Wednesday, 4 October 2017
Direct Provision: Statements
The Minister is very welcome to our temporary new home. The Minister will first make a statement on direct provision, then group spokespersons will have eight minutes each to make statements. The Minister will then be called on to reply. He will have four minutes. Statements must conclude by 2 p.m.
I take this opportunity to wish the Senators well in these new surroundings. I wish them every success in their deliberations. I am pleased to be here to speak on the important topic which the Seanad has raised, namely, direct provision. I thank the Members of the Seanad for this engagement. This is an issue in which I take a very personal interest as well as a professional interest.
At the outset, it is important to clear up some misunderstandings about the nature of direct provision. The regimes operated by some countries around the world are quite notorious and I feel it is often the case that assumptions are made that all countries use the same approach.Indeed, some people believe that the accommodation offered constitutes a detention centre. This, of course, is not the case.
Direct provision is the system whereby State services are offered and directly provided to protection applicants through the relevant Department or agency. Hence the name "direct provision". We do not know who or how many will arrive on our shores today or tomorrow. We do not know who may claim to be in need of protection within our jurisdiction. However, I can say that approximately 50 new applicants arrive in Ireland every week currently. What we do know is that all applicants, on behalf of the Irish people, are offered immediate shelter, full board accommodation and a range of services, such as health and education while their applications for international protection are in the course of being processed. Not every person who seeks international protection chooses to accept this offer, and many choose to live with colleagues, family or friends in communities across the country, as they are entitled to do.
If the system was simply disbanded, as some Members of these Houses and groups have been calling for, the risks of consigning vulnerable people, who know neither our systems nor our language, to poverty and exploitation are multiplied. It can only exacerbate the risks for unprotected people, as they will join the lengthy waiting lists for social housing or enter the private rental market with little hope of finding affordable and secure accommodation in the current housing crisis. The Government will not leave vulnerable people at greater risk while we are urged by some to abandon our international obligations to provide shelter and essential services to applicants.
The direct provision system is a guarantee that every person who walks into the international protection office today will tonight have a bed, food, showering facilities, medical care, information and access to a wide range of services. Such people will not be forced to spend the night on the streets or be left to their own devices to look for emergency housing, as in the early years under previous Governments. They will not be vulnerable to ruthless criminals stealing any welfare payment that would replace direct provision and leaving them in abject poverty. In almost two decades, I have yet to hear a credible alternative being proposed to the current system.
That said, the way the system operated for many years was unsatisfactory. It was beset by problems as the State sought to grapple with a large volume of asylum applications, something this country was not used to. The previous Government made important strides in improving the system, and my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, and I are committed to implementing fully the programme of reform initiated by this and the previous Government for the protection process and the direct provision system.
The landscape of our international protection process has radically changed for the better since we asked Mr. Justice McMahon and his expert group to report to us in 2015. I wish to place on the record my sincere gratitude to Mr. Justice McMahon and all of those who served on his expert group for their invaluable service to the State.
All systems require continual review and improvement. The Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, and I are working with our departmental officials and across the Government to enhance and develop the entire system continually in order that the best possible set of facilities and services can be provided to those in State care. We have published three item-by-item accounts on our implementation of the recommendations in the McMahon report. The final report in July showed the considerable progress made, with 98% of the recommendations advised as being implemented in full or in advanced progress. The commitment in A Programme for a Partnership Government to reforming the system, with a particular focus on families and children, is further testament that Fine Gael and our partners in government are the ones pursuing meaningful reform throughout the protection process.
The key recommendation underpinning the McMahon report was to address the length of time taken to process applications, which consequently leads to long stays in State-provided accommodation. With the commencement of the International Protection Act 2015 on 31 December last year, we now have a single application procedure. This is the greatest reform to our protection process in more than 20 years. It means applicants will have all aspects of their claims, refugee status, subsidiary protection status and permissions to remain examined and determined in one process. Our intention is to provide first instance decisions in the shortest possible timeframe. I have put in place significant additional resources to facilitate this at first instance and appeal levels, and I expect further resources to be assigned over the coming period.
The landscape of processing and delay has changed substantially. When the McMahon report was published in 2015, 36% of applicants were in the direct provision system for three years or less. This figure is now 72%, which represents a radical improvement. We continue to work hard to improve the situation further. There is no room for complacency, and there will be no complacency.
Substantial reforms to the living conditions of applicants who are provided with shelter, accommodation and services in the centres have also been made. Most significantly, we have established a food hall in the Mosney centre where residents can obtain appropriate food that they can cook in their own homes. On a visit to Mosney's Friends of the Centre family day in July, Mr. Justice McMahon praised the centre, saying it provided a template for other direct provision centres to follow. Cooking facilities have also been provided in centres such as Kinsale Road, Clonakilty, Millstreet in Cork and St. Patrick's in Monaghan to enable individual families to cook for themselves if they so desire. This is an important part of everyday family life, and I am conscious of children in this regard.
An increase to the disposable income for adults and children living in direct provision was provided in August. Since the McMahon report, we have more than doubled the weekly rate of direct provision allowance for children. Adults who will soon have access to the labour market will also see their capacity for economic independence enhanced in line with the finding of the Supreme Court. Residents have been given access to the services of the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for Children, which is an important step forward.
There has been a great deal of criticism of direct provision over the years. Much of it has been warranted and many experts have engaged constructively with Mr. Justice McMahon to deliver improvements in this regard. However, some of the criticism has not been warranted. All states have to set and implement rules about people coming to them. Asylum seekers must apply for international protection status under international law on clearly defined grounds. When asylum seekers come to Ireland seeking international protection status, they enter a legal process. It is during this time that we offer direct provision to those who choose to avail of it.
Alongside the asylum process, we have significant commitments to welcoming refugees fleeing harrowing conflicts in Syria and other regions. Refugees who come to Ireland under the Irish refugee protection programme are initially provided with shelter at emergency reception and orientation centres, EROCs. Regrettably, we have been experiencing some difficulties in identifying suitable centres. My officials who work in this area every day are of the view that the blunt condemnations of the system of shelter is acting as a serious disincentive to people offering their properties for rent to the State. This means that vulnerable refugees whom we have already screened to come to Ireland under resettlement or relocation may remain in camps abroad this winter. That would be a most regrettable situation. My Department will shortly be publishing a call for tenders for the provision and management of EROCs, and I would like all Senators to assist in identifying suitable locations that they may be familiar with, in their constituencies or beyond, with a view towards encouraging possible applicants to tender for this important engagement.
I am open to following the European model and inviting NGOs who are active in this area to focus their coalitions towards providing practical support and positively responding to one of our open calls, for which have designated funding, to run a direct provision centre. Seventeen years on and three years into the current crisis, we are unique among the EU member states in this regard in that it is solely the State that offers such shelter and support. I understand that one NGO-housing association partnership has recently expressed some interest in exploring the possibility of becoming involved. I welcome this initiative and would encourage others to think along similar lines. If people want to effect change in their areas, we need practical partnerships and constructive engagement to deliver tangible supports and results. The management of a centre by an NGO or NGO grouping would provide an opportunity to embed the type of ethos that NGOs may wish to see implemented, funded by the Irish taxpayer exclusively from the State's resources.I say to NGOs that I welcome that co-operation which is the bedrock of so many other countries’ humanitarian response to this international crisis.
I look forward to hearing the contributions of Seanadóirí this afternoon in this debate. While I appreciate that this is an emotive topic, we need constructive solutions. I urge colleagues to be mindful of the possible impact of their statements, particularly in respect of reinforcing stereotypes of a negative nature in respect of asylum seekers. It is important that Members are accurate in their statements and acknowledge the context both in Ireland and internationally.
I again emphasise the urgent need for a greater accommodation supply. I reiterate my absolute commitment to ensuring the McMahon report is implemented and that we operate a humanitarian system that upholds and respects the law and the international norm of human dignity.
I had some notes prepared prior to the debate but I am taken aback by the Minister's contribution today so I have decided instead to dissect the Minister's opening statement and to refer directly to that speech. It was bordering on the offensive, to be honest.
At the end of the Minister's statement he referred to "constructive solutions" and he reminded Senators not to engage in negative stereotyping of asylum seekers. I believe that the Minister's speech actually engaged in that negative stereotyping of asylum seekers. In the first half of the speech the Minister said quite comprehensively that the State is doing a great job. This attitude from official Ireland towards asylum seekers actually creates this negative stereotype.
I understand where the Minister is coming from when he said that when asylum seekers come to Ireland, they are offered immediate shelter, full board, accommodation and a range of services such as health and education while their application for international protection is being processed. This shelter, however, is completely substandard and inappropriate to family circumstances. Asylum seekers are living in mobile homes in car parks for long periods of time. Their children are growing up sharing beds with their parents and living in very close quarters. While shelter is provided, it is completely substandard.
The Minister, Deputy Flanagan, said that many asylum seekers choose to live with colleagues, family or friends. I am not aware of this number being that great at all. In the next paragraph the Minister said: "We as a Government will not leave vulnerable people at greater risk." I can tell the Minister that the actual risk is the direct provision system itself. It is completely inadequate. People are allowed to languish in this system for years and years on end. That is the problem with the system.
The Minister referred to asylum seekers being vulnerable to "ruthless criminals". I believe the system itself is actually exposing asylum seekers and making them more vulnerable. I have heard many reports of asylum seekers turning to prostitution in order to be able to look after their children in the direct provision system. If that is not creating a whole cohort of even more vulnerable people, then I do not know what is.
The Minister said that in two decades he had yet to hear a credible alternative being proposed to the current system. I will propose a credible alternative, which would be a speeding up of the decision-making system. It is absolutely incredible that people have to wait in substandard accommodation with substandard services being provided to them, while we in official Ireland drag our heels.
The Minister spoke of the excellent report produced by Mr. Justice McMahon, which is almost two years ago. The Minister said: "I want to take this opportunity to place on the record my sincere gratitude to Mr. Justice McMahon and all those who served on his expert group for their invaluable service to the State." The best way the Minister could show his gratitude to Mr. Justice McMahon would be the immediate and full implementation of the recommendations contained in his report. They are simply not being implemented. The Minister also said: "...98% of the recommendations [are] advised as being implemented in full or in progress." I believe, however, that only the soft recommendations of the report have been implemented, and it is not good enough to say that the rest of them are in progress. The Government has had two years to do it and I want an update today on how many of the recommendations are actually implemented and not that they are simply in progress. That is a bit of a whitewash.
The Minister went on to say that the key recommendation underpinning the Mr. Justice McMahon report was to address the length of time taken to process applications and that we now have a single application procedure. It took the Department long enough to implement that single procedure. The Minister said that this is resourced, but I understand that it is still not adequately resourced. One third of the applicants for a judicial review are actually successful. This indicates that there are many flaws in the decision-making process. When we speak about the direct provision system and the asylum system, people often throw out the opinion that asylum seekers "are always making applications for judicial review". When one third of the judicial review applications are successful, would we blame them for applying for a judicial review of a decision? That is an very high number of successful judicial review applications. The resourcing is not adequate in this regard.
The Minister spoke of the Mosney direct provision centre. The residents of the Mosney centre cannot apply for membership of their local library because the Mosney centre is not considered a permanent address. When this came to light, a number of constituents of mine in north county Dublin organised a book drive where they collected lots of books suitable for all ages, children and adults, because many of the Mosney residents were learning English and needed access to reading material. When they arrived at Mosney with the donation of books, they were turned away and told there was no room in the centre to house books. This goes to the core of the system being completely inadequate and inhumane. To turn away donations of books in circumstances where these people cannot join the local library is disgraceful.
Reference was made in the Minister's opening statement to different facilities that have enabled individual families to cook for themselves. The allowance provided by the Minister to asylum seekers does not allow the purchase of food or transport to and from shops with food. In effect, this is not really going to do the residents of direct provision centres any good. The Minister said that adults who will soon have access to the labour market will also see their capacity for economic independence enhanced. When will they have access to the labour market? What is the Minister going to do to transition people into the labour market? The back to education allowance is not available to asylum seekers because the time they spend in direct provision is not time accrued towards applying for the back to education allowance. A large number of people who have been in direct provision for a long time do not have any relevant work experience. Is the Minister going to propose any schemes to allow them to transition in to the workplace? Education and training will be very important in that regard.
Asylum seekers must apply for international protection status under international laws on defined grounds. This is true, but Ireland is failing because we did not have a properly resourced system to process asylum seekers' applications. Everybody knows the procedures are there but we are failing people by not adequately staffing the system - for a long time - and by not providing proper training for those in the system. We have been failing them. I could go on but I have been told that my time is up. I have pages and pages of things I would like to raise with the Minister but I may just put it in an email or write to him, or invite him back to the House for a Commencement debate on this issue.
I welcome the opportunity to make a statement on direct provision. I welcome the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, to the Chamber. The Government and this House have a responsibility to listen to and legislate for a very important decision that has been delivered by the Supreme Court since this House last had a chance to speak on this matter. As Senators will be aware, the Supreme Court found that the ban on asylum seekers looking for work is unconstitutional "in principle". Section 9 of the Refugee Act 1996 provides that a person seeking asylum is entitled to enter the State and remain here while the application for refugee status is processed. However, section 9(4) provides, inter alia, that an asylum seeker shall not "seek or enter employment" before a final determination is made on his or her application for a declaration. Pending the determination of an application for refugee status, applicants are required to live in direct provision and are provided with an allowance of just €19 per week.
In delivering the Supreme Court judgment at the end of May 2017, Mr. Justice O'Donnell ruled that having no limitations on the prohibition of employment for a person who had lived in direct provision for eight years was unconstitutional. In a judgment of profound significance and compassion, Mr. Justice O'Donnell stated:
In my view, the point has been reached when it cannot be said that the legitimate differences between an asylum seeker and a citizen can continue to justify the exclusion of an asylum seeker from the possibility of employment. The damage to the individual's self worth, and sense of themselves, is exactly the damage which the constitutional right seeks to guard against. The affidavit evidence of depression, frustration and lack of self-belief bears that out.
The Supreme Court provided a period of six months for the Oireachtas to remedy what it determined to be an unconstitutional state of affairs, but we await that legislation. As we lobby for the undocumented abroad with cross-party coalition support, we must have the moral fortitude to deliver for the undocumented at home.
The Supreme Court has not called for the floodgates to be opened on an unrestricted immigration regime in Ireland. It has said that the State has an obligation to vindicate the right of asylum seekers in Ireland to have a limited opportunity for employment, rather than spending their lives in the purgatory that is direct provision.
While I applaud the Government for its willingness to put amendments of the people’s document - the Constitution - to the Irish people, including a proposal to expand the electoral franchise to emigrant voters, we must implement the provisions of the Constitution that are already in existence as well as proposing new ones. This is not just a question of vindicating the rights of asylum seekers who have entered this country, in most cases fleeing intolerable danger. It is also about fulfilling the economic requirements of this State. This country has returned to net inward migration because the economy is growing again. We already have labour shortages in certain sectors. It has been estimated that we need an additional 76,000 construction workers to meet housing demand over the next four years. We need nurses, doctors and other professionals. Inevitably, we need more workers in the service economy.
It is universally accepted, including by the Supreme Court, that certain restrictions on asylum seekers obtaining employment might be necessary to avoid the floodgate effect of Ireland being used as a soft location for people seeking to enter this country purely for economic reasons rather than on legitimate grounds of asylum. As with many other issues, the answer lies not on either side of the extremes but in the middle. This country can protect its national interests, including its economy, while at the same time demonstrating compassion and pragmatism in dealing with people who have escaped unspeakable atrocities, particularly in Syria. This morning, the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade met a delegation that included a young man from the Rohingya ethnic group in Burma. The atrocities being committed against the Rohingya people are unspeakable. I know we have 90 families here in Ireland. I ask the Minister to allow us to implement the recommendations without further delay, thereby vindicating the rights of asylum seekers in Ireland.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I am confused about where Senator Clifford-Lee is coming from because I found the Minister's speech quite informative. It gave us a synopsis of the current position regarding the whole issue of direct provision. I have criticised direct provision in the past. During the early part of the last term, I joined a number of colleagues on a visit to direct provision centres organised by Senator Ó Clochartaigh. I was not at all happy with what I saw and I subsequently made comments to that effect in this House. One of the operators threatened to sue me but that did not materialise, thankfully, because I was protected by absolute privilege.
I think we have made quite an amount of progress on this serious issue. The McMahon report has been mentioned. Mr. Justice McMahon is very pleased with the progress that is being made with the implementation of his recommendations. He should be thanked. The implementation of his report is an expression of such gratitude. The Minister mentioned that "98% of the recommendations" have been or are being implemented. I understand that 136 of Mr. Justice McMahon's recommendations have been implemented in full and a further 33 recommendations are in the process of being implemented. Two recommendations have been superseded by events, so they are not necessarily that relevant.
Mosney has been described as a centre of excellence. It is now regarded as a template. I agree with Senator Clifford-Lee that it is reprehensible that any outfit or individual running a centre would refuse to take books. It is recognised and appreciated worldwide that books are a critical asset in learning. I am sure the Department of Justice and Equality would not approve of books being refused anywhere. People in prisons and schools are given books. Books are the essence of learning. If that story is correct, and I do not doubt Senator Clifford-Lee's sincerity in this regard, the individual in question should hang his or her head in shame. Quite apart from the issue of direct provision, I find it unacceptable that a citizen would behave in this way. There are many countries where people are not allowed to learn. It would not be appropriate for this to happen in Ireland.
Overall, we have a journey to travel. Resources are still an issue in this country. We have just emerged from a difficult period in our economic history. I do not doubt that the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, who has many years of experience of advocacy, is negotiating intensely with the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform ahead of next week's budget to get more funding for this area. I wish him well in that regard. If he succeeds in getting an increased budget, the lot of people in direct provision will improve further. Ultimately, the solution is to deal with their applications as part of a process that is as fast as possible. I know this is in hand.
I would like to mention something else that is worth noting. It came to my attention recently that just 50% of asylum seekers in this country are in direct provision. I think that answers a question asked by Senator Clifford-Lee. The other 50% of applicants are living with family members, friends or neighbours from their home countries, or are in other set-ups. When we talk about direct provision, we are dealing with just 50% of asylum seekers. A great deal of progress has been made. I am not sure whether Senator Ó Ríordáin, in his previous role, appointed Mr. Justice McMahon, but it was the correct thing to do.There was an independent evaluation, which resulted in a set of recommendations, the vast majority of which have been implemented. Nobody wants to live in direct provision and nobody should have to. Our obligation is to accommodate them in the most respectful way we can in the shortest period we can and that is the challenge. The direct provision model was introduced by a Fianna Fáil-led Government in 2001 as a result of a scenario they found themselves in that nobody would have planned for. At the time it was probably the best response and it has evolved and been tweaked over time but, unfortunately, for many years it was an indefensible model. The accommodation was of a poor standard and so forth but there have been many improvements. I have no doubt that in 30 or 40 years a formal apology will be made to the children of those in direct provision between 2002 and 2014 prior to the McMahon report. Significant progress has been made and I wish the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, all the best in the budget negotiations that are taking place. I have no doubt that the remaining recommendations in the report will be implemented and there will be a speedier approach to dealing with applications in order that people's stay in direct provision centres will be kept to a minimum.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Ní hé inniu an céad lá a labhraimid le chéile faoin ábhar seo. We have crossed swords on this issue on many occasions and we will do so again today. I will state clearly where I stand on direct provision. I see it as a form of institutionalised abuse and a State-sponsored model of incarceration. It needs to be scrapped and, notwithstanding the speedier processing of applications, the system is doing damage to the people in it. I welcome the change of tone from Fianna Fáil on the issue and I hope Senator Clifford-Lee will draft a position paper for her party to recognise her changed view of the-----
For the past six years, when Fianna Fáil has been asked to condemn the direct provision system, it has not done so. I would like to be constructive because we need to work together to get this system scrapped and I welcome the change in tone.
An injustice has been done to Mr. Justice McMahon. The terms of reference for his report were limited. They precluded an examination to institute changes to the direct provision system. In a way, he was used to justify the system on behalf of the Government. He did an interview with The Irish Timesin July. It was reported:
Former judge Dr Bryan McMahon said anyone forced to live in a system that denied them the right to work or study and determined almost every aspect of their life without any indication as to when their circumstances might change "would go mad".
Dr McMahon, who chaired the review group which published a landmark report on the system more than two years ago, said people were effectively being "incarcerated, locked away and [left] in a limbo of sorts". More needed to be done to expedite cases, he said.
He should not be heralded as a great supporter of this system as that does him an injustice. That does not reflect the opinion of those in the system, those working with NGOs, etc. They feel circumstances have not improved that much because the fundamental structure is wrong and needs to be changed.
Around this time last year the country looked on both shocked and appalled at Donald Trump's election campaign, and the discriminatory policies emanating from it. The Muslim ban was a vile tool, which gave licence and free rein to the American Administration to blatantly marginalise foreign nationals travelling to their country. We watch idly by as America burns the ideals of freedom and liberty that it claims to have been founded on. We condemn these practices, rightly so, and we speak against such utter discrimination, again, rightly so.
On 10 April 2000, Ireland embarked on its next dark period of the treatment of the most vulnerable within society. The then Fianna Fáil Minister for Justice, Mr. John O’Donoghue, had commenced a new programme aimed at tackling the issue of the country’s dealings with refugees who had come here seeking asylum. These refugees, many of whom are fleeing war torn areas that were savaged by "western intervention", came to Ireland in search of safety, in the hope of escaping persecution in their country of origin. The system known as direct provision was seen as a way of housing these people and providing them with the basics they needed to survive while their asylum application was being processed. I doubt the then Minister envisaged what was to come, as it was set up with the intention of being a short-term measure. Today, 35 of these centres are active throughout the State. It Is estimated that these centres house 4,500 people - young and old, rich and poor, and followers of many different creeds.
Much like Mary Shelley’s depiction of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, this creation has grown to the point of being uncontrolled; a system which has now become a horrific mess. It has developed into a system that I believe to be much more sinister than was first intended. It has become an institution of the State, and like many State institutions, it fails in its aims to benefit those who most rely on it. We need look no further than the 1990s, and to mother and baby homes and county homes, to recall failings in State institutions, where civil liberties were placed on the back burner, as if they did not apply to those coming to our shores seeking refuge.
I welcome recent comments by the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, and his commitments to the resettlement programmes as well as the promise of the Minister and the Government to admit 520 refugees in this calendar year. I understand that the process of resettlement cannot necessarily be circumvented, although it could be more efficient, despite the intricacies and complexity of such processes. Resettlement, in so far as is possible, is a viable way to approach the treatment of asylum and refuge. Integration into communities is an option that should be explored, with direct provision being phased out with a new and more humane system replacing it.
The Minister mentioned that no other models had been put to him over the years. I disagree with that because the Irish Refugee Council produced a lengthy paper on the options for a different process while Senator Conway and I visited a Portuguese centre. We do not say that he can adopt such a model and put it to work here but it seems to be much more humane than ours. I have mentioned the Portuguese model repeatedly over the years but no report was done on it. Perhaps a working group is needed to scrap direct provision. Let us get heads together with the NGOs and the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland, MASI, which is the organisation representing asylum seekers, and put forward an NGO-based model, which would provide proper services. It would be a much better use of the €50 million being spent on the system currently on private companies, some of which do not even disclose the profit they make. It would be much better to follow such a model and I urge the Minister to establish a working group. Perhaps Dr. McMahon could outline his thoughts on that.
Direct provision has become a viable business with the majority of these centres being run on a for-profit basis, which at least seems unusual. To have profit, there must also be a deficit, and the deficits within this so-called business venture truly gall me. Like many private companies, and much like the private prison system in the US today, their business models do not seem to centre around ethics nor morals, but rather how much milk can be squeezed from this cash cow. To the best of my knowledge, some of the companies that hold the contracts for private prisons in the US are also in receipt of moneys here for what is effectively the same service. I was speaking to a colleague of mine recently and he told me that despite FOI requests, none of the contracts that these companies hold is available to be scrutinised. Perhaps the Minister could clarify that. I understand the premise of commercial sensitivity, but I question whether these contractual obligations are being met, given some of the horror stories coming from some centres.
I welcome the fact the Ombudsman now has oversight of the direct provision system but HIQA oversight is also needed. The Minister needs to make a clear statement as to how he will implement the right to work decision of the Supreme Court. The right to education also needs to be implemented. The new single procedure has not been resourced properly to support people to fill in their application forms. Absolute consternation was created by those forms. There was a lack of legal support, translation services, etc. Family reunification remains a significant issue for people within the asylum system and it has to be addressed. I would welcome a response to the issues I have raised.There is a direct provision group within the Houses of the Oireachtas again. Perhaps the Minister and his officials could sit down with us, talk with us and have a look at some of the options we are putting to him.
I thank Senator Ó Clochartaigh. Before I go on to our next speaker, I welcome Deputy Jackie Cahill and the delegation he has brought to the Public Gallery today. They are very welcome to our new home. We will now continue with the debate. I call on Senator Black, who has eight minutes.
I welcome the Minister. I am deeply sad that we still need to debate this issue. I disagree with the Minister in that I do not see direct provision as a way of protecting people. The system of direct provision is an absolute disgrace and something of which we should be deeply ashamed. The reality is that thousands of people are effectively warehoused and forced to live on €19 per week. They are unable to work, to provide for themselves or to continue in education. Many lack basic cooking facilities and sleep in small, cramped rooms with several others. This is institutionalised poverty and we cannot stand over it.
One asylum seeker described the conditions and the level of control exerted over him as like living in an open prison. He recently asked the Committee of Public Accounts whether it would consider that a home. If one is signing in to one's home every day, then it is a prison. We have to think about the mental health effects of this system. Research from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland has shown that depression and mental health problems are five times higher in the centres than in the wider community. We have designed a system which denies people the most basic human dignity and this is the result.
We should also note that there are currently more than 1,000 children living in these centres, many of whom were born there and are growing up there. Tanya Ward of the Children's Rights Alliance has spoken about the fear young children feel about being accommodated with large groups of older men, which is really sad. I recently met with a young asylum seeker who lives in Waterford and who told me about her devastation at not being able to continue her education like her friends. She is a beautiful young girl. Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, the Government's own rapporteur for child protection, has been clear on this. Direct provision is violating children's most basic rights and their ability to develop a normal life. It is just not acceptable. I know my colleagues in the Civil Engagement group are behind me on this and have made this case strongly themselves. My colleague, Senator Colette Kelleher, worked as a volunteer in a direct provision centre in Cork throughout the summer.
For years people have been objecting to this, yet we are still talking about it. Efforts have been made to improve things, and that is really good, but if we are honest, it is just not good enough. In May, the Government published a new migrant integration strategy but there is nothing in it on asylum seekers. The people we are talking about today do not even warrant inclusion. How can we credibly talk about the integration of migrants in this country and just ignore the thousands of people in direct provision? What message does that send?
Much has been said about the new single application procedure, but I have met people going through that process who have found it almost impossible to navigate. Many have reported that the procedure is complex and difficult. Some of the translations available are so poor that they look as if they were taken straight from Google Translate. As legislators, it is our job to raise these issues and fix them.
One thing I strongly want to raise is the right to work. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality. Our recent report on this issue states clearly clear that "the denial of the right to seek paid employment is a serious infringement of the applicant’s human rights." That is not a minority view. The report has full cross-party support, including from members of the Minister's party. It was also a key part of the McMahon report in 2015 and, as the Minister will know, the Supreme Court recently ruled that the ban on the right to work is unconstitutional. We need the Government to act on this. I listened to the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, debate our report in the Dáil last week. He said that a decision is being worked on by the Departments. Will the Minister please give us a clear indication of when we can expect a decision and whether asylum seekers are being consulted? I am worried that the response will be overly restrictive. We will see some minor right to work but it will be just enough to get the Supreme Court off our backs. I urge the Minister to push his officials not to go down this road. I realise that he is in a difficult position. He has spoken with passion on these issues previously. I know him to be a thoroughly decent man who sincerely wants to improve people lives. I ask him, therefore, to go with his conscience on this and give these people the chance to work.
I want to quote one man in the system who appealed to Mr. Justice Bryan McMahon. He said:
Just let me work. Let me get up in the morning. Let me put on my clothes and have my breakfast with my children, and come back in the evening and say - ‘today I worked’.
That is not someone looking for support from the State; it is a person who, like any of us, wants to be able to support himself. It is about basic human dignity and the ability to use one's skills and talents. This Government likes to talk about a republic of opportunity. If, however, we deny people the right to work, then we confine them to poverty. Where is the opportunity in that?
I will finish by saying again that this system is shameful and will leave a legacy for which we will all have to answer. We look back at the neglect and the abuse inflicted upon people in the Magdalen laundries and other State institutions and ask how these things happened. Well, this is how it happens, through endless debates and reports but no significant change. Direct provision is a stain on the country's conscience and a denial of basic human rights. If we believe in justice and decency, we cannot stand over it.
I thank Senator Black. The Order of Business says that only group spokespersons are to speak, that they have eight minutes each and that their time can be shared. Senator Norris is not a member of a group but I am happy to exercise my discretion and allow him to speak for up to five minutes.
I thank the Acting Chairman. I very much welcome his ruling. I have raised this matter over many years, as the Minister knows. I welcome the Minister. I think he is a decent man. There have been some improvements but they have been gradual, painstaking and slow. I introduced legislation in this area to the House in 2014 and the then Minister, Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, said that the whole matter would be resolved within six weeks. Two years later, it has not been addressed sufficiently.
I welcome Senator Billy Lawless's speech. He made important points about the Supreme Court judgment. It is refreshing that somebody who has campaigned so vigorously for the undocumented Irish in the United States, of whom there are 50,000, should see this as directly analogous to the treatment of asylum seekers in Ireland. This is a case that those of us who have been campaigning on the issue of direct provision have made over many years.
I would also like to point to the specific difficulties of gay people who apply for asylum. In the past they were asked questions about not looking gay or about being married. There is a compulsion on people in these societies to marry. It was the same in this country not so very long ago. If they are denied asylum, having acknowledged their sexual orientation, they face very considerable dangers when they go back home, amounting to death in some cases. One has to be terribly careful about the way in which these particular applications are processed.
It is ironic that the direct provision system was introduced on Human Rights Day in 1999, particularly as it has universally been seen as a breach of people's human rights. There has also been some improvement in the International Protection Appeals Tribunal. I very much welcome that. I look back to the days when Ms Justice Harding Clark, in a case involving a Sudanese asylum seeker, said:
Sometimes the court is called upon to review a decision which is so unfair and irrational and contains so many errors that judicial review seems an inadequate remedy to redress the wrong perpetrated on an applicant. This is such a case.
This is the history with which we are dealing. I am very glad that has been cleared up.
With regard to the Minister's speech, there are some good things in it but it is also a bit like the curate saying "good in parts". The Minister says that if refugees and asylum seekers got full social welfare and if some were outside the system they would be vulnerable to theft. Every citizen in this country who is in receipt of social welfare could be banged on the back of the head and his or her money taken. That is not a justification for the Minister at all.
Mr. Justice McMahon was mentioned. We really owe him a debt of gratitude for the work he has done. I see the Minister nodding in agreement. Mr. Justice McMahon is not uncritical of the system. Just last year he described the provisions as continuing to be - and he used these words - "narrow" and "mean". That is not unequivocal support for the Government's position. The Minister mentioned 98% of the McMahon report's recommendations. I have been through this several times with different Ministers. That figure conceals the fact that the Government is saying that they have been implemented or are in progress.The phrase "in progress" muddies the water. I do very much welcome the fact we now have a single application procedure. This is a major advance and it would be very mean-minded not to acknowledge that.
The Minister said asylum seekers will soon have access to the labour market, but when? This is not the result of a Government initiative but of a Supreme Court decision. Residents being given access to the services of the Ombudsman is excellent. I am very glad of that. On the business of negative stereotypes being promoted in this House, I very much doubt that anybody in Ireland is watching this debate as it takes place so I do not think it is going to have a huge impact. I did introduce legislation, the Immigration Reform (Regularisation of Residency Status) Bill, in 2014 and again in 2016. Under section 7, which is the principal business, people would have been entitled to reside in the State and would have enjoyed the same rights to travel within, to or from the State as those to which Irish citizens are entitled. They would have had the same freedom to practise religion and so on. They would have been entitled to seek and enter into employment. There would have been the right to form or be a member of any association or trade union, to have access to the courts, and to have access to education. This is a very important point which has been delayed for far too long. It is urgent that it is now addressed because it is an extraordinary situation. People who have gone through the Irish education system up to secondary school and who apply to go to university are charged the same rate as people from outside the European Union. They are having to scrape together €10,000. On €19.20 a week - I note that my colleagues left out the 20 cent - it would take a hell of a long time to save up €10,000. This needs to be addressed urgently.
I would say the Minister has shown some progress but it is slow, painstaking, not quick enough and the aspect of the right to work, which is only a commitment so far, has only been entered into by the Government as a result of a Supreme Court decision. Thank God for the Supreme Court and the humane and decent men and women who serve upon it.
I thank the Senator. Another Deputy has decided to visit us today. Perhaps it is because we are so much closer to the Dáil Chamber. I welcome to the Gallery Deputy James Lawless, who is here with Dr. Neil O'Boyle from the school of communications in DCU.
The last time I spoke on this issue, the Minister described my contribution as bizarre and extraordinary. I hope my contribution is a bit more to his liking today.
I wish to inform the House that on the anniversary of the election of Donald Trump, 8 November, in Liberty Hall, there will be an event called Irish Stand, raising funds directly for young people in direct provision. There is a youth project with which the Irish Refugee Council is involved which is in danger of closure. Performers including Senator Frances Black and others will be performing on the night. On 8 November last year, everybody felt a little bit colder and the world seemed a little bit less generous.
I am very critical of the Government's attitude towards this issue, as the Minister knows. In the draft programme for Government there was a sentence in black and white, which I remember reading, stating that the Government would implement the recommendations of the McMahon report. When the actual programme for Government came out, that sentence had been deleted. I do not know who deleted it, if it was a political figure or somebody in the Minister's Department. It was certainly no longer there and the commitment was no longer in evidence.
As Senator Norris quite rightly said, it is to be welcomed that the Minister has announced that the Government will move to enable people in the asylum system - not all of whom are in direct provision - to access the labour force. Again, as has been stated, that is on foot of a Supreme Court judgment and not anything that came from within the Government. I hope the Minister will not consider it bizarre or extraordinary for me to say that people should spend no more than six months in the system. If that were the situation, we would be able stand over the system as it is.
It is very difficult to stand over a system that allows people to languish in these centres for a prolonged period. I visited many of these centres, as I am sure the Minister has. If he has not, I encourage him to do so. The Minister of State, Deputy Stanton has visited a huge number of them. The stench of desperation, particularly for children, will persist in this country for an awfully long time. The aspiration of having a very short turnover in any centre must be held. I understand that the housing shortage is adding to the problems and that community welfare officers throughout the country are dealing proactively with those in direct provision who have their papers and wish to move on. The number of long-stay residents in the system has gone down. From 2015 to 2017 there was a reduction of 1,500 in the number of those in the system for more than three years. However, this should never have been allowed to occur in the first place. The system should have been reviewed five years after it came into existence, in 2005, or after ten years, in 2010. It was not until we had an agreement between Fine Gael and the Labour Party in 2014 that the system finally came to be reviewed and reformed properly.
The sentence was deleted from the programme for Government. I did not see any mention of it in the confidence and supply arrangement between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Unless I am greatly mistaken, I do not remember any mention of the matter in the campaign manifesto of our current Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, when he was telling the nation why he wanted to lead us. It is important to note that this House has consistently and constantly raised the issue on a cross-party basis, regardless of our political background. We are keeping it at the forefront of our minds. We want to engage with the Minister on the progress of the McMahon report. Mr. Justice Bryan McMahon is quite critical of the Government's inaction on the implementation of his report.
Again, I am aware the Minister found it extraordinary the last time when I pointed out that this report was not sent out to consultants, independently written and then handed back to Government. It was signed off on by Department officials and was negotiated between Department officials, who were members of the working group, and NGOs. Sometimes when a report has been done by an expert group and handed back to the Government, people can dismiss it as being too idealistic or ideological or not being in the real world. This report was negotiated and tossed back and forth. When it was signed off on, there was an expectation that it would be implemented to the letter. Any problem the Department may have had with any of the recommendations had already been addressed. Many of the NGOs put their reputations on the line in going with the report as they had a mandate to end direct provision, and although the report was very much less than that, they were willing to go with it because they expected it to be implemented in its entirety. One of the NGOs walked away. If I were a member of any of those NGOs who acted in good faith in respect of this report, I do not know if I would have the heart to deal with the Department of Justice and Equality again. Although there was trust that the situation would be improved, over two years later we are still debating how many of the recommendations have been brought to fruition.
Can we at least have the aspiration that nobody in the system will spend more than six months in a direct provision centre? Can we ensure that the long-stay residents are moved out of the system? I acknowledge that we have begun to roll out oversight, but can this be continued?Can we ensure that, when it comes to the report's implementation, we do not argue back and forth over what percentage of its recommendations has been implemented? The aspiration in what we are trying to achieve should not be a party political point-scoring exercise. Rather, it should be to achieve something for children in our care. Those children expect much better of the country of a hundred thousand welcomes.
I thank the Acting Chairman. I also thank the Seanadóirí for their contributions. Not only did I listen carefully, but I was pleased to receive some of their suggestions. I thank Senators Clifford-Lee, Lawless, Conway, Ó Clochartaigh, Black, Norris and Ó Ríordáin. If I did not previously acknowledge the good work and contribution of Seanadóir Ó Ríordáin towards this process in his capacity as the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, I will do so now. I listened carefully to him the last time and today. It is important that we work together. Senator Ó Clochartaigh suggested that Seanadóirí meet together and form a group. Speaking on behalf of myself and the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, I would be happy to engage with Senators-----
-----some of the points that have been raised today.
Initially, I had the opportunity of setting out at some length the improvements that had been made to date. I will not repeat myself but I am committed to delivering an international protection system in Ireland that provides for decisions on applications in the shortest possible timeframes. This issue has been raised. It presents a particular challenge. Regarding our judicial system, Senator Ó Ríordáin mentioned a period of six months. I would suggest an initial target of nine months and then see what we can do to reduce it, but I would like to see this issue addressed.
I will acknowledge a number of specific points that have been raised. It is important to recognise that 136 of the McMahon recommendations have been implemented in full, with a further 33 in progress. Of those 33, many are at an advanced stage. I would be happy to keep Seanadóirí fully apprised of improvements.
Senator Clifford-Lee stated that one third of judicial reviews had been successful. That was under the old legislation and I do not know of any judicial review under the current legislation that has been successful. It should also be recognised that there are fewer reviews under it. We should consider the current legislation rather than the ills and inadequacies of previous regimes. I am unsure what purpose doing otherwise would serve in terms of working together.
I wish to discuss the important issue of the right to seek employment. In this regard, I acknowledge the constructive contribution of Senator Lawless. My Department is chairing the interdepartmental task force set up by the Government to examine how best to give effect to the Supreme Court judgment. We are working hard examining the judgment's implications for State services across the Government. I expect the task force to present its proposed solutions to the Government within weeks. I do not want to pre-empt the task force's deliberations by entering into speculation on what might be proposed as the best option for the State to comply with the judgment but the recommendations will be carefully considered by the Government before the State makes its submission to the court at the appropriate time. The granting of access to the labour market could also have repercussions for the system of direct provision as we know it. For example, if an applicant has economic security, the need to be dependent on the State will be somewhat alleviated. The task force is examining all of these issues and I look forward to receiving its report. The Minister of State or I will be happy to revert to the Seanad at the earliest opportunity.
I am working towards getting decisions made within a period of nine months, which is the European standard. Applicants are entitled to appeal and to have the subject matter of their appeals judicially reviewed. We have reformed and resourced the new International Protection Appeals Tribunal. In the Supreme Court case, the applicant had been delayed by the judicial review for almost half of his eight years in the system. The new Act ensures that such a scenario will not present a difficulty.
I regret that Senator Clifford-Lee had to bring the matter of the books to the floor of the Seanad. I agree with what she said, but I must point out that Mosney, which is the centre in question, recently received a consignment of preschool books from Meath County Library. We are not aware of books being turned away. In other centres, donations are only turned away if too many are offered. I do not suppose that was the case in the matter as presented, but I would be happy to have it investigated because it should not have happened.
Senator Black referred to the rights of children and families. I agree with many of her comments. Recently, I had the opportunity to meet the Children's Rights Alliance, which welcomed a significant measure of progress on the McMahon proposals.
I acknowledge Senator Norris's long-standing interest in and leadership on LGBT issues and I take his point seriously. I would be happy to sit down with him if there are cases that he would like to bring to my attention. We are fully open to recognising the particular challenges facing gay people, many of whom are fleeing persecution in jurisdictions where they would be subjected to criminalisation and discrimination. We can discuss this matter.
Senator Ó Clochartaigh referred to significant profits, but I am not sure if that tallies with the Government's anxiety about providing reception centres when we are not flush with applications. I am not sure about the extent to which the Senator's commentary on profits in the private sector stands up.
The rates are €32.50 per person per day. That is the cost to the State. It acts as a disincentive to new people providing centres. If the companies are to be portrayed in pubic as large private sector profiteers, I am not sure that will stand up.
Mr. Justice McMahon was only allowed to consider changes to the system, not its abolition.I will repeat what I said in my earlier contribution. I am happy to receive submissions from Senators or outside agencies and bodies on the matter of a sustainable replacement system. I have not heard any from Sinn Féin, although it has referred to alternatives before.
I would be happy to hear from Sinn Féin. I acknowledge the contributions of Seanadóirí who have indicated that as far as they are concerned there has been a measure of progress. I have visited some centres. I have two in my constituency, one of which I have been visiting for many years since before my appointment as Minister for Justice and Equality.
As a State, we will continue to balance our immigration and protection systems to ensure there are legal pathways for economic migration. Our response to those in need of international protection will meet the highest international standards and will accord to acceptable international and national humanitarian standards. I am happy to engage further as Senators require.