Thursday, 30 March 2017
Direct Provision: Statements
I welcome the opportunity to put aside some misconceptions about the direct provision system and to listen to the views of colleagues from across the political spectrum on the system as it operates today. The structure of the debate means I will not be able to respond at the end, unfortunately. I will try to get in contact with colleagues after the debate to respond to the issues they raise. I apologise for not being able to respond in the Chamber, but that has not been provided for in this debate.
I would like to set out the context for the establishment of the direct provision system. Services for all protection applicants who are in State-provided accommodation or who live in the community are delivered under the Government's policies of direct provision and dispersal. This policy was established in 2000 when the then health boards, which were responsible for homeless people, found themselves unable to cope with a large influx of individuals who were claiming asylum in Ireland. Some 1,500 people in the protection process were being provided with accommodation and full board by the Government in May 2000, but that number had increased to 4,200 by May 2001 and to 7,200 by May 2005. As of the middle of this month, some 4,500 people are living in State-provided accommodation, 77% of whom have been in such accommodation for three years or less. I will return to this issue later.
It is important for us all to be clear on our understanding of what exactly is meant by direct provision. It is the system whereby State services are delivered directly to protection applicants through the relevant Department or agency. For example, the Department of Education and Skills delivers education services through the established school system and the HSE delivers medical services through the established GP and hospital systems. In the case of the Department of Justice and Equality, full-board accommodation is offered to residents while their applications for protection are being processed. Not every person who seeks international protection in Ireland chooses to accept the offer of full-board accommodation. Many applicants choose to live with colleagues, family members or friends in communities across the country, as they are entitled to do. Direct provision is not about detention, disregarding human rights or treating people in the protection process differently from people in the wider community. Since this system was established in 2000, some 60,000 people have been provided with full-board accommodation and full access to the State’s medical and education services. Last evening, over 4,000 people were provided with full-board accommodation by the State. If the State was not providing this service, where would these people have stayed? How would they have been provided with medical and health care? How would children have been linked in with preschool, primary and post-primary education?
During previous debates on direct provision in these Houses and in the media, there has often been a focus on calls to end the system. I have yet to hear anyone say what they would replace it with. Would they replace it with a system based on cash or vouchers? If colleagues have suggestions for what we might replace the current system with, I ask them to give me the details of what they would like to see happening. I assume that we do not want the vulnerable people for whom we are responsible protecting to join the lengthy social housing waiting lists or to enter the private rental market with little hope of finding affordable and secure accommodation. The offer of State-provided accommodation is a guarantee that everyone who walks into the international protection office today will have a bed, food, a shower and medical care tonight. They will not be forced to spend the night on the streets or to seek emergency housing. This arrangement is not something to be thrown away blindly without care for its replacement, particularly as we have a housing crisis.
No system is without room for improvement. Our job is to continue to enhance and develop the entire system so that the best possible set of facilities and services can be provided to those in our care. To that end, the Government commissioned a retired judge, Bryan McMahon, to chair a working group charged with compiling a report into the protection process and the system of direct provision. His report, which was published in June 2015, forms the basis for ongoing improvements across the entirety of the system, involving all relevant Departments and agencies.
A Programme for a Partnership Government states:
Long durations in direct provision are acknowledged to have a negative impact on family life. We are therefore committed to reforming the Direct Provision system, with particular focus on families and children.
On 23 February we published the latest audit of the implementation of the recommendations contained in the McMahon report, which shows that 121 of the recommendations have been implemented, with a further 38 partially implemented or in progress. In total, 92% of the 173 recommendations have been implemented, partially implemented or are in progress, a significant increase on the figure of 80% we reported on last June.
The Department is implementing a large number of commitments contained in A Programme for a Partnership Government within two broad themes. The first of these is by way of reforming legislation with the commencement of the International Protection Act 2015 on 31 December 2016. A key feature of this legislation is the introduction of a new single application procedure that will, in time, significantly accelerate the protection-determination process and, by extension, reduce the length of time which applicants spend in State provided accommodation. The new processing arrangements will determine certainty of status at an earlier stage for those entitled to international protection within the State. The Act is intended to achieve the desired balance between treating asylum seekers with humanity and respect and ensuring more efficient immigration procedures and safeguards.
Under the regime that existed up to the commencement of the Act, the protection process had four discrete steps: a refugee status determination at first instance; a refugee status determination on appeal; a subsidiary protection determination at first instance; and a subsidiary protection determination on appeal. Members will appreciate that, in light of the multi-layered protection system which existed up to 31 December 2016, those refused asylum at first instance but still pending in the protection process could be pending at asylum appeal stage, pending at-first-instance subsidiary protection stage, pending at subsidiary protection appeal stage, or be challenging an asylum subsidiary protection determination in the courts through the medium of judicial review proceedings. The process could, therefore, be and very often was of considerable length. Figures prepared for consideration by the working group to report to Government on improvements to the protection process, including direct provision and other supports for asylum seekers, in 2015 showed that 2,695 persons had been in State-provided accommodation for three or more years at that time. Recent analysis has shown that this figure has now been reduced to just over 1,200 persons. The number of persons in State-provided accommodation for five years or more has been reduced to less than 600 persons.
Our analysis has also shown that practically all cases of persons living in State-provided accommodation for over five years which could be processed have now been processed. The remaining approximately 250 cases have been reviewed and cannot be processed for a number of reasons, including applicants judicially reviewing earlier decisions. This was a major achievement and has impacted directly on the lives of a large number of persons in the protection and related systems.
The single procedure will speed up the processing of claims and the clear ambition here is that the day of applicants residing for very lengthy periods in direct provision will be over. For many years, people have rightly sought an end to the sometimes lengthy multi-sequential determination process. The new process is addressing those very issues. It is in the interest of everyone, not least the applicants themselves, that all protection applications are dealt with speedily efficiently and in accordance with the highest international standards.
The second major theme of improvements is in the area of the delivery of services overseen by the Reception and Integration Agency of the Department of Justice and Equality and other Departments and Government agencies. The Reception and Integration Agency oversees the provision of full-board accommodation for protection applicants while they await decisions on their claims for international protection.
Following the McMahon report and, in particular, since the publication of A Programme for a Partnership Government, a number of recommendations on physical improvements to accommodation are being implemented. The following are some examples. There has been the introduction of full independent living at the Mosney accommodation centre. Each family is now able to acquire fresh food to their liking so they may prepare meals themselves. The new home-cooking arrangements at Mosney went live on 23 January 2017. Residents' kitchens have been installed in a number of accommodation centres to provide for home cooking by residents and their families. Cooking facilities are being rolled out to other centres including the State-owned centres in Killarney, Tralee, Athlone, Knocklisheen in Limerick and Kinsale Road in Cork, as well as in Ballyhaunis, Millstreet, St Patrick's in Monaghan and any other centres in which families are resident.
There has been a complete refurbishment consisting of triple-glazed windows and doors, and refurbished interiors in each accommodation unit at the Athlone accommodation centre. A number of outdoor playgrounds and football pitches have been improved to provide for all-weather facilities. Centres now have teenagers' rooms to provide social areas for this age group. Recommendations in the McMahon report that involve structural changes or improvements will be implemented as quickly as possible, with due consideration of possible fire safety, building regulation and planning issues.
The Department has also co-ordinated the preparation of a multi-departmental information booklet for persons who have been granted any type of leave to remain in the State. The booklet contains practical and useful information for residents on housing, finances, health care, education as well as television licences, public transport and other related matters. It has been prepared with the assistance of the National Adult Literacy Agency to ensure that it is presented in plain English. The booklet has been translated into a number of languages. In addition to the publication of the booklet, a number of NGOs have been awarded moneys under the EU Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund specifically to provide assistance to persons who have been granted protection and who are now in a position to move out of State-provided accommodation. At the end of December 2016, there were approximately 450 persons with some form of status continuing to reside in State-provided accommodation. Notwithstanding the housing crisis, we are working with the NGO community and residents alike to ensure that those with permission to remain in the State are assisted in finding mainstream accommodation as soon as possible and that State-provided accommodation remains available for those in most need. Those people, even though they have permission to remain, are still provided for in these centres.
In January 2016 the Minister for Social Protection increased the rate of allowance paid to children in State-provided accommodation from €9.60 per week to €15.60 per week. In recent years the Minister for Education and Skills introduced a scheme to provide supports in line with the current student grant scheme to school Ieavers who are in the protection system and who meet the eligibility criteria.
Another key recommendation of the McMahon report was that the remit of the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for Children should be extended to cover those who are living in State-provided accommodation. This has now been implemented and both offices will begin to accept complaints with effect from Monday, 3 April 2017. Obviously, these two offices are completely independent and objective. We welcome that and we look forward to any advice they might have for us in those areas. They are completely free to visit any of these centres at any time.
As can be seen from the foregoing, significant improvements have either been implemented or are being implemented across all aspects of the system of supports for those in the protection process. This work will continue through the remainder of 2017 and beyond. Our intention is to ensure that the best possible service is provided to those seeking protection by way of a speedy, effective and efficient decision-making process combined with a system that meets the basic needs of persons in that process.
I take this opportunity to say that I would welcome applications from groups or organisations with proposals to provide, run and manage accommodation centres in response to the current call for expressions of interest published recently by the Department. I have visited many of the accommodation centres under contract to the Department since taking office. I know that in recent times other Members have also visited accommodation centres in a discreet and respectful manner without fanfare or publicity, respecting the privacy and sensitivities of the people there. I will continue to have an open approach to any colleagues who wish to do so in the future. When colleagues speak here today some will do so from the experience of having visited these centres and know what they are talking about. Their experience is recent and not historical, going back over five or ten years.
I have spoken with residents and representatives of residents. I have listened to their concerns and I am working on addressing them. This work will focus on improving processing times and improving the facilities available to all those in our care. The work we are currently engaged in will improve the processing time for applications for international protection and the accommodation and facilities being provided by the State for those in the protection process.
I look forward to hearing the views of Members on this matter. Constructive criticism is always welcome. I assure all Members that their views will be carefully considered as we continue to enhance the full range of services being provided to those in the protection system. As I said at the outset, I regret that I will not be able to respond to this debate this morning. However, I will respond to colleagues' comments and suggestions, including offers of assistance they may have for people who come to our shores looking for asylum. These are different from people who are refugees who get accommodation in the emergency reception and orientation centres, EROCs.
That is a different system completely and one should not mix those two up. EROCs are totally different to the direct provision system.
I hope colleagues will agree that we are working hard to improve the direct provision system, as I said, to have more speedy decisions than we had up to now so that applicants will not have to wait as long for a decision to be made and to continue to improve the conditions where people are living. As I say, I have visited lots of these centres and will continue to do so. I meet the people there and listen to them. I met one lady the other day and she said, "I feel safe. I have no complaints. I am safe. I am happy. I am looked after. I have friends who look after me."
I thank the Minister of State for giving us the opportunity to speak on this debate. I acknowledge the good work he has done. I am in no doubt that the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, in everything he is doing in this area, is incredibly well intentioned and is working hard to improve the lot of those in direct provision. That, essentially, is what we all are aiming and hoping for.
I also acknowledge that while the Minister of State cannot respond to what we are saying, I appreciate that he has committed to taking on board our comments, views, observations and opinions and that he will take them in the well-intentioned way they are made, not as a criticism of himself but certainly as a criticism of the service that we want to continue to improve.
There are almost 5,000 people currently in direct provision. In my view, they exist in a dehumanising environment. They are unable to work. They are unable to attend third level education. Most of them, while acknowledging the work that has gone on in Mosney, cannot cook for their own families. They receive a paltry amount of money - €19.10 per adult and €15.60 per child per week. In many cases, that money has to go towards food, schoolbooks, school trips and outings for the children. It is a very small amount of money.
My figures on those who are in direct provision are slightly different to those of the Minister of State. My figures show that 40% of asylum seekers have been in direct provision for five years and approximately 20% for more than seven years. The position has improved in the recent past.
No matter what, the damage done in any long-term stay in these centres is incalculable. The key issues facing these people in direct provision are the duration of the stay, the impact of the environment on family life and the right to work.
I read with great sadness a recent newspaper article about a 16 year old girl, who was a victim of violence in her home country, was chronically traumatised and was suffering greatly in a direct provision centre in Ireland. Diagnosed with psychosis, this teenager's mental health deteriorated to the extent that she has had to be made a ward of court as her health was in serious danger. This girl and the 1,600 or more children who have grown up in the direct provision system have endured overcrowded conditions, social exclusion and psychological damage associated with living in institutionalised accommodation. We, as a country, can do better. We must do better by these young people. The current system is not fit for purpose and it needs to be replaced to enable asylum seekers to live with a greater degree of respect and dignity.
I realise that direct provision cannot be dismantled overnight and it will take some time to get there. I believe the end of direct provision must be the ultimate goal and will offer thoughts on changes that could be made in the short and long term. In the short term, we need to create and build a humane system by fully implementing the McMahon report. At present, the Department claims that more than 90% of this has been carried out but in speaking to residents, I do not discern that much has changed for them. Certainly, there have been some improvements but it is happening at far too slow a pace. I acknowledge that in some centres, in Mosney in particular, proper functioning cooking facilities have been introduced. It is good that residents can purchase foods via a points system. This needs to be rolled out.
An amendment to the International Protection Act 2015 permitting asylum seekers the right to work is hugely important. This could be in line with the provisions in the EU reception directive, which permits asylum seekers to work if no decision on their application for asylum has issued after nine months. During the consultation process for the working group, together with the long length of stay in the system, the right to work was one of residents' biggest issues and I have come across that on a personal level. These two factors combined mean that by the time people leave direct provision at present, they have become completely deskilled and demotivated and find it really difficult to enter the labour market. In fact, the direct provision creates huge dependency.
It is important also to increase the weekly allowance to the amounts recommended by the McMahon report. Such an increase would have a real and tangible impact on the quality of life of those living in direct provision by allowing them a greater degree of choice and improving their ability to participate in the community within which they live. It is hugely important that we begin to create a system that allows families and the vulnerable to have access to independent, not communal, living following a short stay in centre-type accommodation. Direct provision is no place for families and has been consistently criticised.
In the longer term, we must design a more humane system. One of the key differences of our system when compared with those of other EU countries is that it is operated for profit. I appreciate the Minister of State's observation that calls for expressions of interest are under way at present. While it remains a profitable system for some, it will not be humane. As a result, the Government has been keeping its responsibility at arm's length to a certain extent. While we have been contracting out the care of the vulnerable to private entities for profit, basically, creating modern-day Magdalen laundries, we need to move to a system the Minister of State suggested in his speech, which I appreciate. Putting out calls specifically for not-for-profit entities with experience is hugely important. The ultimate aim must be to create a blended system, such as that in Portugal, where asylum seekers, following a short initial stay in a reception centre in which their needs are assessed by an assigned case worker who deals with all aspects of their claims, can move out into community self-contained units.
I welcome the Minister of State's announcement that legal issues regarding the extension of the remit of the offices of the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for Children to include access for residents in direct provision centres have now been clarified. That is hugely important. As the Ombudsman for Children pointed out, "1,400 children are ... spending formative years of their lives in direct provision, in circumstances that inhibit their potential to thrive and curtail their full enjoyment of basic rights".
I acknowledge that while the current housing shortage clearly creates a huge challenge in being able to access accommodation, there are also many other hurdles, particularly around education and the right to work. I will mention briefly the 2016 report, "Transition: from Direct Provision to life in the community". This report highlighted the multiple challenges faced by former asylum seekers in attempting to make that transition. As the Minister of State pointed out, many are not able to make that transition. They are still in the direct provision centre.
Having endured years of living in the system - it is known to negatively affect mental health, child well-being and family life - people are largely left to fend for themselves once they receive their status. People have to navigate a complex array of systems as they attempt to move out of institutions that have systematically disempowered them for many years.
This is a key point in all of this. Those transitioning also face significant barriers in accessing education and employment. The years spent in direct provision are not counted towards eligibility for the back to education allowance. Finding even low-skilled employment proves extremely difficult given that participants have not been permitted to work for many years. We now see the very negative impact.
On Monday, I visited the Eyre Powell centre in Newbridge where 68 people live, including seven children under the age of 18. I was very struck by the energy of the young people living there. Many young men there have just completed coaching courses with a local sports partnership. They were incredibly enthusiastic about wanting to contribute to their community. Supervisors in the sports partnership scheme would absolutely love to bring these young men out into the community to work with voluntary organisations, sporting and otherwise. We have some festivals coming up but unfortunately-----
The Leas-Cheann Comhairle is interfering now.
Due to Garda vetting restrictions they are unable to do so. This is wrong. They want to work and participate in society but they are prohibited from joining the workforce. Aissa Sow, who lived in the centre, fled from Guinea without her family in 2011. Recently she was publicly interviewed. Her description of feeling like a prisoner in direct provision is a reminder of just how hard is the process. Her story ended happily as she was granted asylum and has now applied for her mother to join her. She is lucky.
There is no doubt people in direct provision have sought asylum to protect themselves and their children in the hope of providing a more secure future. In direct provision they are denied the capacity to live as a family and they are left waiting indefinitely for this future to begin. We need to do better.
The first time the Minister of State and I met was at NUI Galway last year at the launch of the inclusive centenaries scholarships. It was a great day of celebration when scholarships were announced for young asylum seekers living in direct provision. NUI Galway is providing scholarships for people who have done incredibly well in education, giving them the opportunity to go forward. The young people told powerful stories, such as the first time Connacht won a European rugby competition, and how the young men sat in their bedrooms having to watch it on their phones while all of their friends were able to watch it into houses. Some of the schoolchildren in the Gallery possibly do not really understand what we are speaking about with regard to direct provision. Children in direct provision have problems with studying. They face real challenges trying to study for the junior or leaving certificate when they go home in the evenings to their shared bedrooms. However, they have attained incredibly high standards, which was acknowledged by NUI Galway, which has opened up an opportunity for children whereby they will be funded to go to third level college. The young people also spoke very passionately about their lack of access to playgrounds. I am a mother of three children and people can take this for granted. We all have back gardens where we are able to put up our slides and our swings. The children living in direct provision do not have this opportunity.
I acknowledge the work being done by the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton. He is completely compassionate and engaging and has done much work over the past 12 months, which as Deputy O'Loughlin has commented, can be seen. Much work remains to be done and nobody is denying this, but as spokesperson for children my emphasis is on their opportunity to study and to be like every other child in the country. We have invited them in and it is up to us to support them.
Direct provision is not fit for purpose and Fianna Fáil believes independent oversight is needed. People have been in direct provision for far too long. I acknowledge the figures are dropping, but it is hard to imagine that almost 600 people have been in direct provision for more than five years. It is unthinkable that in this country people could be boxed up for so long. Let us reflect on the lives of children caught up in this disgraceful scenario with totally unsuitable living conditions. As Deputy Rabbitte stated, they have no proper play conditions and there are many other issues. This has impacted on the lives of young people and it is a major violation of human rights. One can only imagine what parents go through seeing what their children go through.
Direct provision was supposed to be a temporary measure, but some people have been in it for ten years.
Why is it taking so long to progress these cases? People are supposed to live on €19.10 per week. These unfortunate people cannot work or go to college and there is no integration with local people. This is a very important factor. I acknowledge the McMahon report has many good recommendations and I understand some of them are being implemented.
I am very impressed with the role of the Minister of State in this. I dealt with him with regard to Syrians coming to Ballaghaderreen and I know he is very compassionate and has a very good view of this. He is improving matters slowly but surely. I urge him to act for those people who have been in direct provision for far too long and give them a decent life. That is all they need. Many of them have come from very unfortunate circumstances.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an deis caint ar an ábhar seo - soláthar díreach. Ba chóir go mbeadh níos mó plé ar an ábhar agus ba chóir go mbeadh an t-ábhar seo ag barr ár smaointe agus sinn ag plé mí-úsáid agus leatroim stairiúla agus sárú cearta daonna mar atáimid le roinnt seachtainí anuas.
On 10 April 2000, Ireland embarked on a renewed episode of mistreatment of the most vulnerable in Irish society. There has been much talk over recent weeks about President Trump's ban on people travelling from certain countries throughout the Middle East, about which the Irish people were outraged and rightly so. Successive Governments have failed to deal comprehensively with what I consider to be quite a discriminatory policy that lies directly at our feet. I acknowledge Deputy Stanton's bona fides and intentions this area, but I consider it to be a discriminatory policy.
In 2000, the then Fianna Fáil Minister for Justice, John O’Donoghue, commenced a new programme aimed at tackling the issue of refugees coming here to seek asylum. These refugees, many of whom were fleeing war torn areas, came to Ireland in search of safety, in the hope of escaping persecution in their country of origin. The system was seen as a way of housing these people, providing them with basics while the asylum application was being processed. Today in Ireland 35 of these centres are active throughout the State, housing approximately 4,500 people.
Like Frankenstein’s monster, the system has become much more than intended and is now quite grotesque, housing people for many years longer than intended and in unacceptable conditions. As Sinn Féin spokesperson on children I will speak on direct provision from a child protection and children’s rights perspective. It was only last month the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, announced she had clarified legal issues that prohibited the Ombudsman for Children from receiving complaints from or regarding children living in direct provision. This is not before time and is long overdue. It is due to happen next month but should have happened many years ago.
Children living in direct provision are subject to substandard living conditions in an environment not conducive to growth and development. These children come from different areas of the world and from conditions so bleak they are practically unimaginable to us. They have experienced extraordinary amounts of trauma and have been persecuted from a very young age. Many of these children arrived in this country seeking asylum and a new life of dignity, allowing them to live rather than simply to exist. However, in many ways they face persecution and discrimination of a different type on entering the State.
Every year, the Children's Rights Alliance produces a report card. It scored the Government D minus for lack of progress on direct provision. I will highlight two issues from the McMahon report which have not been implemented adequately.
In 2015, HIQA published a report which highlighted that the child protection referral rate is significantly higher for children in direct provision compared with the general population. I understand it remains quite high. The commitment to introduce national standards for direct provision centres was not realised in 2016. They are essential to ensure children in direct provision are afforded equity of care with all children in care and that service providers are required to maintain consistent standards across the different services. The working group highlighted this as an issue and that there are advantages but there has not been progress on it.
I was not present when the Minister of State made his contribution but I listened to it in my office. He spoke about the issue of food and the ability to cook, which is an issue that has come up regularly. He said it was being rolled out. My understanding from RIA's monthly statistics is that there are 128 spaces in self-catering accommodation, which is a small proportion of the 4,500. According to the most recent RIA statistics from January, 128 people can be accommodated. It is something that needs to be resolved.
I could raise many other points. We should remove many of the hard edges from the system in terms of food, sleeping conditions, child protection, national standards and all the rest of it. Direct provision will always remain a problematic and discriminatory system. We need to allow people who are coming here seeking asylum a far greater degree of autonomy and control over their own lives. The Minister of State made a point about housing lists. I acknowledge there is enormous pressure on social housing and rented accommodation but the choice should be available. There should be a fall-back for people if they are unable to find accommodation. They should have the option of being able to find their own accommodation if they can, which is integrated into the community. We need to work towards that. They also deserve the right to work and to further their education. I have met many young people in direct provision, and one of their great frustrations is that they work very hard all the way through school, yet the possibility of progressing any further than their leaving certificate is very minimal. There is a programme for third level education but very small numbers avail of it. It is a cause of great frustration. They are the issues we need to deal with to allow people seeking asylum independent living and autonomy.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this issue which is of huge concern to many of us here. With good reason, direct provision can be called the Magdalen laundries of our time. I believe it will be the subject of inquiry in years to come. Direct provision centres are often referred to as holding camps and sites of deportability. The Free Legal Advice Centres states that these privately owned centres which are administered by the Government constitute a direct provision industry which makes a profit on direct provision. It is a privatised system, initiated by Fianna Fáil and run by highly profitable private companies making more than €50 million a year. Recently a centre in Limerick was closed by the Department of Justice and Equality due to health and safety standards being ignored. There remains no accountability or transparency and no clear process of tendering for these centres. There are no support services or expertise among staff working on sites. Since the implementation of the International Protection Act only the legal elements of the McMahon report have been introduced. The issues around direct provision are still the same and, according to asylum seekers, are getting worse.
I have raised the issue of children growing up in direct provision previously in the Chamber on both the Grace case and on the Tuam mother and baby home. I have said that I fear direct provision will be the child protection scandal of our time. It is incredibly frustrating to hear representatives speak time and again about the wrongs in our system in the past while dangerous circumstances exist in direct provision centres all across the State. Will we all be here wringing our hands again in ten or 20 years? I fear we will. The issues surrounding child protection and children’s health and well-being are huge. Families are sharing single rooms in cramped facilities with no space for children to study in peace. Children are regularly in close proximity to strangers. There is no place for recreation for children and no areas for visitors or school friends to come to spend time with them. Direct provision has been likened to an open prison, with people spending years in facilities that were originally built for people to remain in for six months. People have lost hope and their spirits are being killed. It is completely inhumane.
Where have we heard this sort of language before? Our history, which we recently discussed in the Chamber, is eerily similar. There is no independent complaints mechanism for people living in direct provision. There is no Ombudsman, Children's Ombudsman or HIQA oversight. This is institutional abuse of the highest order with vulnerable people being exploited for massive profit. People are existing on the €19 a week payment with no right to work and no right to education. Children who have grown up here within the school system, learning through English, study hard for their leaving certificate and receive the points for college only to be told they have no prospects for college or training and no chance to create a life and support themselves.
The International Protection Act was meant to solve this system but it appears to have been nothing but a Trojan horse. It has put direct provision on a permanent footing, and asylum seekers and NGOs who co-operated with the working group are extremely disappointed with the result. The introduction last month of a new asylum application procedure has created chaos for thousands of people living in direct provision. There are serious issues with the new single procedure for processing applications. People were sent a long application form recently with a totally unrealistic deadline and translations that were done using Google Translate, which beggars belief. There is a lack of people available to give legal advice and people are unfortunately making statements in error as a result of difficulties with the form, which will inevitably jeopardise their applications in future. The Department has given an extension after significant lobbying, which is welcome, but the whole system is stacked against people.
Direct provision should and must be scrapped. There are other models which can be looked at and which NGOs such as the Irish Refugee Council, Doras Luimní and Nasc have been proposing. At a time of unprecedented refugee crises across the world, when a focus on human rights is most needed, the whole system appears to be designed to facilitate and speed up deportations. We need to scrap direct provision and introduce a new system that treats people humanely, a system of which we can be proud rather than ashamed.
I thank People Before Profit for putting this matter on the agenda today. I will reflect on my experience as a Deputy in Clondalkin. Clondalkin Towers, one of the largest direct provision centres, is in the constituency. Like many politicians, we work very closely with the residents at that location. Over the five or six years that I have been a public representative in the area, what has struck me most about direct provision is its purpose. Its purpose is to segregate people from the host community, to cut them off and make it more difficult for them to develop real relationships with the local community. That is probably one of the greatest shames of the system as it is designed. Other speakers have spoken about the cramped conditions, the inadequate eating and cooking facilities and the paltry payments that people receive. We all have stories of families who have been treated appallingly. There was one very prominent story a number of years ago of a family of two adults and three children in Clondalkin Towers. When the husband died after a prolonged illness, the family - adults and children - were expected to remain living in the same single bedroom. There is no justification that I can think of anywhere in the world that could support such a proposition. It is not just the length of time it is taking that is an issue, but the frustration with the process. People do not understand and are not being informed of what is happening at every stage.
I will not repeat the points people have made. Direct provision is a scandal. It is not a badly managed system. It is not a system that needs some tweaks and changes. It is a scandal. It is about time every politician in the House declared it a scandal and said it has to end. Then the conversation will change. It is not just about removing the rough edges, although Deputy Ó Laoghaire is right that it needs to happen, but replacing it completely with a system which allows people, very soon after they arrive, to live and work in communities while their applications are being processed. It is not just the right thing to do from a human rights point of view; it is the right thing to do for the taxpayer. The cost of direct provision versus the cost of an asylum applicant living in the local community is very clear to see. I put in freedom of information requests about Clondalkin Towers and was given information of the payments the State has made to that facility over six years. We are talking about €1.7 million being spent over seven years. On average, 233 adults and children are meant to be there throughout the course of the year.
In many cases, they are not there but the payment is still being made. This means that for a family of two adults and two children, for example, the cost of direct provision is €31,000, on average, per year. The equivalent cost for the same family on JSA and HAP is at least €10,000 per year cheaper. If people were allowed to work, particularly those with skills, the cost would be even less. Not only is this an appalling abuse of human rights, it is an appalling waste of taxpayer's money to the tune of millions of euro.
I wish to mention two other issues. The first is another scandal, namely, how the State treats people who have been granted leave to remain or their stamp 4. A total of 400 families who have the right to remain and work but who cannot get accommodation are trapped in direct provision. Those people are essentially homeless and direct provision has become their emergency accommodation. They are not getting jobseeker's allowance; they are still getting the reduced rate JSA, even though it is a JSA claim. They cannot save for a deposit. There are no additional supports for them to access private or public housing, let alone education or employment. I urge the Minister of State to consider the type of housing programme involved - he is looking at programme refugees, which I support - and making it available, with supports, to people transitioning out of direct provision.
While it is slightly off topic, the final issue I would like to raise is still relevant. There are 126,000 undocumented migrants in this State. Ministers and politicians from across the House were in the US recently calling on the US President to find a system for regularising undocumented Irish migrants in the US. We need to practice at home what we preach abroad. I acknowledge the Minister of State is examining this but I urge him to do here exactly what we want the US Administration to do and ensure that these 126,000 people have a process to regularise their status and have the security and safety they so rightly deserve.
Solidarity - People Before Profit Deputies pushed for this debate to be put on the agenda and it has been difficult to reach agreement. The Taoiseach justified visiting a racist, sexist American President and offering him the hand of friendship - I do not know why the Minister of State is making a face - on the grounds that he would make a case about immigration and the illegal, undocumented Irish in the US. However, we have two scenarios in this country of undocumented people who have no status and who are not getting any assistance and the scandal of people being kept in direct provision. Labour Party Members have not bothered their barney coming to the House for the debate. During the previous Dáil, we were led to believe by the former junior Minister, Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, that he would end direct provision and that we were on the precipice of a great development but Labour Party Members have not even shown up for this debate, which is disappointing.
Direct provision is an inhumane system which should be ended immediately. Marie Williams, a constituent of mine, works with women who experience direct provision and helped establish the young mothers network with them. Ritah and Diane, who are also founders of the network, have been in contact and supplied some comments about living conditions. Ritah says:
The hardest thing was the loneliness, having no-one to talk to, no-one to reach out to, no-one to check-up on you. It's survival of the fittest in Direct Provision: people are always being moved, people are so stressed about their own situation, not knowing what the future holds, always being afraid of being deported. That's not an environment to develop stable relationships with people.
Diane was in an abusive relationship and she says, "[Direct provision] is that tough that I chose an abusive relationship rather than live in DP."
Asylum seekers are given €19.10 a week, are unable to cook for themselves or have anything approaching a normal family life for themselves and their children. There is not a normal level of privacy for individuals and families. We have also heard reports of sexual abuse and reports of people being vulnerable to all sorts of other abuse. It is an environment in which mental health problems absolutely flourish. Diane said:
You're made to feel less than human. I've no trust in people anymore. When you live with people you don't know, you develop a defence mechanism to keep yourself safe, and this has followed me. I don't know how to trust people to this day, or how to build stable relationships.
There is a profound impact on children in direct provision as well. They do not know anybody, they do not know the language and they see a social worker once a month. They have no adult supervision and their lives are in the hands of strangers.
There is also a huge power imbalance. One only need look at the most vulnerable people in society to know how the State would treat us all if it could get away with it. There is a massive power imbalance in the asylum system. Those seeking asylum have little power compared to the State and it is not unknown for people who raise issues about the conditions in particular centres to be moved to others. There were protests at direct provision centres in 2013 and 2014. Armed gardaí were used at the Mount Trenchard centre in Limerick to remove men who had peacefully protested against the conditions in which they lived. This arbitrary decision to move them was arrived at even after an agreement had been reached. What more of an illustration of the power imbalance in direct provision centres can I provide?
Following the protests, the Minister set up a round-table working group at which the voice of asylum seekers was meant to be listened to but the opposite was the case. The Government instead retained the direct provision system and then brought in major changes, such as the regressive International Protection Act 2015, without any consultation with people in direct provision. The number of refugees on our planet has greatly increased due to war, etc. According to UNHCR figures, 65.3 million people have been forcibly displaced, more than half of whom are children. Every day, 34,000 people have to flee conflict or persecution and, instead of offering assistance, the State took a decision to send a message to them that they are not wanted and that we have a concentration camp or prison camp-style system if they come here without prior agreement. There has been a spike in the number of refusals at points of entry to the State under this Act. People are turned away at preliminary interview stage. There has been a 32% decrease in asylum seeker claims in the State, yet the Taoiseach went abroad to tell all and sundry that he thinks immigration and migration are great.
I would like the Minister of State to comment on the form asylum seekers must complete. It is 60 pages long and extremely complex. The experience of asylum seekers is they are not getting the legal advice they need. Asylum seekers and immigration solicitors have reported that there can be legal advice consultations of approximately ten minutes before the form is completed. People with language difficulties need longer and it took somebody with fluent English an hour and a half to fill in the form. What does this do only send a message that these people are not wanted? There was acute distress earlier this year when people experienced this.
The people have recently become increasingly aware of the barbarity of the institutionalisation of people by the church and State, with both of the latter taking control over so many lives in the 20th century, including in the context of mother and baby homes, Magdalen laundries and industrial schools. However, history will record the direct provision system as being equally outrageous and barbaric. The Solidarity Members stand for an immediate end to direct provision. Let people live in decent homes and accommodation.
I welcome those who are advocating for an end to direct provision and those who are in direct provision and who are present in the Gallery. I also welcome the debate. We have tabled a motion to end direct provision on the Dáil agenda and it has been signed by 37 Members to date. Unfortunately, we do not have a great deal of Private Member's time in which to take the motion but I am sure the Minister of State could respond on it.
I welcome his attempt to reform the system but I disagree with the reform of something that is rotten to the core. I would like to say something to the Fianna Fáil Members who have left the Chamber. It is a shame there is such a low participation in the debate.
My time is ticking away. I recognise that there is a lot happening, not least Deputy Paul Murphy's attendance in the courts. Missing Deputies are in the Four Courts with the Jobstown people. There is a great deal happening but this is important.
The direct provision system does not work.
It has been in existence since 1999. Fianna Fáil brought it in and maintained it for most of that period. I welcome the Deputies' Damascene conversion on this issue, but they maintained it for a long time. What we are looking at, as declared by the United Nations, Amnesty International, and Mr. Justice Bryan McMahon who delivered the report, is an inhumane, degrading system. I will quote Mr. Justice McMahon, "These people are like ghosts. They are dehumanised and they are depressed." Even though the Minister of State cannot answer me now, he might answer in writing whether he agrees with that statement from Mr. Justice McMahon, and more importantly, would the Minister of State agree with him that we should give a complete amnesty to everybody who has been in that system for over five years? Of course a reception centre is needed for refugees and asylum seekers when they arrive in this country, but they should not be left there to rear their children and live their lives in it for a long time. One woman I met has a 12 year old daughter who was born in the reception centre. She only got out of it when the child was 12. That is wrong and the mark of that will be left on that child and others for a long time.
The other issue, mentioned by other Deputies, is the question of the right to work and right to study. With every hungry belly comes a pair of hands. The reason for the high levels of mental ill health and depression in direct provision centres is the denial of the basic human ability to do things, to toil, to be able to change the world around oneself and to make an impact on the planet. That is what distinguishes us as human beings. They are not allowed to do that at all. Of course they are depressed and mental health levels are very low. At the very least, we need to recognise that reception centres such as this are inappropriate for people who are going to stay in the State for long periods. They need to be given the freedom to work to make a contribution to society, and they certainly need to be given the freedom to use their brain, study, do third level degrees and improve their lives. We would be making a huge step forward if we could provide them with even that, but we cannot because of the nature of the direct provision system itself.
I notice that the Minister of State referred to the housing crisis many times in his speech. I want to tackle an argument that exists in society. I get it myself and I am sure I am going to get it after this debate today. How can we look after them when we cannot look after our own? I want to reject this idea, because our own are not being correctly looked after, if there is such a thing as our own. I regard everybody here as my own. Those I do not regard as my own are the people benefiting from the low corporation tax and refusing to pay it, the bankers and the developers who brought this country into a crisis and the people who are at the receiving end of the scandals around NAMA at the moment, who are profiting hugely from this. I regard everyone who lives in this country as my own. We would be able to look after them all if we were to justly and correctly implement a share-out of the wealth and to take back the empty properties, fix them up and to make housing accommodation available for all. We have more than enough resources to do so and to build decent social housing.
We cannot declare in the interim that one section of the population has to be isolated and treated in this way away from the rest of the population. I will reiterate something said by others here. The figures of profits made from the direct provision system over the years are outrageous. The Mosney direct provision centre was paid €100 million by the State and has made a donation of €4,000 to the Fianna Fáil Party. Aramark had a turnover of €223 million in 2013. Barlow Properties received €40 million from the State to run five centres. East Coast Catering received €90 million between 2000 and 2013. When the Minister of State appeals to people here to give him ideas, and he said he would welcome applications from groups and organisations with proposals to provide, run and manage accommodation centres, I would say that while we can give proposals, they will not be to manage and run accommodation centres that intern people for decades. I am sure there are organisations which have wonderful ways of treating people humanely. The main thing is to give them the right to work, housing and study. Once that is done, then there is a community which is contributing fairly to society.
I pay tribute to United Against Racism and the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland - I know Mr. Memet Uludağ and Mr. Lucky Khambule and others are in the Visitors Gallery - for their efforts in bringing about this debate and in pressing the motion which has been signed by 37 Deputies. I think it is a matter of vital importance.
The Taoiseach was praised and praised himself lavishly for his comments in Washington about immigrants, both Irish immigrants and immigrants generally, and how he was a champion of immigrants. It is a little ironic, is it not, that he could do that and indeed at points imply criticism of the outrageous policies of US President Donald Trump vis-à-visimmigrants and asylum seekers in the United States and continue to stand over a degrading, inhumane, cruel system of direct provision, which is guilty of child neglect and abuse if nothing else. It is guilty of many other things too. The treatment of children living for years in this system of direct provision is a scandal beyond scandals. It is not an exaggeration to say that allowing this to persist is on a par with industrial schools and the Magdalen laundries. Tinkering around and reforms, while they may improve things marginally, are just not good enough.
The key here is the issue of right to work that has already been alluded to. Nobody doubts that there is a housing emergency. We believe it can be solved, and with the right policies, everybody in direct provision and on our housing lists can be housed. A real move away from direct provision will not happen overnight, although a lot more could be done on it quickly if there was a change in policy, but the right to work is critical. It is unacceptable that people are expected to live on €19 a week, are imprisoned in these direct provision centres, not allowed to work, and are treated as second-class citizens. They are treated as a sort of subhuman group in the same way as those who were slaves in the Magdalen laundries or who were prisoners in the industrial schools were treated. All the crocodile tears or shame and regret about the Magdalen laundries and industrial schools can only be viewed as hypocrisy if the Government does not move to get rid of the system of direct provision and allow the people in that system - asylum seekers coming to this country who are here for any substantial period - the right to work and consequently integrate into society and be treated the same as other human beings who happen to be citizens of this country. I appeal to the Minister of State and Government to do this and they will have done something important and historic in allowing asylum seekers the right to work and to be treated as dignified human beings.
The treatment of asylum seekers will go down in history as one of the most shameful episodes in the history of the State. Generations in ten and 20 years will be looking for redress for the treatment they received in this State since 16 years ago.
The direct provision system introduced more than 16 years ago was supposed to provide temporary accommodation for up to six months while a decision was made to accept or reject an asylum application. I propose that one of the first things that could be done is for those applications to be quickened up. We have had many people visit our constituency offices about it. I know every situation is different when an application is made, but they go on and on. Applicants are asked for more papers and it involves more work, while those applicants are still sitting in limbo in direct provision. We now have a situation where 55% of asylum seekers have been in direct provision for more than five years, 20% of whom have been in direct provision for more than seven years.
Children are growing up in detention centres and that has to stop. One example from a series in The Irish Times called "Lives in Limbo" was a 12 year old girl who has been living in a mobile home in a direct provision centre for eight years. There are 1,600 children in these centres.
The Irish Refugee Council report on their situation found many other problems such as children living in rooms with entire families or with other families, lack of appropriate food, no child benefit or little access to play areas. Some recommendations are to ensure a safe environment and no exposure to inappropriate behaviour, access to private toilet facilities, adequate space for families, separate rooms for parents, an option for families to choose and cook healthy food - I note the point the Minister of State made earlier but this is 15 years on - and the reinstatement of child benefit for all children living here.
These are simple things. They are interim measures but I reiterate the point made earlier that the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission described the direct provision system as a severe violation of human rights. Direct provision cuts off a whole community from another community. That is what happened in the industrial schools, the Magdalen laundries and the mother and baby homes. A whole layer of people was cut off from general society, was isolated and its voice was cut off in many ways. While doing that was an attempt to keep the people down, those people fought on and raised their voices. I know people in direct provision, now and in the future, will do the same thing.
I support the calls to abolish the direct provision system, to end the €15 million going into the pockets of private contractors and to grant asylum seekers the right to work. Ireland is one of just two EU member states where asylum seekers are prohibited from working after a designated period. Even over in the UK, asylum seekers can work after a year, under certain conditions. That is one of the issues that needs to be addressed. Asylum seekers must have access to third level education. A basic requirement in society is an education. Asylum seekers should receive welfare benefits the same as all other residents and citizens of the State. A transparent immigration process must be put in place. The application process is not transparent in any shape or form.
I supported and signed a similar motion put forward by Deputy Bríd Smith and the other 38 Deputies who signed up to it. We debated this issue in September 2014, during the last Dáil, when Deputy Pringle put it on the agenda. This issue is not unknown to the Government. It is well aware of it.
I will make one last point about the international protection aspect and the 60-page document. Why and how did the Department send out a 60-page document to applicants which they were told to return in 20 days, when they had to get assistance, legal advice and papers that were already in the process and could not be accessed? Even doing that was an absolute shame and scandal. I am glad to hear there is an extension. That extension should be prolonged as long as necessary to assist asylum seekers in completing the document.
I will support the motion in the Dáil and hope it will come before the House soon. The Minister needs to be more proactive in this area. I do not accept the argument about housing - that there is a problem with housing or there is not enough and questioning where asylum seekers in direct provision would be put. There is money in this country. We know where the wealth is. We have, on many occasions, put forward proposals on how to deal with the housing crisis, both for our own people in emergency accommodation and for asylum seekers. That is the answer, not using the problem as an excuse not to deal with the issue.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the statements on direct provision this morning. I worked with asylum seekers in Donegal town from 1999 to 2012 when the hostel there closed. I have seen at first hand the impact the direct provision system had on people in Donegal town. It was a totally male hostel. One could see the lack of motivation, the impact on people's mental health and the isolation that direct provision causes, even in a small town like Donegal town, when people are restricted from integrating.
We used to organise events and activities for the residents of the direct provision centre and because of the lack of motivation, the mental health issues and everything else, it was practically necessary to take people out of the centre to get them to attend the events or activities. There was absolutely no integration. Direct provision has never been about that. Anything the Department has said over the years about how it was encouraging integration was all lies. It was never what was intended.
I firmly believe in the ending of direct provision and I previously brought a motion before the House to that end in 2014. I firmly believe that the system of direct provision should be ended and should be ended immediately. It would actually be cheaper for the State to give social welfare and rent allowance to all the asylum seekers and to let them live in the community and find work if they can. That would actually save money. In 2014, when I put forward my motion, direct provision was costing more than €52 million. Based on the number of asylum seekers and on calculations I have done, the State would have saved approximately €20 million by ending direct provision. We constantly have to deal with the Department of Justice and Equality, which believes there are hordes of people standing at our borders waiting for an easing of our system so that they can overrun us and swamp the whole country. That is absolute rubbish. We need to end this system and we need to end it quickly.
I know the Minster of State is going around and visiting all the centres around the country. That is a welcome sight, but we heard from asylum seekers in the AV room last week who said that things improve when the Minister of State is coming for a visit. They get better for a couple of days beforehand but then revert back to normal after he leaves. That is a very worrying situation and needs to be investigated and checked out actively and vigorously by the Department. Unfortunately I do not believe the refugee offices are interested in investigating complaints because we have experience of making complaints in the past which were never dealt with. I was barred from visiting the hostel in Donegal town for the last couple of years it was operating because it did not want any scrutiny of how the asylum seekers were being forced to live.
I want to focus very quickly on the working group report. The Department keeps putting out fancy figures saying 92% of the recommendations have been implemented. They probably have but the key recommendations that are important and make a real difference to peoples lives still have not been implemented. These are recommendations such as the right to work and guaranteeing the promised increase in allowances for people in direct provision. It is not enough to say that it is just put back into the general budgetary remit and to leave it at that.
On the aforementioned document to be completed, I spoke to the Minister of State personally on this and he accepted the time limit was a mistake and should not have been stressed. The time has been extended but it is vitally important that asylum seekers get good, sound legal advice as they fill in that application form. It is important that is dealt with. That is not in place for them at the moment. The agencies and NGOs are swamped and are unable to deal with the inquiries they have on hand at present regarding that form. The Minister of State needs to deal with this issue urgently.
Finally, on the argument that we do not have housing for people who are successful in obtaining refugee status and consequently could not do without the centres, I note there are 21,000 empty houses and apartments in the area of Dublin City Council alone. There are 200,000 empty houses and apartments across the country. Why can we not house people who are successful in the asylum process? Why can we not house our own citizens when there are 200,000 empty properties right across the country?
I am delighted to take part in this debate although "delight" is the wrong word because I thought at this stage, one year after the election, that we would have decisions in respect of the most fundamental recommendation from the McMahon report, which was the right to work. I cannot imagine what would stop any Government from giving that right.
Second, one recommendation was that after a period of time, I believe it was five years, nobody should be kept in direct provision without having their status legalised. Those are two basic requirements and here we are a year later, after a new election and new promises, still talking about direct provision.
As it is difficult to get information, the Minister of State should correct me if the figures have changed but as of last July, 450 people had been resident in direct provision for more than seven years. Has that figure increased or decreased? I do not know but it is certainly shocking that we would keep people - including mothers and children - in very confined conditions for more than seven years and call ourselves a civilised society. We have international obligations. We are complying with those obligations in the most minimal way possible with direct provision. We have had direct provision as a temporary measure now for 17 years. It is now 2017, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, and we started this direct provision in 2000 as a temporary measure.
On top of that, I know in Galway and other centres that people have been granted asylum status but cannot leave direct provision.
I and many other Deputies have asked many questions and we are going around in circles. We have been directed to the Department of Social Protection for people to get their entitlements, but that is not the issue. The issue is that the Department of Social Protection will not talk to people in direct provision if they do not have an address. A hostel address is not good enough for the Department. Having being granted asylum status, people are stuck in direct provision.
There are 35 centres around the country, seven of which are State owned and for which two companies have been contracted to provide services. The other 28 are privately operated and make huge profits. I am not criticising the providers because Government policy has allowed them to come forward. Our human rights obligations should not be fulfilled in such a way that companies and private operators are allowed to make profits. That is not the way to comply with our legal obligations.
The system should be streamlined, as the Government is trying to do with the new legislation. It is appalling that large profits are being made by those running direct provision centres while people cannot work or cook their own food. There have many discussions in the House regarding our obligations to children. Surely we will not distinguish between children based on the colour of their skin or country. I know the Minister of State is not the type of Minister to do that, but that is exactly what is happening in our policies. We are distinguishing between people because they are behind closed doors which means we do not have to look at them.
There is a narrative that money is being thrown at these people. They have come to our country seeking refuge, as Irish people did elsewhere in the past. We are giving adults and children €19.10 and €15.60, respectively, per week and calling that humanity. On top of that, we are creating many problems for the future, as the Minister of State knows. If we were to try living like that, what effect would it have on our physical and mental health, not to mention that of the children in the system?
The pilot project was introduced in 2015 to allow certain residents to go to university. I would like to know how many have fulfilled the criteria involved. They are very restricted – I understand an applicant must have been in direct provision for five years and attended a school for a minimum of five years. I ask the Minister of State to outline how many people have qualified under the rules.
From many of the discussions we have had in the Dáil, the Minister of State appears to be a very concerned Minister. How can he stand over direct provision, which was introduced as a temporary measure in 2000? Why not set a date to end it? It could be his legacy.
It is very difficult to know what is going on. The Government has stated it will accept refugees. I asked what agency will deal with the people involved and where they will be housed. It was stated that local authorities would be responsible for housing the refugees concerned. The local authority for which I worked for many years does not have the required houses, facility or staff to deal with refugees and no extra staff have been deployed to cater for them.
The refugees we have agreed to accept and those in direct provision are all human beings. It is not right for a mother, father, teenagers and babies to be living in one room. An asylum seeker could be in the country for seven, eight or nine years, but all they are entitled to is €19.10 a week, which is not right.
It was promised that the direct provision system would cease and the time involved in deciding on a person's status reduced. Many people have been waiting for eight or nine years, which is not right and should not be happening. A limit of five years was promised to decide whether a person can stay or must leave the country. I ask that the system be reviewed. Having one family in one room, in particular those with growing children, is not right. We have to deal with the issue. Those involved are human beings.
It is grand to hear the Taoiseach agree to accept 4,000 or 5,000 refugees, but he must make provision for them in terms of housing. Local authorities are stretched. Some people in Kerry have been on housing lists for 12 or 14 years, some of whom were refugees or asylum seekers. They must get priority. If we are agreeing to accept refugees this year, the Government needs to tell us where housing is available and have a dedicated group of housing officers in place.
Staff in our local authority are vetting people and trying to find houses for them. They are stretched to the bone, without having any more work placed on their shoulders. Those who have been on housing lists for 12 or 14 years will suffer and have to wait longer.
I am delighted to speak on this very important issue, which will haunt us in the future. I welcome the visitors in the Gallery.
The system of direct provision for asylum seekers is almost 17 years old and from the beginning it has been a cause of significant controversy and debate. Among the issues raised most recently are the duration of the stay in direct provision, the impact of this on family life, as Deputy Healy-Rae mentioned, children, oversight and monitoring and the right to work.
In 2015, the Joint Committee on Public Services Oversight and Petitions stated the system is not fit for purpose and recommended that it be replaced. The Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, has a lovely name but behind it are abject failures. It oversees the direct provision system on behalf of the Department of Justice and Equality. The latest available RIA report revealed that there is a continual increase in the number of single males seeking asylum and availing of the offer of accommodation and referred to the opening of new centres to manage this influx.
From a humanitarian perspective, we are duty bound to offer whatever assistance we can to those genuinely in need of asylum and ensure those who enter the direct provision system are treated with dignity and respect. It is a duty of the State under any human rights charter, never mind international human rights charters.
As Deputy Healy-Rae said, the Taoiseach needs to think things through when he agrees to accept refugees without considering all of the other issues involved. That is paramount. The human person must be at the centre of all of our laws. We are failing people and we have seen how we failed them in the past. If people are genuinely fleeing persecution and seeking refuge here, we need to extend our compassion and put into action the principles we spend so much time talking about.
Talk is easy and talk is cheap. It is appalling to read reports that some children spend almost their entire childhood in these centres in the direct provision system. It is incarceration, nothing less. Prisoners are treated better. This must end.
I recently submitted a parliamentary question to the Tánaiste seeking the number of children who have been born to those in the direct provision system since its introduction in 2000. I received a reply from the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, that the information I had requested is not readily available as it is not collated by either the Department of Justice and Equality or the Registrar General of births, marriages and deaths. That is outrageous. I am not blaming the Minister of State for that but it is outrageous that we cannot tell the number of newborns in the centres. It is scandalous. It is extraordinary when one thinks about it. Presumably those children born to those in the asylum process are de facto part of that process, yet we have no data or numbers available. What is going on? Who are the RIA? We got rid of the IRA and we have agencies like this which are simply not fit for purpose. It cannot record that. Does it even know how many people are in the centres? My God.
However, while our humanitarian duty is clear, so also is the duty to the security of the State. The issue of oversight and monitoring and how the applications process is managed is critically important. We cannot bury our heads in the sand and pretend our asylum system, just like those in most European countries, is not open to abuse and violation. Of course it is. There are those who will seek to enter this State through the asylum system and who will not have our best interests at heart. Of course we must not confuse these people with the genuine asylum seeker, but the ones we have here and have had here since 2000, surely we would have learned at this stage, 17 years later, how to look after them. We must not be so innocent as to believe all applicants are genuine. The direct provision system, as part of the overall asylum process, certainly needs to become more robust, even as it seeks to become more fair.
The number of asylum seekers accommodated by the RIA on 31 December 2015 was 4,696, an increase of 332 persons or 7.6% on the same date in 2014. This is the second year-on-year increase in seven years. The RIA spent €57.025 million on accommodation for asylum seekers in 2015, an increase of 4.7% on 2014. I know and we all know that there are some unscrupulous private entrepreneurs, some who have bought up hotels and places that are in despicable condition, and there are people incarcerated there. Worse than that, they entered into contracts. I know of one place in my own area, that they never came to. There were huge objections, unfortunately, 17 years ago but a contract was signed with an individual for ten years. It was in the village of Clogheen in County Tipperary. Why do they have to sign contracts? Why not have a breakout clause after a year in case there are unscrupulous and unsuitable people who pretend to care but who only want a quick buck? Surely to God the system is not so useless and so fatigued that there cannot be checks and balances, that we cannot check out after a year or two whether the accommodation is suitable, and that there would be a breaking clause in the contract rather than having to buy it out. This is kindergarten stuff. Children would not write these contracts.
As the migrant crisis continues to show no signs of abating, we can be sure that the costs and numbers of applicants within our asylum process will remain similar and more than likely increase in the coming years. In September of last year, I asked the Minister another parliamentary question about the number of forced deportations that were taking place. In her reply, the Minister noted that the overwhelming majority of persons who arrive at the frontiers of the State without permission to enter or reside here are refused leave to land without ever reaching the stage where they would be considered under the deportation process. She went on to say that the number of people arriving in this way rose substantially to almost 3,500 in 2015 and was expected to exceed 4,000 in 2016. They are frightening figures. Approximately 3,000 people removed or deported from Ireland in 2011, 2,200 in 2012, 2,700 in 2013, 3,790 in 2014 and 3,790 in 2015. According to the Department of Justice and Equality, the people who were refused entry or deported came mainly from five countries. The top countries of origin in percentage terms of deportation or removal are Albania, 9.2%, Brazil, 9.6%, Nigeria, 7.5%, South Africa, 7.4% and Pakistan 6%.
In September 2015, I also asked the Minister for Justice and Equality if she would address concerns around a designation of a hotel in Clonea Strand as an emergency reception and orientation centre. This was another farce which involved a wonderful tourist facility and which caused a rumpus in the village. I do not believe that anyone went to it.
Since when? It was not full when I was there last summer season. It was not full; there was no one in it. Maybe the Minister of State would want to check the facts. It is very close to me, and I will be taking a walk along the strand and I will see and come back to him. I will accept if I am wrong. It was always full with people - holiday-makers and locals - but there was nobody in it when I was around there last July and August. The gates were locked and the doors closed. The concerns were brought to me by the local people who were deeply frustrated by the lack of engagement with them before the decision was made. That was the RIA again. It is like the NRA. It is all-powerful and listens to no one. As I said, we disbanded the IRA but we got a lot of agencies afterwards that we need peace processes or some sort of talks to get rid of them. We have quango after quango which are not accountable to anyone, either the Oireachtas, the Minister or anyone else other than themselves, and they get fine hefty cheques and fine hefty retirement packages.
As part of the reply I received, I was told that in such cases, potential centres are assessed from a number of perspectives, including access to local amenities, the provision of State services and suitability of the accommodation for its particular purposes. To return to Clonea, the Minister of State probably knows it. He is only up the road on the same coastline. With all those people we saw out on the sea, and I salute the Naval Service, the ships that were out there and the rescues they made, I would have thought the last place those people would want to rest would be beside the sea with the fright and the terror they encountered crossing it. Remember Clonea village has no shops, no recreation and no infrastructure, so someone was codding someone there. I would have thought that it would be the last place, just from a human perspective. I am not saying that I am knowledgeable in this area but after such a terrorising trip across the sea, with some being rescued but so many drowned, I would have thought it would be the last place they would want to be sleeping or resting, that they would want to be in a place where they could not even hear the sea, and that they would want to be on terra firma, isteach san tír, inland. Someone would want to put on their thinking cap and see what is going on there.
There is not one single mention of local engagement. I know this was for a refugee centre which is not strictly the same as the asylum centres but I want to note how important it is that we bring a community with us when we are attempting to progress this matter in a manner that is fair to all concerned. I know the Minister of State engaged with people in Roscommon who are now on board, but again they had not been engaged with properly before. What is wrong with the system here that we cannot hold a public meeting, meet the different agencies, talk to the people and bring them with us? Ní neart go cur le chéile. Together we stand, divided we fall. We have all this Big Brother, this arm of the law. We have officials who are unelected and unaccountable to anyone, who make these decisions and frighten people, and then the image goes out of a local community that is anti-asylum seeker when nothing could be further from the truth. Consultation is very important. If we are building a hen house or a shed, we have to get planning permission and put a notice up on the ditch, but these officials can do anything they want to do. They ride in roughshod like John Wayne into Cong in that film he made in the west with Maureen O'Hara. This is reckless. This is 2016 and 2017 we are talking about, when we are supposed to be a modern, pluralist State with all the good things and the bad banished.
We will be here, or somebody else will be here, in 20 years having more inquiries into why people were incarcerated for 17 years. Deputy Connolly asked the Minister of State to give a date on putting some deadline on how long people should be kept for. Five years was envisaged at the start and even that was too long. We must be responsible and we must act on a human basis and try to alleviate all the suffering.
Every party in this House acknowledges, and they did so in their election manifestos, that the current system is not working and is not acceptable.
What is required urgently is Government action, not more words. Direct provision was only ever intended to be a short-term response but it has since become a national disgrace. There is no disagreement with that assessment. If the current system cannot provide decisions within the six months that were initially envisioned, direct provision is not fit for purpose. The Government must accept responsibility for this and act. From the contributions we have heard this morning, it is clear this is not a controversial view. Everyone agrees. We all want the Government to act, as the quality of life of those currently living in direct provision will not be improved by us making statements about the system's flaws. We need political action.
We need a more radical reform of our immigration system as a whole. For the time being, though, addressing the conditions for people currently held in direct provision must be the Government's priority. The recommendations of the McMahon report contained a number of practical steps to improve the system. To her credit, the Tánaiste has implemented the majority of those recommendations. However, some of the ones that could have the greatest impact on quality of life remain outstanding.
It goes without saying that basic resources like access to cooking facilities and private living spaces are fundamental to family life and well-being. The McMahon report recommended that this should be the norm in all centres by the end of 2016. Well into 2017, though, fewer than half of the accommodation centres under contract have some form of personal catering and it appears that the facilities on offer are far from consistent across the country.
In the progress table that the Tánaiste released, the Reception and Integration Agency did not respond to the recommendation that all requests for tender should specify the requirement for self-contained units and family quarters. This was particularly troubling, given the highly flexible terms of the contracts made with the providers. That requirement for basic family accommodation should have been a key element of the contracts awarded.
According to the Comptroller and Auditor General, these contracts did not include measurable outputs. Instead, they merely stated that accommodation must meet a standard that was reasonable having regard to the daily needs of asylum seekers. That is too vague. It must be borne in mind that these companies are commercial providers. Between 2011 and 2015, they were paid a total of €287 million, which is a vast amount of money. In the same period, nine companies were each paid in excess of €10 million. It seems that the only ones benefitting from direct provision are the companies running the centres. It is the nature of such companies to put their profit margins above the quality of their services. If the Government intends to continue with the privatisation of this care, it must ensure greater oversight of these facilities and enforce a standard level of quality throughout the system.
For too long, the State has kept these facilities at arm's length, choosing to ignore that the people they hold are a part of our communities. Nor does the State's responsibility to them end when they are granted leave to remain. As of last August, one in six residents in direct provision had been granted refugee status, subsidiary protection or leave to remain but had nowhere else to go. In our alternative budget, the Social Democrats proposed allocating €600,000 to provide for a multidisciplinary team to support individuals and families to transition from direct provision. We remain strongly of that view.
Rather than sharing the kind words and moral outrage about direct provision, what is needed from the Government is clear political action. Regardless of how or why someone comes to our country seeking asylum, failing to ensure that he or she is afforded a basic level of dignity and respect betrays the very decency that is so fundamental to our national identity. We need action quickly.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on behalf of the Labour Party in this debate. I agree with Deputy Shortall's last point, in that we need action on and the full implementation of the McMahon report. The first independent working group to examine and identify improvements in the system, it was established in October 2014 because the matter had been made a priority by the previous Government. My colleague, Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, led the work on that priority. The report was published in July 2015 and signed off on by a number of NGOs and Departments, including the Department of Justice and Equality.
I do not doubt the intentions, work and commitment of the Minister of State as regards the implementation of the McMahon report but it needs to be implemented in full and acted upon. This is particularly so in terms of people who have been in direct provision for a long time. There are terrible stories of people who, having been there for years upon years, despair of ever getting their lives back. We need to acknowledge the progress that has been made. A large number of those who have been in direct provision for a long time have had their cases handled, but we need to reach the target of that not taking more than six months, which has not been achieved in respect of many people.
The issue of living conditions is important. We are referring to people's human rights. The Minister of State outlined that there had been progress to some extent, for example, cooking facilities and more space for families, but I have a clear picture in my head of a family that I visited in Knockalisheen, which is in County Clare but near Limerick city. A mother, father and two children were in a single tiny room with the children sitting on the bed trying to do their homework. There have been some improvements, but not everywhere. We need urgent action in this regard.
A statement was published by the Ombudsman and Ombudsman for Children just before I entered the Chamber indicating their offices would be available to people in direct provision from Monday next. That is to be welcomed and was one of the McMahon recommendations. The Ombudsman for Children, Dr. Niall Muldoon, stated:
Children in Direct Provision will now have equal access to the Ombudsman for Children’s Office. This will enable my Office to make a constructive contribution to the overall welfare of children living in Direct Provision accommodation. Young people in Direct Provision can now be assured that there is a safe, secure and independent place they can come to make a complaint.
While access to the Office of the Ombudsman for Children is important, children should not have to live in direct provision and their families' applications should be dealt with speedily. This access must also apply to children whose cases have been completed but who are still in direct provision because their families have nowhere to go after being granted asylum or leave to remain. These practical issues need to be addressed urgently. The McMahon report must be fully implemented.
I will pick up on Deputy Connolly's point on access to higher education. As the Minister for Education and Skills, I was tasked with implementing the recommendation that young people should have access to higher education.
As such, we brought in a scheme on foot of the direct recommendation in the McMahon report and I have met people who have been able to attend universities and institutes of technology as a result. If, however, the scheme is not capturing the number of young people who are in school and are deprived of that opportunity and, as such, it needs to be reviewed, it should be. From personal experience, I know that there are many people who would love to have the opportunity to access education and jobs.
The most effective thing we can do is ensure that cases are dealt with swiftly and that people are provided with their full entitlements where they qualify for leave to remain and-or asylum in the State. The system has been broken and it does not serve the needs of some who are in the most desperate situations. That is what brings them to our country and we need to treat them with dignity and respect and to implement fully the recommendations of the report.