 2014.