Thursday, 11 July 2019
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Direct Provision System
Direct provision is one of the greatest shames of our time. There are currently thousands of people in the prison-like conditions of direct provision, powerless to change their circumstances. There is a public outcry about this, yet the Minister and his Department continue to line the pockets of private interests while people suffer.
As of this year, the position of those seeking international protection has gotten even worse. The Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, is now accommodating 872 people in 28 emergency accommodation centres, two of which are in my constituency in Wicklow. The website thejournal.iereported last week that, according to a spokesperson for the Department of Justice and Equality, a cultural liaison service is now required to help people living in emergency accommodation and it is has issued a tender for non-governmental organisation, NGO, services to provide social services such as access to medical cards. The Department has stated it needs this service in place as soon as possible. I have heard from many constituents and have had contact with community groups such as Bray Refugee Solidarity and the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland, who argue that these temporary centres are falling completely below any acceptable standards. The lack of social welfare support is glaring and totally unacceptable.
With respect to healthcare, in response to a parliamentary question I tabled, the Minister's Department indicated that the RIA is liaising closely with the Health Service Executive, HSE, to facilitate appropriate service provision to these people while in emergency accommodation. However, I have heard reports that residents in Wicklow were given insufficient information on medical card entitlements and how to access same. Some of the residents in temporary accommodation received medical cards only after members of community groups sourced forms, approached GP clinics, received refusal letters and found GPs willing to take on some residents. What has the Minister's Department done to ensure medical care is provided as soon as these asylum seekers landed in temporary accommodation in County Wicklow?
There is also the question of looking after the most vulnerable children in temporary accommodation centres. In response to another parliamentary question I tabled, the Department indicated that children of international protection applicants residing in emergency accommodation can access school places in local primary and post-primary schools in the same manner as the general population. It was indicated that they can avail of the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance, which is administered by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. However, many reports indicate that this has not happened in the temporary centre in Bray. What steps did the Minister's Department take for the temporary accommodation in Ashford and Bray to ensure children in these centres were registered and supported in getting into local schools? What contact did the Minister's Department or the Department of Education and Skills have with the local schools to ensure school places were available? Every day a child is out of school in a community is a disgraceful failure. I would appreciate the Minister answering some of those questions.
Under European Union and international law, as the Deputy will be aware, Ireland is obliged to examine the claim of any person who comes here and claims international protection under strictly defined grounds. While an international protection claim is being examined, the State offers accommodation and related services to anyone who requests it. This includes all meals, medical care and utilities. A weekly personal allowance is paid to each person and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection covers exceptional needs. The Department of Education and Skills provides school places for children resident in the centres and children also have access to the free preschool scheme and the early childhood care and education programme. The HSE provides mainstreamed health services to residents. It is a whole-of-Government approach to supports and services for applicants.
As of 7 July, the RIA of my Department was accommodating 6,082 people in its 39 accommodation centres and a further 988 people were in emergency accommodation. The use of emergency accommodation is suboptimal as it does not allow for the full range of services to applicants that the traditional centres provide. However, the State must ensure each person arriving in Ireland today to claim protection has shelter, food and any urgent medical care required.
The RIA has arranged the provision of emergency accommodation for international protection applicants since September 2018 due to the increasing numbers of people arriving in the State seeking international protection. The RIA had reached full capacity in its centres at that time but is committed to using emergency accommodation for as short a time as possible. It is actively working on securing additional capacity, both in existing centres and through sourcing new centres via a national procurement process. The use of such accommodation naturally incurs additional costs to the State, with expenditure this year likely to reach or exceed €120 million.
Residents in emergency accommodation are offered medical screening funded and managed by the HSE located at the Balseskin reception facility for the purpose of assessing recipients who have just arrived in the State.
In addition, arrangements are in place in various parts of the country to offer the service to those who do not avail of it in Dublin. The RIA is also seeking to contract a visiting support and cultural liaison service from the NGO community to assist those residents during their time in emergency accommodation. Residents in emergency accommodation can address any issues directly to the RIA. They may also contact the Ombudsman or the Ombudsman for Children if any issue is not resolved to their satisfaction.
Additionally, the RIA has facilitated visits by the Office of the Ombudsman to a number of emergency accommodation locations to meet residents and discuss any issues that may be a source of concern or that may arise.
Unfortunately, the Minister did not answer any of the questions I put to him. I note that, in his response, the number of people in emergency accommodation has jumped to 988 from 872, which was the last information I had. There are countless more issues that I could bring up that are affecting people in emergency accommodation, everything from packed lunches to the way that residents are moved without adequate warning from temporary centres to direct provision, but I am conscious I am short of time.
The urgent point that I want to hammer home to the Minister today is that direct provision is unacceptable and temporary centres are an unbelievable extension of the horrific nature of that system. We did not think that direct provision could get worse but temporary centres have proven that it can. I urge the Minister to prioritise addressing this. It seems there is a complete absence of basic social welfare provision to asylum seekers in temporary centres in Wicklow. That goes against what the Minister's Department states should happen. I again urge him to review it and intervene in those situations because only through the likes of the refugee group in Bray and other organisations are the most vulnerable people to whom the State is giving protection getting what they are supposed to. Such advocates are going out and speaking directly to GPs, and it is only by those means that these people are accessing medical cards and GPs. There are serious problems and the Minister cannot stick his head in the sand and say we are looking at expanding the direct provision system. The whole system of substandard emergency accommodation is failing these people. The Minister knows that and needs to address it immediately.
I acknowledge the fact that there is significant demand, and to meet that demand my Department has sought to identify additional accommodation by publishing expressions of interest in the national press as the current portfolio will not meet the demand. The Deputy is right that the numbers are increasing and that has put pressure on the current arrangements. The RIA will continue working to identify additional accommodation centres and emergency accommodation.
The need to resolve the issue of suitable, mainstream housing for more than 700 people who are currently residing in accommodation centres who have been granted status and have permission to remain in the State is a key part of the process. Helping those people transition into mainstream housing will free up capacity to ensure that people remain in emergency accommodation for as short a period of time as possible.
These people are being assisted by agencies, and I acknowledge the work of Depaul and the Peter McVerry Trust, to move into mainstream, longer term accommodation. The RIA's regional procurement process is advancing and will be continuing throughout the year. Following the assessment process, as the RIA identifies new centres to be opened, co-ordinated communications will be initiated with all the relevant local authorities and state partners.
I note what Deputy Brady has said about the health services, the HSE, GPs and education. I am happy to assist in seeking to achieve early resolutions to these issues involving agencies, the Department of Education and Skills, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, and the HSE.