Thursday, 22 April 2021
Direct Provision: Statements
I will share time with my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien. We will have seven and a half minutes each.
As a country, we pride ourselves on being welcoming, kind and empathetic. Our own history of emigration gives us an understanding of the pain of leaving one's own country and the difficulties and challenges of settling elsewhere. As a people, we want to extend a welcome and a shelter to those coming here fleeing violence and war.
Over the past two decades there has been an outpouring of empathy and solidarity for people who are in the direct provision system. The public wants to see the best of our values, as a country, demonstrated in the supports we provide to people fleeing violence. Alongside the campaign to end direct provision, we have seen local support groups grow to assist people in the international protection process in practical and thoughtful ways, welcoming these new arrivals into their communities. At a time when politics in many parts of Europe and around the world are mired in anti-migrant and xenophobic dogma, in our own country the push to end direct provision has actually become louder and greater, and the belief that we can do better as a country has become widely accepted. There is not a Deputy in this House who has not received emails, phone calls or engaged with their constituents on this issue. I am really heartened by the engagement I have had with Deputies and Senators who are so aware of and engaged in this matter.
We can be under no illusion that there are groups and individuals who seek to sow hatred and division in our society. These groups use disinformation and play on people's well-meaning concerns to pedal racism and discrimination. They seek to play marginalised groups off against each other. Theirs is a mean-minded Ireland, one that is closed, unfriendly and filled with suspicion. It is up to every Deputy in this House to reject this policy and politics of division. We have enough compassion, humanity and political will to support those in need, those who are vulnerable and those who come here seeking our protection. Ministers, Deputies, Senators and councillors, all of us, have an absolute responsibility when a person comes to us and says, "I don't want these people here", to challenge and reject that view. We address concerns that come but in a responsible manner. We do not make politics out of hostility. We appeal to the better nature of Irish people who, we all know, are charitable, compassionate and kind.
Earlier this year, we as a Government took the first steps towards meeting the aim, set out in the programme for Government, of ending direct provision, with the launch of our White Paper which sets out the Government's new international protection support service. This new service will take a much wider, more holistic view of the needs of international protection applicants, rooted in the idea of integration from day one. The new system will be divided into two phases. Phase 1 will identify the needs of individual applicants. Applicants will be accommodated in reception and integration centres for no more than four months, where they will have access to wraparound supports, including healthcare, education and language support, and employment supports to enable them to live independently and integrate into their communities, should they receive a positive decision on their application for international protection.
Phase 2 offers community-based accommodation across Ireland for those who are still awaiting a decision on their application. In both phases, applicants will continue to have access to wide-ranging supports, should they need them, recognising that applicants have diverse needs, depending on their situation, and require further support to successfully integrate into communities.
My Department is working closely with the Housing Agency, which will support us to purchase and build houses and apartment complexes in various locations across the country. I met with the Housing Agency last week, and a memorandum of understanding has been drafted with it and is being finalised at the moment. The accommodation that we obtain will be managed for us by approved housing bodies which will also manage the building of new housing. We will work to complete the transition to the new model by December 2024. A detailed implementation plan is now being developed which will drive forward significant changes for each year between now and 2024.
While the White Paper sets out an ambitious proposal for ending direct provision, there are almost 7,000 people living in the current system. We are committed to improving the system for them as soon as possible. Earlier this year, we introduced pilot vulnerability assessmentsand, since February, this has applied to all new applicants. To date, 268 applicants have entered the vulnerability assessment process with 161 assessments complete and 107 ongoing.
The Government has also committed to introducing independent inspections of all direct provision accommodation, and my officials are progressing this with the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, at the moment. As we all know, HIQA is the gold standard for independent inspection and rigour of inspection.
In the programme for Government, we committed to ensuring that international protection applicants can access driver licences and bank accounts. My colleague, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is progressing the road traffic (miscellaneous provisions) Bill, which will allow us to provide driver licences to international protection applicants.
Bank of Ireland recently announced that it would allow international protection applicants open bank accounts. I very much welcome this announcement and would like to commend the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, on its ongoing work on this and its ongoing engagement with various banks. The Department of Justice has also introduced changes to the right of applicants to access the labour market meaning applicants are now able to apply for access six months after they have registered their application, if they have not received a first instance decision in this time.
In February, I wrote to all direct provision providers instructing them to ensure period products are provided free of charge within their accommodation. In March, the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Simon Harris, and I announced that from the start of the 2021-2022 academic year, international protection applicants who have permission to work and are seeking to access post-leaving certificate, PLC, courses will no longer have to pay international fees. These changes will improve the lives of people as they progress through the international protection system and I am committed to making further improvements in the months and years ahead.
In making a home here, people seeking protection strengthen and enrich our communities and, as a State, we have an obligation to support their integration. Throughout the process of implementing the White Paper, I am committed to engaging with Deputies and working constructively with local communities across the country in order to welcome new residents. We know the Irish public wants to see an end to direct provision and see those who are coming here seeking protection receive better supports. The White Paper commits us to doing this and will allow us to deliver on these key goals.
I thank the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman. As is evident from the White Paper we published at the end of February, our intention is to create a new system of support for international protection applicants that is fundamentally different from the current model. We need a system that meets the needs of applicants and enables them to contribute positively to Irish life.
I have visited many direct provision centres in my day. They vary quite a lot. Many have a hollow, disconnected and disjointed feel to them, a feeling of limbo. We have all heard and know of many individual cases over the years where people in vulnerable situations simply did not get the help they needed. The new system will be different as the profit motive will be replaced with an approach that will be centred on the primacy of nurturing the humanity and rights of people.
As Minister of State with responsibility for community development and charities, I am delighted there is a key role envisaged for the community and voluntary sector in how we as a State and a society will treat international protection applicants. Putting the humanity and rights of people at the core of our approach is best done by having the community and voluntary sector centrally involved, simply because it does this best.
Community integration is at the heart of the new model. Instead of living separately from communities, in large congregated settings, often in isolated locations, applicants will live in houses and apartments in towns and cities throughout the country. They will be encouraged to seek employment once they are eligible to do so and will be supported to become active members of their local communities. Integration from day one is a key principle of the new policy. The approach used by the Irish refugee protection programme to co-ordinate refugee integration under the leadership of local authorities will be our guide. Such an approach ensures service providers can plan for the arrival and needs of applicants and their families and can mobilise community and volunteer integration supports in meeting them. NGOs will be contracted to provide integration workers to support applicants.
The new policy emphasises the importance of community engagement and includes a commitment to provide funding to support specific community integration initiatives. The Department of Rural and Community Development and the Minister, Deputy O’Gorman’s Department will collaborate to ensure local programmes are aligned with broader community policy goals and delivered to a consistent standard of quality.
Children and young people’s services committees also have a key part to play in the delivery of the new policy. They will work to ensure there is a specific focus on the needs of children, young people and their families in international protection accommodation. This will also proactively support wider community engagement and child and youth participation. I have spent much of my life sitting down with people new to the country and explaining to them their rights and entitlements and helping them to navigate systems they have got lost in and been struggling with for months or often years. I am glad to say that at every stage of the international protection process, applicants will have a right to information describing the services and supports they can receive. Under the new model, comprehensive information will be proactively supplied to applicants at key stages and will be available at request at any stage via case workers, phone, email and online. All staff and officials working with international protection applicants will be required to foster a culture of openness, approachability and trust.
As many applicants for international protection require interpretation services to enable them to avail of services and supports and take their first steps in integrating into Irish society, the international protection support service will ensure all service users have access to high-quality interpretation services when they need them at each stage of the process.
The new model anticipates that NGOs will be centrally involved in the delivery of services to applicants and in promoting their integration into local communities. A new specific integration fund will be established to enable NGOs to develop integration projects and programmes on behalf of applicants. As mentioned by the Minister, Deputy O’Gorman, the Department of Justice introduced changes to the right of applicants to access the labour market. Now applicants are able to apply for access six months after they have registered their application, if they have not received a first instance decision in this time. Furthermore, applicants are now granted labour market access for a 12-month period, which can be renewed. This is double the length of previous permission grants.
Once labour market access has been granted, it is already the case that applicants can attend further education and training courses to help in upskilling. Since post-leaving certificate, PLC, courses are also often focused on directly developing skills for employment, it is now proposed the international student charge for PLC courses, currently €3,600, be waived for protection applicants who have established labour market access, a change that will facilitate wider access to these courses. The narrowness, the monotony, the feelings of wasted time and wasted life expressed by too many asylum seekers will be positively impacted by these measures.
Applicants for international protection whose applications are successful and who are eligible for social housing support will be assisted by local authorities with their move out of international protection accommodation and into mainstream accommodation within the community. This is an important feature of the existing process and will continue to be so in the new model.
Due to increased budget allocations I secured in budget 2021, by the end of this year, every county in Ireland will have its own fully fledged volunteer centre. With this national network, the new national volunteering policy and the ongoing growth and development of volunteer policy and support structures, volunteerism will play an increasing role in the integration of new communities in Ireland. This will happen because volunteerism offers positive environments for migrants to mix with Irish people and broaden their understanding of their lives, but it also offers new communities accessible, easy and supported introductory pathways into Irish society.
I oversee the social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP. Pobal recently published a report on the impact of SICAP on migrant integration. Asylum seekers are a key target group under SICAP, so knowing the value of the tailored one-to-one approach of local development companies nationally, it was no surprise to me that local development companies implementing SICAP are doing valuable work with asylum seekers and so will also play a key role going forward with this new approach.
Integration and inclusion are the cornerstones of Ireland's new international protection support service, which will create better outcomes not only for international protection applicants, who come here seeking our assistance and compassion, but also for local communities, who will host them and welcome them into Irish society.
Is cuimhin liom, tuairim is deich mbliana ó shin, go raibh beirt fhear agus bhí cónaí orthu in ionad soláthair dhírigh i dTrá Lí. In my club, the Tralee Dynamos, we had two players who were living in direct provision. One was Samir, from Algeria. I remember talking to him. He was receiving €19 per week. He told us he had obtained work for a weekend. He worked for 19 hours over the course of the weekend and he got less than €100 for his work that weekend, which was around half the minimum wage. Samir was probably one of the most skilful players ever to play in Kerry and that is how he was welcomed. Another player was called Mohamed. One Sunday evening, we had to play a match in Castlemaine. He was late coming back and he was refused his dinner. He complained and we never saw him again because he was transferred to another place.
I am hopeful some of the proposals in this White Paper will end some of the problems Samir and Mohamed faced, that there will be own-door accommodation, a right to work and accommodation close to services, since both of their lawyers were in Cork. I hope there will be speedy processing, proper integration and an end to the waste of public money by enriching speculators.
This White Paper builds on work done previously, and the issues with international protection and direct provision are clear. We need to face the realities that war, discrimination and climate change will continue to force people to seek international protection in Ireland. Attempting to make it more difficult for them, as the system has done historically, will not change this. We should not continue to exploit and impose further injustice on people who are vulnerable.
Regarding accommodation proposals, Sinn Féin feels it is important the State would own and operate the phase 1 reception centre facilities and that there would be a clear and independent system of inspection. We have seen private companies become involved in this type of facility in other jurisdictions, leading to problems. Cutting corners or locating these centres in isolated areas creates the potential for poor conditions and conflict with local communities.
Beyond the reception centre phase, there is a move towards own-door accommodation. Forcing residents to share cramped accommodation created a serious public health hazard and an unconscionable situation in Cahersiveen last year. Sinn Féin has long called for a system where approved housing bodies build and maintain accommodation.
Sinn Féin supports dignity for all in our housing policy, including those accessing homeless services, those on the social housing list and those in need of affordable housing. The Government must get serious about addressing housing shortages for all, as this will be the best means of providing integration and community cohesion.
Beyond that strand, things are a little more uncertain. Strand 2, which offers incentives to convert commercial properties within areas earmarked for urban renewal needs more detail. The for-profit nature of the system has been its biggest Achilles’ heel and has led to private operators cutting corners in inappropriate accommodation around the country. Moving away from poor provision in peripheral areas not serviced will be key and the White Paper does not have as strong an emphasis on this as the Day report.
How we get from there seems a little uncertain, and I note that the Irish Refugee Council, IRC, recently emphasised the need to use the legally-binding standards within existing centres to improve things in the interim. We must avoid any limbo that could result from a lack of capital investment, as well as the potential for old providers to get into the new system through the back door. There are concerns in Kerry that properties were being purchased with a view towards doing this and I am seeking and hoping that the Minister will see that new fit-for-purpose accommodation will not be in inappropriate locations.
Regarding welfare, education and employment, I commend the White Paper and it makes some good suggestions. The right to work and welfare proposals are also positive, and aligning payments to supplementary welfare allowance and child benefit payments makes sense. However, access to driver licences and proper work permits can, and should be, arranged as soon as possible.
Deportation notices being received by those working in the health service was an unedifying part of the pandemic, as I am sure the Minister will agree. However, the Day report’s recommendation to grant five years leave to remain for people within the system more than two years is only under consideration. This might mean that many asylum seekers working in healthcare and food supply will have to worry about deportation, and I would like to hear from him regarding ensuring that he will clear the current backlog. Turning to the speed of any new system, avenues of appeal must be respected and we must adhere to Ireland’s international obligations, while respecting due process.
I thank the Minister and the Minister of State. Like my colleagues, I welcome the White Paper on ending direct provision and the steps that must be taken in that regard, especially the recommendations on taking a human rights-based approach. I will focus my comments on the perspective of children and young people in the direct provision system. It has been particularly difficult for them. They have been pretty much isolated from their communities and many have been left in limbo, in some cases for their entire childhoods. I always think that some of the most difficult representations we receive is when there is a possibility of someone moving on to third level education. That person may have spent a large proportion of his or her young life in direct provision and might then be cut out of accessing third-level education due to the financial situation existing in that regard.
Many young people living in direct provision have used their voices to raise the serious faults with the system. They are engaged and want to be involved in the conversation. It is important that the Government works with young people to build a system that works for them. We must build a system that makes a real effort to reduce waiting times, because allowing people to languish in cramped and inappropriate accommodation is unacceptable. The delays in processing families has an enormous impact on children and young people’s mental health. Any new reception centres must lessen the anxiety and instability that many children face on their journey to Ireland, particularly when they first arrive.
Sinn Féin is supportive of the proposal to provide the vast majority of asylum seekers with own-door accommodation. This welcome move will have a very positive impact on children’s mental, physical and social needs. I am very happy to see that the impact of direct provision on children and young people has been highlighted in the report by Catherine Day. I broadly welcome the additional funding that will be provided to Tusla for parenting supports and child development services.
While I recognise the inclusion of Tusla in providing supports for children who have experienced trauma and conflict is a positive step and one to be welcomed, I would not like to see Tusla, which has an enormous remit and a significant workload, being asked to undertake this vital and important intervention work without adequate funding. It is important on this point to state as well that people dealing with children and young people coming from a traumatic situation must have the correct qualifications and experience for dealing with people who have experienced trauma. It is very different to other situations and we must always bear that point in mind. As much as possible in future, we really need to try to have an approach focused on intervention, and early intervention, and dealing with any anxieties concerning children and their mental health. The research shows that the best outcomes result from the earliest intervention. I would like the Minister and the Minister of State to be mindful of that fact.
Obviously, no one could stand over the current direct provision system. It is completely unacceptable, particularly for an unaccompanied child. This White Paper sets out that a decision on protection applications must be made before a child turns 18, and this is to be welcomed. Hopefully, that will also help to prevent such situations as I referred to earlier concerning children and young people trying to get into third-level education. I am also happy to see that children and young people in direct provision will be treated the same as Irish children, and the inclusion of a payment similar to the child benefit payment will have a positive impact on child poverty in the system.
Concerning the oversight group, who will comprise its membership and what role will it play? Turning to the timeframes, 2025 is when this is expected to take place. No one believes that anything can happen overnight, but we all know how long the current system has been in place, how inadequate it is and how it is failing people and especially children and young people. We cannot continue to have that happen and any moves that can be made to address this situation properly before 2025 would definitely be welcome and would show there is a serious commitment here and that this is not some sort of great plan on paper, which we often see in here, and a case of saying, "we will deal with this in a few years". I, therefore, urge that any immediate action that can be taken should be taken, especially concerning children and young people.
I welcome the Minister's speech. By any objective analysis, the White Paper has resulted in clear action on the part of the Government. He has come before us today to articulate those areas where progress is being made, especially concerning access to education. That aspect is a key element for every young person in the direct provision process. Education is the key to building for a future where we integrate people and give them the rights to which they are entitled by dint of any international standard. I, therefore, welcome the progress on that aspect.
I do not propose to detain the House for too long, but I would like to ask the Minister about the Irish Nationality and Citizenship (Naturalisation of Minors Born in Ireland) Bill 2018. Regarding the recent success in getting agreement on this Bill, which, if fully implemented, would give a pathway to citizenship to children born in direct provision, if we could see that bearing fruit, it would be a massive leap forward for society. I acknowledge that the Government is committed to that. The campaign to count time as an asylum seeker as reckonable residence is ongoing. The Labour Party is in contact with the Movement of Asylum Seekers Ireland, MASI, on that issue. I am pretty sure the representatives of the Minister and the Government are also in contact in that regard. That would be a big leap forward.
We accepted the recommendations of the report by Catherine Day as our own de facto policy in September. We acknowledge that perhaps the Government's White Paper is marginally less ambitious than the Day report, but it is still very ambitious. That must be acknowledged. I welcome the progress regarding the issuance of driver licences as well. These are what I would call simple, low-hanging fruit issues, but they are significant to so many people in regard to giving them the freedoms to move, notwithstanding the current situation in which we find ourselves. It allows people to move.
It allows people freedom and independence. Therefore, we welcome progress in all of those respects.
We very much support the Government's position in respect of the White Paper and will work with it in pushing on the issues. We are hopeful that the commitment made in respect of the length of stay in reception or integration centres being no more than four months will prevail and succeed.
There is one issue that was brought to our attention yesterday. RTÉ reported, through its reporter, Laura Fletcher, that two healthcare workers had to leave their jobs in nursing homes due to issues over temporary accommodation. The story was widely reported yesterday on RTÉ. The report stated that these workers could no longer avail of a HSE temporary accommodation scheme and were subsequently returned to direct provision. In one case, a worker was placed 200 km from where she lived and worked. My understanding is that nowhere does it say in documentation, and the report highlights this, that eligibility criteria are dependent on whether or not there are Covid-19 cases in the workplace. The context of the HSE kicking these two workers out of temporary accommodation remains to be examined further. I will now quote from the report and one of the women involved: "My employer told me that you can't stay in the HSE accommodation anymore because they said that we don't have any case [of Covid-19] in our nursing home."
Am I out of time?
I also welcome the White Paper, which is most important. When a person turns 21, there are balloons and celebrations. However, it is pretty shameful to say that 10 April 2021 marked 21 years of the brutal system of direct provision. To me, that is horrendous and unacceptable. I welcome the Government is moving to ensure that we do not continue with this system. That is why the White Paper is so welcome.
I have been concerned to learn of Covid-19 outbreaks in the confined settings of direct provision. I was concerned when comparisons were made recently between the cramped conditions in mandatory hotel quarantine and those of the direct provision centres. However, we know that hotel quarantine will come to an end. While direct provision is being removed, no independent inspections of direct provision centres are being carried out. Are independent inspections of direct provision centres going to be carried out? I ask the Minister to respond to me on that issue, which is most important.
The National Women’s Council of Ireland, NWCI, reported that women in marginalised groups have been among those most affected by Covid-19. It has highlighted that women in direct provision have had difficulties accessing appropriate hygiene facilities and space to self-isolate and socially distance. That must be looked at.
I welcome the announcement that Lidl is the first major retailer in the world to offer free period products to combat period poverty, in partnership with Homeless Period Ireland. The Simon Communities of Ireland and the Ladies Gaelic Football Association clubs around the country will also distribute free products, which is most important. I am aware the Government is also committed to this, which I welcome. It is important.
My second question for the Minister is as follows. What supports are currently available to women, children and men in direct provision? What wraparound services are available? We have spoken about education, physical health, mental health, language barriers, employment and housing, in particular. Everybody needs a house. It is most important that we get it right. I know that the Minister really wants to do this and that he has the full support of all Members in doing so. However, as he said in his speech earlier, we have a responsibility. That responsibility means that we must ensure that we get it right.
In respect of funding, what sort of funding is currently being provided for wraparound services? Is there enough funding? As the Minister knows, and as all of us have seen, in the past year the Covid pandemic has been difficult for everybody, but it has been much harder for those living in direct provision. We must ensure that we get this right.
My questions for the Minister are as follows. Are independent inspections of direct provisions centres being carried out? What funding is available? Is enough funding being put into the wraparound services to ensure proper services are provided and that those in direct provision centres can access such services?
I am delighted to be able to speak today on what looks like an end to direct provision. I am from Meelick in County Clare, where we have received refugees since 1957. First, we had refugees coming in from the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. On a sporadic basis, over the decades, we had various cohorts coming to Ireland and to our village for safe refuge. Despite what we saw at various community halls around the country two years ago, with outrageous protests and slogans daubed across the walls of these halls, it has been an enriching experience to have refugees stay in the community for many years.
The model of direct provision does not work, but having refugees come to our community has been a very enriching experience. I want to put on the Dáil record the name of one of them. When I was a teacher in the local school, Ms Anna Mundu joined my class at the age of eight from the Democratic Republic of Congo. She did not have a word of English. She has thrived in the Irish system, going right through primary and secondary schools. Today, she is a front-line health professional and holds an Irish passport. She is a person I really admire and look up to. To this day, we still have a friendship. Indeed, I will speak to her this week.
In my experience, Anna is an example of someone who has gone through the direct provision system and has come out as a fully-fledged, wonderful Irish citizen. While not perfect, the system has enabled her to come from a war-torn country to safe refuge in Ireland and come out the other end. The system has not worked perfectly to date and has many shortcomings. I am glad there is a White Paper in place to end all of this by 2024.
On 1 June 2020 in my home village of Meelick, a sign went up at the crossroads, which stated: "Black Lives Matter". It was put up in solidarity with George Floyd and the larger Black Lives Matter movement in the US. The sign also had a tagline, which read: "End Direct Provision". For the people who have come to Meelick and the Knockalisheen centre, it has been a long-running campaign to end direct provision and to live a more normal life like the rest of us.
I wish to make a few points, specifically on how the system will work between now and its conclusion in 2024. First, there is no footpath around the Knockalisheen centre, so the people who leave the centre have to walk on one of the busiest roads in the area. It is a road that the Government is going to spend millions of euro on in order to make it a northern distributor road, but there will be no pedestrian connectivity. Therefore, the residents are physically cut off from the community, the school, the local GAA pitch and all of the amenities that some of the kids use. I have approached the council and the Minister for Justice and I have gone from Department to Department raising this issue. I hope the Minister's officials make a note of it. There does not seem to be a funding stream for it. It makes no sense for the residents to be physically cut off from the community. For the next three years, until the facility is wound down, they will continue to walk and traipse the roads, putting themselves at risk. I ask that an official from the Minister's Department communicates with me on the issue. I would be happy to give them more information.
The centre is run by a catering company. A catering company is perfectly equipped to run a cafeteria in a college, at a train station or in an airport. However, in my view, such a company is not equipped to run a direct provision centre and deal with all the sensitivities, complexities and the many social issues people bring with them from their home countries, where they have left war and famine and have witnessed horrendous events.
I would also like to highlight the fact that people in direct provision centres are totally disenfranchised. This has not often been spoken about over the last year or two, as this debate has gained more and more volume. When I was a councillor, up to 14 months ago, I was often asked to go to the direct provision centre and meet with people who I was helping through the legal process to remain in Ireland. On each occasion, I was denied entry.
The people living there are totally and utterly disenfranchised. I was once smuggled into the building by some residents and got to see the small cubicle curtains separating parents from children. It was like a hospital environment, where you pull around the little curtain at night-time. I was their representative and they were entitled, under the Irish voting system, to vote for me in local elections. Some of them did vote for me. I, in turn, had every constitutional right to represent them, but I was not allowed beyond the security barrier. That is fundamentally wrong and it should be changed between now and the wind-down of direct provision in three years' time.
Two or three years ago, I went on Niall Boylan's radio show to talk about direct provision. One of the points I made was totally and very deliberately misconstrued by the presenter. I want to repeat that point today, because it will crop up again. When an awful humanitarian situation arises in Syria or elsewhere in the Middle East, for example, the Government, under pressure from European counterparts, agrees swiftly, and rightly so, to take in a cohort of refugees from that country. It is wrong, however, that those refugees should leapfrog the people who are already in direct provision centres in this country. In County Clare, for instance, we have had families in direct provision from Congo, Ghana and many other war-torn countries that have faced horrors over the years. They have seen people coming in and leapfrogging them in the system - going into local authority housing, for example - when they have been in the system far longer. That is something the Department must weed out and stop happening. Direct provision is not an ideal system and somebody who has had to endure it for eight or ten years certainly should be housed and assimilated into all the supports that are available more quickly than someone who has just arrived from a situation of humanitarian crisis.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. I begin by acknowledging the work done by people like Dr. Lucy Michael and by the regional anti-racism groups. I refer specifically to the group in my constituency, which is also the constituency of the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien. Fingal Communities Against Racism, FCAR, is a small group made up of very dedicated individuals. I am very proud to be a member, although I wish I had more time to be involved. I encourage the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, if he has the time, to engage with that group and the wonderful work it does in my area.
When Fianna Fáil introduced direct provision in 2000, it made very sure it was a business-type model. It has since grown into a big business for catering contractors, as has been mentioned, and other companies that seek to tender for the business involved. There are people making an awful lot of money out of the abject misery of the conditions in which people are forced to live. We need to recognise that direct provision is a business model, in place for 21 years, and there are people profiting off the backs of the misery of the people consigned and confined to it. If the issue were not so serious, it would be funny to listen to Government party Deputies talking about mandatory hotel quarantine as a deprivation of liberty or some kind of horrific imposition. I would love for them to see exactly what direct provision is like, because they would genuinely be absolutely horrified.
I want to raise a particular issue that I hope the Minister will add to his agenda. The reception centre in Balseskin in my constituency is accessible, which means persons with disabilities can be facilitated there. However, no account is taken of a person's disability when he or she is transferred from Balseskin. There have been reports directly to FCAR of wheelchair users having to be lifted up the stairs by other residents. There is no dignity in that and it is just awful. All that is needed to prevent it is to match the person with the accommodation. However awful, atrocious and dehumanising the accommodation the Government is providing, and it is, it should at least be made accessible for people with disabilities. We have had cases of residents having to lift their spouse into a bath. That is back-breaking work and it should not be happening. We know the facilities are there. It is simply a question of matching people up with the right facilities. This is something that can be done in the short to medium term. It does not require a White Paper, lengthy debate or any other delay. The international protection accommodation service, IPAS, is aware of this issue and knows what is going on. I ask that the Minister at least add it to his agenda and take account of it. Some of the changes needed in the direct provision system are major and will take time to achieve. This is something that could be done in the short to medium term.
The past year has been incredibly hard for everyone. We are in limbo, unsure of when the pandemic will end and we can see loved ones again, and unsure of work. This has been an abnormal year for most of us, but it is normality for the thousands of people we keep in direct provision, where families are forced into limbo for years. Life events pass by, funerals are missed, children and grandchildren grow up and professionals deskill. A State that is unwilling to learn from its past continues to institutionalise vulnerable people and somehow devise new ways to erode their dignity. They are given meagre allowances, limited access to work, regimented diets and few cooking facilities, and cramped accommodation in isolated centres.
We all welcome and support the Minister's plans to end the system. The reality, however, is that we are still looking at years of families being trapped in direct provision. While they remain in this limbo, I have three points to bring to the Minister's attention. First, the difficulties of the Covid pandemic are exacerbated by a person's place in society. It is harder for disabled people, the elderly and asylum seekers. For instance, I have repeatedly brought up the impact of the ongoing restrictions in maternity hospitals. Those restrictions, and similar limitations on other medical appointments, are felt acutely by people in direct provision, many of whom do not have English as a first language and are unfamiliar with the Irish medical system. They often require translators and advocates but are denied them under the current measures. Residents of congregated settings are at greater risk, as we saw from the clusters of infections in nursing homes and direct provision centres. This is not surprising when it is considered that operators of centres are contracted per person, not by physical space, which incentivises cramped conditions. The Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and the Department of Justice need to appreciate these realities and respond accordingly.
Second, there is a right to education in Ireland. Nominally, we have free education in this country, but we all know that is not the case. In fact, education is expensive, many families cannot afford it and many people cannot progress due to financial barriers. This reality is felt severely by asylum seekers. Every year, calls go out for school uniforms for children in direct provision, including coats, shoes and other basics that make an education possible. Textbooks are another large expenditure but it seems to be up to individual schools to waive the rental fee. We have a whole cohort of children who are only able to exercise their right to education because of the kindness of communities and school staff. The inequalities of access to further and higher education are even more pervasive. That ingrained inequality extends to people in direct provision who cannot afford to go to college. Very high fees and living costs, combined with few or no supports, exclude asylum seekers from the benefits of education. Again, some minor recent changes and a small number of grants from individual institutions are the only counterbalance to a system designed to keep them out.
Finally, there are numerous needless barriers that keep asylum seekers in limbo and prevent them from living dignified lives. The ban on obtaining a driver's licence is a clear example and is complete nonsense. It prevents asylum seekers from taking up employment opportunities. In rural areas, where many direct provision centres are located, a car is essential for work. In addition, because they are required to surrender their passport and cannot access driver's licences, asylum seekers have difficulties opening bank accounts. This financial exclusion forces them into the unregulated economy and low-paid, cash-in-hand jobs. These are the impacts of a draconian, callous system. We know the default status for the State is to provide the bare minimum but, in this case, it is intentionally discriminating against non-EU persons. It is part of a mindset that creates barriers and hurdles to deter people. It is evidence of an antiquated and worrying understanding of the realities of migration and asylum.
These are just three issues from a long list of issues affecting people in direct provision. Others include the difficulties of women experiencing period poverty and issues with the quality of food in centres that have their own shops. Over the past 20 years, 60,000 people have spent years in direct provision and more than €1 billion has been given to private companies to run the system. The Minister is working to end direct provision. As the thousands of asylum seekers wait in limbo for that to happen, will he act now to address the issues I have raised, of which I am sure he is aware and which he can resolve?
Managing migration from failed states and climate disruption and displacement will be an enduring challenge and it is likely to get considerably worse before it begins to get better. We in politics who aspire to the values of humane systems must steer a very difficult course between the harrowing stories and how we accommodate them. There has been a rise in parties that use migration to seek to undermine those very values we espouse. Systems have become overwhelmed, as we have seen in other countries, and we must find a way of co-operating across member states and supporting institutional improvement in many of the states to support the sort of response to the climate challenge that is necessary to bring long-term balance to this.
I commend Dr. Catherine Day on her work. One element that stuck out was the need to end silo thinking if we are to address this matter. Reading the White Paper, I wonder if the Minister has that level of commitment across government. I fear that what is put in place for implementation will fall short in this respect and this needs very high-level commitment from the centre of the Government and from the Cabinet down. Will the Minister be able to stand over that?
I really welcome phases 1 and 2 and the move to income support in phase 2, the opportunity to work and access to the sort of services that the previous Deputy referred to. Phase 1 is built on the expectation that we can turn around 3,500 places in 12 months and there would be four months in phase 1. That would be roughly 1,200 places. The reality is we now have six times that figure and at our peak we had ten times that figure. Of people in direct provision, 50% are more than one year in the system. We need to have assurance the speed of decision-making will change dramatically. Dr. Day's report indicates that in non-urgent cases, it takes 40 months to even get to the end of an appeal process. That is more than three years, after which there is review and judicial review. Could we have an assurance that we will get down to the 12-month target that has been set?
We have less than half the rate of refugee applications of the EU and we must consider our capacity to deal with surges that may arise. That has happened and overwhelmed systems, resulting in the sort of political backlash that could be so damaging to the process. I commend the Minister on his work but I hope he can end silo thinking and, most crucially, get a quick decision-making process in place.
I welcome the statements and I know the Minister will sum up at the end. I reiterate some of the points made and the first is that we as an Oireachtas should acknowledge that movement has finally been made. Some of the movement may be seen by some as being in the realm of the ideal, but the fact is that commitments were placed in the programme for Government on a matter that has been hanging around for well over a decade and a half. We all know the issues and the inhumane aspects of the process. Some of us have got a tiny glimpse of what it has been like, as one of the previous speakers mentioned, in being locked down and having freedoms corralled to some degree. It might give us some inkling into what life would be like in direct provision with a restriction on our freedom; it in no way gives a window into the daily reality of lives for people.
I agree with Deputy Bruton, who raised the question of capacity across government and particularly as it relates to housing. I particularly welcome the movement expressed in the programme for Government and the White Paper to try to accommodate people as quickly as possible. I have a simple question: is that accommodation commitment to be incorporated to the budget of the Minister's Department or will it be taken from the Department dealing with housing? Capacity is connected to the question of exposure to right wing views that can exploit the sensitivities of people. The Minister knows it. There are some people on housing lists in my constituency for more than a decade and we have started to make some small inroads on that. We should be conscious of how Covid-19 has affected the construction industry and we should avoid Irish people making a claim that they are being excluded from housing as a result of the accommodation of people going through the direct provision system. The two systems must be seen to be separate but complementary. One budget should not have an impact on the other. This is really where the rubber hits the road. People should be drawn from completely different lists so as not to affect other lists in any shape or form.
One of the problems with Covid-19 is the bandwidth of the public's imagination and ability to take in stuff is so clouded by virus and vaccine matters that much of the really positive action by the Government over a short period may be lost sight of. There will be a need to revisit this again to reinforce the fact that there is a commitment now, for the first time in a decade and a half, by a new Government. The make-up of that new Government is clearly intrinsic to the change, as it did not happen in the previous decade. That should not be lost on the public or the messaging around this.
The direct provision systems should be a source of shame to us all, particularly considering the history of people from our country seeking sanctuary from hunger and oppression in other places across the world. The direct provision system has failed utterly those who have sought asylum and also local host communities.
I was struck recently in listening to recollections of those who were in mother and baby homes and Magdalen laundries by how similar some of these were to the reports we have received up to today from residents in direct provisions. There are stories of an uncaring system where human beings are treated essentially as less by officialdom and administrators and there is fear underlying every consideration as to whether a complaint should be made about mistreatment. In short, direct provision has been a scandal and every Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Green Party, Progressive Democrat or other Minister in a Government that has overseen it should be ashamed of it.
Host communities have also been failed. Instead of the policy being underpinned by integration, the approach by Government agencies, including very senior officials, has been marked by secrecy and hostility. Communities with virtually no investment and which have seen services such as schools, Garda stations and GPs being removed find one day, without any consultation, that their local hotel is being turned into a direct provision centre. It is little wonder that racist and far-right groups see opportunity in this. At the same time this utterly failed system has cost €1.6 billion over 20 years and therein lies one of the challenges faced by the Minister. There are vested interests who have made millions of euro from this inhumane regime. Only in this country could Fianna Fáil formulate a system designed to support some of the most vulnerable people in our society and turn it into a funnel to direct profits to the usual cronies.
This White Paper is welcome but the Minister and his Government will be judged on actions and results rather than rhetoric. I sincerely hope that within this term, we will be able to say collectively the shame of direct provision can be put behind us and we can create a humane system that supports people seeking international protection in our country along with the communities in which we hope they can integrate.
I support what the previous speaker said about the direct provision system. However, in the limited time I have I wish to go a little off message. It is absolutely true that racism and far-right politics can gain from playing on the scarcity of housing in this country. In my area, leaflets are already being distributed, which state that we must look after and house our own first. It immediately begs the question: who are our own? Are they Denis O'Brien, Larry Goodman and the very wealthy in this country such as Keelings? Keelings are at the receiving end of a great deal of criticism in Ballymun today because an entire hotel, Travelodge, is being emptied of homeless people who were being accommodated there to provide for workers who are coming in to work in Keelings. One must ask why the rich Irish always get preferential treatment over the most marginalised in this country, including people in receipt of direct provision and in homeless accommodation.
The question the Minister must answer in the here and now is: what are we doing now to help those who are in direct provision? Do we have to wait until 2024 to see the cruelty of the system ended? In the meantime, do we have to do something to address issues such as, for example, the workers I spoke about on television yesterday who are being pushed out of special accommodation back into direct provision because there is no Covid-19 in the care homes in which they work? The Minister must talk to the Minister for Health and ensure that contradiction is ended. He must also talk to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and ensure a hotel in Ballymun is not emptied of homeless people to facilitate a very wealthy Irish entrepreneur. Those are the challenges we face daily. If the Ministers do not talk to each other and deal with these problems, of course, racists, extremists and far-right activists will milk them for what they are worth. We should look after everybody. They are all human beings. We cannot be forced to have one race or group of desperate people competing against the other.
The transition year students of Cork Educate Together Secondary School went to the Lower Glanmire Road recently to erect a billboard. One of their spokespersons, Rachel Young, said:
We know that government can act quickly when it needs to. Four more years is not ambitious, and we don't accept this.
The billboard refers to the Government's four-year lead-in to what it describes as the abolition of direct provision. Those young people are absolutely right in what they say, and I echo it.
The Government says that direct provision will be dismantled by December 2024. However, what will happen in 2025? Asylum seekers who come to this country will have to go to what is described as "a reception and integration centre" and stay there for a period of four months. What is that, and how do we know it will only be for four months? When the direct provision system was introduced we were told it would be in place for six months. Are people going to be kept in the reception and integration centres for four months or will it run to six months, a year or more than a year? Will they have a legal right to leave those centres after four months? They will not, according to what the Minister and the Government are proposing. What is being proposed is that the four-month promise will not be underpinned by law. MASI, which has many asylum seekers in its ranks, has described this as appalling and I agree.
Why are these proposals not being underpinned by legislation? Let us consider the question of welfare, for example. The White Paper states that after a period asylum seekers will be able to access welfare. However, this is not underpinned by law. Other people who are able to access welfare have legal rights that are underpinned by law. That is not the case here. Are the Minister and the Government saying that asylum seekers have fewer legal rights than other people living in this country? This issue must be addressed.
I welcome the White Paper, which is timely. I intend to reflect on the system that has been in place since approximately 2000. It is inhumane and a system of which one could not be proud. I welcome the actions being taken now to deal with the issue, and that there will be a new system in place after 2024. However, there are things we can do now. We cannot wait until 2024 to take the actions that are necessary in this area.
There are people in this country who have not been able to work and lead a proper life. They have not been given a break, despite the fact that they came here seeking protection. Some form of amnesty should be put in place to allow people who have been here for a number of years to participate fully in society and the economy. I refer to a case I have been dealing with since 2000. When the family arrived in this country they were seeking assistance and protection. They received that, but they only got their passports in recent years. However, the husband has not been naturalised for some reason. It is said that he did not secure naturalisation because of a comment on his file. If there is a comment on the file, the individual wants to attend an interview with any law enforcement or other agency to clear his name. Does he not have a right to clear his name? Should the Minister not allow him to clear his name? Why is there such secrecy in the process of naturalisation? We can take action on that now. We can, at least, let that family make a difference in their lives. We can allow the process to judge him rather than some anonymous comment on his file. I wish to see that dealt with.
There are other issues with direct provision we can deal with now. We can fast-track the systems we have in place after we provide an amnesty. It could be explained to the House why it takes so long to deal with the applications. Surely to God with our current technology there is room for fast-tracking applications and dealing with them in a humane way. It is unfortunate to see individuals such as the one I described. Another individual is here for 20 years on a stamp 4 permit. He had to remain here following an accident and missed 20 years of his life. The State must reflect on that. We must reflect on the fact that sometimes it is the action or inaction of the State that leads to the racism we experience. We cannot ignore that, and we cannot wait until 2024. There are things we can do now to make a difference in people's lives. I ask the Minister to examine those, take the actions that are necessary and give people a meaningful existence in this country.
My sentiments centre on, as previous speakers have discussed, what we can do here and now. I welcome the publication of the White Paper on ending direct provision and establishing a new international protection support service. It is a big step. It will be a complex process and, undoubtedly, will require time to deliver. We all are aware of the shortcomings of the current system. The new system will aspire to be based on a human rights approach. In time, it will allow access to the labour market for applicants and make it easier to access other services such as opening bank accounts, driver licences and so forth.
The new process will reduce processing times for international protection applications and ultimately lead to a phasing out of direct provision by 2024. That is some time away yet, unfortunately, but welcome nonetheless.
In the meantime, could steps be taken to improve conditions for people living in direct provision? I know the Minister will be aware of issues surrounding accommodation, cooking and laundry facilities and other issues that arise in these settings. My office has been in contact in recent months surrounding difficulties and conditions in Ashbourne House in Glounthane. Thankfully, a resolution was found in this instance but I am under no illusion that these difficulties are faced in other settings.
It is worth stressing the people in these communities are taking part in our local schools, they are out litter-picking at weekends and are engaged with sports clubs. For all intents and purposes, they are integrated into our local communities. I understand we have regular inspections of these facilities. In the interim, however, and ahead of the full phasing out of direct provision, does the Minister have any plans to introduce improvements in the short term? I would appreciate it if he could touch on this in his closing statement. Like other speakers have said, I believe there are probably some short-term measures the Minister could take ahead of the full phasing out by 2024.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this issue. As someone who, like Deputy McGuinness, has spent the past 20-odd years dealing with immigration issues, I believe and hope we have learned a lot but we still have much to learn. We should avoid trying to create a divisive debate that tries to throw the blame onto one sector or other in our society. That does not solve the problem. We need to try to be careful, supportive and constructive.
In the course of the past 20 years, I and everybody else in this House who has dealt with these cases would have had direct interaction with people who were physically and mentally tortured, and women and children who were traded and sexually, physically and mentally abused over long periods and who were in a pitiful situation. We have all had situations where women who were coming from that kind of situation were looking for somewhere else - a refuge - and we gave them refuge. Perhaps it was long, drawn-out and cumbersome or could have been faster and more efficient. Perhaps it could have been more in line with what was required by the people who were looking for help at the time. It was an attempt address the issue, however.
I compliment the numbers of people throughout the country, both individuals and groups, who came forward and offered help and assistance of a constructive nature and were able to take on local arguments where people had indicated reticence in terms of accommodating and dealing with refugees or immigrants. Not everybody in the country was as welcoming. The rule still applies. As a nation that has wandered across the face of the earth for the past couple of hundred years, we more than anybody else should be in a position to understand the situation the refugees have and will still come from.
We have heard criticism of people who are so-called economic immigrants. I do not see anything wrong with and cannot see why there would be any reticence or objection to people who are economic immigrants. We were economic immigrants. Both my parents were economic immigrants in years gone by. We, therefore, more than anybody else, should be in a better position to offer constructive assistance in this kind of situation. I hope this debate leads to more of that.
I welcome the White Paper on direct provision. Our State has a nasty history of institutionalisation of vulnerable people and successive governments have turned a blind eye to the suffering and trauma that direct provision has caused countless people.
Sinn Féin is committed to an end to this for-profit system and this White Paper will bring some light at the end of a very dark and long tunnel which has brought distress to many and disgrace on us as a society. Children have spent years in these, for want of a better word, detention centres. I know all parents, and mothers feel this deeply, have been deprived of the basic right to provide a home-made meal for their children. To be deprived of something as basic as that for sometimes years really brings shame on us.
As a nation who for centuries went anywhere we could speak the language and anywhere that would have us, we have a particular responsibility to welcome and give home to strangers forced from their own countries, like we were, by oppression, occupation, starvation and now, increasingly, climate change. If we could see in the desperate faces of those who come to us the faces of our own people, our diaspora, who still have links to our country but were forced to leave, some people would have a kinder and better view of the people who come to our shores. I am talking about people being led astray by far-right groups. If they could look into the eyes of the people who come to us seeking refuge and see in them our own diaspora, they would treat those people differently.
I welcome the White Paper. I commend the Minister on taking this on when it has been put on the long finger by successive governments. The devil is in the detail, however, or, unfortunately, the lack of it. We need legislation and clarity around the setting up of an agency to deal with many of the provisions and, of course, the lack of any kind of housing response proportionate to the crisis we are in as a society. I hope this will be addressed.
Sinn Féin also believes people should have the right to work earlier than the six months proposed. We should remember our older generation were fed and reared on money sent home from England, Scotland and America by their fathers, and often by older brothers and sisters. The people who are coming to us should also have that right. I was looking at my father's old pictures and perhaps three or four of the children had shoes. Many of those families were kept alive and nourished by money that came home. People have a right to work.
Culturally, earlier generations knew what it was like to wait for the parcel and the letter with the dollars or pounds in it. Now it is our turn. The right of people to work in a timely manner and perhaps send money home to their extended families is not a radical proposal.
Many asylum seekers work in our health centres and in our healthcare system. If this wretched coronavirus has shown us anything, it is that, in this world, we are just one people and it is our responsibility to take care of everybody. Certainly, this is a good pathway out of our current damaging and shameful direct provision system. A pathway is not enough, however, if it can be blown away and destroyed by the whims of selfish future governments. It is a good start, however. I say "Well done" to the Minister. Let us make sure, however, the detail and legislation and housing vehicles are put in place and we will do our very best for the people depending on us for their future and, indeed, for their very lives.
At the outset, I want to pick up on something I believe was discussed at Cabinet earlier this week, that is, the measures that will be introduced this year to bring about a regularisation scheme for undocumented families in this country. I welcome the significant progress that has been made in the past 12 months, particularly since the Green Party went into government. This is something on which I have long campaigned and on which we made some progress during the previous Government, although not nearly enough.
I welcome the significant progress that has been made on it and look forward to seeing that enacted into law. It is wrong and immoral that people in this country pay tax and PRSI and contribute to our society and economy, but if they get sick or lose their jobs, there is no safety net available for them. It also causes significant hardship for their children. We have all come across situations where the children of people who have fallen under those particular conditions come up against significant barriers when they try to go on to further education. That is a very welcome development.
I will turn to the issue before us, that is, the direct provision system and the commitment that has now been given to phase this out in an expeditious manner. I warmly welcome that. I know that the then Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, and prior to that, the former Minister, Alan Shatter, in particular did much work in making progress in this area. I hope we can bring this to fruition now over the term of this Government. We have some 7,500 people within our asylum system at the moment.
Up to 7,000 of those are within direct provision system, including approximately 2,000 children. Anyone who has had the opportunity to visit some of these facilities when that was possible, or to engage with people who are stuck in that system, cannot be but impacted by the mental health, psychological and emotional issues faced by those stuck in it. As I have said in the House on numerous occasions, having nothing to do and all day to do it is not good for any individual or their mental health. Many of us have seen that at first hand over the past 12 months as a result of the Covid-19 lockdowns. Some of these people have been in direct provision facilities for up to a decade. Children have been born and, in some instances, have gone through their primary education living in these facilities. It is not good, right or acceptable that we are still looking at nearly a two-year processing period for asylum applications. It is not right for those individuals that it is taking so long to process those applications. They deserve a decision. Whatever that decision is, they deserve a timely decision based on all the evidence.
Neither is it good for the taxpayer. It is imperative that an expeditious and properly resourced system is put in place. Some 11 years ago, the late Brian Lenihan brought forward the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill to reform the processing of asylum applications in this country. Many elements of that legislation remain outstanding to this day. We need to have a streamlined process for everyone involved. There must be clear and definitive timelines in order that those in the system can get a timely decision.
We should not forget about some of the disgraceful practices seen in the past in the direct provision and hostel systems. Within the past 12 months, I have spoken in the House about the scandal of unaccompanied minors in the hostel system. During the height of the economic boom in the 2000s, 443 children went missing from hostel facilities run by the HSE and were never seen again. Some children missing from the hostel system were found in brothels, in restaurants or had been subsequently trafficked out of this jurisdiction. However, 443 of those children were never found. These were children who were put into the custody of the State and just disappeared.
That practice had been brushed under the carpet until eventually it was exposed and addressed. Thankfully, that hostel system has been outlawed once and for all. We need to see a similar approach being taken with the direct provision system.
I add my voice to those who welcomed the recent publication of the White Paper to end direct provision and to establish a new international protection support service, a move long overdue and widely anticipated by people who have lived, and still live, in the direct provision system. Ending direct provision was one of the major priorities for the Green Party when we negotiated the programme for Government last year. I am proud to see significant and meaningful progress on it less than one year on.
I am not just talking about those big-ticket items such as those included in the White Paper but also those small nuts and bolts, everyday issues like movement on driver licences and bank accounts, which are important. While I do not want to conflate migration and the international protection process, I want to mark the launch recently of the Waterford migrant integration strategy. I acknowledge the work of the Waterford migrant integration forum and the work of the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, who helped kick that process off in a previous life. I want to mention the Lismore Welcome project which is a great example. It is a model of those community-based solutions to which the Minister referred. I also want to mark the designation recently of Mount Sion in Waterford as the first school of sanctuary and the first school to achieve that status.
I do not want to focus on the countless reasons and arguments for ending direct provision. I would like to believe that in this House and country, with a long legacy of emigration, we fully appreciate the hardship of leaving home but also the hope of pursuing a new life and new opportunities. Our system of international protection should focus on opportunity and fulfilment, finding one's place in the world and contributing to the country that not only acts as a host but, in time, a permanent home. My real interface with the direct provision system was in my teaching life where I had the privilege of teaching children in the centres in Tramore. While I would not gloss over for a minute the impact this inhumane system has had on these children's attainment and development, in my mind's eye I see Kofi, our star centre forward, Enid and Hillary who would draw you anything, and Zinedine, whose mum makes the most amazing biscuits as gifts for the teachers. I see Mohammed who was my best Gaeilge speaker in that class, even though Irish was his seventh language. Their stories are now part of our story. The threads and strands of their lives are now woven into our communities. The fabric of our society is all the stronger and all the richer for their inclusion.
I welcome the publication of the White Paper to end direct provision and the establishment of a new international protection support service. We have heard many harrowing back stories leading to direct provision. We are all too aware of the shortcomings of the process and the urgent need for reform. Behind the campaign for change and the necessity for reform are real people. These are real people, often lost in a seemingly endless cycle of uncertainty and fear.
One of these people is a man well-known to me, Malik Amir Iqbal. For Malik, the White Paper offers no answers. Malik has spent six years living in direct provision while awaiting a decision on his application. He has never been given a permit to work. Throughout that time, he has endeared himself to the community in County Longford and has also excelled in the arts through the medium of dance.
A massive appeal in support of this affable man's application for a right to remain with us on humanitarian grounds has included letters of support from many within the arts community, including high-profile names such as the actor, Stephen Rea. A talented dancer, Malik featured on the Abbey Theatre stage no less in 2019 and has had numerous offers of employment from a range of Irish employers. Since last October, Malik's many friends in Longford and the arts community have pleaded for his right to remain. We cannot realistically action the White Paper without granting Malik and the others who are contributing to our communities, the length and breadth of the country, the right to remain and participate in a truly modern and inclusive society.
Malik has shown himself to be a creative, conscientious and valuable member of our community, as well as a vibrant contributor to the national arts scene. I want to give Malik a voice here today. I appeal directly to the Minister to give due consideration and, hopefully, a favourable response to his campaign for the right to remain here on humanitarian grounds.
Direct provision in Ireland represents a human rights failure and a gravy train for accommodation providers. Costs associated with the direct provision system rose significantly in the past two years with the Covid-19 pandemic leading to extra accommodation needs, according to figures from data compiled and published by the Irish Examinerseveral weeks ago.
It shows, for example, that accommodation providers have earned over €1.6 billion in direct provision accommodation contracts since 1999. To put that enormous figure in context, at an average building cost of, say, €150,000 for a social house, the €1.6 billion would have built 10,666 houses in the same time. How many families would that have housed, instead of the Government giving the money away to the direct provision system? It shows a deep lack of understanding or strategy. That figure comes from figures furnished by the Department on the overall cost of direct provision accommodation for asylum seekers between 1999 and 2020. There are children in the shocking conditions of direct provision and in some cases we have seen large numbers of people in one room. It is wrong for the State to bring people to this country on the false pretence of normal accommodation and then subject them to up to ten years in some shocking conditions.
During the term of the previous Government I put forward some solutions for how rural Ireland could perhaps have created a solution for asylum seekers whereby families - not in large numbers but maybe in smaller numbers - are integrated into local towns and villages. These towns and villages have lovely shops, schools, churches and community centres and would have been ideal homes for any families. It would be a more human and respectful way to treat people than the situation we left them to. Unfortunately, nobody seemed to listen. It seems there are massive amounts of money going into the direct provision system. We have so much to offer. West County Cork got no rural regeneration funds this year but that does not matter; the community will come up with the goods and people can come to live in our towns and rural communities. We have a lot to offer there. That is one fairly good solution that should be put forward here yet it has not been worked on.
I too feel compelled to be very critical of the system of direct provision. It has been an abject failure.
I have visited the centre in Carrick-on-Suir a number of times over the years and have seen the way families are incarcerated there. These are, in the main, traumatised people who have come from very harrowing and desperate situations. I visited refugee camps outside Lebanon some years ago and saw the children and the old women. There was nobody else there. They are traumatised and are waiting there. Then they come here to Ireland of the thousand welcomes and my God, what a welcome. We heard the shocking figure of over 400 children going missing from these incarceration centres - that is what they are. We are here every day debating the Mother and Baby Homes and the horrific situations that went on here. This will be as bad when history looks back on what we are doing to our guests. We offer, and agree at European level and United Nations level, to take so many people. Direct provision is a gravy train for the people who have the buildings. They do not care, they just provide the house, get the money and run. The services are not there. I salute the community in Carrick-on-Suir for the way it has integrated them into the schools, GAA clubs and everything else. It is wonderful to see some of them who are athletes and everything. However, it just takes too long, is too cumbersome and too slow.
What is wrong with our Department of Justice and now the Department of Children, Disability, Equality and Integration that they cannot operate this? How can we have 440-odd children go missing and no talk about them? They just vanished into the sex trade, into child prostitution and slave labour. This is when all our eyes are open to what went on in the past, when we were supposedly backward and we did all kinds of things. We have learned so much now and we are so open, so pluralist, so engaging, yet this is going on under our noses.
It is the same with the housing assistance payment, HAP, system. We throw billions of euro into HAP payments to keep people in long-term rented accommodation instead of building, and Deputy Michael Collins has given us the figure of how many homes could have been built. We have an awful lot of dirty linen to wash and the linen is being dirtied all the time. Our Departments have failed miserably. Their ineptitude and that of Tusla is appalling. Above all, there is no accountability, none whatsoever. We throw money at it and have tribunals and inquiries. Common decency is what we should be about. It sickens me to my craw to see people talk about how we are this and we are that, while this is going on at the very same time. We exposed what went on 40 years ago when our people were meant to be backward, when they did their best with what they could. Now, however, when we know everything - knowledge is a wonderful thing - and we have all kinds of rights we let this go on endlessly, year in and year out for decades.
I have been asking the Business Committee for this debate and thank it for accommodating the debate today because it is important we discuss this issue. The White Paper publication happened to coincide with the opening of a new direct provision facility in County Donegal. I would like to say a céad míle fáilte to our new Letterkenny neighbours. Last month, the first of 60 families started moving into the new own-door accommodation in Port Road, Letterkenny. This self-catering, own-door accommodation is being hailed as the new style of direct provision, which is expected to be run by not-for-profits in the future. Unfortunately, this centre is still being run by a private company with limited choices as to where residents can shop and no real independent complaints mechanism. I have serious concerns around the need for an independent complaints mechanism for all accommodation centres because it is not satisfactory that residents should first complain to a centre manager and then to IPAS.
As always, the key to the success of the White Paper to end direct provision will lie in the implementation. Unfortunately, the White Paper is not being backed by a legal route and so it will only be implemented at the will of the Minister, which means the next Minister can change it again. Unless the huge backlog of people waiting for decisions on their applications is addressed, there is absolutely no way that the 2024 deadline to end direct provision will be met. Would the Minister agree that the Department of Justice is a large cog in the wheel of progress here? There needs to be a significant increase in staffing and resources at the Department of Justice, the International Protection Office, the International Protection Appeals Tribunal and the Legal Aid Board. The plans in the White Paper just do not have any teeth without buy-in from the Department of Justice. Reports in January 2021 showed that “Of the 7,494 people...seeking asylum, 5,259 are awaiting a first-instance decision...” That is shocking. People are reportedly left in limbo waiting for a decision for 18 months, then they are further trapped in direct provision because of the unavailability of housing options.
I echo calls from the Irish Council for Civil Liberties on the need for independent, human rights-focused inspections of direct provision accommodation centres to be implemented. As the Minister knows, the inspections are currently carried out by a private contractor, QTS Ltd, and officials from IPAS. The Minister has said that HIQA should hopefully be taking over the role of inspections shortly. However, while discussions have taken place, the required legislative changes and allocation of resources are the responsibility of the Department. When will these legislative changes take place?
Finally, if Members have not already read This Hostel Life, written by Ms Melatu Uche Okorie and published by Skein Press, then I highly recommend they do so. The beautifully written short essays tell the stories of migrant women in a hidden Ireland. Unfortunately, that hidden Ireland may continue under this system.
I welcome the Minister's speech and his leadership. Hopefully this will be a transformative day where this matter is concerned.
Direct provision coincides with my involvement in politics; I went for election in 1999 and direct provision was introduced in 2000. After 21 years we are finally grown up, in theory in any event. I hope the Minister actually makes this happen, with our support. We will be pushing him every step of the way. Looking at the Minister's leadership, I must say I welcome it, though I must put it in perspective due to the 21 years. During that time we had the Mahon report, finally, in 2015. We had the spending review in 2019, the interdepartmental group on direct provision in 2019, the justice committee report, the Dr. Catherine Day report and the Minister's own White Paper. This is in addition to the NGOs on the ground who worked solidly, the residents seeking asylum themselves who at every opportunity told us what was going on and the Ombudsman's reports which have added to the debate. The Minister's leadership comes on top of that and a system none of us could stand over. It was a system designed to commodify, dehumanise, isolate, to make a division between them and us, but most of all to ensure profits for the big boys. I am sure some women were in there too. Indeed, I remember saying in 2000, as an innocent councillor, that we should welcome asylum seekers to our city. An experienced councillor, who happened to be in Fianna Fáil - though it could have been any politician - told me "some things are best left alone". That typifies the attitude we have endured for 21 years and, worse than that, we have deliberately allowed violation of human rights legislation.
If this is a change, and it certainly is a change in theory, I welcome it and I will be working with the Minister on it. However, there are many things that could be done in the meantime. An amnesty has been mentioned by Deputy McGuinness, and we should look at that as well as other practical matters such as the right to work. There is an inconsistency between the Day report and the White Paper and there are many other inconsistencies but I would like to focus on the positive.
It is time to engage with the communities. As the Minister knows, I come from a county where we had the meeting in Oughterard. Notwithstanding how bad and difficult that was, the message I got from the people was that they would welcome asylum seekers to their town if it were done properly. I remember Deputy Stanton, the former Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality with responsibility for equality, immigration and integration, talked about a pilot project for communities and facilitating communities to help them. I wonder if the Minister could come back to that in his closing speech.
I mention vulnerability assessments. They are not part of a pilot project and they should not be. There is an obligation on us to carry out vulnerability assessments. The Minister might clarify that.
I thank all the Deputies for their detailed contributions to this important debate. Deputy Connolly listed out the range of individuals and groups that have contributed to the knowledge we have as an Oireachtas and a Government about the failures of direct provision. She is correct to acknowledge the work of the likes of Mr. Justice McMahon and his group, the previous Committee on Justice and Equality that launched its report, and all of those who worked on Catherine Day's group. I hope what will be different this time is that the determination to act on this is contained in a programme for Government and in a White Paper that was issued early in the context of a Government. It is contained in the moving of the accommodation element to a new Department that is focused on the human rights of individuals, be they of children, those in direct provision or those with a disability. I have no doubt the Deputy and other Deputies will continue to put the pressure on over the coming three and half years, and that is appropriate.
I want to talk to the broader issue of housing first because the likes of Deputies Daly and Lahart raised the issue. The work of implementing the significant policy change contained in the White Paper will take place in conjunction with the wider actions we are taking to address the housing crisis in this country, and they are laid out in the programme for Government. These include an additional 50,000 social houses, an affordable housing scheme, the introduction of a cost rental Vienna model to address issues of affordability in rental accommodation, and the continued roll-out of the housing first approach in the context of those who are homeless and living rough. That focus on the housing crisis in the country was backed up in the 2021 budget by the significant capital allocation and the current allocation the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, received and is spending. My Department will have a budget to provide for the accommodation that is set out in the White Paper separate to that budget for the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. Whereas the actions have to take place in all-of-government approach, they are separate in that my Department will look after the housing for those in international protection, whereas the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage will look after housing for those on the social housing lists and other elements of housing.
Deputy Pringle spoke of his experience and I recognise the extensive work he has done in welcoming the new centre in Letterkenny. That new centre is an improvement on those that exist but that is not the model we are setting in the White Paper. The White Paper is clear that phase 1 involves reception and integration centres for a short time period of four months with significant wrap-around services provided within them and then a move to accommodation in the community. That accommodation will consist of independent living that will be supported, it is hoped by those living there taking up work if they can. They will be supported in taking up work, but if they are unable to find work, they will be supported with a social welfare payment and a payment modelled on child benefit which will support that independent living.
A number of Deputies, including Deputies Bríd Smith and Sherlock, raised the issue of people living in direct provision who are working on the front line in our health services. I recognise that there are hundreds of people living in direct provision who are acting in our health or social care services. The HSE set up a system to accommodate them so they would not be in the congregated setting of direct provision. About 1,500 places have been provided throughout the country. In a number of situations that have recently come to note, those placements have ended. I am engaging with the HSE on what exactly happened there. There were a small number of situations where people's HSE housing placement ended and their original direct provision centre had closed in the interim. I know in one of those situations it was a centre we all welcomed the closure of, but in that situation the residents were reaccommodated somewhere far from their work. We will continue to work to engage better with the HSE where HSE-provided accommodation is ending so that we can ensure the disjointed actions that happened in the situations that have been brought to the attention of the media recently do not happen again.
A large number of issues have been raised and I will not be able to respond to them all. I note that Deputies Funchion and Ó Cathasaigh focused on the importance of children within the White Paper. That is essential in terms of the supports we will provide in the reception and integration centres, involving Tusla providing childcare and involving the child protection and safeguarding inspections, CPSIs, in each area supporting the immediate integration of children and young people and making sure they have schools in the area. The availability of schooling for both primary and secondary level will be taken into account in determining the location of the reception and integration centres.
Deputy Sherlock spoke about his party's citizenship Bill. I know the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, engaged extensively with Senator Bacik on that. Deputy Sherlock also spoke about the regularisation process for undocumented workers. This week, the Minister, Deputy McEntee, provided Cabinet with an update on those approximately 17,000 people who are undocumented in the country, including 3,000 children. That was a commitment in the programme for Government and the Minister, Deputy McEntee, is working on that. In September the full scheme will be provided for and that will be within the 18-month timeframe we set out in the programme for Government. I know Deputy Naughten spoke about that as well.
Deputy Pringle talked about the issue of independent inspections and I know Deputy Murnane O'Connor spoke about that as well. We will be getting HIQA to undertake independent inspections. The inspections are currently undertaken by a private company and by IPAS. That does not give the level of independence we need. We are in detailed negotiations with HIQA on a memorandum of understanding. I hope in the coming months we will see HIQA take up that important role, but I will continue to update the Dáil because I know it is an issue of major concern.
I know Deputy Murnane O'Connor wanted to talk about the level of funding available. Some €225 million was provided for the existing IPAS services and that was an increase of €45 million over the previous year, so it is a significant investment. We all know the system we seek to create through the White Paper will be one where the investment gives us a long-term return in having actual accommodation rather than the over-reliance on the private sector we currently have.
Deputies Connolly and O'Reilly spoke about the vulnerability assessment. We have had an obligation, which as a country we have not met for many years, to implement vulnerability assessments. We are now implementing a vulnerability assessment on all applicants who arrive in this country. It was a pilot because it was the first time we were doing it and we needed to learn because it is a new process. Let us be clear that everybody is getting a vulnerability assessment as they arrive. There have been more than 268 done already and we will learn from the pilot and implement those lessons when it is fully applied. That is an important element and it is hoped it will help to avoid the situations Deputy O'Reilly outlined of people being allocated entirely inappropriate accommodation.
A number of Deputies spoke about what we can do now, including Deputies Cairns, Bríd Smith, McGuinness and Pádraig O'Sullivan. I will reiterate some of the points I made earlier. We are dealing with the issue of period poverty. I have made a direction to all direct provision centres to ensure period products are provided free of charge to all residents.
We are dealing with the issue of bank accounts with the Department of Justice, and the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has engaged significantly with the major banks. Last year, there was a big announcement from Bank of Ireland and I understand continuous engagement is taking place with other banks.
We are dealing with the issue of the driver licence. There is provision in the traffic (miscellaneous provisions) Bill that will come before the Oireachtas soon, which will deal with the issue that prevents people in the direct provision process being able to apply for a driver licence. Of course, there are also the significant announcements I made with the Minister, Deputy Harris, on access to higher and further education.
Looking forward, we are aware we need to move people out of emergency accommodation because at present there is a significant number of emergency accommodation centres. Many have been provided to try to get us through Covid and provide for the decongregation of existing direct provision centres. The focus in the next year will be to provide accommodation so we can move people out of existing emergency accommodation centres. There will be a particular focus on single men who far too often are accommodated in crowded situations, which are entirely inappropriate.
I am very conscious of the speed of the decision making. It is an issue on which I am working very closely with the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee. The decision-making process remains a matter for the Department of Justice. Significant investment in finance, a new IT system and personnel have been put in place. We will continue to work to shorten the period within which someone's application is adjudicated.
I would have loved an opportunity to address more questions but I have no doubt we will continue to debate this matter in the months ahead.