Wednesday, 13 November 2019
Provision of Accommodation and Ancillary Services to Applicants for International Protection: Statements
I am pleased to have the opportunity to make a statement to the House on the matter of supports for international protection applicants. I wish to reflect on the fact that the international humanitarian laws by which we are bound as proud and active members of the United Nations have their origins in horrendous conflicts, not least the Second World War. That gargantuan conflict began on this Continent and resulted in tens of millions of people being persecuted, displaced, starved and killed. The passage of time and the success of the European Union in bringing peace to this part of the world may have contributed to an occasional complacency or ambivalence to the plight of those fleeing conflict, but we need to honour both our commitments to those seeking asylum and their origin.
The EU has developed its own body of law dealing with these issues. Ireland, like other countries, is obliged by EU and international law to examine the claim of any person who comes here and claims international protection, also known as asylum, under clearly defined grounds. These grounds relate to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, nationality, religion, political opinion or membership of a particular social group or where the person would be at risk of suffering serious harm if returned to his or her home country. Sadly, each of these grounds arose not from theory but, rather, from real-life situations endured by people in their home countries.
Once a claim is made, a legal process begins. While that process is in train, we offer a range of State services to applicants without means, including accommodation, food, health services, utilities, educational provision for children and so on. In general, these services are offered in centres which have over the years allowed for the swift provision of services to applicants. In the past, many applicants did not avail of the services on offer, but that has changed in recent years. I wish to make clear that there is no obligation to accept the offer and there is no restriction on an applicant's freedom of movement within the State.
Some Deputies will remember the context of the introduction of direct provision 20 years ago this month. The then Government opted to move from a system of allowances whereby applicants essentially fended for themselves with financial help from the State to a centre model. The reasons for the move included the prevalence of homelessness among applicants and the vulnerability of many, including to human traffickers. Since the introduction of direct provision, more than 65,000 people have been helped by the system.
It is no surprise that at the moment of its creation the system was not perfect. Indeed, it had many flaws. Through the years, many people have blithely called for its abolition or repeated untrue rumours about the nature of the direct provision. I am not aware of anyone who has proposed a workable alternative for service provision but I am open to engaging with anyone from within or outside this House who wishes to so do. The Government and its predecessor have focused on identifying and systematically addressing the flaws in the direct provision system to ensure we provide the best possible services to applicants in the best possible way.
Direct provision is a guarantee of shelter, food and a place of safety to a person who claims international protection on the basis of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, nationality, religion, political opinion or membership of a particular social group or where the person would be at risk of suffering serious harm if returned to his or her home country. Any credible alternative put forward to replace the system must be capable of providing the wraparound services that applicants need on arrival when seeking protection in a strange country where they may not know the language, customs or law. Recognising the complexity of their needs, a range of supports and services for international protection applicants are delivered under a whole-of-government approach.
Last year, our reception system was placed on a statutory footing for the first time when the Government decided to opt in to the recast EU reception conditions directive. The directive brings with it a series of standards and rights for applicants which we are now legally obliged to deliver. I am pleased that we can now be confident that our services are on a par with those in other EU countries. In fact, in many instances, our services are much better. Opting in to the directive built on a concerted effort, through a working group chaired by Mr. Justice Bryan McMahon, to tackle many of the shortcomings in direct provision. I wish to take this opportunity to thank him for his dedicated work, along with all those who assisted him on the working group. I wish to acknowledge the leadership shown by the former Minister for Justice and Equality, Alan Shatter, and the former Minister of State, Senator Ó Ríordáin, in beginning that process. Arising from the McMahon report, significant improvements have been introduced in recent years, such as the roll-out of independent living whereby applicants can cook for themselves and there are private living spaces for families. In addition, residents now have access to the services of the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for Children.
In line with the EU directive to which I referred, access to the labour market is provided for applicants who are waiting nine months or more for a first instance decision on their protection application. This means that applicants can become economically independent, giving them more options in respect of their accommodation and living arrangements. To date, I have granted more than 3,400 labour market access permissions to eligible applicants and further applications are being approved every day.
In addition to the improvements being made to living standards and conditions, we are speeding up the processing of protection applications. I accept it needs to be quicker. We continue to strive to improve matters. My Department is taking all reasonable measures to achieve this while acknowledging that the processing of applications is complex and that each application deserves and receives an individual assessment.
The International Protection Act 2015, steered through the Oireachtas by my predecessor, Frances Fitzgerald, introduced a single application procedure for the first time. This involves all elements of a person's protection claim, including refugee status, subsidiary protection status and permission to remain, being considered together rather than sequentially, as was previously the case. The aim of the single procedure is to help to reduce waiting times and to ensure that we identify at the earliest stage possible those who need our protection and those who can safely return to their home country.
From time to time, cases of applicants who have lived in an accommodation centre for many years crop up in the media and are understood to be the norm, but this is far from an accurate picture.
Where an applicant has been in a centre for many years, there is generally a complex set of reasons which include, for example, where an applicant has received a negative decision on his or her application, or a series of negative decisions, and is exercising his or her right to appeal, often through the courts, which can take some time. An applicant who has received a negative decision may be a family member of another person or persons with a live application and we do not split up families.
While it is our wish that those granted permission to remain will move on from centres in order that new applicants will have access to service provision, there are more than 700 people with status or permission to remain continuing to live in centres. My Department is assisting them to access mainstream housing with the support of organisations such as Depaul Ireland and the Peter McVerry Trust. We are making some progress in that regard.
Continuing to accommodate people who are no longer in the protection process, combined with a 60% increase in the number of applicants this year, is placing considerable strain on the reception system. As a result, a considerable number of people are being accommodated outside the centres in commercial hotels and guesthouses on an emergency basis. This is not satisfactory; it is a situation I want to see phased out as soon as possible. Accordingly, it is essential that new direct provision centres be opened in order that the full range of services can be delivered in a structured manner to persons seeking international protection.
I am keenly aware of the dissatisfaction expressed by communities that hear through the rumour mill that a centre might be opening in their area. If the contractual arrangements are not finalised, many feel frustrated when the Department is unable to comment publicly. The Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, and I have spoken to many people who find themselves in this situation. The common concerns expressed relate to service provision in the areas of education, health, transport and so on. Where a centre is opening, it is the responsibility of the Government to ensure provision is made for any additional service required. We need to communicate clearly and promptly with communities on these issues to provide them with the reassurance they need. I remind communities that direct provision centres are not new. They are located all over the country and community relations are harmonious in all of the locations. I am very familiar with the centres located in my constituency.
I was very disappointed to see demonstrations outside premises which were due to house asylum seekers. I understand those demonstrating may believe they are sending a message to the Government, but I ask them to be conscious that it is not only the Government that is listening. The women and girls who were to be given shelter on a temporary basis are also listening. Every person in the country from a minority background is listening. Far right anti-immigrant activists are also listening and looking for opportunities to incite fear and hatred, as far right groups have done throughout history. I appeal directly to all of the people, including those who have the opportunity to speak up, to show support for asylum seekers and refugees and the local communities that are being asked to welcome them.
As part of our continued commitment to improving the lives of asylum seekers in the State, the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, and I have recently published new national standards for accommodation centres. An interdepartmental group chaired by a deputy Secretary General of my Department has been established to ensure all Departments are proactively delivering on their responsibilities. The second group is a consultative group chaired by Dr. Catherine Day, former Secretary General of the European Commission. This group which is being established will advise on the implementation of the new national standards. It will also identify good practice in other European countries, examine international protection and migration trends and advise on developing positive relationships between local communities and the systems in place to support asylum seekers. I look forward to seeing the outcomes of its important work.
I welcome this debate and look forward to hearing the contributions of the Deputies opposite. I assure them that I will be very happy to engage with them on any alternative or improvement they might suggest. Ultimately, this is a serious and complex challenge. We all need to work together to ensure best practice obtains within the State.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important debate which is timely as it is important that the House have a debate about the issues concerning direct provision which, unfortunately, have very much been in the news for negative reasons in recent times. It is also important to have a general debate on migration into the country. It is not something we usually debate, but it is important that we debate it. Politicians have a significant responsibility in this area, not just in respect of direct provision but also in respect of the issue of immigration in general. Unfortunately, the population at large has limited information on the international protection system. As the Minister said, when limited information is available to the public at large, those who want to stir up trouble will use the absence of information to pursue their own agenda and for their own political advantage.
On the issue of migration in general, in 1840 the population of the island of Ireland was over 8 million. Today it is about 6.5 million. The country has gone through a remarkable transformation in the past 170 years when we consider how it was transformed from being a destitute, impoverished, agriculture-based country into what it is today. It is still a post-colonial country, but we have established independence which has been a success. Although the vast majority are not wealthy, the country is wealthier than the vast majority of countries. That has consequences for us, very many of which are to our advantage.
In the past 170 years the country was plagued by emigration. Families were torn apart, with children having to leave the country to gain employment. They were economic migrants who went all around the world. We have also seen this happen in more recent times. As a result of the economic collapse about ten years ago, people were forced out of the country. It is a tragedy to see people leaving. However, as this becomes a wealthier country, we need to recognise that more people will want to come here. Our membership of the Single Market has transformed the level of wealth of the country. Since the 1960s we have moved on a different economic path, but our membership of the Single Market from the early 1990s transformed the country and made this a much more competitive economy and a more attractive place for people to come to. For that reason, many people from other European Union countries come to work here. As we have seen to a large extent with Polish people who have come here, many of them will go back to the country from whence they came after they establish themselves here. One of the great benefits of the European Union is that it helps countries to move up.
This debate is about something different from the migration that occurs within the Single Market. We are, as the Minister outlined, discussing the international protection regime. It should be brought to the attention of the public that we have international obligations. Even if we did not have such obligations, we would still want to ensure Ireland was a place to which people who were being persecuted could come. They should be able to arrive in the country in the knowledge that they would receive protection from the State because of the respect we had for sheltering people suffering from persecution. People who are departing countries where they are being persecuted do not necessarily have to travel to an impoverished country as a port of first call. If we were leaving this country for reasons of persecutio, we would not choose to move to a country where our chances of having a better life would not be that strong. We know that under the Dublin convention, when people arrive in a European Union country, they must claim international protection in the first place they land. Obviously, because it is the most peripheral country in the European Union based on where the people who are migrating are coming from, to a large extent, Ireland will not face the large numbers of people who are seeking international protection as other countries in the European Union. However, those who arrive here as their port of first call are entitled to seek international protection. As the Minister said, many people say they believe the direct provision system is inhumane and abhorrent and that we should get rid of it, but we need to bring to the attention of the public at large that when somebody arrives in this country - for instance, this month 300 people will arrive in our ports and claim international protection - we have an immediate obligation to provide him or her with shelter, accommodation and sustenance. Unfortunately, the reality is that we are unable to immediately provide them with accommodation in houses or apartments.
We would create huge social upheaval if Irish people saw that people who came in from outside would immediately be housed whereas people on the housing list here have to wait years to get accommodation. We need to have a system in place to provide people accommodation. We have seen this issue develop over the past 20 years. A legitimate criticism of the Government is that it has not prepared adequately for the increasing number of people coming here, which was apparent to anyone looking at this issue. Let us keep the numbers in proportion and realistic as last year, 3,600 people arrived in Ireland seeking international protection. This year, I suspect the number will hit 4,000.
When people arrive here we have an obligation both to give them shelter and accommodation and to process their applications. One reason for the problem in this country is that when people arrive, they stay too long in direct provision centres because their applications are not being processed quickly enough by the Government. We need to speed that up. People go to the international protection office, then they are entitled to go to the international appeals office and sometimes there are judicial reviews. One way of speeding this up would be not to have the perennial delay caused by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, in refusing to appoint judges, which would enable us to have these matters dealt with quickly. I and other Members of this House visited direct provision centres last June and July. For people who are there for the long term, over a year, they are unfair and inhumane. If people could be kept in direct provision for a short period and have their applications processed quickly, they could move on into a hopefully functioning housing market and there would be no difficulty. In every country in Europe, people are initially kept in reception accommodation areas. There is no way out of that.
The State, however, needs to up its game in several particular areas. We need more State accommodation. It is farcical that the State is travelling around the highways and byways of Ireland looking for old hotels to see if they can be converted into direct provision centres. We need to recognise that this is going to be a long-term issue, that we need to provide State accommodation and we should be building our own accommodation or using State accommodation for people seeking international protection. Mr. Justice McMahon recommended that in 2015, when he produced his report on this matter. If we do not do that, people will continue to look for emergency accommodation in hotels. If we are going to go around the country looking for locations and if we are going to avail of accommodation in hotels, we need to provide local communities with information about it. Part of the reason is that people in Ireland are very fearful of change. No matter what the change is, they fear it. If it is explained to them and if they see other centres and how they have worked so effectively, they will lose that fear of change and adopt this and recognise the benefits of it. We also need to recognise that there have been great successes when direct provision centres have been started up in towns.
We also need to engage more with the public at large. There are many who want to help people seeking international protection and we should recognise that and see how they can be used to provide accommodation on a smaller scale. I condemn the intimidation that has been meted out to individuals who have sought to engage with the Department of Justice and Equality to provide direct provision centres in hotels or accommodation that they own. That intimidation and harassment has happened. We need to be very careful about it. We need to unite in this House to say that type of behaviour is unacceptable. We also need to state bluntly that there is a level of racism in this. We cannot get away from that. I am not saying it is emanating from local communities, there are people who try to stir it up, but it exists. We need to inform people that they have nothing to fear from new people coming in, just as other communities around the world benefited enormously by our ancestors arriving on their lands.
I am glad to speak on this issue which has been very much in the headlines in the past couple of weeks. It has activated the minds of many people around the country and has unfortunately divided communities. Much of that is because of misinformation or the absence of information in many cases. We seem to have a society where sometimes the less reasonable, the less forthright and the less prepared a person is to engage in civil discourse, the more that is seen as some kind of a virtue. That is a sad reflection on where we are. We need to be able to recognise that we have to work together as communities, as Government and as public representatives to find solutions to problems and that is what I hope we will be able to do with this.
One problem is mixing up asylum seekers and refugees. People do not know which is which. They talk of them as if they were interchangeable. Refugees already have the right to stay here. They have been processed before they came here and they will be permanent residents. I know instances of this in my area, such as in Drumshanbo, where there are refugee families who have lived in houses in the town. They will be permanent residents in those areas. That happens in many places around the country. Asylum seekers are different. They are people who arrive here and then go to the authorities and say they wish to see political asylum because they were abused or persecuted because of their political or religious beliefs in the country they were in or because there was a war in that country. In many cases those people are unable to fend for themselves and we have international obligations, as the Minister stated, to deal with that. They are not permanent residents. They cannot be given a permanent home, they have to be given a home for the time it takes to process their application.
Direct provision has evolved over the years. Many of us have been critical of that model. One of the key criticisms of it is its privatisation. It is an opportunity for a set of people to make a lot of money from providing such models. I have seen many cases over the years where families lived in one room in an old hotel. As has been said, Mr. Justice McMahon made it clear in his report that this was inappropriate and should not happen and we should move to a better system. I support that and I know from discussions with the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, that it is happening and there is a move to bring us in that direction, that the asylum seekers would have own-door accommodation, be able to cook for themselves, would have a sense of privacy and would be able to live like normal families. They also, however, need to have services. Many need to acquire language skills. They need to be at least close together, if not in the same area. There is also the question of value for money. The Department has to be sure it can provide the accommodation at the best value for the taxpayers' money. That is all appropriate and correct.
The big issue that most communities have is that they do not know about it until it happens. We are told, and it would be useful for the Minister to clarify this, that is because this has to be done under European procurement rules so that the contents of the contract cannot be divulged until the contract is signed, that it is private. Communities do not know that a direct provision centre for asylum seekers will be provided in their towns until the contract is signed. If it is the case that we cannot do it any other way, we need to have transparency at least from that point forward. There should be a system for how the Department and the providers will communicate with communities, how that will be worked through and how the various sectors, particularly the HSE, the doctor in the local town, the schools, transport providers, are ready immediately to say exactly how and where this is going to work. There are also concerns that the number coming to an area may be very large. People should come on a phased basis, rather than all coming together, so that communities could see that services are being raised to the level needed to meet the people coming in. In many rural communities, people feel their services are already under pressure and are not able to cope.
For many years, they have been trying to get additional services such as SNAs for schools and reduced waiting lists in hospitals. There are many services of which rural communities feel they have been deprived down through the years. When they see new people coming into their communities, they are encouraged by people from the far right to believe this will put further pressure on services. Most of us who would stand back and logically look at this would accept that in most cases supply follows demand. If one increases demand in an area, supply will follow. It is up to the Government to ensure that happens.
The McMahon report has been spoken about on many occasions. If we can provide the kind of services referred to in the report, we would have a way forward out of this situation. The key point is transparency. Negotiations and discussions in this regard need to be transparent and clear. Sometimes communities are led by fear and it often happens that unreasonable scenarios are put to them that do not exist. I have had experience of that myself, as Members will be aware. We have a responsibility to recognise, however, that if people have genuine concerns, they are addressed. It makes it difficult to address those concerns if communities are brought along a direction of protest and blockades as we have seen. That is a disappointing and regrettable situation we have seen occur in many places around the country.
The reality for most people who have experience of asylum seekers in the community has been positive, like it was positive when Irish people went to Australia, England, America other countries. It has been the same for people from other countries coming here. Today I spoke on the phone to a man who does not know me from Adam about pricing a particular item. He told me he has several foreign workers in his business, they are the best workers he has and he is delighted to have them. That has been the experience of most people. However, we see circumstances turn ugly in many cases. Sometimes the reason it turned ugly is that little seed of racism planted among people to be afraid of the foreigner. We all need to stand up to this. In many places, it is not the people in the community who have done this; this is led by a small handful who put out these lies and nonsense. They are the ones who drive it forward, bringing people to boiling point in communities. They do things, which are not just regrettable but irresponsible. All Members have an obligation to stand up to this and ensure it does not happen.
We must ensure that, while the rule of law extends everywhere, it does not finish at a town’s boundary where a small cohort will decide that it will rule the town. Society, this Parliament and the Government must ensure that does not happen. There should also be negotiation, dialogue and reasonable civil discourse. That needs to be brought about as quickly as possible.
One improvement is the fact that, after nine months in the country, asylum seekers have a right to work. That is a positive development and has helped a great deal. We need to examine the issue of the time taken to process asylum applications. It can take a long time, particularly if the asylum seeker is unsuccessful the first time and there has to be an appeal.
If we are going to move out of this situation, we all have to work together. That means we have to be responsible. We must also recognise that those responsibilities just do not fall to those of us who stand up in a community and say we have to be reasonable. They also fall to those who are in government and putting these policies forward. I am not being critical of the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, or the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton. However, they and the Department have fallen short in dealing with these situations adequately. That has been the experience in many places. The Minister will acknowledge that, to put it mildly, mistakes have been made in the past. While those mistakes need to be learned from, it does not mean we should be back down from bullies. That cannot happen anywhere. As far as I am concerned, it should not happen in my area.
According to a spending review, published by the Department of Justice and Equality in August, 39 direct provision centres are in operation. Seven of them are State-owned but all the centres are managed by private contractors. Recent statistics show that we had just under 3,000 applications for asylum in 2017 with just over 5,000 people living in direct provision with an average length of stay of 23 months. I welcome the fact that the average length of stay has reduced from a height of 48 months on average in 2013 and 2014. However, there is still more to do to further reduce the time people spend in this system. It is also the case that the average may mask more lengthy stays in direct provision experienced by a small number of people.
A more recent phenomenon is that hundreds of people who have been granted refugee status are nonetheless still living in the direct provision system because they cannot secure alternative accommodation. This was referred to by the Minister in his opening statement. It is clearly due to the crisis we face with the lack of affordable housing throughout the country, especially in larger towns and cities.
My main concern with direct provision is the reported variability of standards and conditions. Some direct provision centres are clearly working well with those living in them well integrated into the locality in which they are based. There is much interaction between local communities and these centres and I have knowledge of such cases. Other examples, however, have come to public attention where people have described the most depressing experience of living for years in unsuitable and inadequate conditions, not least for children growing up in the system.
One organisation that has extensively examined the issue is Nasc, a migrant and refugee rights organisation based in Cork. One of Nasc’s major complaints is that important recommendations to improve direct provision, which have come from various reports instituted when my party was in government, are not being fully implemented. Nasc has called on the Department of Justice and Equality to implement key recommendations on asylum decision-making, backlogs and waiting times. Additional judges were appointed today, which might address this issue to some extent.
Nasc has sought the full implementation of recommendations relating to the provision of kitchens and living spaces in family centres. It has called for the development of national standards and the establishment of an independent inspectorate body, essential to ensure a minimum level of standards across all direct provision centres. I welcome the Minister’s comments on the two groups that will work in this area, with the second group under Catherine Day to be established imminently.
Nasc has sought to progress the establishment of multidisciplinary vulnerability screening in line with the EU reception conditions directive and the McMahon recommendations. This would ensure access to the labour market is effective, including access to education and training for asylum seekers. It is important that people in direct provision centres can avail of further education to maintain and enhance the skills they have.
While I acknowledge conditions in some direct provision centres have improved, the system as a whole remains inadequate. The challenge to the critics of direct provision, a challenge put down by the Minister earlier, is always to describe what they would replace it with. There are three options. The first is to continue with the current system with variable conditions provided by different private operators in different locations, which is not a real option.
The second option is to halt direct provision altogether and to put asylum seekers into the housing market or into social housing. This would not be an appropriate response at this time, given the massive strain under which the housing system is throughout the country.
It might incur a greater cost to the State in paying private rents as part of this approach and would inevitably give rise to tensions locally when persons on long waiting lists were dislodged.
The third option which, as far as I am concerned, is the only viable option is to consolidate the current system in a more uniform national scheme, with stronger, independently monitored, standards and frequent inspections to ensure those standards were being rigidly adhered to. It would make sense for a single entity or agency to deliver such a standardised service. It could be done by expanding the remit of an existing public agency or creating a new public agency to do this work.
It would be interesting to know how much of the cost of €78 million of direct provision in 2018 went directly to those delivering direct provision accommodation. I am uncomfortable with the notion of there being a profit-making approach to providing services for people who are fleeing persecution. We should bring this to an end. It is inappropriate that providers of direct provision accommodation have a strong incentive to maximise their profits. It should be a not-for-profit service, where all incentives would be aligned to promote the human rights and best interests of those seeking asylum in the country who naturally include many people who have suffered traumatic experiences and, potentially, suffered unspeakable abuse and violence. There is nothing wrong in principle with the direct provision of accommodation for asylum seekers, but what is needed is continued improvement of the experience of everyone who spends time in the system. State-led delivery of the service seems to be the best way forward, on property that is State owned, staffed by people who are State employees operating a system which is rigidly monitored under uniform State rules and independently vetted.
In the time remaining to me I want to quickly raise two other issues of concern, the first of which is the right of asylum seekers to work which, unfortunately, remains restricted. A person must be waiting for at least eight months, meet other criteria and - this is the real bugbear - renew the permission to remain every six months. I understand the need to ensure the asylum process is not seen as a route for illegal migration into Ireland, but these restrictions make it very difficult for asylum seekers to gain good employment. Employers will be wary of employing persons whose right to work expires every six months and must be renewed. I ask the Minister of State to examine that measure.
The second concern relates to the long-term process involved in gaining Irish citizenship. Recently, the Taoiseach welcomed the fact that 120,000 people had become Irish citizens in the recent years. I, too, welcome it. New Irish citizens come from a wide variety of backgrounds and include persons in the United Kingdom with Irish ancestry, some of whom have explicitly sought Irish citizenship because of Brexit. The vast majority make a valuable contribution to our society, economy and cultural life. I have previously called on the Taoiseach to examine the unfair costs involved in adopting Irish citizenship. I ask the Minister of State to take note of the following. Descendants of Irish grandparents can gain a passport for €278, even if they or their parents have never set foot in Ireland, whereas foreign nationals who have been working and paying taxes here for years must pay €1,125 to complete the process of naturalisation. I genuinely believe this is unfair and unjust. The lower cost should apply to all new citizens. This is one example of an unfair roadblock for refugees and asylum seekers on the road to attaining full Irish citizenship for themselves and their children. It should be remembered that these costs are multiplied by the number of family members seeking citizenship. The cost to the State would be negligible in lowering the cost to €278 for everyone. It is an important point of principle on which I hope the Minister of State will concede in his remarks in response to the debate.
Médecins sans Frontiéres recently stated we were facing the worst displacement crisis since the Second World War. More than 60 million people across the globe are fleeing conflict, poverty and persecution, either within their home countries or in fleeing abroad. According to the UNHCR, in 2015, 1.2 million people made it into the European Union by sea routes, while 3,771 went missing at sea or died in trying to get to it. A total of 85% of arrivals in the European Union come from the world's top ten refugee producing countries. Some 7.6 million Syrians have been internally displaced, while a further 4.1 million have fled to Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, the countries that have been bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis since the start of the civil war in Syria in 2011. Some 394,000 Syrians have sought refuge in Europe since April 2011. In Iraq the advance of the so-called Islamic State resulted in over 400,000 Iraqis seeking refugee status. We can add the collapse of society in Libya, economic implosion in many other states, the war in Yemen and the increasing driver of economic and conflict-based migration that is climate change. In the years ahead we will witness more of the same.
The scale of the misery, suffering and death spread across Africa and the Middle East is immense. We need to have this discussion in that context. I do not want to dwell on the reasons for it, but suffice it to say many of the wars and conflicts on the planet, as well as much of the economic ruin and devastation from which people are fleeing, have their roots in the machinations and intrigue between rival powers and the interests of western powers. The weapons used often come form the west, with the profits amassed by the arms industry often finding their home to the west. I make these points to focus this discussion where it belongs.
Some 61 million people worldwide are refugees, which is astonishing. It is true that not all of them are fleeing war, but, as we know from our own history, they are torn and displaced and find themselves as strangers in a strange place. That is the context in which we are discussing the fate of 6,000 inhabitants of direct provision centres in this country. They make up 6,000 of the overall number of 61 million worldwide. How does the Government and the system react? According to Fintan O'Toole, the direct provision system is a form of limbo, a cruel and shameful system, a system in which people are isolated and removed from any meaningful interaction with wider society, largely a for-profit system operated privately which yields huge profits for a few. For the people inside the system, it is a form of incarceration.
I want to deal with the lie that 80% of those seeking asylum and refugee status here are bogus. It comes from a statistic that 60% of asylum seekers receive a negative verdict on their first application for refugee status, but that does not mean that they are bogus or false. Rather, it means that the first response of the Irish system is to deny the application. I have some experience of people who fall into this category. They include a Sudanese doctor and former member of the Sudanese Communist Party who fled persecution for his political beliefs and Christian background. His case was well known, as was he. It was referenced in a UN report on the persecution of the political opponents of the Sudanese regime. His application was refused. It was genuine, but the Irish system ruled against him in his first application. That is just one example of what some say are bogus applications.
Across the country there are voices that are misinformed, but I have empathy with them because of the way in which direct provision centres were to be opened in the past few months. Across rural Ireland, in particular, resources have been depleted, particularly for medical care services, schools, bus services, post offices and the Garda. People living in rural Ireland feel abandoned. Direct provision centres, crucially, are being opened without on-site medical services being available. The Minister asked for ideas on how we could approach the issue differently. In every direct provision centre there should be a medical centre for the people who live in it. On top of this, there must be consultation with local communities, but it does not seem to happen in advance.
The Minister of State is smiling and I know he will come back on this but I think it is important. There are others out there who are full of hate and vitriol, who try to spread misinformation and who try to normalise their own prejudice and hatred. I am not directing my message to them because they do not want facts. They only want to misinform and pluck out selected information that can back up their fanatical claims that we, the Irish nation, are being replaced and are under threat and that our culture is disappearing. This is dangerous rubbish. A classic example is that recently one of these people proclaimed that we do not have a housing crisis or a health crisis but that we have an immigration crisis. Let us take that to its logical conclusion. The reason more than 100,000 people are in housing need, more than 10,000 people are homeless and tens of thousands who are routinely on trolleys is immigration. In one fell swoop, history is rewritten. The crisis never happened; austerity never happened; Seanie FitzPatrick and his buddies in Anglo Irish Bank never drove the economy over the edge; Lehman Brothers never went bust and never brought the entire greedy banking system down with it; and we never paid off €64 billion in debt for the sins of bankers, developers and financiers. Equally, they say, the health crisis was not caused by the cuts imposed, the beds taken out of the system by previous Governments under Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael or the support given by Governments for privatised health care and for building a two-tier health system where those with money can be treated and survive while those who have not suffer. No, they say, the problem comes from others, those of different colour or religion who come here for myriad reasons. It is easier to point at them than to identify the wealthy, cosseted and privileged in this country who have done very well, thank you, out of the austerity years. At a stroke, this narrative absolves the foreign investors, vulture funds, our native Irish rich, the bankers I mentioned, cuckoo funds and I could go on and blames the immigrants. We have to stop allowing this narrative to develop.
This is not what Ireland is about. The people of Ireland are notoriously welcoming and decent. Those who wave the Tricolour and hold up the Proclamation while saying they believe in these myths and these myths are true annoy me. They do not have any idea or they decide to forget what has inspired this country and what has driven us from being oppressed by the British empire, a global system where the blood never dried and the sun never set. We inspired others to take up arms against that empire in India and in the African nations. If Connolly and Pearse and their solidarity were shown to oppressed people, then waving the Tricolour and the Proclamation for a culture of fear is absolutely abominable.
We need to take into account in this discussion that there are some Members who were involved in Governments that drove our services into privatisation, who drove down what was available to the people in a democratic and open way, and who are now saying that others are to blame. This is a very dangerous move. It hinges on the debate in respect of direct provision. We have to treat those who need our refuge, sanctuary and support as is our obligation, We have to get it right and do it right. We have to talk to people in isolated rural areas who are fearful of the consequences for their own services and their own towns and cities. Unless we do that, we will have a battle on our hands but the first battle is for the truth. That is why I wanted to say that my remarks are addressed to the decent people out there, not those who wish to peddle their lies and filth. They are not worth it. There are many tens of thousands of decent people out there who will get it when the finger is pointed at those who are to blame - the very wealthy and the Governments that back them up, which increase inequality and leave the people homeless and lying on trolleys without any real care about them, without making any real difference over the years they have been in power. I address that to the Minister of State and his Government. Shame on them that they have not made any dent in the housing crisis or the health crisis and that they have allowed this vitriol to become the common parlance of a minority. I know the vast majority out there get it because when they spend nights in the emergency department, they see black nurses dying on their feet with tiredness, coming off a 12-hour shift and being as kind as anything to their friends and loved ones. That is what they see and know and that is what we have to stand for.
I am sharing time with Deputies Pringle and Joan Collins. I understand the Minister of State has a difficult job to do and my comments are not directed at him personally. Direct provision was introduced as an emergency measure 20 years ago in 1999. It not only continues but has been embedded as a permanent structure. They are not my words but those of the Ombudsman for Children, Dr. Niall Muldoon. He said:
"While we can, and will, do everything we can to raise awareness of the issues and improve living standards for people in the Direct Provision, Government must consider the long term future of this system. As the 20th anniversary of Direct Provision approaches, it is now time to consider alternatives and bring an end to this emergency measure."
I endorse those comments. The Minister began his contribution with some good points but figures and facts are notably lacking from it. Deputy Howlin cited 39 direct provision centres. I have a figure of 38 and other Members have others. The system is surrounded by secrecy. We have the direct provision centres and then we have the people in emergency hotels. We do not know those figures. I would have thought, in the interest of openness and accountability, that the Minister would have set all of that out in his contribution. There is a feeling that giving information will make matters worse and I am of a completely different persuasion. Information is empowering and enabling; that is what we need. The figures are not overwhelming. What is overwhelming, as was said earlier by Deputy Martin Kenny, is the privatisation of the system and the profit being made by companies and hotels. That is what is shocking. I welcome the statement that the Minister welcomes ideas from us. I think that is a start. It has never once been said by any Minister for Justice and Equality and certainly not by the Department, otherwise known as the Department of secrecy. They certainly never put their hands out and said they have obligations nationally and internationally and they want our help. Even at what I described as the worst meeting of my life in Oughterard, people came up to me and said they would give the shirt off their backs. The challenge is to take that at its best and say, "Yes, we want to work with them."
The system has gone on too long. Deputy Bríd Smith referred to the background. This has been the greatest displacement of people since the Second World War. Approximately 65 million people have been displaced. In our country we are talking taking in tiny numbers as though they were impossible. It is important to give the figures. My colleague from Galway West has a habit of giving the wrong figures or choosing figures to suit an argument. In 2017, there were 2,926 additional asylum seekers. That increased to 3,673 in 2018 and, up to the end of September 2019, the figures I have are 3,762 in addition to the number who were here. It is hardly overwhelming. Part of the problem is that the system is not fit for purpose. It has gone on too long. People with refugee status are in direct provision centres but cannot get out. That is almost half the number of those in emergency accommodation. There are solutions to this.
I have ten seconds left and I am going to use them to deplore the question asked with a particular purpose by Deputy Grealish in the Chamber. It is step two in what seems to be an orchestrated campaign.
I support the comments made by Deputy Connolly at the end of her contribution The commitment in many communities in Ireland to welcoming refugees was honoured last month when Ireland won an award from the Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative for the community sponsorship Ireland programme. This pilot scheme follows the Canadian example, which has resettled more than 300,000 refugees over the past 40 years through community-led initiatives. Unfortunately, much uglier scenes have dominated the headlines in Ireland. Protests against the opening of direct provision centres, which hide their deep-rooted racism behind claims of concern for the well-being of asylum seekers, are a disgrace and it is our duty to call them out. However, we should not allow the actions of a few small groups to take away from the incredible work being done in many communities.
Fears surrounding the opening of direct provision centres are unfounded. I remember that concerns were raised in 2000 when a new centre was to open in Donegal town. I was at those public meetings and we decided we would have a welcoming committee to meet the asylum seekers. Not only were there no issues during the lifespan of the centre, but many of the residents went on to set up home in Donegal and make positive contributions to the community. The best way to counteract racism and hate is for the community to come together and welcome refugees.
Direct provision itself is unsuitable for anything other than a short stay. People on the left and right of the political spectrum are calling for an end to the system of direct provision, arguably for different reasons. We need credible alternatives, however. As the Government spending review shows, the number of people exiting direct provision accommodation is not keeping up with the rate of new arrivals. A 40% increase is predicted for 2019. Some 800 people, roughly 12% of residents, have had a decision on their status but cannot leave direct provision due to rental prices being at an all-time high. Ireland's obligations under the reception conditions directive to carry out vulnerability assessments within 30 days of an asylum application being made have not yet been implemented. As of July 2019, not a single person has been identified as being vulnerable through a formal vulnerability assessment, despite the asylum population including victims of human trafficking, torture, people with HIV and those suffering from post traumatic stress disorder caused by living in war zones. Not one of those people, however, has been classified as being vulnerable according to the Department of Justice and Equality.
Four years ago, the McMahon report of the Working Group on the Protection Process and Direct Provision recommended the establishment of an independent investigation body which would carry out unannounced visits to centres. To date, this has not happened. The 1,531 asylum seekers in emergency accommodation, of which 290 are children, are in an even more precarious situation. The Refugee Council has reported food shortages and an inability to access medical cards and the weekly allowance. Some asylum seekers have been suddenly moved out of their accommodation to accommodate weddings in the hotels in which they have been housed. Others cannot access liaison services, which are essential for navigating an unknown system. The Government's ongoing focus on temporary solutions has allowed this already dysfunctional system to grow to the point where it is now just not fit for purpose. The Minister of State has to examine what he is doing to deal with this problem as well.
The remarks made by Deputy Grealish at a meeting in Oughterard in September, when he referred to economic migrants from Africa as "spongers", and his contribution during Leaders' Question yesterday, where he implied that remittances going from Ireland to Nigeria could be the proceeds of crime and fraud, are an absolute disgrace. This is dog-whistle racism. The members of the Rural Independent Group should be disassociating themselves from his remarks rather than backing them up. It is outrageous that Deputies in this Chamber are prepared, in order to further their own political careers, to whip up fears on these issues, pander to racism against migrant youths and peddle myths regarding asylum seekers. In that respect, they are no different to individuals such as Rowan Croft, Justin Barrett, Gemma O'Doherty and others who are seeking to use concerns about direct provision to build a far-right anti-migrant movement.
One of those individuals, a certain Gearóid Murphy, has been in Oughterard, Lismore, Lisdoonvarna and Rooskey. Murphy openly promoted the fascist ideology of the "great replacement"-----
The "great replacement" is a lunatic conspiracy theory that goes back directly to the Nazi party. It claims there is a plan to replace the white population in Europe through the dilution of national identity and the promotion of multiculturalism. This is absolute madness, but also very dangerous.
On direct provision, the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland, MASI, has described direct provision as a shame on Ireland, comparable to the Magdalen Laundries. When direct provision was introduced, it was claimed that it was meant to be a temporary measure for six months. If that was the case, it might be tolerable. The average stay, however, is three years and eight months. This is extremely damaging for the more than 6,000 people condemned to live in these conditions, especially children. The special rapporteur on child protection has called for direct provision to be phased out and for asylum seekers to be integrated into the community.
The Minister for Justice and Equality earlier called for us to come up with proposals. I will respond directly and state that the Independents 4 Change are ready and able to meet the Minister at any time to put forward ideas for solutions. I refer to solving the housing and health crises and issues faced by rural communities. We will most definitely come up with proposals and I would love to meet the Minister and sit down with him for an hour to put these proposals forward. I am sure my colleagues would as well.
I have one other point, but I think I have run out of time.
I want to address our policy on visa applications, which is linked to our migration policy. I invited a person from Pakistan over to Ireland two years ago. His visa application was, however, refused. It was stated that the visa documentation submitted was deemed to be false and there was not satisfaction that the event to which the person was invited would take place. All the immigration section had to do was ring me to find out if that event was taking place. That was not done and this person's application for a visa and entry to the country was refused on that basis. I wrote to the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade about this issue. I would like a reply, because it is a disgrace that people are being treated this way.
Among the issues raised most frequently are the duration of stay in direct provision, the impact of this on family life and children, issues around oversight and monitoring and the question of a right to work, which thankfully has been changed recently. In 2015, the Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions stated that the system is not fit for purpose and recommended that it should be replaced. The latest available annual report by the Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, which oversees the direct provision system on behalf of the Department of Justice and Equality, reveals that the number of single males seeking asylum and availing of the offer of accommodation stands at 55.66% of the total applications. There is also clear evidence that the number of children consigned to these facilities is unacceptably high. We have our own children spending their childhoods in hotels and emergency accommodation and we have children who have fled or who have arrived here with their parents spending their childhoods in these direct provision centres. It is simply not good enough.
I want to state emphatically that from a humanitarian perspective we are duty bound to offer whatever assistance we can to those genuinely in need of asylum and further to ensure that those who enter the direct provision system are treated with dignity and respect. That is of paramount importance.
The human person must be at the centre of all our laws. If people are genuinely fleeing persecution and seeking refuge here, then we should extend our compassion and put into action the principles that we spend so much time talking about. It is absolutely appalling to read reports that some children are spending almost their entire childhood in these centres or in the direct provision system. This must end. While our humanitarian duty is clear, however, so also is our duty to the security of the State. The issue of oversight and monitoring and how the application process is managed is critically important. We cannot bury our heads in the sand and pretend that our asylum system, just like those in most other European countries, is not open to abuse and violation. Most systems can be violated and undermined.
There are those who will seek to enter this State through the asylum system and who will not have our best interests at heart. We must not of course confuse these people with genuine asylum seekers, but we must not be so innocent as to believe all applicants are genuine. We have seen the figures for those that have been refused. They are high from many countries, reaching almost 97% and 98% in some cases. The direct provision system, as part of the overall asylum process, certainly needs to become more robust even as it seeks to become fairer. That might be a challenge, but the system must be robust and fair. The number of asylum seekers accommodated by RIA in December 2015 was 4,696.
That was already an increase of 332 persons, or 7.6%, from the same date in 2014. It was also the second year-on-year increase in seven years. The RIA spent €57.025 million in respect of the accommodation of asylum seekers in 2015, an increase of 407% on the 2014 outturn. As I understand it, however, there are about 6,100 people in direct provision. This is four years after the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government's own working group report on direct provision made numerous recommendations on how to make the system more humane. Several years later, nothing of significance has really changed so the Government needs to examine its own record. It made recommendations and had a working group report but, as with many other reports, it is gathering dust on a shelf. That is not fair.
A second reception centre was established in Borrisokane quite recently. I salute Councillor Joe Hannigan, the public and all the others involved there on their engagement in this regard. The centre was landed on them without any notice, which is part of the problem. We are a very welcoming people. It is Ireland of the thousand welcomes. People in the main want to be fair, responsible and respectful and help in any way they can. The concept of meitheal still exists. The centre was landed on the individuals and a public meeting was held. Some people tried to infiltrate it and they were not wanted or welcome and were sent packing. This could be held up as a model of how to do things right, not that the people wanted that. The building was new but left idle and it is now being used. The families are being integrated.
I have to be very critical of how the Department of Justice and Equality, whose Minister and Minister or State are the figureheads and leaders, has operated. There is a cloud of secrecy. I do not accept the argument about contracts and tenders. There are contracts and tenders for every project. We are duty-bound to have them. Why is this so different? Why does there have to be secrecy? Secrecy only develops rumours and falsehoods. Different things get said and they grow legs, as the Minister of State knows. It is better to be upfront with people. Ask and you shall receive. People will offer support. There will be those with worries but they can be allayed and discussed.
On behalf of the Rural Independent Group, I will take up the offer of the Minister, Deputy Flanagan. I was not here when it was made. We are willing to meet the Minister, talk to him and engage. Every Member, in any House, has a right to ask questions. If we lose that right in this House and the other, God help us. A Member must be allowed to stand up and ask a question when he has figures supplied to him by the World Bank. We are right in this Chamber to ask those questions without being shouted down and being called racist. That is outrageous. It is an attack on democracy from the great liberals who tell us they know everything and who want everything. I defend Deputy Grealish in that he is 100% right to ask a question here. The Ceann Comhairle allowed him to do so. We are elected here for that purpose. The people can be the final arbiters, and anybody else after that. There should not be bully-boy tactics whereby one is called all kinds of names.
Mr. Justice Bryan McMahon, who chaired the working group on direct provision, appeared before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality and made the very points I have made. During the committee debate, he stated that in 2018 there was a definite trend representing an increase in new applications, averaging more than 300 per month. He also noted at the meeting that those who have received positive decisions about leaving direct provision are obliged to continue to live in the centres. That is not fair. As was noted, there are between 700 and 800 trying to transition out of direct provision but who cannot do so. Owing to the shortage of accommodation, the RIA is obliged to provide emergency accommodation outside the centres. That is a costly business owing to the housing crisis, as we all know. It costs in the region of €99 per night per person to accommodate those who cannot be accommodated in direct provision centres.
As the migrant crisis continues to show no signs of abating, we can be sure that the costs and the number of applicants within our asylum process will remain similar and more than likely increase in the coming years. What is most depressing is that this has been going on for years. The Government has foisted direct provision onto communities with little or no meaningful communication. That is the problem. The Department of Justice and Equality only seems to engage after the fact and then wonders why people are so annoyed and frustrated. The Minister of State is from a rural area and knows how communities tick and work. It is a matter of bringing them with us and of engagement.
As far back as December 2015, I asked the then Minister for Justice and Equality, Ms Frances Fitzgerald, whether she would address concerns around the designation of a hotel in Clonea Strand as an emergency reception and orientation centre. It is not far down the road from the Minister of State. The concerns were brought to me by locals who were deeply frustrated by the lack of engagement with them before this decision was made. There is no other reason. The people wanted general information and consultation. 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 the suitability of the accommodation for its particular purposes. Putting individuals in some of the places they have been put lately without services and without telling the locals flies in the face of that. There was not a single mention of local engagement in the reply.
The designation was for a refugee centre so it is not strictly the same as the asylum centres but I note how important it is that we bring communities with us when attempting to make progress in a matter that is fair to all concerned. I salute the people of Carrick-on-Suir, who have had a centre for 18 years, and the committee. There were many problems at the start. The residents were incarcerated in the centre, a big gated building. It was a case of them and us but Bridgewater House and many individuals, including Martina Walsh, have engaged with the residents and embraced them. We meet them now as they integrate into the community. They have been well treated and respected, as they should be. They are human beings. We need to put in the support services and we cannot just foist them on people.
This is Ireland in 2019; this is direct provision. Direct provision is parents sharing bedrooms with their children, it is kitchens running out of food and it is hotel signs stating, “Use the back stairs and do not enter public areas." This is Ireland; this is 2019.
To say direct provision is appalling, or to say that it is a disgraceful way to treat human beings, does not adequately capture what this system is doing. It is so much worse than that. It is stories of real people and their experiences, not statistics. Direct provision is hotels shipping people off to another location for a weekend so they can make more money by hosting a wedding. It is mothers and daughters walking five miles on a dangerous road into town to purchase essential sanitary products. It is gay men being forced to share a bedroom with homophobic males. There are families in direct provision limbo, some for over eight years, with children who were so young when they arrived in Ireland that they do not remember life outside direct provision. Eight years is an entire childhood. This is 2019. This is direct provision in Ireland.
This system is a clear example of Government "anti-policy" at its worst. What do I mean by that? I mean it is a system that exists because of a failure to make any decision to do otherwise. Direct provision was always meant to be a "temporary measure", a hasty response to an issue that demanded a far better and comprehensive solution. There is nothing temporary about what direct provision has become - in essence, a lengthy period of detention for people who have committed no crime, who have no greater desire other than to live safely without violence and persecution.
Just as we look back in horror at some of the institutional abuse the Irish State perpetrated in the past against some of our most vulnerable, we will, I firmly believe, look back 30 years from now and hang our heads in shame at how we sentenced vulnerable men, women and children fleeing unimaginable situations to what one asylum seeker described as "worse than prison”, adding that “at least in prison you have your release date." Dr. Margaret Wheatley, at a recent talk in UCD, summed it up when she said all that people want is to earn, learn and belong. Limiting asylum seekers' opportunities to work takes away their dignity. Their access to education is sporadic and limited, and life on €38.80 per week in remote rural areas prevents any chance of belonging or getting to know the local community. This is not the Ireland I know. There is no céad míle fáilte in direct provision.
I find it unbelievable that we, as a country, which is so familiar with the concept of leaving these shores to find a better life across the world, have let this happen. Asylum seekers are invisible and excluded from society. The process of separation and exclusion leads to othering of these people and creates a "them" and "us". We, as a country, are warehousing people: asylum seekers who have survived torture, sexual violence, inhumane and degrading treatment, who came to our country seeking refuge. They have been stripped of any right to privacy, private family life and the right to unrestricted work. Where are the psychological supports for the survivors of torture or sexual violence? Where are the suitably qualified translators they so badly need? Where is the access to legal representation to help them navigate through the exhausting, harrowing process of seeking asylum, and why does the process take so long?
People living in direct provision should be supported to access the community in order to form social and economic ties. We must support communities that host asylum seekers and we must create opportunities for asylum seekers to socialise and make connections with the local community. That will tackle racism and fear of the unknown that is present among some communities in Ireland and will prevent a language of hate taking hold. We must support the direct provision centres themselves, through ensuring they have adequate education and childcare facilities, healthcare, shops and amenities. We must make transport more accessible. The often long distance between direct provision centres and towns and cities means that transport costs can be a significant barrier to accessing the local community and engaging with local people and employment and education opportunities. Transport services to and from direct provision centres should be cheaper and more frequent. Given that asylum seekers only receive €38.80 a week, they should be entitled to free public transport. Free and regular English classes should be provided in direct provision centres to facilitate integration in the community, and as a means to address the isolation and marginalisation perceived by many who seek asylum.
The EU directive on reception conditions for asylum seekers refers to the need to provide an adequate standard of living, but asylum seekers are being crammed into bedrooms in order to maximise profit for the private owners or landlords, as they are paid per head rather than on adequate space per person. Where are the inspections of premises to ensure safe, clean, warm, living conditions? Surely the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government should have a role in this regard. Access to education is limited in direct provision. Schools are not free in Ireland. There are costs relating to transport, books, uniforms, or any other number of fees and charges that parents of school-goers have to face on an ongoing basis. How can parents afford to send their children to school when they are denied the right to a steady job? The lack of ability to work and study results in asylum seekers becoming deskilled, bored, depressed, and when mental health issues develop there is little or no access to mental health supports. Permission to work must be extended, and made less restrictive, as that would allow people to leave direct provision centres. We have a duty to process applications for asylum in a timely manner. No one should be waiting even a fraction of the time it takes but many asylum seekers live in direct provision for years and years. That is wrong, and it must end.
We should never tolerate or defend the use of inflammatory, divisive or dangerous language from any Member of our national Parliament inside or outside this Chamber. I am reminded of a poem that is mounted on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in New York that is often quoted by those who recognise the value of compassion and empathy for those who live in more fortunate countries when we think of our obligations to those fleeing from disaster:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
We do not just need direct provision to end, we need to overhaul the entire asylum-seeker process and to bring dignity, respect, safety, empathy and kindness into how we treat those who come here to this country, fleeing from persecution and terror, and to treat them with the very basic decency to which every person should be entitled.
This morning I presented Teastas Eorpach na Gaeilge certificates in Ollscoil na hÉireann Mhá Nuad and I announced €500,000 for a period of three years. On my way back I passed the EPIC museum on the quays, which tells the story of the contribution of Irish emigrants across the world. It is a reminder of how emigration is intertwined in our history. It is the story of every Irish family, or certainly the story of mine. Like a lot of people in Connemara, I have uncles in Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Perth in Australia, London and Manchester. Irish people were not always universally welcomed in any of those places. Emigrants took the risk of the coffin ships, as they were, because the alternative, namely, staying here, was worse. The opportunities were not there. We are all aware of the very tragic history of the Famine. We do not want to repeat that history.
Direct provision has been with us for 20 years. It started off as an emergency because there were no alternatives. Even during the most recent recession people left this land to improve their lot. There are varied but common reasons people leave their country of origin. Some people are afraid because they have received threats to their lives because of their sexuality or for some other reason. Religious persecution is another reason. People leave because there is no choice. They face no future in their country. They leave in order to protect their family, as many Irish left to better their families.
We have international responsibilities to people seeking asylum, as the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, and I have highlighted as well. We have provided places for them. We have also granted refugee status in conjunction with our international responsibilities. My recent experience of the plan to provide direct provision in Oughterard was one of the most difficult issues of my political career. I have said that on many occasions. The debate generated widespread concern and polarised opinion. As the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, is aware, there was an information vacuum. No clarity or definitive information was provided. In Oughterard it was planned to use a 60-bed hotel and to have five residents per room, which equals a total of 300 asylum seekers. A rumour went out that the rooms were being subdivided so therefore the 300 became 600. There was a strong rumour announced on local radio that there would be 300 single young men coming. All the rumours and lack of information do a disservice to people who avail of the services and also to communities. The main concern in the community I represent is the unknown and as we know, nature abhors a vacuum.
I have had discussions with the Minister of State and I am aware that his hands are bound in terms of the sensitivity of contract information and procurement. At the same time, the situation must be examined in order that clarity and information can be provided. Deputy Connolly was with me at the meeting in Oughterard, which was well attended, and I was unable to provide clarity on numbers and where the residents would come from. First, I could not state with certainty that an application had been received from the hotel. Second, I did not know if the contract would be awarded successfully. Third, I did not know the numbers that might come. Fourth, I did not know where they might come from. Fifth, I did not know what the profile would be in terms of families and ages. Any community deserves to have that information. I know it is a very difficult situation for the Department and for the Ministers involved due to the sensitivity of the procurement process and contractual issues.
I visited the direct provision centre in Lisdoonvarna. As it turned out, I visited a week earlier than I was expected due to a misunderstanding. In effect, I came unannounced.
I saw a comfortable, relaxed setting, with kids home from school in their uniforms as with any children of four or five years of age, dancing, playing and doing whatever else they do on their way home from school. When one considers the number of Irish missionaries who went abroad to educate people, we have people coming to this country who deserve to be educated too. We heard from management that up to 30 people from that centre are out working in various areas in the community. We heard that the people who were against the centre when it was first being talked about are now employers of residents.
People wait too long in direct provision in certain circumstances. I acknowledge that the system has been refined and is leading to faster decisions. There are also people in direct provision centres who have been processed and their applications are complete. Talking to colleagues, there are plenty of other positive examples from across the country of where this has worked, including Ballaghaderreen, Macroom, Wicklow and other places too. No system is perfect. I have received information regarding poor standards in another direct provision centre, which I am following up with the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, and the Minister, Deputy Flanagan. There can be no excuse for poor facilities when State money is provided. The impact in that case is not on the community in general but the residents. I have concerns in the case of one direct provision centre which I have passed on to the Minister of State. I know he is looking into the matter. There have been considerable improvements across direct provision centres. We have increased and improved standards, as outlined in the McMahon report, the recommendations of which have been wholly implemented.
An issue that is often raised by individuals is alternatives. An alternative is not evident. I commend the community programme that the Minister of State has announced to look for houses and such in a variety of communities. That is to be welcomed and may be a success, but it represents small numbers in what is, in many cases, an emergency. An immediate response is required. There may be a weekend or a week in which we suddenly need to find accommodation for up to 100 people. It is not realistic to expect to find houses for all of them in various small communities, or even large communities, throughout the country. The community programme is, however, a worthwhile approach. If it works and it provides stable, integrated accommodation for asylum seekers and refugees, it should be explored. The Minister of State has piloted that in his own area and that is to be welcomed.
Many people feel that asylum seekers and refugees should be offered a house immediately, as soon as they arrive and present. That could happen in an ideal world. I think Sweden tried this. If we did that in the morning, it would have two effects. It would offend people who are on the housing list. There has always been a housing list and politicians deal with the issue every day. If everybody who came into this country got a house ahead of those on the list, it would cause significant problems. It would also act as a pull factor, as the Department calls it, possibly encouraging more people to come to the country.
I commend the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, on doing a difficult job and on the advice he has provided to me and those who have faced communities that are, in some cases, up in arms. In my recent experience, there seemed to be a view that I could click my fingers and a direct provision centre would be cancelled, as if it was that simple. As I explained on radio, if that was all it took to prevent the establishment of a direct provision centre, the whole system would collapse around our ears. On the basis that I supported, understood and spoke about our international responsibilities, I was accused in an email of being in some way complicit in people trafficking and sex trafficking. I refute that insinuation. People leave their countries because they want to improve their lives and those of their families and children. They want to create better lives for themselves. We have an international responsibility to do the best we can. I acknowledge the work that the Minister of State and Department are doing on a difficult issue. The system has been with us for the past 20 years. It is not perfect but standards will continue to improve. I am sure the Minister of State has implemented the recommendations of the McMahon report. I hope the community sponsorship programme, which seeks to find accommodation in individual houses in various communities, will be a success.
I understand there is a rotation system in operation, where we have a speaker from Fianna Fáil followed by a speaker from Sinn Féin, a speaker from the Labour Party and then a speaker from our group. I do not mind anyone coming in to make a contribution to this discussion because it is an important issue. I want it to be noted that I cut short my preparation for this debate to be here on time and protect my slot. Having respected the order of the House, I do not accept Deputies arriving late and expecting to be given equal treatment in making a presentation. If I had known that was allowed, I could have prepared myself better and used information that I had to exclude from my contribution. I am willing to allow the Acting Chairman, if he asks our permission, which he does not seem to have sought, to allow Deputies who have come in late to speak. However, he should note for the future that if this happens to a member of our group, I will expect the same respect to be shown.
I assure the Deputy that I am drawing from a list that is in front of me. I call on each speaker and party in turn. I have not changed anything. I also intend to contribute to the debate. I am sorry for that intrusion, Deputy O'Loughlin.
Deputies often follow proceedings in their offices, as I did while preparing to come to the House to speak. I will share time with Deputy Lisa Chambers.
Direct provision is an unnatural setting. Living in direct provision significantly interferes with the right to have one's private family life protected. Gandhi wrote:
The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.
There is no doubt that those who come to this country seeking asylum are very vulnerable. The current system of direct provision centres was established 20 years ago on a temporary basis. It is now long past its sell by date and it must be changed to reflect the country we live in today. We are talking about men, women, boys and girls. There are children who need and want to live their lives with dignity and respect, to be able to dream and to have a far better quality of life than they currently have.
There are approximately 1,500 asylum seekers in emergency accommodation. Approximately 300 of those are children. They reside in hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation where they can be shipped like cattle to alternative accommodation to make way for various events being held in the hotels. They grow up in bed and breakfast accommodation and hotels where they must adhere to curfews.
That is what I hear. Basic services such as laundry facilities, access to healthcare, nappies and baby formula are not being provided in some of these places.
The deputy secretary general in the Department of Justice and Equality has admitted that the use of accommodation was sub-optimal as it is not possible to impose standards in the same way as in direct provision centres. I was told by somebody in Fáilte Ireland recently that many of these centres are still registered as hotels with Fáilte Ireland, which is causing another problem in regard to inspections and so on. In addition, it is three times the cost of keeping someone in direct provision.
The experience of those living in direct provision centres also leaves much to be desired. I appreciate national standards for accommodation were published in August 2019. It is unfortunate it took so long to do that and that these standards will not be legally binding, which they should be, and they should also be subject to monitoring.
There are currently 770 people living in direct provision who have been adjudicated as having valid claims for asylum. They cannot move out of direct provision as there is nowhere for them to move to due to the failure of the Government to supply social housing units to support vulnerable families and individuals. This also applies to many Irish people, who cannot get their own homes. Asylum seekers are spending far too long in the system which was designed in 2000 to be a short-term, interim provision. Some 35% of people living in direct provision have been in the system for more than three years. Increased resources are needed for the hearing of asylum applications and appeals. This will reduce the delays experienced by people waiting on a final decision, which will mean less time spent in direct provision. Ireland has a moral, legal and political imperative to examine the claim of any person who comes here and claims asylum under defined grounds, which is important.
I want to turn to specific issues. On the right to work, following a decision of the Supreme Court that ruled that laws banning asylum seekers from working were unconstitutional, the Government introduced a procedure to enable asylum seekers to access the workplace. The restrictions placed on this right are far too burdensome and need to be looked at. Furthermore, the inability of asylum seekers to obtain a driver's licence impacts on this right and this needs to be examined.
Access to third level education is also an important issue that needs to be reformed. Residents of direct provision are entitled to have access to primary and second level but they are required to pay non-EU fees if they wish to attend third level. I spoke recently to the principal of a primary school that had four new children and the principal made the point these children needed extra help, support and resources, which are not available. We need to look at that as well as at third level. This needs to change and, at the very least, the residency requirements should be reduced from five years to three.
The need for consultation with communities is important. Proper consultative mechanisms should be put in place with communities in advance of decisions to open direct provision centres in an area. Locals often have genuine concerns about the ability of the area to serve additional people and these should be openly addressed, for example, in regard to GP availability, school places and so on. The secretive way the Department of Justice and Equality approaches the tendering process heightens concerns and must be addressed. Both asylum seekers and communities must feel they are being supported by the State.
I want to refer to playing politics with asylum issues. Immigration has never been a party-political issue in Ireland, nor should it be, but sadly we see that creeping in. It is important that all discussions on the challenges that Ireland and Europe face with immigration are held in a respectful and factual manner. The Minister, Deputy Michael Ring, called recently for a national debate on asylum seekers but I have seen no sign of him coming into the Dáil for this national debate, even though we are representing the people who are coming to us and talking to us about their issues and concerns. The Taoiseach's comments in the Irish Independentlast week, in effect blaming migrants from Albania and Georgia with fake documents for the rise in the numbers seeking asylum, were bizarre and, as the Immigrant Council of Ireland has described it, "clumsy at best". Those comments were very unfair. The comments made by Deputy Grealish in this House this week and at a previous open forum meeting are certainly very questionable. His figures on money leaving this country have been proved factually incorrect and I believe he was wrong. There is an onus on all of us to show leadership in this regard. The Government must handle our international responsibilities in a far more open and consultative manner, given recent events in Moville, Oughterard, Ballinamore and Achill, as well as the arson attack on Deputy Martin Kenny's car.
As a country, Ireland has done well in avoiding the far-right agenda of "them" versus "us". Politicians and the media have all played a role in ensuring this and we need to continue to do that.
I thank Deputy O'Loughlin for sharing time. There is consensus on several issues. We all accept we have international possibilities, we all feel genuinely for people coming here seeking refuge and we all know it is a difficult task and that there not an easy alternative to direct provision, so we agree on those things.
In particular, I want to raise with the Minister of State and put on the record the issue that occurred in my constituency in Achill. It has been very difficult for the community there. I agree with the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, that the information vacuum caused huge problems. The way the community and every elected Member in County Mayo found out about the emergency accommodation was through a Facebook post. That is not acceptable and we can do better than that. The information changed. It took us a number of days to get information on basic questions such as who was coming, when they were coming and what was the constitution of the group. It went from being 30 men to 13 women to 25 families. When there is changing information and information coming through Facebook, when there is a lock-down in the Department, when basic questions are not answered, people get worried and scared and that vacuum is filled with fear.
I hope we learn from that mistake. Consultation with communities is paramount and it has to happen. The current process employed by the Department is not working. If it continues to do things the way it has done them in Achill, it will have problems everywhere else as well. The community there feels aggrieved by how it has been portrayed in the media and how it has been treated by the Department. The lack of consultation, transparency and honesty with the community has created divisions, hurt and anger. I hope we will learn from this.
I want to put on record that the people of Achill are the most welcoming people. It is a tourism destination. I travel there almost on a weekly basis. They are the kindest, most welcoming people one will ever encounter and they will open their hearts and their homes. However, what has happened in the community is a direct result of the Department's mishandling and mismanagement of this issue. I hope we never see the like of it again anywhere else in the country.
Like others, I am glad to have an opportunity to speak in this very important debate at this crucial time. Like many in this House, I have been dealing with immigrants for at least 20 years now. We came through the original phases of direct provision accommodation which, unfortunately, were not even up to the standards we have now; they were worse and there was much more serious overcrowding.
We have an obligation to deal with the situation that is presented to us in the way we would like to have our situation dealt with if we were in their position. We should remind ourselves of that at every single opportunity. There is not a household in this country that has not had relatives of one generation or another overseas in various countries across the globe. If there is one nationality that should be in a position to assess the situation better than all others, it has to be the Irish, who have been everywhere. All of our relatives, including both my parents, were emigrants and had little going for them. They left this country as economic emigrants, I might add. There is a lot of criticism of economic immigrants nowadays. What do we expect people to do?
Do we want them to starve where they are or do we expect them to seek out something better? We need to remember that we have a social, political and humanitarian obligation to do the best we can, to address their issues and to see if we can make them welcome, in accordance with the céad míle fáilte for which we are so famous.
From time to time people will say "I am not a racist - but". I am a little tired of hearing that phrase. I am glad to say, however, that when one explains matters to the people who have such views they seem to take on board and understand that there are people in less fortunate positions than theirs and that there but for the grace of God go the rest of us.
One of the most difficult situations I ever had to deal with concerned victims of the war in Somalia, young women and men of all ages, from kids to teenagers, who were violently abused and mistreated in the course of that war. How did the war start? A smart guy got hold of a radio station, a communications centre, and poured out hatred for about a year and a half until he ignited a fuse and the war started. Some 500,000 people, many of them women, were massacred in the aftermath. That is a lesson to us.
If we need more lessons, let us go back in our European history to the first half of the 20th century and remember what happened during that period. Fear was generated - that was the first thing: fear of the unknown, fear of what might happen and fear of others. It turned out in the final analysis that 70 million people were put to death in order to prove or disprove a point. This was an appalling reflection on humanity and proved again and again, if it needed to be proven, that man's inhumanity to man knows no bounds and still continues.
I am not condemning anybody. I say to those who have different views that they should not have those views. People will say that some people speak out but that they have to say what everyone else thinks. This is not true. If they are saying what others are thinking, those thinking along those lines should not be doing so. They should read their history. What an appalling history.
I think back to some of these cases. I remember the cases of those who were subject to electric shock treatment and whose veins on their arms and legs had protruded in a grotesque way because of that treatment. Young women who had been brutalised and raped and left on the streets came to us in this country when our system was not so well prepared. Some of them departed again because the process was too long and too tedious and they could not wait. Some of them ended up on the streets of London and starved. Some of them ended up back in the countries whence they came and got AIDS and died.
If we were ever to assess our response and what it should be in such a situation, all we would have to do is look at ourselves and ask ourselves how we would like to be treated if we were to come into a strange land and were starving and had no friends. Would we be treated with suspicion? If so, how would we deal with that? In the years I have spent in this House I have visited many of our immigrants, as I am sure everyone else here has done. I have witnessed poignant situations, heart-rending in some cases.
I will refer incidentally to one thing I was glad to be able to do something about. When the various people were being assessed by the tribunal for admission I discovered that for some unknown reason one person came up again and again as never receiving favourable consideration. I tabled a Dáil question about the matter and discovered in the reply that one person was responsible for assessing 1,500 people, not one of whom merited favourable consideration. I asked myself how that could be. Fortunately, that person was relieved of that post, and that is as it should be.
The point I wish to emphasise is that we are where we are and we have come through difficult times. We came through the economic crisis just gone and many difficult times in previous economic crises, and I have no doubt but that we will have economic crises in the future. We should think again about whether or not we have always responded in the way we should have done. Direct provision is not ideal. It is a means of holding the situation for the moment. It cannot be otherwise because we have only come through a serious recession ourselves. Direct provision is not what it should be, but I would still like it to be in accordance with the best the Irish could offer at any given time. I had occasion not so long ago to meet a group of European parliamentarians who were ill-disposed towards refugees and immigrants and not in any way empathetic even to the children washed up on the shores, the dead babies. I had to remind them that I remembered the time when they themselves were refugees, which was not so long ago. It is no harm at all for civilisation to remind itself, all of us, collectively and individually, that such times can visit anyone. Unknowingly, we can find ourselves in such situations over which we have no control.
I thank the Acting Chairman for giving me the opportunity to say these few words by switching positions. I hope we treat the people who arrive on our shores sympathetically and in a humanitarian way. Whenever they go back to where they came from, whether or not they wish to go, I would like to think they would say they were treated well by Irish people and that if they had to go back again, they would go without fear.
I am glad to have an opportunity to speak on this issue. When the controversy in Oughterard arose I happened to be on the other side of the Atlantic. I was actually on a small tour that brought me to many places where we met the sons, grandsons and great-grandsons of people who had emigrated to America and who have done well since in their communities but who were not always welcome.
We must start at the beginning in this debate and see what we agree on. I take it that everyone agrees we should honour our international obligations and the laws we have adopted, which include the European laws on this matter. Once one agrees to go down the way of law, one must stick to the law. Everyone who claims asylum has the right to due process and it is not fair or right to prejudge anyone's individual case. There are a lot of processes involved when it comes to asylum: subsidiary protection, humanitarian leave to remain, the international tribunal and so on. In addition, someone who is dissatisfied with all the decisions made all the way down the line can go to the courts for judicial review. I welcome some steps that have been taken to speed up this process, and the Minister's predecessor joined it into one process, but we must also recognise that the asylum seeker, or the person who comes here looking to stay here, has the right to use all the processes, including the courts, and that no matter how much one telescopes that, it can take some time. It is important that at all levels of the process we provide adequate resources, including in the courts. We need to be able to ensure there are no delays, including in the courts, that are created by the State. In that way we will give everyone decisions as speedily as possible.
Another argument has characterised this debate.
It would be fair to say that many communities say that direct provision is not a solution. People involved in anti-racism networks and so on say direct provision is not the right answer. We must respond to the way the world is and not the way it should be.
Two groups of people keep coming into my office on Mondays. There is no conflict between the groups. One group is comprised of local, indigenous people who have been in the area forever and are on the housing lists but cannot get houses and are winding up in hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation. The other group is asylum seekers who are looking for starts in this country. We all get on famously well. The reality is that we are now trying to deal with this crisis in the context where there are not enough houses no matter how things are re-jigged. It is hard to see how we are going to accommodate the number of people looking for housing. The issue of displacement and who gets displaced is one we must confront. It is one for which I do not have a Solomon answer but I will come to it again. The hardest part of my week, every week, is listening to people on all of the housing issues.
There are also a large number of people in direct provision who have legal leave to remain. That raises two issues I would like to touch on tonight. The first is why we are unable to house those people. The second is an issue I intend to pursue the full way. At least two people have come into my office with stamp 4 permission to remain. They have gone to the local authority in Galway city and been refused, under some housing circular, permission to go on the housing list, or even to go on the housing list for HAP. I have read the circular and it is well written in the sense of being totally ambiguous. My reading of it is that these people are entitled to be on the housing list. We are now taking this case to the Ombudsman and will take it further, if necessary. We need clarification on whether one is entitled to go on the local authority housing list when one has a stamp 4 visa. Can the Minister of State come back to me after this debate and tell me "Yes" or "No" on that question? Galway City Council is telling me that one has to wait four years to go on the housing list.
We have set up wondrous systems in this country and I do not mean that in a complimentary way because those systems often create terrible problems. A system of bidding is going on. The Minister of State will say that, for commercially sensitive reasons, he cannot tell anybody what everybody knows, namely, that the Department received a tender for a hotel or guest house to take asylum seekers. The information has quite obviously got around the relevant town way ahead of the Minister of State making an announcement and when everybody in a town knows, the Minister of State officially does not know yet. Such a system is broken and we must think of another system that does not upset procurement laws but deals with this issue.
The other things we have not done well are communications and community consultation. Community services in health, education and transport could actually be a boon to the greater community if they were handled correctly. For example, there are plenty of places in my constituency where there is no transport for locals, let alone for asylum seekers, to the largest towns and cities.
I read the Minister's speech carefully and noticed that a consultative group has been set up to be chaired by Catherine Day. One of the things I worry about are consultative groups made of those who are, in day-to-day life, quite insulated from the problem, do not live in the areas where this is likely to be a matter of contention and are not competing, on the ground, for scarce resources. That exacerbates this problem.
When I came home from the United States of America, just before the problem in Oughterard was resolved, I proposed that a forum would be set up for four months to come up with an agreed report to look at alternatives to direct provision. It would also focus on community relations and better consultation. I suggested that forum would have a chair appointed by the Minister of State, or we would accept the present chair. It would have representatives from the Department, the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INIS, the Reception and Integration Agency, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, the Immigrant Council of Ireland, the anti-racism networks and representatives of the CEOs of the various counties because housing, and public housing, is a big issue here. The forum would also have representative local authority members to be selected by local authority members groups and representatives from the community sector to be selected from those registered with the various local authorities around the country. This would not be a huge group and would be set up to look for written submissions and, where appropriate, would bring people in in a concentrated effort to make oral submissions. People from non-governmental organisations, NGOs, local authorities and the State would be around a table, rather than it being decided only on the State side. They would then be tasked with facing up to the realities and making recommendations on the actual realities of the world, not some ideal world where things are not as they are.
That forum would be given four months. At that stage, I was suggesting it would be completed by the end of January because this was two months ago. I made this proposal available to the Minister of State and to my party leader. Setting up a group that does not represent all the diverse approaches to this issue that are out there from responsible groups will not get the buy-in that we need to get a national conversation and buy-in for a solution. Something that is led and controlled by officialdom will not get that buy-in. I put my proposal back on the table this evening. We can give out all we want in this Chamber about the way the world is but the problem is to come up with workable proposals that might actually get buy-in from the vast majority of the well-meaning people of this country.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this matter. Over the past number of months, several of my colleagues and I have been the subjects of a campaign by a number of people to discredit us and twist our words for their own gain. I respect their right to free speech, outlined in Article 40.6.1° of the Irish Constitution. I also ask those people to respect our rights. I assure the House I am not trying to undermine public order, or morality, or the authority of the State and I would hold these people to the same standards.
In 2019, it is expected that this Government will spend €120 million on direct provision, an increase of €78 million on 2018. As with many other endeavours undertaken by the Government, there is nothing to show for the amount of money being spent. A large portion of this money will be spent on people seeking international protection who must be housed in emergency accommodation due to the lack of direct provision centres. This is currently costing the Irish taxpayer €500,000 per week. The many genuine cases for asylum that are being housed in direct provision centres have inadequate facilities where overcrowding is the norm. Direct provision is not a natural family environment. Residents live in confined spaces. Children often have to share communal bathrooms with grown men and women. Staying for long periods in a confined living space can lead to depression and mental health problems. The Government seems to think, in all aspects of Irish society, it is okay to cram people into a system that is bursting at the seams, from direct provision centres to our overcrowded schools and hospitals.
Recent statistics show that over half of all asylum applications are from people who come from safe countries. The Department of Justice and Equality is concerned that many of those who are making asylum claims in this State are from safe countries. A spokesperson from the Georgian Embassy has said that Georgia is safe and stable. Asylum applicants from such safe and stable countries are overstretching the direct provision system. In 2016, the then vice-president of the EU Commission, Frans Timmermans, confirmed that 60% of migrants to Europe come for economic reasons and are not fleeing war or persecution. He also stated that, as a way of ensuring genuine asylum seekers and refugees are supported, economic migrants should be returned as quickly as possible. These people should be applying for work visas. They should go through the proper channels as Irish people do when they are travelling abroad for work.
The Minister indicated that he welcomes this debate. He has appealed for it to be thoughtful, respectful and factual. Most of all, he is asking for these matters to be debated in a spirit of compassion and understanding. We have to be compassionate. We have to understand the concerns of communities where it is proposed to locate direct provision centres, for example with regard to the strain that is being put on local services like schools and GP practices. These issues need to be addressed during a period of consultation with local communities in order to find a solution that is acceptable for everyone in the community and for those who may be joining the community through direct provision. As public transport is a significant issue in rural Ireland, it should be one of the major factors when a decision is being made on whether to open a direct provision centre. People who are seeking asylum in this country must have their needs cared for adequately. At a time when many GP practices and schools are turning people away because of staff and funding shortages, it should possible to identify immediately those areas that are unsuitable for direct provision centres. The Government needs to give the people in the centres the support they need.
The Minister of State with responsibility for equality and integration, Deputy Stanton, visited an accommodation centre in Clonakilty recently to get a sense of how the centre is working and to see, inter alia, how the new on-site shop is operating. His visit resulted in a protest because the people who live in the centre were not informed that it was happening. They wanted to discuss several issues with the Minister of State. Could a meeting not have been planned with the people who live there? Could the Minister of State not have taken the time to listen to their concerns? If not, what was the point of the visit in the first instance?
The operation of the direct provision system has been virtually unchanged for 20 years. It is run by civil servants in the Department of Justice and Equality who impose a top-down approach. I propose that this should be reversed and that a bottom-up approach be taken instead. Many non-governmental organisations and community organisations would be willing to assist the Department in devising a more humane and acceptable method of dealing with those who seek asylum. When a direct provision centre opened in Lisdoonvarna, County Clare, 18 months ago, there were similar protests to those that have occurred in recent weeks. That centre has settled in and is now very successful. It is supported by the local community. The people in the centre are integrating into Lisdoonvarna. Many of them are working in Lisdoonvarna. The recent placement of 24 male asylum seekers in emergency accommodation in Milltown Malbay has not been as satisfactory a situation as the Lisdoonvarna case. They have been put in a commercial hotel with no facilities for them. Nevertheless, there is a welcome for asylum seekers in County Clare and there is an opportunity for them to be supported.
I have detected a change in the past 18 months. People's attitudes seem to have hardened. I propose to the Minister of State that a forum on asylum seeker accommodation should be established comprising people on the ground, representatives of non-governmental organisations, local authorities, the Irish Refugee Council, advocacy groups and community organisations and other people with an interest and expertise in this area. I ask the Minister of State to consider this proposal seriously. I know from my engagement with him in the case of Lisdoonvarna that he is open to new ideas. If we engage with communities and take a bottom-up approach rather than a top-down approach, there will be much greater acceptance of asylum seekers in small towns and small villages where there is a surplus of accommodation which could easily be brought up to a suitable standard. I suggest that asylum seekers could rotate through such locations as they achieve their status or otherwise. The expertise that is needed is available. The challenge for the Minister of State is whether he can deliver on it.
I am glad to get an opportunity to talk on this topic. We have had direct provision centres in Killarney and Kenmare for many years. Many of these people have come and gone. They have moved on. I have a problem when too many of them are crammed in together, which is something I have seen. Some of the situations are very tough. Problems arise when a whole family is put into a room. The Minister of State needs to cut his cloth to suit to his measure. If he tries to bring too many of them together in one place, the local services will be unable to cater for the people who are already there and the people who are coming. In such circumstances, there will not be adequate provision for anyone.
We need to discuss how these people can be managed fairly and humanely. I have had conversations and I have helped various people along the way. The big problem for many of them is that they have nothing to do. Many of them would like to work. That is another issue and another problem. Discussions are needed when it is proposed to bring big groups of people into small rural places. Problems will arise if there are not enough doctors or schools. It is not just about acquiring a building, putting a lot of people into it and saying they will be all right. That is not fair on the immigrants who are coming or on the communities they are arriving into.
We have multidenominational people from all over the world in Killarney. I have to mention the Bangladeshi people who are playing a positive role in the town. They are working and living in the community. Many of them came around 1998 and are proud to be Irish citizens now. They say "I am a Kerryman". They are playing their part. They love to work. They are positive in the community. I have to praise them as highly as I can because they are great people. These very good men, women and children are playing an important role in Killarney.
There is one other problem. We are talking about bringing people into local areas, but the opposite is happening as well. People who have jobs and skills are being sent home even though their employers want to keep them. It is very wrong that they are being shoved out. I know three of them at the present time. Their employers want to keep them, but they are not being allowed to stay. It is hard to understand what is going on when things like that are happening. There should be some facility to try to assist those people to remain. It should be done more quickly than at present. I know an employer who has said he cannot replace a man if he is deported. There is a need. They do a certain kind of work. They have certain kinds of skills. Those people should get the chance to remain.
In light of recent events in Moville, Oughterard, Ballinamore and Achill, I believe the Government must handle our international responsibilities for accommodating asylum seekers in a far more open and consultative manner. I condemn unreservedly the attack on Deputy Martin Kenny's home, his person, his property and his wife and family. Proper consultative mechanisms need to be put in place with the local community before it is decided to open a direct provision centre in any area.
To bring people along and get buy-in from them, one must keep them apprised of what is going on. Locals have genuine concerns about the ability of their area to serve additional people and those concerns should be openly addressed in full. Consideration must be given to GP availability, school places and other such matters. The secretive way in which the Department of Justice and Equality approaches the tendering process heightens concerns and must be addressed.
I am most familiar with the situation in Ballinamore because it is in my constituency. It was proposed to put 130 asylum seekers into a town with a population of 900 without any consultation. Local people were concerned by the proposal and worried about the capacity of the facilities and services in the town. It is important to point out that refugees were previously housed in Ballinamore. There were more than 40 of them in the local hotel. They integrated into the community, got on well with it and were warmly welcomed. They moved on for various reasons. The building in which they were housed was not particularly suitable, so they moved to other places.
The direct provision centre in Sligo has a significant number of residents. As a previous speaker mentioned, the asylum seekers get citizenship and move on and it works out quite well. Ten such families have moved into my home town in recent times. They have been very well received and go about their business. Their children go to school and play for local football clubs. The families are well and truly integrating into the community. That is the way it should be. It is the best way to go. There have been no issues or concerns. Everybody is happy enough with it.
We should establish a consultation process between local communities and the Department of Justice and Equality in towns where it is proposed to situate new refugee accommodation. That should happen before the procurement process begins in earnest. Detailed plans should be provided to the local community to include details of how infrastructure such as GP hours, school places, etc., would be improved to accommodate the increased population.
Increased resources should be provided for the hearing of asylum applications and appeals. That would reduce the delays experienced by people awaiting a final decision and would mean less time spent in direct provision system. That would reduce the cost to the State and the impact on asylum seekers. We should extend the remit of the Ombudsman to include the power to assess the administrative functions of the asylum application process. That is long overdue and should be done as quickly as possible.
This debate is timely. Gandhi once wrote that the true measure of a society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members. History will not be kind to Ireland when it comes to this period. It will show that we treated some of the most vulnerable people in the most inhumane manner through direct provision. It will show that we, as a society, did not always show humility and, in some instances, were far from welcoming. We have seen examples of full-blown racism at public meetings, from various people and online.
We must remember that asylum seekers are fleeing war, persecution, torture and rape. They do not come to Ireland on holidays. They do not come here for €21.60 per week or to live in shared accommodation, often with strangers. They come here out of necessity and, often, in order to save their lives. I ask Deputies to think back to 2 September 2015, when a three-year-old Syrian boy named Alan Kurdi who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea made global headlines. He was photographed face-down on a beach. We have a moral duty to offer a safe haven and a céad míle fáilte to refugees who, for no reason other than the lottery of birth, must daily deal with the significant challenges they face.
As a country whose citizens' footprints are all over the world, we should know best. We all know how we feel about Irish people who fled the Great Famine. We know how our society and race was denigrated by signs which stated "No Irish welcome here". Surely, we can do better than that. Surely, in a modern society, we can do far better and state that we are an open and welcoming society.
Thankfully, immigration has never been party political issue in Ireland. It should not become one. However, there have been recent attempts, whether deliberate, accidental or clumsy, to dog whistle to those on the right. I salute the efforts of the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, who is present. He is a sincere politician who is trying hard to address these issues. Direct provision is inhumane and far from ideal but, unfortunately, given the current housing crisis, we have no alternative if we are to meet our international obligations. The failings of the Government in respect of the provision of housing is helping to build an unease which we have not seen previously in this country. Some local politicians are exploiting this issue for their own political gain and using it to pit one element of society against another. They are wrong to do so. They should be addressing people's concerns and reassuring communities which are afraid of asylum seekers moving in that things will not be bad but, rather, that people will be accommodated and can integrate into local communities and society.
We need to accelerate the process and shorten the length of time people must stay in direct provision. That issue needs to be addressed.
I refer to Mount Temple Spa. The Minister of State has always been open with me when I have contacted him on that issue. Reference has been made to a lack of services. More than 80 people were moved into a former hotel 7 km outside Moate. No services are available there. There are two shuttle bus services per day but, apart from that, the residents must walk to Moate. There are no footpaths and there is no public lighting on the road. There is no public transport. The Mount Temple, Moate and Rosemount communities have welcomed those people in. The community is doing good but that does not absolve the State of its responsibility to provide better services. I wrote to the National Transport Authority, NTA, and asked it to reintroduce a bus stop at the end of the road leading to the former hotel in order to cater for the asylum seekers. Several buses go up and down the road every day. The NTA stated it was not its responsibility to do so. That is wrong and needs to be addressed. For 18 months, I have continuously raised with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, the need to afford asylum seekers who have a right to work and who wish to work and contribute to society the opportunity to so do. Those in Mount Temple cannot work because there is no public transport to bring them to a place of employment. Many of the residents wish to apply for a driver licence but they are prohibited from so doing. Unfortunately, the Minister, Deputy Ross, has not prioritised the issue. I raised it last week with the Taoiseach. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, to work with his lead Minister, Deputy Flanagan, to ensure that at least we can remove the challenges and obstacles that are in the way of those who wish to integrate and contribute to society.
I appeal to all Members of this House to show leadership in this issue. Where communities are expressing fear and anxiety, instead of stoking those fears and anxieties we should reassure them that we need to fulfil our moral obligation internationally, but also to ourselves as human beings. These people are the most vulnerable people on earth. They deserve respect and deserve to be welcomed.
I want to speak to the topic of migration and specifically to refugee status and asylum seekers. I have some limited knowledge and experience of this area. I never purport to step in the shoes of anyone who finds themselves in the most unfortunate situation, but I have had the privilege of meeting many such people. I have met them on their home turf in that I had the opportunity to visit sub-Saharan Africa, South Sudan, northern Uganda, many sites such as Imvepi Bidi Bidi, Arua and many such war-torn and difficult regions of the world.
I have spoken to and met many displaced peoples, and seen the conflict as people spilled over. The conflict in South Sudan spilling into north Uganda in recent years was probably the most significant displacement of people in the world as 1 million people crossed that border into north Uganda. Of course, the same region was ravaged with the conflict in Rwanda and the wars in the Congo and neighbouring states for many decades. It is a most unfortunate region, but one that has shown leadership in its generosity of response and the decency and humanity that has been extended.
Seeing people cross the border is a terribly humbling and unforgettable experience. Some people cross the border with nothing but a bag on their back. There is the terrible irony of people whose most prized possessions were the shirt of a European football club where a footballer earns hundreds of thousands of euro, and yet here is somebody whose only possession in the world literally is a torn such shirt and maybe a little backpack with all their possessions in it.
Another prized possession of people crossing the border is a phone allowing them to communicate with family members back home. One of the most popular Facebook sites in Africa was the Bidi Bidi refugee camp because people were putting up messages saying, "I've got here. I've made it. I'm okay." to anybody trying to follow them or connect with them. Social media was a great enabler and communication tool in that regard.
It was both reassuring and horrific to see people beginning to form their own families. One phenomenon of modern refugee camps is that of family formation. It is not the nuclear DNA-based family, but a family of people of similar age or other similar groups. It is family formation based on shared experiences and pooling their lot. One will often see an older teenager serving in the role of mother or father, taking under their wing a number of orphaned children and forming a new family in the camps. That was something that, fortunately or unfortunately, was also beginning to happen. It is something to be embraced and supported. The humanity people show in those situations is amazing.
It is also instructive to consider the approach of the Ugandan Government. There has been tremendous generosity of spirit, but also generosity of materials, capital and resources granted in that situation. People were given plots of land, the right to work, the right to vote and the right to integrate. They were given the right not just to live in a squat under a couple of metres of tent but actually to go and take a quarter acre plot, to be given the tools, the know-how and wherewithal to cultivate that plot, and actually to begin to contemplate a long-term life on such sites. It was a very mature, progressive and most amazing approach to the situation. It also illustrates how so often those with the least to give actually give the most. They are to be applauded for that.
The Ugandan Government was also very cognisant of what it called the host communities, effectively the people already living in the areas into which refugees were being welcomed. It is very much an integrated approach. In the host communities, schools, hospitals and educational resources were also channelled into those host communities in the same measure as to the displaced peoples coming aboard. It helped to integrate everybody. People at their most vulnerable were supported, but those around them were also supported in taking people in.
It is also instructive to consider how international development and international thinking has contributed to this goal - the United Nations approach, the grand bargain that Ban Ki-moon brokered a few years ago. We have to talk about the humanitarian development aid nexus. Put simply, it is the old adage that giving a man a fish feeds him for a day, but teaching a man to fish will feed him for a lifetime. This is talked in grander terminology such as development humanitarian aid. Essentially, it is giving development aid through assisting people to help themselves. Rather than giving them a handout, it is about giving them a hand up.
We can learn from this experience in our own country and should change the direct provision system where people are disempowered. Allowing people to work, trade, network, grow and work among each other is very much the way to go. Asylum seekers and refugees are somewhat of a misnomer. They are people with mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, hopes, dreams, ambitions and fears. They are just like anybody else. They just have the misfortune to be placed in a situation like this. For a country that has always spoken about a céad míle fáilte, it is important that that céad míle fáilte does not just extend to multinationals and to tourists with money to spend. It needs to extend across the board to all who come to our shores.
We were not the first people to inhabit this island and we will not be the last. The Irish language has roots in ancient Indo Sanskrit. We can trace back to Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilisation. We have had the Fir Bolg, Tuatha Dé Dannan, Melesians, Celts, Picts, Goths, Gauls and Romans. The British empire was only the latest in millennia of development. We were not the first and will not be the last. Let us realise that we have more in common than we have that divides us.
Like Deputy Troy who spoke earlier, I acknowledge the Minister of State's approach to dealing with this complex and sensitive issue, which is a major challenge to all of us and to the State. To his credit, the Minister of State has been very measured and compassionate any time I have heard him speak in public.
I want to be associated with the remarks about Deputy Martin Kenny. I said it to him privately yesterday and I want to say it publicly today. I condemn outright the attack on him, his family and his property. What happened to him was outrageous. I admire him for the stand he took, particularly in his own community. I believe he was right and I would support him. I believe he will be proven right in the long term.
This is a very complex issue. As other speakers have articulated, I am very concerned with the tone of the debate and the direction it has taken. Sinister elements are stoking up fears and racism and using hatred to divide communities, which is wrong. We need to meet this head-on. The point has been made repeatedly that the vast majority of people who present on our shores, seeking international protection, are the most vulnerable people who have endured horrendous circumstances, and they are desperate. They are basically reliant on their inherent survival mechanisms to get themselves to a better place and to try to survive as best they can.
The day after the birth of my daughter, our second child, I was in the maternity hospital in Limerick. I had to go downstairs to an office where they had a clinic every afternoon to register births. Sitting in the waiting room, I could not help overhearing a conversation. A 15 year old Somali girl, who had given birth to a child the previous day, was being interviewed by the registrar of births. She detailed how she had been gang-raped by a number of soldiers in her home country and had fled for her life. That is a typical example of many of these people who come to these shores for refuge. Most Mondays in my main clinic I meet people who are in direct provision centres. They come to my clinic for various reasons and I am glad to help them.
I accept the system needs to be modernised and reformed. We have made constructive proposals on the right to work.
That needs to be improved. There are also issues about access to third level education and in respect of the provision for the ombudsman. Naturally we have to have consultation with communities. Many communities have allowed themselves to be highjacked by these sinister forces. We have to accept that we are a multicultural society and embrace these people. We hear so much debate about rural communities dying on their feet but the State could take a constructive approach to dealing with rural communities and engaging with them, showing them the positives there can be if people are placed properly and appropriately in the communities.
Direct provision came upon us in 2000 when the numbers that came in grew exponentially, then they dipped and now they are growing again. The Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, will recall that when we were members of the joint committee on justice, in the previous Oireachtas, we looked at reception centres in Portugal. We need to take a long-term view of this, build proper reception centres and have a proper integration policy for these people. I appeal to communities to be receptive and compassionate and to look at the positives, engage and use their public representatives to help with the consultative process. It is very refreshing that following the last local and European elections a significant number of what I would respectfully describe as new Irish were elected to many of our local authorities. Councillor Azad Talukder, a Bangladeshi, was elected to my local council. Deputy Danny Healy-Rae referred to the Bangladeshi community. There were many in different parties. Those people will be very helpful in engaging with their communities. It is right and proper.
The key to this is the timeline for people having their applications processed. That needs to be improved. That is an imperative. The method of communication between the naturalisation and immigration service, in the Department of Justice and Equality, the public representatives, the applicants and their agents, solicitors or advocacy groups, the non-governmental organisations acting on their behalf, needs to improve also because the system has a degree of slowness and lethargy which is adding to the complexities of the issues.
I thank all the Deputies who contributed to the debate. I am somewhat disappointed that more people did not arrive in here. It is the issue of our age. We also had time set aside for this tomorrow so there was plenty of time for more people. The debate has been very useful. Some interesting ideas have come about here. We are very open to suggestions and ideas that are practical and workable. As the Minister said, direct provision is a guarantee of shelter, food and a place of safety to a person who claims international protection on the basis of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, nationality, religion, political opinions or membership of a particular social group, or where that person would be at risk of suffering serious harm if returned to their home country.
There is a range of State services offered to these people who are very often without means. That includes accommodation, food, health services, utilities, educational provision for children and so on. In general, these services are offered in centres which over the years allowed for the swift provision of accommodation to applicants. If someone arrives in Dublin today and says they are looking for asylum they are guaranteed all these services that night. When people say abolish the system they are actually calling, and maybe they do not mean to do this, for the end of the free access to medical care, education, weekly payments, shelter, food and so on that happens very swiftly. People say it is inhumane. I reject that out of hand. It is not inhumane. People who say it is are helping other forces here who are using that to discredit all asylum seekers. Much work has been done in recent years to improve the system, the McMahon report, the right to work and the Ombudsman and Ombudsman for Children going to the centres. Conditions and standards were published recently which will be binding from 2021 on. All the centres coming into play now will have to abide by those as well.
Any of us who engage with people who look for international protection cannot but be moved by the needs of people who, very often, as Deputy Lawless put it so well, travel long distances and risk their lives. If we are human at all we cannot but be moved to help and support those people in some way. I call on community leaders, faith groups, community groups and elected representatives to wake up to what is going on and not, as Deputy Niall Collins put it so well, to be trapped by far right groups who are infiltrating and causing a lot of damage.
It is all very fine to come in here and say abolish direct provision and that it is inhumane, but what is the alternative? No credible alternative has been put forward. We are improving the system that is there. I know from talking to people in the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR, and others that because we are improving it and we are open to moving it forward the system is pretty good. I do not want to see people in emergency accommodation. Nobody wants that. We have improved the timescale. At this stage 45% of people in centres are there for one year or less, and 18% are there for two years or less.
I could talk for an hour and longer on this I have taken so many notes from listening to what people have said. This debate has to go on. People have been talking about the Department of Justice and Equality. I have seen officials in the Department work extremely hard on this and go above and beyond the call of duty to work with these people. In the early days I visited one centre that we were concerned about and when I was leaving it local people came to me and asked me to keep it open. They said they had more teachers in their schools, more people working in the area, they had services, etc. The local chamber of commerce, leaders of the county council and public representatives asked me to keep it open. There were concerns about Lisdoonvarna; it is a model now. Ballaghaderreen has been praised around the world for what it did. That is a refugee centre, which I know is slightly different. We need to have this debate.
Alan Kurdi was mentioned and the Vietnamese girl who said in her text:
I'm sorry Mom, my path to abroad didn't succeed... Mom, I love you and Dad so much! I'm dying because I can't breathe. I am sorry, Mom.
If it was one of our children and we got that text how would we feel? So far this year I understand that 1,200 people have drowned in the Mediterranean sea. That is three Jumbo jets. If one small plane crashes anywhere there are headlines everywhere and yet there is nothing about that.
We have to be careful also about the language we use. People say they are "locked up", "incarcerated", they are "open prisons" – wrong, wrong, wrong. No, no, no. Once people start using that language they are saying that asylum seekers in some way deserve to be locked up, that they are prisoners, and they are creating fear. We have to be careful about our language because that language is not correct, it is false and wrong.
We are open to any suggestions or ideas. Deputy Ó Cuív mentioned a forum. I am open to that. There is a group working under Catherine Day considering best international practice. There is an interdepartmental group. There was the MacMahon report. On Friday I will launch the private community sponsorship model for refugees. I invite all Deputies and Senators and public representatives to read this. It is a way that communities can take in a refugee family and look after them. There are already several centres around the country for families who have come in. One family is taken into a village. People tell us about the housing crisis but there are vacant houses all over the country, that people own. Identify one, get a local group together, furnish it, welcome in a family, integrate and look after them.
That is another model which they have had in Canada and in the UK. We have had a pilot scheme here over the past several months which has been hugely successful. The people involved in it have told me that nothing before in their lives has given them so much personal satisfaction.
I join in the condemnation of the terrible intimidation of Deputy Martin Kenny.
On the issue of consultation, we want to consult and engage with communities at the earliest possible opportunity. We have 39 direct provision centres across the country which are working extremely well. There are no issues with them. If, however, there are issues, we want to know about them and deal with them straightaway. I have said to the NGOs and others involved that Facebook or Twitter should not be the default method of communication. Instead, people should talk to us and to our officials. They will help sort out the problem.
In the centres, people can get all the services and supports together, which they need in the early days when they arrive here. At one centre I visited - I tend to visit them quietly - one lady there had received bad news about how one of her family had died tragically in her home country. I saw the centre staff wrap themselves physically around her to comfort her while she went through that trauma. If she was living on her own in a house in the middle of nowhere, that could not have happened. There are significant advantages in having centres properly resourced with the services people need and not overcrowded.
We need to have a mature, proper debate while watching the language used around it. We must reject racism out of hand in all guises, no matter from where it comes. It can be very insidious and clever as to how it sneaks in. Sometimes we ourselves can use language which is racist without meaning to or knowing it. We need to be careful how we approach this.
I apologise that I have gone way over my time. I thank everybody for the debate this evening. I have many notes taken. I hope the debate continues in a positive way. If people want to talk to us and if there is accommodation in parts of the country which could be used for asylum seekers and people looking for international protection, they can talk to us. Our problem is that if we are dealing with this on a commercial basis, there is a certain amount of confidentiality needed. What has been happening recently is that word leaks out. If a place is being done up, people ask me if it is true that it is for asylum seekers. In many instances, that is not the case but rumours are circulating. There is nothing to be afraid of. These people do not want problems or trouble. People coming here looking for international protection want only peace and to get on with their lives.
We are working as hard as we can to improve the system. I thank Members for this constructive debate. We must work together to continue to make progress on this issue.