Seanad debates

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Commencement Matters

Direct Provision System

10:30 am

Photo of Maire DevineMaire Devine (Sinn Fein)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit.

There are currently more than 5,000 people incarcerated in prisons for the innocent of Ireland today. It is direct provision I want talk about. My party believes it is the new eighth amendment. It is the new industrial schools that much shamed the State for many, many years. It is how we treated the most vulnerable. Do we not learn?

When one hears of the conditions at the centres, the idea of waiting indefinitely for such long periods is fairly chilling.A young woman from whom I heard recently referred to her sentence and it is a sentence until she receives a positive or negative decision. I recently heard from people living in direct provision who are members of the LGBTI community and who are having serious problems due to their gender or sexual identity. This is Pride week and I believe it is timely for the Minister to address the issues raised. The recommendations of the McMahon report about improving the lives of LGBTI people in direct provision and the three subsequent implementation reports stated that successive changes had been made. However, there seems to be a vast amount of evidence to the contrary. There are many outstanding issues that have never been addressed. I wish to seek clarity on these issues today.

Heartbreakingly, I have heard that some people need to remain closeted in direct provision because they are sharing a room with strangers and nobody is monitoring who is put with whom. There is evidence of bullying exacerbated by the cramped and stressful conditions in which they are living. In some cases, they are fleeing solely because of sexual identity yet they are put with people who will bully, intimidate and ridicule them. The same people cannot access LGBTI spaces easily because of financial and logistical reasons. Obviously, Dublin is the place for people to go but people in rural areas have nowhere. It might seem to be of little significance to me or the Minister of State but for those people who have been persecuted and abused for who they are, access to space that is safe and welcoming is vital for their physical and mental health.

Unlike fleeing prosecution because of one's ethnicity or political activism, it was highlighted that it is difficult and questionable ethically to "prove" one's LGTBI-ness. One individual told a story of being asked what was his favourite Madonna song as this was one of the criteria for passing a test of LGBTI-ness. It is dangerous and stereotypical, brings about stigma and has an impact on mental health. It is insensitive to say the least. It was stated in the third and final implementation report on foot of the McMahon recommendations that sensitivity training was under way. Can the Minister of State give me a detailed update about where this is?

Considering that asylum applicants are typically waiting around 20 months for their asylum interview at the International Protection Office, by the time they attend their substantive interview, many LGBT people experience added severe stress and mental health difficulties and their capacity to engage with the asylum procedure is significantly reduced. This is particularly problematic in the context of limited or no access to early legal advice.

The Irish Refugee Council, IRC, is doing phenomenal work on these issues. I will put some of its recommendations to the Minister of State and I implore him to take them seriously. In terms of the EU reception conditions directive, the establishment of a formal vulnerability assessment mechanism to identify special reception needs should go beyond acute medical vulnerability and take into account an individual's psychosocial, cultural and other accommodation needs, including the needs of LGBTI people. The IRC's concern is that the current basic health screening that asylum seekers may avail of does not capture the accommodation requirements of many applicants. I want to say "hello" to those listening from direct provision this morning who are hoping that the Minister of State will bring them good news.

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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I am here on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality who sends his apologies. I thank Senator Devine for raising this important issue. Direct provision is the system by which the Government offers support and services to persons seeking international protection in Ireland. Such persons are claiming protection on the basis that they are fleeing persecution - persecution on the basis of their religion, race and also persecution on the basis of their sexual orientation. It is important to point out that a key element of the direct provision system is that services are provided to persons in that system directly by the responsible State Department or agency. I must reject out of hand words like "incarceration", "prison" and "open prison". They are not that. I would ask colleagues not to use those inflammatory statements and to visit the direct provision centres and see the work that is going on there.

On arrival in Ireland, each person seeking protection is offered full-board accommodation by the Department of Justice and Equality. While there is no obligation on any person to accept this offer, I want to state very strongly that the question of any person's sexual orientation is not in any way a determining factor in whether the offer is made. The services offered to persons in the protection process and who are living in accommodation offered by the State are continually improving and this includes supports and services to those in the LGBTI+ community. The Department of Justice and Equality is currently concluding the development of a set of standards which will become an intrinsic part of all future contracts. These standards will place a requirement on managers and front-line staff to receive training across a wide range of areas, including specific training in respect of the possible needs of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and-or intersex persons residing in an accommodation centre. I must also point out that the Ombudsman and Ombudsman for Children also visit these centres and are available to listen to complaints from any people living there.

The draft standards also require that information, posters and confidential contact details are provided to target specific groups including the LGBTI community. In addition, talks and briefings are to be provided to staff and residents to promote dignity and respect to all residents, including any LGBTI residents. These standards have been developed in full consultation with the NGO community and derive from the excellent work carried out by Dr. Bryan McMahon and his team in the report to the Government on improvements to the direct provision system. On behalf of the Minister, I can assure the House that persons who are members of the LGBTI+ community will receive every support possible from managers, staff and State agencies operating with their accommodation centre. Members of the Reception and Integration Agency visit these centres on a regular basis and are available to anybody who wants to consult and meet with them to discuss issues. There are a number of areas where people can get help and support. I want to know about any issues with respect to the bullying mentioned by the Senator or anything else. Staff, officials and I want to know about these incidents, which will be dealt with if we are told about them. There are multiple ways in which residents of these centres can bring these matters to the attention of managers, the staff in the Reception and Integration Agency and the Department, the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for Children so I ask that this would happen. These issues will be dealt with sensitively and appropriately once we know what they are.

Photo of Maire DevineMaire Devine (Sinn Fein)
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I know the Minister of State cares about these issues. It is apt that we raise these issues during what we consider Pride week. There is nothing proud about direct provision. I will call it incarceration. I will not call it what the Minister of State would like me to call it, which would dilute what it really is. The Minister of State is asking LGBTI people in direct provision to become whistleblowers. We know what happens to whistleblowers in this country. We need to be much more proactive in seeking out the issues as opposed to asking vulnerable individuals to make statements. We are aware it goes on. We just need to respond to that very robustly. In this week of Pride, we need to take a radical approach to the great shame that is direct provision and to treat our most vulnerable with integrity and respect.

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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Again, I reject out of hand the terms "incarceration" or "open prison". They are populist, inflammatory and wrong. I ask colleagues not to use those terms. I have visited almost all direct provision centres in the country, some of them on a number of occasions, and I can say that the Senator's contention is completely wrong. I challenge colleagues to tell me what the alternative is. What would they like to see put in place? How would it work? The alternative would be that people would come here looking for asylum and could end up on the streets. That does not happen. Everybody who arrives here is offered accommodation and nobody who looks for asylum is left without a bed, food, security and safety. We are speeding up the process with respect to decisions.

Getting back to the main topic, there is no excuse for any person or society to treat any other person without dignity or respect. This is not an alternative to anything. It is a prerequisite as to how we ourselves would like to be treated. I have listened very carefully to the comments made. If anybody out there is aware of residents in centres who are being treated unfairly or wrongly, they should bring it to our attention. I am not just talking about people who might be the subject of such treatment but others who might know of such treatment, including the Senator.They should bring the details to our attention and we will look into it and deal with it.

While I cannot get into detailed and specific responses at this point, I can assure all Members of the House that I will ask the Minister to revert on any specific point raised. The points raised will be taken into account as the services provided to those in the LGBTI+ community improve. I can assure the House we will work with relevant State agencies to ensure that compliance criteria and standards are finalised for accommodation centres and will continue to be improved. We will also support measures to ensure that centres are inclusive of LGBTI+ young people, with particular consideration of transient gender issues, so that homophobic and transphobic allegations made by refugee asylum seekers and anyone else in these centres are properly investigated, and support is focused on those who may have experienced or who report homophobic or transphobic bullying or harassment in their country of origin.

A project plan is now in place for the development of a national LGBTI strategy for publication by the end of this year. I am chairing the strategy oversight committee and this will include full consideration of all relevant issues for persons living in accommodation centres. As we speak, officials from my Department are meeting with officials from all other Government Departments to progress this LGBTI strategy for the country, and this will include everybody.

I thank the Senator for her remarks. I take these issues very seriously indeed. I thank the Senator for bringing these issues to our attention and ask her to visit all the centres. If there are issues she is aware of, she can bring them to my attention.