Remarks by Brendan Howlin TD on Direct Provision
13 November 2019
Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs, Brexit, Northern Ireland and Justice
According to a Spending Review, published by the Department of Justice in August of this year, there are presently 39 Direct Provision centres in operation. Seven of them are State-owned but all the centres are managed by private contractors.
Recent statistics show that we had just under 3,000 applications for asylum in 2017, and there were just over 5,000 people living in Direct Provision, with an average length of stay of 23 months.
I welcome the fact that the average length of stay has gone down from a height of 48 months on average in 2013 and 2014.
But there is still more to do to further reduce the length of time that people spend in the system.
It is also the case that the average may mask more lengthy stays in Direct Provision experienced by a small number of people.
A more recent phenomenon is that hundreds of people who have been granted refugee status are nonetheless still living in the Direct Provision system because they cannot secure alternative accommodation.
This is clearly due to the crisis we face in terms of the lack of affordable housing right across the country, especially in larger towns and cities.
My main concern in relation to Direct Provision is the reported variability of standards and conditions.
Some Direct Provision centres are clearly working well, and those living in them are well integrated into the locality where they are based.
I have personal knowledge of such cases.
But other examples have come to public attention where people have described the most depressing experience of living for years in conditions that are unsuitable and inadequate, not least for children growing up in the system.
One organisation that has looked extensively at the issue is NASC, which is a migrant and refugee rights organisation based in Cork.
One of NASC’s major complaints is that important recommendations to improve Direct Provision, which have come from various reports, are not being fully implemented.
NASC has called on the Department of Justice to implement key recommendations on asylum decision-making, backlogs and wait times.
They have also sought the full implementation of recommendations relating to the provision of kitchens and living space in family centres.
And they have called for the development of national standards and the establishment of an independent inspectorate body, which is essential to ensure a minimum level of standards across all Direct Provision centres.
In addition, NASC have sought to progress the establishment of a multidisciplinary vulnerability screening in line with the EU Reception Conditions Directive and the McMahon recommendations.
And to ensure that access to the labour market is effective, including access to education and training for asylum seekers.
I would like to acknowledge that conditions in some Direct Provision centres have improved, but the system as a whole remains inadequate. The challenge to the critics of Direct Provision is always to describe with what they would replace it, and I want to do exactly that.
As I see it, there are three options.
The first option is to continue with the current system, with variable conditions provided by different private operators in different locations. This is not a real option as far as I am concerned.
The second option is to halt the Direct Provision altogether and to put asylum seekers into the housing market or into social housing. This is not an appropriate response at this time, given the massive strain that the housing system is under. Not least, this may incur much greater costs for the State to pay private rents as part of any such approach. This is not a real option either.
The third option – and as far as I am concerned the only viable option – is to consolidate the Direct Provision system into a much more uniform national scheme, with stronger standards and more frequent inspections to ensure that those standards are adhered to.
It makes sense for a single entity or agency to deliver such a standardised service, and this could be either done by expanding the remit of an existing public agency or else by creating a new public agency to deliver the service.
Of the €78 million cost of Direct Provision in 2018, I would be most interested to know how much was the private profit of those delivering Direct Provision.
Personally, I am uncomfortable with the whole notion of a profit-making approach to providing services to people fleeing persecution.
It is inappropriate that providers of Direct Provision should have a strong incentive to cut back on their services in any way, in order to increase their profits.
This should be a not-for-profit service, where all incentives are aligned to promote the human rights and best interests of those seeking asylum in our country, which naturally includes many people who have suffered traumatic experiences, including potentially violence and abuse of various sorts.
There is nothing wrong in principle with the direct provision of accommodation to asylum seekers, but what is needed is to continue to improve the experience of everyone who spends time in the system.
A state-led delivery of that service would seem to be the most appropriate way to proceed.
In the time remaining I want to quickly raise two other issues of concern.
Firstly, the right of asylum seekers to work remains restricted.
A person must have been waiting for at least eight months, must pass other criteria and must renew this permission every six months.
While I understand the need to ensure that the asylum process is not a route for illegal migration into Ireland, I understand that these restrictions make it more difficult for asylum seekers to gain employment.
For example, employers may be wary of investing in a new employee whose right to work has to be renewed every six months.
A second point relates to the long-term process of gaining Irish citizenship.
Recently, the Taoiseach welcomed the fact that 120,000 people have become Irish citizens in the last few years.
I welcome this too.
New Irish citizens come from a wide variety of backgrounds, from those with Irish ancestry in the UK, some of whom have explicitly sought Irish citizenship to maintain a stronger link to the European Union following Brexit, through to those who have come from around the world to make their homes here.
The vast majority make a valuable contribution to our society, our economy and our cultural life.
But I have also called on the Taoiseach to look at the unfair costs involved in adopting Irish citizenship.
Descendants of Irish grandparents can gain a passport for €278, even if they or their parents never set foot in Ireland, whereas foreign nationals who are working and paying taxes here for years must pay €1,125 to complete the process of naturalisation.
That is simply unjust, and the same, lower cost should apply to all new citizens.
This is one example of what be described as an unfair roadblock to refugees on the road to attaining full Irish citizenship for themselves and their children.
It should be remembered that these costs multiply by the number of family members seeking citizenship.
There would be a negligible cost to the State involved in bringing the cost down to €278 for everyone, and this is an important point of principle that I hope the Government will accept.