Wednesday, 27 November 2019
Provision of Accommodation and Ancillary Services to Applicants for International Protection: Statements
I am pleased to have the opportunity to make a statement to the House on the matter of supports for international protection applicants. We had a thoughtful and respectful debate on this issue in the other House on 13 November. I am sure today will be the same.I simply want to reflect on the fact that the international humanitarian laws which we are bound by as proud and active members of the United Nations, have their origins in horrendous conflicts - not least the Second World War. That gargantuan conflict began on this Continent and resulted in tens of millions of people being persecuted, displaced, starved and killed. The passage of time and the success of the European Union in bringing peace to this part of the world may have contributed to an occasional complacency or ambivalence towards the plight of those fleeing conflict, but I believe that we need to not only honour our commitments to those seeking asylum but also to honour their origins.
The EU has now developed its own body of law dealing with these issues. Ireland, like other countries, is obliged by EU and international law to examine the claim of any person who comes here and claims international protection, also known as asylum, under clearly defined grounds and circumstances. These grounds relate to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, nationality, religion, political opinions or membership of a particular social group, or where the person would be at risk of suffering serious harm if returned to his or her home country. Sadly, each of these grounds arose not from theory but from real life situations endured by people in their countries of origin. It is important that we bear this in mind during our discussions on this issue. While we can all appreciate the desire to create a better life for ourselves and our loved ones that, in itself, does not meet the strict qualifying criteria for international protection.
Once a claim is made, a legal process is set in train. While that process is under way, we offer a range of State services to applicants without means, including food, accommodation, health services, utilities and educational provision for children. In general, and in common with most other EU member states, these services are offered in centres which have over the years allowed for the swift provision of services to applicants. In the past many applicants did not avail of the services on offer but that situation has changed in recent times. I want to make clear that there is no obligation to accept the offer and there is no restriction on an applicant's freedom of movement throughout the State while these offers are being made.
I have heard people falsely describe the centres as places where people are unlawfully detained or incarcerated. I have heard these places described as open prisons. I have heard them described as places of custody. I have heard them described as places that are inhumane. As my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, stated in the recent debate in the other House, once people start using that language they are saying that asylum seekers in some way deserve to be locked up, that they are prisoners and they are creating fear. We must be careful about our language because such language is not correct. Such language is false. It is wrong. I would go further and say that language is dangerous.
Some Members of this House will remember the context of the introduction of direct provision 20 years ago this month. The then Government opted to move away from a system of allowances where applicants essentially fended for themselves with financial help from the State, to a centre model where services are directly provided to residents. The reasons for this move included the prevalence of homelessness among applicants and the vulnerability of many, including to human traffickers.
Since the introduction of direct provision, over 65,000 people have been helped by the system. It is no surprise that at the moment of its creation the system was not perfect; indeed, it had many flaws. Over the years many people have blithely called for its abolition or repeated untrue rumours about the nature of the direct provision. I am not aware of anyone who has proposed a workable alternative for service provision but I am open to engaging with anyone who wishes to do so. I made this offer during the Dáil debate and I repeat it here in the Seanad. What this Government and its predecessor have focussed on is identifying and systematically addressing the flaws in the direct provision system to ensure that we provide the best possible services to applicants in the best possible way.
Direct provision is a guarantee of shelter, food and a place of safety to a person who claims international protection on the basis of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, nationality, religion, political opinions or membership of a particular social group, or where that person would be at risk of suffering serious harm if he or she were to be returned. Any credible alternative put forward to replace the system must be capable of providing the wrap-around services that applicants need on arrival. They are seeking protection in a strange country where they may not know the language or customs - they certainly would not know the law. Recognising the complexity of their needs, supports and services for international protection applicants are delivered under a whole-of-Government approach.
Last year, our reception system was placed on a statutory footing for the first time when the Government decided to opt in to the EU (recast) reception conditions directive. This directive brings with it a series of standards and rights for applicants, which we are now legally obliged to deliver. I am pleased that in Ireland we can now be confident that our services are on a par with those in other EU countries. In fact, in many instances, our services are much better than the services which obtain in many fellow EU countries. Opting in to the directive built on a concerted effort to tackle many of the shortcomings in direct provision through a working group chaired by Mr. Justice Bryan McMahon. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Mr. Justice McMahon for his dedicated work – along with all those who assisted him on the working group. I want to also acknowledge the leadership shown by the former Minister for Justice and Equality, Mr. Alan Shatter.
Arising from the McMahon report significant improvements have been introduced in recent years, such as the roll-out of independent living where applicants can cook for themselves, and private living spaces for families. Residents also now have access to the services of the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for Children. Indeed, I was pleased to hear the comments of the Ombudsman, Mr. Peter Tyndall, speaking at the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality on 25 September last. Referring to other centres that had opened recently in places such as Lisdoonvarna and Wicklow, the Ombudsman stated that "it was important to note in the current context that a lot of the supposed outcomes – in terms of opening a centre, in terms of integrating communities – have not transpired". Mr. Tyndall also stated that people should treat others as they would wish to be treated. That is a simple but powerful message that we should all try to live by.
In line with the EU directive I have referenced, access to the labour market is provided for applicants who are waiting nine months or more on a first instance decision on their protection application. This means that applicants can become economically independent giving them more options regarding their accommodation and living arrangements. To date, I have granted labour market access permission to more than 3,400 eligible applicants, including over 2,500 to residents in accommodation centres, and further applications are being approved on a daily basis.
In addition to the improvements that are being made to living standards and conditions, we are also speeding up the processing of protection applications. I accept that this needs to be quicker and we continue to strive to improve matters. My Department is taking all reasonable measures to achieve this while acknowledging that the processing of applications is complex and that each application deserves and receives an individual assessment. Earlier this month, the international protection office commenced interviews by video conference with applicants based in Cork. This gives us greater flexibility to meet the needs of international protection applicants nationwide and it is planned to roll out this service in other locations shortly. I sought and achieved an additional €1 million under the Justice and Equality Vote in the budget, which will allow for extra staffing resources to further improve processing times of cases on claims and applications.
The International Protection Act 2015, steered through the Oireachtas by my predecessor, Ms Frances Fitzgerald, MEP, introduced a single application procedure for the first time. This involves all elements of a person's protection claim - refugee status, subsidiary protection status and permission to remain - being considered together rather than sequentially as before. The aim of the single procedure is to help reduce waiting times significantly and to ensure that we are identifying at the earliest stage possible those who need our protection and those who can safely return to their home country.From time to time, cases where applicants have lived in an accommodation centre for many years crop up in the media and these are understood to be the norm. That is far from an accurate picture. Where an applicant is in a centre for many years, there is generally a complex set of reasons. For example, it may involve a case where an applicant has received a negative decision, or a series of negative decisions on his or her application, and is exercising the right to appeal. This can often be through the courts which can take some time. An applicant with a negative decision may be a family member of another person or persons with a live application and we strive not to split up families.
While it is our wish that those granted permission to remain would move on from our centres to allow new applicants access to services provision, there are almost 850 people with status or permission to remain continuing to live in our centres. My Department is assisting these people to access mainstream housing with the support of organisations like DePaul Ireland and the Peter McVerry Trust. We are making some progress in this regard and I acknowledge that partnership between my Department and these agencies.
Continuing to accommodate people who are no longer in the protection process, combined with a 60% increase in applicants this year, is placing considerable strain on our reception system. As a result, a considerable number of people are now being accommodated outside of our centres in commercial hotels and guest houses on an emergency basis. This is not a satisfactory situation and one I want phased out as soon as possible. Accordingly, it is essential that new accommodation centres are opened in order that the full range of services can be delivered in a structured manner to persons seeking our protection.
My Department is running procurement competitions on a regional basis throughout the country to find and secure accommodation. My preference would be to locate any new accommodation centres in larger urban centres but that option is not always open to my Department. Indeed, in the current climate, it is rarely open to us. Rapidly increasing numbers of applicants mean we need to identify and open centres quickly. We tender and a commercially sensitive procurement process is undertaken. The negotiation is with the proposed provider who is generally required to complete mobilisation works in line with our standards.
I am keenly aware of the dissatisfaction expressed by communities who hear through a rumour mill that a centre might be opening in their area. If the contractual arrangements are not finalised, these communities feel frustrated when the Department is unable to publicly comment. I, and in particular my colleague the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, have spoken to many people in this situation. It was also raised by several Deputies during the Dáil debate and I expect Senators will have similar views. The common concerns expressed relate to service provision, education, health, transport and so on. Where a centre is opening, it is the responsibility of the Government to ensure that provision is made for any additional services required. It is clear we need to communicate clearly and promptly with communities on these issues to provide them with the information and the reassurances they need. We do not spontaneously create hotel rooms or apartments or other accommodation in a location when we propose to open a centre. These accommodation facilities already exist and could be fully occupied by anyone at any time. It should not create an issue that the occupants happen to be international protection applicants, however.
I remind communities that accommodation centres are not new. They are located all over the country and community relations are harmonious in all of these locations. I am familiar with the centres located in my constituency. There was some unfounded controversy last week about the visiting of centres. May I ask Senators, who under the Constitution might not have constituencies but de facto do having regard to our political system, to visit and become a friend of their local centres so as to become acquainted with and acknowledge the work that is happening there. They will find it a worthwhile exercise. The same goes for local authority elected members who are also leaders in communities.
I was disappointed to see demonstrations outside premises due to house asylum seekers recently. I understand those demonstrating may feel they are sending a message to the Government. They need to be conscious that it is not only the Government which is listening. The people to be given shelter on a temporary basis are also listening, along with every person from a minority background in the country. Far right, anti-immigrant activists are also listening and looking for opportunities to incite fear and hatred, as far right groups have done throughout history. I am appealing directly to all of our people, but also to people who have the opportunity to speak up to show support for asylum seekers and refugees and for the local communities being asked to welcome them. I commend the community in Borrisokane, County Tipperary, and its public representatives for their positive approach to the new centre recently opened in their town. Their constructive engagement with my Department has ensured that 16 families will spend this Christmas in their new homes surrounded by a supportive and welcoming community.
As part of our continued commitment to improving the lives of asylum seekers in the State, the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, and I have recently published new national standards for accommodation centres. We have also established two groups to review the reception system in the context of the State’s commitment under the EU directive, as well as to examine how we can continue to improve conditions and communications. We need to improve and get right communications. An interdepartmental group, chaired by the deputy Secretary General of my Department, has been established to ensure all Departments are proactively delivering on their responsibilities. There is a responsibility on the Departments of Health, Housing, Planning and Local Government and Community and Rural Affairs, particularly with centres going into small rural communities. We must respond with a whole-of-Government approach. The group is reviewing the management of applicants for international protection, considering the short to medium-term options which could be implemented in addition to, or in replacement of, the existing system, as well as the implementation by all parties of the State’s obligations under the directive.
The new head of the International Organisation for Migration just this week stated that the housing of asylum seekers seeking international protection in Ireland is not a bad system and compares favourably with those of other European countries. The second group is a consultative group chaired by Dr. Catherine Day, the former Secretary General of the European Commission. This group, which is currently being established, will advise on the implementation of the new national standards. It will also identify good practice in other European countries, examine international protection and migration trends and advise on developing positive relationships between local communities and the systems for supporting asylum seekers. A chairperson like Dr. Catherine Day will be independent of me in the manner she goes about her business in this regard. Mr. Justice Bryan McMahon performed a good service in this regard, as indeed has Judge Paddy McMahon. Both men offered advice to the Department from time to time and acted in a wholly positive way. We need to continue to develop relationships of a most positive nature between local communities and the systems in place to support asylum seekers and those seeking international protection.
I look forward to the outcomes of their important work and to hearing the contributions from Senators in today’s debate.On my behalf and that of the Department and the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, in particular, who spends a significant amount of his time dealing, or should I say grappling, with issues because they are complex and difficult, I commit to engagement with Senators and invite them to engage with me in a positive way because we need to ensure that our own national legal obligations are fully complied with. I would go as far as to say that we have a moral obligation, but I accept that this is something on which Senators may have a different opinion. We are not a House of morals. I believe we have a moral obligation and duty to those seeking international protection on our shores. Let us work on this together because we can improve it. We need to get it right but we need to ensure that in the course of improving matters, we do not give oxygen to those in our community and from elsewhere who are stoking up fears from outside communities to allow them to gain root. This would be a tragedy that would compound the tragedy being faced by the vast majority of people seeking international protection in our country.
I welcome the Minister to the Chamber. I am really pleased to hear the words he said and to have the opportunity to discuss the issue of direct provision, or as it is correctly phrased on the Seanad schedule, "the provision of accommodation and ancillary services to applicants for international protection". That is what we, as a Government and as a nation, have a responsibility for do - to offer refuge and protection to those in need. Last week, when I raised this issue on the Order of Business, I used the word "humanity" and I think we should all remember this. The majority of the men, women and children coming to Ireland are fleeing situations that are not of their own making, and as a State, we have a responsibility to offer protection.
Our own history is indelibly linked to the refugees of today. Irish people sought sanctuary in the US, were shipped to Australia, and went to England for work with the hope of building a new life for themselves and a brighter future for their families. Former President Mary McAleese recently stated that considering their own history, Irish people have no right to be racist. Ireland has become a multicultural country. It is estimated that nearly 20% of our population comes from other countries. These people are now living, working and contributing to the State.
There has been some disquiet recently from some sections that have used unsavoury tactics to put blame on the so-called stranger for some of the economic and social injustices in the State at present. Thankfully, the true instincts of Irish people are borne out and we see across the country, from Killarney to Carrick-on-Suir to the middle of Eyre Square and Salthillin my own city of Galway, the welcome given by local residents who offer the gift of education in their local schools and help with integration of refugees into the communities in which they reside. I can say from visiting these centres that there is an unbelievable sense of camaraderie and inclusion there. There has been nothing like the type of rhetoric I have heard over recent months in other areas. I very much welcome it and am very proud that in Galway city at least, people are welcoming these refugees. People do not leave their countries with nothing to come to other countries. They want to stay in their own countries and we must offer them refuge. I heard only this week from my Seanad colleague, Senator Lombard, about wonderful things happening in the community of Kinsale where the people there have come together to welcome a family from Syria and help them become part of the community.
Approximately 6,000 asylum seekers are placed in nearly 40 direct provision centres throughout Ireland while there are probably another 1,400 living in other emergency accommodation. It is incumbent on the Government and it is our responsibility as Irish people to do everything within our power to improve the lives of asylum seekers and refugees. My God, we are the last country in the world to talk about racism and to be racist.
I thank the Minister for his statement today, which was a really strong one. I certainly concur with what he said, particularly his call for all Senators and Deputies to visit the direct provision centres in his area and see the people who are there. They are so grateful to be here, number one, and we have a responsibility to look after them.
I thank the Minister for his contribution and the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, for his sterling work in this area, which is very complex, difficult and challenging but important in terms of our international obligations and our obligations to people who are vulnerable and who come here seeking our protection. It has been very difficult. I note that this month marks 20 years since the direct provision system was introduced as a way of dealing with this situation. Back in 2002, 3,500 to 4,000 people came to this country seeking our assistance. These are the type of figures that we are dealing with today, so it is significant, challenging and difficult. It is not easy but it is the right thing to do.
There are 39 direct provision centres in this country providing accommodation to people who need it. I do not hear any groups in the areas surrounding any of those centres saying that there are difficulties or challenges. I certainly do not see any of them protesting, lighting bonfires, setting fires or standing outside the gates of any of those centres. I remember all too vividly the challenges, difficulties, perceptions, worries and concerns that existed in Lisdoonvarna back then. When the centre opened, those concerns evaporated very quickly. I remember very clearly a meeting where the vast majority of people were against the arrival of the centre. I would contend that if there was a proposal to close down the centre today, there would be twice as many people attending a meeting to stop it. If people give it a chance, the system is not as bad as it is portrayed. The Minister's comments regarding what has been said about the system are correct.
Mr Justice Bryan McMahon produced a very detailed report and the vast majority of his recommendations were implemented. Compared with when it first started, direct provision today is completely different. It has now met many of the recommendations made by Mr. Justice McMahon. Yes, there is more work to be done. I understand that the new tenders contain a requirement for independent living where people are able to cook their own food and live a much more independent existence within the direct provision system. Of course, nobody wants to see people in a direct provision centre, which is why we put legislation through these Houses a couple of years ago to streamline applications to facilitate people getting an early decision. It is correct to say the reason for people being in direct provision centres for a prolonged period is usually because the issues surrounding their particular application are complex and private.
The other major challenge with the numbers is the fact that something like 700 or 800 people who have been given permission to remain cannot get accommodation. I commend the work being done by the Peter McVerry Trust, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and others to help those people secure accommodation.Another great challenge, which was debated in this House ad nauseamby many people from across the Chamber, is the fact these people were not in a position to work. Certainly, the fact that the Minister has issued approximately 3,500 permissions to work is very welcome. People who are in the system for nine months are allowed to work and facilitated, which is a good thing because their skills are needed.
There have been two or three significant pillars of advancement in the direct provision system, thus making it more tolerable and as good as is available in any of our neighbouring European countries. Indeed, it is much better than most. I can vouch for that as I have visited camps in other countries that are equivalent to our direct provision centres. What we have done in places like Mosney and other centres is comparable with what is available anywhere in Europe, and so it should be.
I share the Minister's deep concern at the infiltration by people who hold far right views and how they have taken advantage of the genuine concerns of communities. The development must be watched, followed very carefully and, hopefully, killed off. I hope that communities will not allow themselves to be taken advantage of by extreme groups because it is not the type of céad mile fáilte that we want to see and are capable of in this country. Unfortunately, when people are manipulated things are said that are not true and are plainly wrong.
The Minister has issued an invitation to people across the House and in local authorities to visit centres. When people visit them they will come away with a much different view and a clearer understanding because they will have talked to human beings. The people in direct provision are like everyone here except they did not have the same opportunities in life enjoyed by us. Who can blame anybody for dreaming about opportunities? Nobody. The best way to kill the right-wing racial tendencies that can prevail when there are vacuums is by creating engagement where people can sit down, have a cup of coffee, listen and talk.
I commend the Minister and Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, present for manning up to our international responsibilities. We are on a journey because as time goes on more and more people will seek our protection. Long term we will probably have to consider having purpose-built, State-run and State-owned direct provision centres that provide various types of accommodation. That is a medium to long-term plan and perhaps at some stage the Minister will come back and update us on the matter.
Nobody has given me a concrete alternative to the current direct provision system. Absolutely, we have a responsibility to make the system as humane as possible, which is happening. I challenge anybody to disagree with me or provide evidence to me that the direct provision centres that are operating today are not totally different from the ones that operated 15 years ago. The centres and standards are completely different. Nobody, who is in anyway fair-minded, could argue the contrary.
I welcome the Minister of State to the Seanad.
I listened with interest to the Minister when he addressed the House and I agreed with quite a lot of what he said. His comments were very important in terms of intervention. He expressed his position in a clear and coherent fashion. I took a great degree of political heart from a lot of what he said in terms of facing up and facing down.
Another word for what Senator Conway termed as "racial tendancies" is racism. There is a duty and obligation on us to face down racism and challenge it where it exists in society. We must also call out and face down the groups and organisations, whom I would call fascists and racists, as they are exploiting the misfortune in which many people find themselves.
I acknowledge that the Minister has left the Chamber. Therefore, I do not expect an answer to my query and shall make a point. Senators have come into this Chamber to challenge the very clear, stark failings in the direct provision system. The system is inhumane, puts people in jeopardy, and they face extreme marginalisation and isolation. We are not saying so to amplify the sentiments of some of these characters who are trying to exploit racism but because we have visited the centres, met the inhabitants and heard their stories. I believe there is an obligation on us. For all of the sentiments expressed by the Minister, we have a duty and obligation to articulate here that experience and views. It is also because we do have a vested interest in the experience of these people coming to Ireland, and we want that on the record and addressed. It is not necessarily like what Senator Conway talked about where people want a replacement and he challenged us to outline an alternative to direct provision. If direct provision has to exist then that is fair enough but the current system of direct provision is broken and must be fixed. The Minister of State may shake his head but Senator Conway and others were with me, as members of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality, when we visited some of centres. I acknowledge and fully accept that some of the centres functioned appropriately and well. However, at some of the centres the inhabitants suffered terribly and disproportionately. Of course the system is broken when there is a stark obvious imbalance between the type and standard of care that is provided between one centre and another, and there is fluctuation and variation across this State.
Another big concern is emergency accommodation, which was clearly expressed at a number of recent hearings by the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality. I accept that the Minister gave us fair warning, which I believe came from a genuine place, but I shall unashamedly say the following. If people are in emergency accommodation and they can face a situation where because a hotel - a private interest - has a previous booking for a wedding, function or whatever and people are put on buses to be relocated and scattered across this State and put into bedsits, bed and breakfast accommodation or hotels without knowing where they are going, when they are coming back and not know if they will be housed with their family then that is an inhumane situation. I do not say that to take a potshot at the Minister, the Minister of State or anyone else but simply to point out a fact of life. It is incumbent on the Minister, the Minister of State and the Department not to act defensively on this matter. If they throw down a challenge to us that is fair enough, right and legitimate but then, equally, we can throw down a challenge to them as well.
The scariest thing for me was what I was told when I asked the deputy secretary general of the Department of Justice and Equality a question at the committee meeting. I was told that direct provision standards could not be imposed in emergency accommodation situations. I asked the deputy secretary general if the situation could happen again and it was conceded that it could, which indicates to me that the system is broken. I do not take great delight in saying that and it is not a political point scoring exercise against Fine Gael. We are here to talk about direct provision. We asked for the debate a number of weeks ago so let us have a full and open debate now.
The direct provision system is 20 years old and to say its history has been controversial would be an understatement. At all times when we are dealing with the issue of direct provision one must remember that we are dealing with human beings who, in many instances, are very vulnerable and have fled persecution.They have been uprooted from their country, from their families, from their communities, from a familiar, if difficult, way of life and are in shock about the circumstances of their lives. They are facing an uncertain future in a strange country and in many cases cannot speak English. If it is very difficult for adults to manage the circumstances they face as asylum seekers, as it is, how much more difficult is it for their children to manage the upheaval in their lives?
Let compassion and concern be the governing considerations as we reflect on the last 20 years and plan for providing assistance for asylum seekers and refugees in future. I remind those people protesting about accommodating asylum seekers that their protests, behaviour and attitude are adding to the stress and difficulties these vulnerable people are already experiencing.
Racism and fascism have no place in Irish society or on the streets of Ireland. As Senator Lawless rightly said, for centuries Irish people have travelled the globe looking for refuge and a temporary home away from Ireland, whether as economic or political migrants. This State has an obligation to welcome, receive and support asylum seekers. The State's response has been inadequate at times and has failed many asylum seekers. However, that does not mean that direct provision is a bad thing in itself. We must acknowledge that the previous model is broken. We require and can deliver a new model which does not repeat the institutionalised mistakes of the past.
Asylum seekers need the direct support of the Government and the various agencies to assist them in their efforts to reside permanently in Ireland. The Government needs to introduce a new system which at its heart has an ethos that does not criminalise, demean or create suspicion about asylum seekers. We need a new system which dramatically reduces the length of time people are in the system while their applications are processed. The system should permit them to work, study, cook their own meals and have own-door accommodation for each family. This is a basic standard of living that is reflective of the values of Irish society and more broadly a system rooted in human rights.
Due to the housing crisis, caused by Government policy, there is a severe shortage of houses. Therefore, some short-term measures, such as the use of former hotels or schools may be necessary. However, these facilities should be owned and managed by the State and should also be own-door accommodation with access to healthcare, education, training and all the supports which people coming out of traumatic situations need.
The current arrangements with private companies running the direct provision accommodation are open to abuse, where profit may override care and compassion. That system is potentially open to being broken further. We support the use of State-owned land and buildings to house asylum seekers. We support Mr. Justice McMahon's recommendations especially regarding speeding up the application process and own-door accommodation. A better system is urgently required. In that regard I commend the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, on trying to change a broken system and make it better.
We will continue to work with refugees, people in the community, NGOs and the Minister of State to help implement a credible and viable system which treats asylum seekers with respect. It needs to be a system grounded in a human rights approach, ending in the full integration of those who receive refugee status and remain to live among us.
I first became engaged in issues relating to the direct provision system in 2003 or 2004. I was working with the Comhlámh anti-racism project at the time. It was initially an artists' project against racism which rapidly found it had to refocus on the policies being promoted at that time. One of the resources we produced was entitled, "Myths and Facts about Asylum Seekers." That resource was taken up and used by what then existed, the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism, and others. It is something that should be revisited as well as a proper integration strategy.
When looking at that leaflet recently, I found it very depressing that some of these myths and facts are recirculated, refreshed and given a new gloss but are basically on the move again. While I acknowledge the positive aspects in the Minister's speech, much more care must be taken by the Government and public representative, including public representatives in the Government party, to ensure we are not feeding into any myths and facts. When we talk about pressure on housing and the health system, we need to be clear that migrants, and certainly those migrants,who may be coming through the direct provision system, which as we know is a tiny fraction of migrants in Ireland and a tiny fraction of the movement of people across our country, are not the cause and should never be allowed to be linked in any way.
No one is illegal and the right to seek asylum is a right for every person. Unfortunately, the Taoiseach recently talked about illegal migration and legal migration, which is not helpful and is not true. One is allowed to seek asylum coming from wherever. Legal migration takes many courses. If it turns out that a person does not satisfy the criteria, which are very strictly set out, for achieving refugee and protected status, it does not mean the person is illegal or a fraud. It means people have not qualified under one remit and there are other remits, under which they may qualify. If they do not, in that case they will have closed avenues and will not be able to stay.
Ireland has one of the highest refusal rates. These decisions get turned around on appeal sometimes which is a waste of energy for all of us and a cause of great distress for many people.
On the numbers of asylum seekers in Ireland, I was in Kenya two weeks ago. Kenya has 421,000 refugees coming from South Sudan and Somalia. While Kenya has a larger population, its population is only ten times larger than ours and the numbers it is taking are 100 times larger. For perspective, Ireland in 2018 had 6,000 refugees and Kenya had 421,000. Lebanon, a country under severe economic distress, had almost 1.5 million people. People are displaced across the world because we are at a time of great conflict - a priority for us to address - and at a time of great economic distress when we talk about economic migrants caused by issues such as climate change as well.
We have serious moral responsibility for some of the immigration control deals, including the outrageous situation in Libya. The problem we have seen in Libya shows that financially incentivising the warehousing of people by private companies creates a risk, a danger and a perverse incentive. Unfortunately, our direct provision system, largely done through tenders to private companies, some of which do not publish their taxation affairs and some of which are registered overseas, creates a not ideal and dangerous situation in terms of power dynamic, transparency and the delivery of quality services. I would like to see us moving away from that towards public delivery and public supports.
On the power dynamic issue, I have heard many testimonies from people who have been brave to come forward with their status still unconfirmed to talk about their experiences. They closely mirror what I heard again just this week - survivors of abuse and survivors of institutions who talked about the power dynamic in the day by day.
I offer some practical steps. Getting work permits at nine months is too late. Not enough people are getting them. A six-month work permit does not allow somebody to seek a proper or appropriate job. It is important to extend the work permit system so that it really works.
I understand that independent living only applies in one third of the centres at the moment. Independent living is compromised by the fact that many people are restricted by vouchers that can only be used in a particular shop. That again creates an unhealthy power dynamic. It is important for us to look at that practical measure.
Public transport is vital. Most of these people cannot get driver licences because of other restrictions. Public transport should automatically arrive. Regarding the rural link programme, it should be that when a group of asylum seekers are placed in a particular community it comes with the great public benefit of improved public transport.
It is an outrage that any child is missing out on schooling. That needs to be thought through and prepared in advance. The situation in Carrickmacross is unacceptable.
The court decision that the State can deny child benefit is extremely regrettable. What a difference it might make if the State chose to allow child benefit for children in the system. We know the research on adverse childhood events. We know what it does to children's prospects as they become adults. How many adverse childhood events do children in the direct provision system currently experience? How can we stand over it?
People can be relocated at short notice and without due process.They can go to the Ombudsman after the fact but what that relocation does to those who raise their heads above the parapet is dismantle their faith in starting again and making connections.
I want to acknowledge what Senator Martin Conway said about County Clare. What happened in Clare and in many other parts of the country was that the community engaged and the local people reached out. It was voluntary, under-funded schemes-----
I will conclude on this point. There have been vital efforts from the community. Groups such as the asylum seeker's organisation, Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland, MASI and others have pointed out that some of those who claim to be against direct provision are not involved in actively finding ways to connect, support and create integration opportunities. If such people do not reach out and support asylum seekers in our communities then we have to question their motivation. The far right has targeted communities for a reason. Wherever we meet, we must recognise one another's humanity. We need to look very carefully at those who purport to care but who do not follow through with meaningful action like the action we saw in Clare.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate. Yesterday while driving home I was listening to a very interesting programme on Newstalk. It was hosted by Mr. Barry Whyte who visited a lot of direct provision centres around the country. I commend him on the balanced approach he took to the issue. Most people in the media want a row. All they want is the worst case scenario. They want to make a row about what is a very delicate and worrying situation. Displaced people from all over the world are seeking international protection in Ireland. As many of the previous speakers said, Irish people have emigrated all over the world and now we find ourselves in a situation where we are offering international protection to others.
I have tried to find solutions to the many questions posed regarding education and the numbers being accommodated in various towns. Issues have arisen in Rooskey, Ballinamore and Ballaghderreen and people have expressed the concern that the main motivation for some is profit. They are concerned that people are offering accommodation for profit but are not providing the best service. I am not saying that this is a knee-jerk reaction. We are trying to live up to our obligations as a State and are relying on others to provide accommodation, some of whom view this as a commodity. They are providing a service that is evaluated by various Departments but the State could do more to provide accommodation itself. I know that it is very difficult for us to meet our obligations but we need to do more work in this area.
Reference was made to Oughterard, Ballinamore and other areas. When the centre was being opened in the hotel in Ballaghderreen some politicians got it wrong. The citizens of Ballaghderreen came out and warmly welcomed the Syrian people who came to their town. It has worked out very well. The citizens of Ballinamore are no different from the citizens of Ballaghderreen. However, they felt that the model was wrong and that those involved were motivated by profit. We must try to come up with a solution that accommodates people seeking international protection while also allaying the fears of local communities. As Senator Higgins rightly pointed out, misinformation can spread quickly but we must try to allay the fears of local communities.
I thank the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Minister of State for listening to the various groups involved in recent years and for trying to come up with a solution. We must consider alternative methods of delivering accommodation for displaced people from all over the world. As has been discussed, tenders are being submitted by private companies and there is a lack of transparency in the process. We have to work with the people who are proposing to provide accommodation, without whom the State would be in even greater difficulty. That said, we need to examine different aspects of the process. Again, I thank the Minister and Minister of State for sitting down and trying to iron out the difficulties. We must resolve these difficulties to the satisfaction of displaced people who are seeking protection in Ireland. We must do better in the coming weeks, months and years.
I wish to pay tribute to the Minister for Justice and Equality for the speech he delivered here this evening which was very balanced, reasonable and constructive. It should be given some publicity. This House does not get much publicity in terms of press coverage. One can get publicity by saying the wrong thing but frequently one cannot get publicity by saying the right thing. The balance the Minister brought to his contribution was very important.
We face a situation in which there are people who are very obviously abusing xenophobia, the fear of immigration and of foreigners, for political purposes. One does not have to search the Internet for very long to see its seeds. While I do not want to give excessive publicity to it because it is sad enough in its own way, to see someone going into a halal shop and trying to provoke an incident with a decent shop assistant is disturbing. Do these people ever think about the fact that if they went into a kosher shop and had a similar incident with a Jewish shop assistant, nothing other than complete condemnation would be appropriate?
I agree with almost all of the analysis that I have heard here this evening. The real problem, which the Minister and Minister of State must get to grips with, is the delay problem. I know that the Minister and Minister of State cannot wave a magic wand. When I was Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform one of the things that depressed me slightly was that applications for citizenship took so long. The Department used to issue letters to applicants for citizenship saying that there was a three-year delay. The applicants were told not to call or write to the Department but to just accept that there was a three-year wait. I am sure that kind of correspondence is not issued now; I certainly hope it is not. A lot of the problems relating to direct provision including educational, family and social issues, would be hugely reduced if the decision-making process was faster.
The other issue, which is to some extent outside the remit of Ministers and the Government, is the interaction of the Courts Service with the asylum process.Members of the Judiciary are trying to expedite the determination of issues which come before the courts, but the number of cases coming to the courts should be greatly reduced by a more robust decision-making process. We may have to employ many more people in the processing of these asylum or protection applications to get on top of the issue, though that is a gloomy thought.
Before I was appointed Minister in 2002, having been Attorney General since 1999, my predecessor, John O'Donoghue, was struggling to deal with an unprecedented wave of asylum seekers. Up until the 1960s, people only wanted to get out of Ireland, and emigration was a constant theme. Nobody ever mentioned the problem of people coming to our shores. It was a reversal of realities in many respects. Having realised the extent of our incapacity to deal with the size of the problem due to our inexperience and lack of preparedness, we established the Irish-born child scheme to give residency rights to between 10,000 and 15,000 people with whom we simply could not deal. We gave them a pathway of integration into our society, a pathway to citizenship and a means of getting into employment. People forget about that, but that is what was done at the time.
I often hear the things the Minister has said about direct provision. Senator Ó Donnghaile said the system is broken. The system is not perfect and has faults but something like it will always exist, whether in State-provided buildings or delivered by State employees. The crucial thing is to ensure it is of good quality and that the duration of people's stays is limited.
There was a recent hullabaloo in Bray when it was proposed to deport a child who had been here for six years, about which his classmates and others protested. The old hoary chestnut of the referendum on changing the basis of entitlement to citizenship was resurrected in people's minds as an obstacle to doing justice in that particular case. I presume the Minister did that case justice on an administrative basis, and that the Constitution caused him no problems in that regard. People constantly say that referendum was racist, but it was no such thing. The 2002-07 Government made up of the Progressive Democrats and Fianna Fáil, of which I was a part, signalled on the very first day that we would have to deal with the issue that arose in that referendum. We could see European case law decisions such as those in the Chen, Zambrano, Ibrahim and Teixeira cases coming down the tracks. Those decisions would make it impossible for Ireland to have a well-regulated immigration system if it was the only country in the European Union which granted absolute jus solirights to people who gave birth to children not only within this State but also in Northern Ireland. The Minister has said that language on both sides must be moderate, on which I wholly agree with him. I never want to hear the suggestion that that was a racist referendum in this House again, because it was not. It was a sensible referendum which was supported by the major parties and the vast majority of Irish people. There was nothing racist about it.
I thank all Senators who have contributed to the debate. As I have said before, this is one of the major issues of our age and today's debate has been very useful. We need further debates and discussions such as this one.
The Minister, Deputy Flanagan, and I welcome all practical and workable ideas and proposals on how to continue to improve the reception system for applicants. I am heartened by the clear support of Senators for asylum seekers and by the absolute rejection by all parties of the rhetoric of a small number of far-right agitators who seek to sow fear and distrust among communities and hijack the issue for their own ends. I ask all community leaders, faith groups, community groups and elected representatives to continue to stand up for asylum seekers and refugees in this country and to show their support for people who are far from home and asking for our help.
We offer a range of State services to those people, who are very often without means. That includes accommodation, food, health services, utilities, educational provision for children and so on. Generally, and in common with most other EU member states, these services are offered in accommodation centres. Some people say our reception system is inhumane, which I absolutely reject. Ms Lalini Veerassamy, the chief of asylum for the International Organisation for Migration in Ireland, said that our system is good compared with other countries. It is not a bad system, though we all agree it can be improved. I also take issue with the use of the word "inhumane" and other such extreme terms.
The definition of "inhumane" is of a cruel act, a deliberate infliction of pain, suffering, cruelty, abuse or ill treatment. None of us wants to be associated with such terms and we are not doing any of those things. We are always trying to improve the system. We have published the McMahon report and have now issued a set of standards in conjunction with the NGO community to improve as we go along and ensure that centres have own-door accommodation, self-catering accommodation, space for children to play and do their homework, as well as privacy and dignity. That is what we are aiming for. We are under pressure and are struggling at the moment, but we are moving in the right direction. Some 675 people with settled status moved into the community this year with the help of organisations such as DePaul, the Peter McVerry Trust and others. It is a challenge - there is no two ways about that - but one which we are up to meeting, and we will do the best we can for people who come here looking for our protection.
When people use extreme language such as "inhumane", they are giving ammunition to those far-right agitators who use it to block asylum seekers from accessing appropriate accommodation under the guise of concern. I defend the right of anyone to question the Government or its Minister and hold them to account. That is right and correct. We can point to where the system needs improvement, on which we are all working and agree on, but let us be careful of the language we use.
I cannot understand the calls from some to simply abolish a system that provides a guarantee of shelter, food and a place of safety to any person who arrives spontaneously to seek protection, which is what our current system does. Significant work has been done in recent years to improve the system, including the implementation of the McMahon report, the introduction of the right to work and providing the Ombudsman and Ombudsman for Children with access to the centres to further support residents. National standards were published recently, which will be legally binding and subject to monitoring and inspection from January 2021.
Neither I nor the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, want to see people in emergency accommodation. Nobody wants that. We are working very hard to move people out of emergency accommodation and into dedicated centres as quickly as possible. Senator Ó Donnghaile said that it is wrong for people to be moved from one centre or hotel to another without notice. That is wrong, and I have instructed that it should not happen. It may have happened once or twice but I do not want it happening anymore.
I have given that instruction. We are prioritising families, especially those with children of school-going age. We want to see the children in school.
On the issue of consultation, we want to consult and engage with communities at the earliest possible opportunity. As was noted by Senator Conway and others, there are 39 centres across the country which are working extremely well and with which there are no issues.If there are issues, we want to know about them to deal with them straight away. I have asked the NGOs and others involved to ensure social media should not be the default method of communication. Instead, people should talk to us and the departmental officials whose numbers they have. We will work to sort out any problems as soon as we can.
This is the issue of our age. So far this year, more than 1,000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, the equivalent of the number of passengers of three jumbo jets. That is shocking. In 1847, the population of Toronto was 20,000. Within six months, it was 38,000, an increase due to the Irish arriving from the Famine. It is not too far since we ourselves, through our great-great-grandparents, were in that situation. We should never forget that. Irish people tend not to forget that and want to help and support. Where we have centres established, local people get involved through friendship programmes. Recently, I received two complaints from centres about local people sending in too many gifts and clothes. Such was kindness of the Irish people, the centres could not cope with this help and support. We want to see more of this.
It is good that communities get involved because it assists integration. If people get a positive statement that they can stay in Ireland, that is fantastic. If they learn new skills, they can bring them back if they leave Ireland. We are working towards independent living. It has been a success where it has been implemented. I do not want any child to miss out on schooling. We want to rectify that where it occurs. It is a whole-of-government approach involving the Departments of Education and Skills, Health, and Employment Affairs and Social Protection, as well as relevant agencies.
This debate was very useful and important. Many positive points were made. I thank Senators for articulating the positive as well. We need to know where we can do better. It is useful when Senators make important and essential points on this. I thank Senators for their contributions and hope the debate will continue in a constructive way. We are working as hard as we can to improve the system. Now more than ever must we work together to make progress on this important issue of our age.
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, as well as the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, for waiting to listen to all Members’ contributions. I wish other Ministers would do that a little more often.