Thursday, 30 July 2020
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Direct Provision System
Anyone who has heard about what is happening in the Skellig Star is utterly horrified. It was so bad that it drove people to engage in a hunger strike. Coronavirus spread like wildfire through this direct provision centre. As I understand it, it has still not yet been inspected. Food and water were rationed. At one stage, people were limited to 1 l of water per day. A letter I received stated it had been almost four consecutive months of living in inhumane conditions. The Government has not done anything to address that.
We welcome the news that, due to the pressure created by the hunger strike, the residents will be relocated. They want to know that everyone will be relocated. They engaged in this action in solidarity with each other and do not want anyone to be left behind. They want the relocation to happen very quickly and they want to know that the hotel will be closed.
It is a bad and horrifying example of the horrifying system of direct provision. It is a system which treats people inhumanely while allowing others to profit to the tune of €1 billion of public money over the past 20 years. The residents have to be moved out as quickly as possible, but direct provision as a system needs to end.
I congratulate the asylum seekers at the Skellig Star hotel in Cahersiveen. They have been treated appallingly since the first day they were put in there in the middle of March. There were 110 people accommodated in 56 rooms. Imagine what that means in the middle of a coronavirus pandemic.
When there was a boil water notice in the town, the residents were limited to 1 l of water per day. They reached out to the Minister for Justice and Equality and the International Protection Accommodation Service, IPAS, for help and to engage in negotiations and discussions. They got little or nothing in return. They were driven to hunger strike. For three days, 28 of the residents went on hunger strike, and the Government has conceded in the face of that. I congratulate those asylum seekers.
I also congratulate the people of Cahersiveen who, to their credit, stood behind the hunger strikers in solidarity. The asylum seekers and their supporters are calling for them to moved out at the weekend and for all of the other people to be moved out very quickly after that. There can be no waiting around for months. The hotel should be closed.
Direct provision is inhumane and should be abolished. The idea that it would continue after this is not something the Government can stand over. How can the Green Party stand over that? I know the Government has said it will abolish direct provision, but that is within a framework of years. The system must be abolished immediately. That is the demand from everyone who is campaigning on this issue.
I acknowledge that the Minister has intervened in the hunger strike in the Skellig Star. It is over, which is important. For anybody in Ireland to be on hunger strike sends a strong message to us. For the asylum seekers concerned to feel that was the only way they could have their voices heard is telling.
It is time to resolve the issues and deal with them fairly and quickly. In her response I would like to hear from the Minister what the timeframe will be. It is not enough to say things will happen over the next number of months.
We want to know what the timeframe will be because that will be vital to ensuring the issues will be dealt with. The protestors all demanded they be given access to a social worker so they could air their grievances in a safe way. What is the Department's view on that? It shows the lack of faith the asylum seekers have in the International Protection Accommodation Service, IPAS, and the officials of the Minister's Department who, unfortunately, they do not feel they can talk to. That happens an awful lot and is a sign of something wrong in the system. It needs to be dealt with and I hope the Minister does so. Hopefully, moving it across to another Minister might resolve it. Time will tell, we will have to wait and see what happens.
I thank Deputies Murphy, Barry and Pringle for raising this extremely important matter. Deputy Smith also raised it but she is not here.
I referred to this earlier today and it still stands true. I am sorry that residents of the Skellig Star in Cahersiveen felt that for their concerns to be heard this was the only course of action they could take. It is a matter of deep regret to me but also to my Department and the officials who work in this area. I have taken their concerns seriously as have officials in my Department. When a group of people feel they need to put their health at risk by refusing food or by not eating we need to listen to their grievances. We are listening to the residents in Cahersiveen and I am glad they are now eating and we can move forward.
Covid-19 has presented us all with difficult challenges and circumstances but, in particular, the residents in Cahersiveen who have been relocated and moved from where they were, potentially from friends and other family members. Restrictions were imposed on them because of the pandemic, albeit on all of us, but the virus itself made their situation particularly difficult and I acknowledge that.
I also fully appreciate the outbreak that was in the centre, the challenges that caused and how distressing it was for residents, staff, the community and for people engaging with the residents. Thankfully, the outbreak was declared over on 20 May. Since then, and in the interim, several measures have been introduced to try to make life that little bit more comfortable for the residents but, particularly, for the children who are there. I spoke of this earlier. These children were potentially in school, the same as anybody else. Obviously, we have done everything we can through their parents with my own Department, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, Tusla and others to make sure they were able to continue in their education and that, where possible, they had access to the right technology to make sure they could continue learning. This applies to all children in direct provision.
My officials have been on site in recent days to assess the situation first-hand but, most important, to listen to the concerns of the residents. I also asked them to examine issues raised around the provision of meals and any issues arising following the boiled water notice that was and is currently in place in the entire town. Following their visits, they have informed me they are satisfied that residents have access to clean and safe drinking water and meals. Again, I acknowledge the inability to cook their own meals is difficult. It is not a situation anybody wants to be in.
I am conscious that residents still have outstanding issues and concerns and these are being followed up as a matter of priority. Several residents have made applications for transfer from Cahersiveen to alternative accommodation. Two days ago, the Department wrote to residents informing them the restrictions around transfers are now being relaxed. This was in place across the entire country because of Covid-19. They were necessary in terms of precautionary measures during the pandemic but as we have been able to manage the effects of the pandemic, those restrictions are now being eased.
The centre in Cahersiveen was opened as emergency accommodation at the outset of the pandemic and it is always the Department's policy to withdraw from emergency accommodation as quickly as possible. However, it is not always possible to do this as quickly as we would like. My officials will be implementing that policy regarding Cahersiveen. Places for first families are currently being identified and I gave a commitment earlier today that those families' moves will be completed by the end of next week. Other residents in the centre will be moved to more permanent accommodation as soon as spaces can be found in the coming months. I have given a commitment that I want this to be done by the end of the year. My colleague, the Minister, Deputy Gorman, who will take over this role, very much agrees with this.
In the interim, my officials are working on solutions to facilitate the transport needs of residents who wish to visit the larger towns which they should be able to do. We will continue to listen to residents to try to provide any additional supports they require in the wake of recent events surrounding the centre. Since we opened the centre in March our goal and our priority has been to ensure the health, well-being and welfare of the residents. It has been to the fore of my mind, that of my predecessor, the then Minister of Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, and all the officials in the Department. I will continue to do everything I can to support them, as will the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman when he takes over this role.
The written statement we have here states that the process will be completed in a relatively short period, which is vague, and then in no more than a few months which is vague as well. That is not going to cut it with the asylum seekers or their supporters in the town. They welcome the fact that people are being moved out. Some people are being moved out this weekend. However, the idea that people would be left behind there for months is not acceptable to the people who have organised this struggle. If I heard the Minister correctly and she said it would be by the end of the year, that would be completely unacceptable as a timescale. Will she please clarify that?
I will add to that by asking for confirmation that nobody else will be moved into the centre and underline the point that it should not have come to a hunger strike. People should not have been forced into that situation where they felt they had no other choice. This crisis has been discussed openly including in the media, protests, organisation and support from the local community for months. It took a hunger strike for a welcome intervention to happen but it should not have. We need reassurance that nobody else will be placed in these situations as well as a wider reassurance that direct provision will be ended.
I share the views of my colleagues that this must cease to be a centre and no more asylum seekers should be moved in. The Minister should clarify that this evening.
Unfortunately, the problem here is that IPAS is not dealing with asylum seekers properly and unless the Minister stays involved this situation will get out of hand again. IPAS will not accept people talking on behalf of asylum seekers. Asylum seekers will not talk to IPAS because they are afraid it will affect their cases. They will not accept me or the community talking to them. It has gotten to the stage now that they have set up the refugee legal service. They set up an information service through which the asylum seekers can talk to IPAS. Something is badly wrong with the Minister's Department and the way it deals with asylum seekers and that needs to be sorted out.
I again thank the Deputies for raising this issue and want to reassure them as I reassured Senators earlier today. The first families will be moved by the end of next week and the remainder of the residents will be moved as soon as possible and as soon as places are found. I have gotten a commitment of no later than the end of the year but, obviously, the objective is as soon as accommodation can be found. My colleague, the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, will follow through on that commitment when he takes on this area. Nobody will be moved in after them either.
The situation in Cahersiveen underscores the importance of the root and branch reform of the system for accommodation international protection applicants we are now undertaking and that is needed. The current system is far from perfect but I must outline the huge amount of progress that has been made. A huge amount of work has been done by many of my predecessors and those in the Department. The commitments we have made in the programme for Government now provide us with a unique opportunity to finally get this right after 20 years. We have committed to ending the current system of direct provision within the lifetime of the Government and replacing it with a new international protection accommodation policy which is focused on a not-for-profit approach. Responsibility will move from my Department to Deputy O'Gorman's but what we will see in the next month and a half is a report from Dr. Catherine Day.
We have asked her to bring together an expert group to make recommendations from asylum seekers and NGOs, to examine best practice from other European states in the provision of services to international protection applicants, to examine likely longer-term trends and to set out recommendations and solutions. This report was due by the end of the year, but we have brought it forward and it is expected by the end of September. The intention then is to publish the White Paper by the end of this year, informed by the recommendations of the expert group which will set out how the replacement of direct provision will be structured and the steps to achieving this.
There is still some way to go. This is not something that can be changed overnight but we will continue to try to make progress to improve the current situation and to improve the lives of those in direct provision. We are talking about people here and we want to ensure they can get on with their lives while they are still going through this process. It is important that we have taken that step. In particular I am glad to say that the people in Cahersiveen have come back from the steps they were taking, and they are now eating. It is a matter of deep regret for me that it had to get to that point in the first instance.