Thursday, 30 July 2020
Skellig Star Direct Provision Centre and the Future of Direct Provision: Statements
I thank Senators for having this debate. I can hear and see their sincerity in making their points. I hope I have addressed some of their concerns in my opening contributions, but I also take on board the other issues they have raised. I had the pleasure some time ago, having just got back from a European Council meeting together with the then Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, of meeting a large group of people from among the hundreds who had arrived into Baldonnel from Syria. I had an opportunity to meet those families and engage with them. Men were coming up to me with CVs and other documents detailing their expertise and the work they had done at home. These are people who had left their lives behind and were looking to set up new lives here. They wanted to work, to provide for themselves and their families and to see their children go to school. They had come from very difficult circumstances and wanted to start afresh in this country.
Dealing with the issues in the direct provision system is an absolute priority for me in the short space of time that it will be under my remit. It is a priority for the Minister with responsibility for equality and inclusion, Deputy O'Gorman, and for this Government to ensure we get it right for the people in the system and that we support them in starting a new life. We are already working to address some of the concerns and I take on the board the additional concerns outlined by Senators. We will try to address them as quickly as we possibly can. In regard to Cahersiveen, I give a commitment that families will be moved by the end of next week and that as accommodation becomes available, remaining residents will be also moved. My intention is that the process will be completed by the end of the year and I know this is likewise the intention of my colleague, the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman.In the interim, I thank the residents for their patience - if I could use that word - but I implore them not to put their health or welfare at risk. I am sorry they felt this was the route they had to take but I am listening to their concerns and I am taking them very seriously, as are the officials in my Department, in trying to address those concerns. As Senator Higgins has outlined, Cahirsiveen is not the only centre where these kinds of concerns have been raised. Others have been mentioned by Senators here today. This underscores the absolute importance of the root and branch reform of the system for accommodating international protection applicants that we are now undertaking. We are trying to fulfil that commitment as set out in the programme for Government. The Dr. Catherine Day expert group report will be absolutely instrumental to that. Having seen an interim report presented by Dr. Day based on her own recommendations, I can already see the progress we will be hopefully able to make while we transition into this new type of support, and hopefully abolish for good direct provision as it currently stands.
In the meantime I ask Senators to encourage any direct provision residents from Cahirsiveen who contact the Senators with their concerns to raise them directly with my Department so we can address them directly. If the issues are not raised or not addressed to their satisfaction the Office of the Ombudsman or the Office of the Ombudsman for Children can also provide further assistance, but we do not want it to get to that point. It needs to be addressed and I want to ensure my Department can support Senators to do that. Alternatively, centre residents can access a freephone number for the Jesuit Refugee Service, where they can make contact and raise issues in confidence if they wish to do so.
Senator Ó Donnghaile raised the point about Garda vetting. I assure the Senator that it is compulsory for employers to obtain Garda vetting disclosures and it is no different here. There are penalties for people who do not do this. I assure Senators that this is an absolute necessity. I think we all know that the current system is far from perfect but I believe the commitments in the programme for Government provide us with a unique opportunity, after 20 years, to finally get this right. I acknowledge Senator Craughwell's comment that this is taking a long time. We do, however, have to acknowledge the significant improvements that have been made over the years and how these have allowed people to live a much better life, albeit still somewhat on pause, until they can start in earnest.
The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Roderic O'Gorman - and while he would certainly speak for himself I know that I can say this - and the Governent are fully committed to providing every support possible to asylum seekers who have come to this country in desperation. They are in need of our help and they deserve no less.
Having an expert group with representatives from asylum seeker groups provides us with a unique insight into the lived experience of the direct provision system from the people who understand it best. Their insights will, I hope, help to shape Government policy to ensure we can have an accommodation and support system that is fit for purpose, and which is responsive to the needs of asylum seekers. Like each and every Senator here, I look forward to seeing the outcomes of Dr. Day's important work, which will feed into the development of the white paper to chart a course for replacing the direct provision system and the steps towards achieving it.
I shall now turn to education, which is a longer term objective. We face significant challenges across the educational sector. Children who reside in direct provision accommodation, like other children, are under the guardianship of their parents, but where possible we have tried to reach out to ensure that in the same way as children elsewhere these children have been able to continue to engage with their teachers and to engage in education. We have tried to ensure this is absolutely the case here. My Department has developed a strategic framework for engagement on child and family issues in this regard. We have outreach to a number of groups including Tusla, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, the Department of Education and Skills, the Department of Rural and Community Development, the HSE, the Children's Rights Alliance, One Family and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, to work closely with these families to make sure we are focusing on a number of key themes of child and family welfare, identifying education requirements, and more generally the provision of activities for children throughout all of this. We have made every effort to ensure that support is there, and to ensure that technology is available so they can continue with remote learning.
I thank Senators for raising this extremely important issue. I am listening and I acknowledge the challenges. We are working to move away from a system that often does not work, but we have to acknowledge that a huge amount of effort has gone into trying to make it work for people. In the interim I would prefer not to see people put their own health at risk. I say to the centre residents in particular that we are trying to address their concerns and from next week onwards we will be moving families, and beyond that we will be moving other people as quickly as possible.