Written answers

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Department of Justice and Equality

Asylum Support Services

Photo of Mick WallaceMick Wallace (Wexford, Independent)
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534. To ask the Minister for Justice and Equality his views on the recent comments by the Ombudsman in relation to the treatment of asylum seekers; his plan to address her concerns; if, in view of the events at the asylum accommodation centre in Millstreet, County Cork, he will order an investigation into the system of direct provision; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36247/13]

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Defence; Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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The Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) is a functional unit of the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (INIS) of my Department and is responsible for the accommodation of asylum seekers while their application for protection is being processed.

I assume the question refers to a recently published article by the Ombudsman on asylum seekers. The Ombudsman says in her article that her examination of a specific case, involving the HSE and the Department of Social Protection around the issue of a social welfare entitlement to a family which had been in Direct Provision, led her to comment on the asylum accommodation system more generally. It should be noted that the Ombudsman Act, 1980 does not provide for the investigation by the Ombudsman of any action taken by or on behalf of a person in the administration of the law relating to, inter alia, asylum. Notwithstanding that, I should add that INIS has administrative arrangements in place with the Office of the Ombudsman to assist and provide information and help resolve any matters brought to its attention.

The Ombudsman is, of course, perfectly entitled to the personal opinions expressed in the article but I do not share many of them. In particular, I do not accept the attempted correlation between the residents of direct provision accommodation centres and past residents of industrial schools or Magdalene laundries. It is to be expected that asylum seekers, if given a choice in this jurisdiction or elsewhere, would prefer to have independent accommodation, a right to welfare and work and so on, instead of being restricted to the system of direct provision to meet their needs. For the avoidance of any misunderstanding, it should be noted that all EU Member States operate systems for dealing with asylum seekers which in one form or another greatly restrict their access to welfare, work or independent housing. In reality, the system in this State is at least on a par and often significantly better than that in operation in many other Member States. In the circumstances, it is grossly misleading to characterise our treatment of asylum seekers as being akin to that meted out to subjects of abuse who had no protection of the law or relevant State bodies.

I have recounted in responses to many Dáíl Questions how the rights of residents of accommodation centres are protected both within the Direct Provision system and, of course, by the laws of our country. The Ombudsman's article, rightly, places great emphasis on the rights of children in the Direct Provision system. Again, I have explained before how children are protected in a number of ways - primarily through the Reception and Integration Agency's (RIA) Child Protection policy; its House Rules; its requirement that all centre staff are Garda vetted; and through the coordination role of a dedicated Child and Family Services unit in RIA. Children in Direct Provision centres, of course, enjoy the same educational and health entitlements as Irish citizen children. Sight must not be lost of the fact that applicants for refugee status, who otherwise would have no permission to be in the State, have their protection claims dealt with in accordance with a prescribed legal framework and exclusively on their merits having regard to their subjective and objective elements. They have full recourse to the judicial review process in the courts and to the general protection of the State.

I accept that the direct provision system is not ideal and many residents spend too long there. But it is a system which facilitates the State providing a roof over the heads of those seeking protection or the right to remain in the State on humanitarian grounds or other reasons. It allows the State to do it in a manner that facilitates resources being used economically in circumstances where the State is in financial difficulty. It is acknowledged that the Direct Provision system provides value for money. A key finding in the 2010 Value for Money Report on the Direct Provision system was that if we were operating a system which facilitated asylum seekers in living independent lives in individual housing with social welfare support and payments, aside from the asylum 'pull factor' it would likely create, the cost to the exchequer would be double what is currently paid under the direct provision system.

In her article, the Ombudsman does not say that the direct provision system is in breach of international conventions. Rather, she references a number of reports critical of the direct provision system which argue that it is. She acknowledges that, ultimately, such judgements are matters for a court. Over the years, the direct provision system has been open to scrutiny by many international bodies. Centres have been visited by various UN bodies, including the UNHCR, and by the Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner. I appeared before the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva in connection with its scrutiny of Ireland under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Process In October, 2011. No recommendation was made in relation to the Direct Provision system in the Committee's subsequent UPR report on Ireland.

There is no question but that the asylum system is slow, fragmented and is in need of reform and I am determined to see this reform through. For me, the length of time spent in the Direct Provision system, rather than the quality of provision within the system itself, is the real issue and I am committed to remedying that. Work on the details of the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill 2010 is ongoing at my Department pursuant to current Government policy which is committed, under the Programme for National Recovery, to "introduce comprehensive reforms of the immigration, residency and asylum systems", which will include a statutory appeals system and set out rights and obligations in a transparent way.

As I have outlined previously to the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality and Defence, several hundred amendments to the Bill are anticipated, the majority of a technical nature. I also expressed the considered view that instead of engaging in an extremely cumbersome process of tabling hundreds of amendments to the 2010 Bill, it would be much more efficient to publish a new and enhanced text. Such an approach can incorporate the many anticipated amendments while addressing key outstanding issues, several of which have been of concern to Members. This proposition was broadly welcomed by the Joint Committee and work on the Bill continues, therefore, on that basis while also taking account of any intervening matters of relevance such as decisions by the Courts. It remains my objective under this new approach, and subject to having to deal with the competing legislative demands of our EU/IMF/ECB Programme commitments, to be in a position to bring a revised Bill to Government for approval and publication before the end of the year.

Pending the enactment and commencement of the new legislation and with a view to improving processing in the area of international protection, I am proposing to introduce new arrangements for the processing of subsidiary protection applications in light of recent judgments in the Superior Courts. My Department, in consultation with the Attorney General's Office, is developing a new legislative and administrative framework for the processing of current and future subsidiary protection applications. This work is being given high priority and applicants will be advised of the new arrangements as soon as possible.

In relation the accommodation centre in Millstreet, Co. Cork, issues inevitably arise in a system as complex and diverse as the Direct Provision system and it is important that they are dealt with quickly. I am advised by RIA that there are ongoing discussions between residents and management. Senior officials in RIA have already visited the centre and will do so again today to provide any assistance required to achieve a resolution acceptable to all parties.

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