#RealityCheck: Why are the parties ignoring the issue of direct provision?

The topic has been largely ignored by the campaign yet 4,811 people are in the system

#RealityCheck: Why are the parties ignoring the issue of direct provision?

Asylum seekers protest outside Leinster House in 2014 | Photocall file photo

As polling day nears, we can reflect on what has been a predictable election period.

Government parties have stressed the importance of stability and economic recovery. Opposition parties have argued cuts were too harsh, the recovery too unfair.

Taxation, economic trends, law and order, housing, the health system - it did not require a savvy politico to predict what topics would dominate the headlines.

Nor did it require an expert to predict what issues would be neglected. Anyone familiar with Ireland's Direct Provision system could have guessed it would receive no mention during televised debates.

It remains as it has for 16 years, a largely forgotten issue on the periphery of Irish politics, only periodically coming to attention when some worrying symptom - disorder in a residential centre, or a human rights case taken against the State - forces it into view.

But for the 4,811 people in the system, Direct Provision restricts almost every facet of their lives.

The numbers are sobering. One-quarter of those living in Direct Provision centres are children. Around two-thirds of residents have been waiting for longer than nine months for a decision on their asylum application. Almost 26% have been waiting for over five years.

After an asylum request is made, applicants are housed in one of 35 centres throughout the country, run by the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) under the Department of Justice.

Residents are given a weekly allowance of €19.10 per adult and €16.60 per child. Unlike their counterparts in every other EU country, they are never permitted to work. Apart from two self-catering sites, residents are provided food and not allowed to cook their own meals.

The centres themselves are usually remote, and only three of the 35 are purpose built. Almost all are refurbished buildings - some former hostels, B&Bs or convents. The latest statistics from September show that a mobile home site on the edge of Athlone houses 285 people, while the former holiday resort Mosney houses 666, about 10% over its contracted capacity.

Seven of these centres are state-owned, meaning the vast majority of residents are looked after by private firms under government contracts. These companies received over €40 million in 2015. Mosney Holidays Plc, which runs the country's largest centre, has received €112 million since 2002. The system is highly opaque - it does not come under the remit of the Freedom of Information Act, the Ombudsman or the Children’s Ombudsman.

Inspections of the centres are undertaken by the RIA itself and private firm QTS Ltd, who are under contract to the RIA. Fire and food safety compliance bodies also conduct inspections, but there is little independent oversight. A formal complaints procedure for residents exists, but with a mere 13 complaints registered in 2012, six in 2013 and five in 2014.

The system has been widely criticised since it was introduced in 2000. NGOs have accused it of exposing children to violent and sexual behaviour, harming residents' psychological development and mental health, housing families in poor quality rooms with little privacy, and far more besides.

The latest major case brought against the state concerns a Bangladeshi man in Direct Provision for over seven years. He says he has suffered an “almost complete loss of autonomy”, and is seeking the right to work in the Court of Appeal.

Yet despite these accusations and legal challenges, the rights and living conditions of asylum seekers in Ireland remain largely unchanged since Direct Provision was established.

So what do Irish political parties have to say?

Election Promises

Few of the parties' election manifestos furnish precise details about their Direct Provision policies.

Both members of the coalition are in favour of retaining the existing system, though admit reforms are needed. Fine Gael promise they "will reform the Direct Provision system, with particular focus on families and children". However, this brief sentence is followed by a longer paragraph about "get[ting] tougher on abuses", with the focus clearly on "enforcement", "deportation" and "cracking down on increasing numbers of bogus asylum seekers".

Labour propose a regularisation scheme for undocumented migrants, also mentioning their publication of a Working Group report into the asylum system, and the passing of the International Protection Bill. The report included 176 recommendations, "some of which we have begun to implement", they say. 

Current opposition leaders Fianna Fáil lay out a plan to fully implement the report's recommendations on the Direct Provision allowance, increasing it from €19.10 to €38.74 per week for adults, and €9.60 (now €16.60) to €29.80 for children, at a total cost of €4 million. In a press statement, the party says it will ensure any asylum seeker in school for three years would be entitled to enter third-level education as a regular 'free fees' student, and could avail of student grants.

Of the larger parties, only Sinn Féin call for the abolition of Direct Provision. Following the recommendations of last year's Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions report on Direct Provision, of which Sinn Féin’s Padraig Mac Lochalinn was Chairperson, they call for it to be replaced by a "not-for-profit model with integration and human rights best practice at its core."

Other smaller parties echo this stance. The Social Democrats call Direct Provision "a national disgrace" and say they will abolish it in the short-to-medium term. Dublin Mid-West Candidate and Communications Officer Anne-Marie McNally says the party envisages a transparent system that would empower asylum seekers and engage them in local communities. Comparing Direct Provision to the Magdalene Laundries, she says it deprives people of dignity, and that increased resources are needed to speed up the asylum process.

The Anti-Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit group  vow to "close the direct provision centres, welcome refugees and give them the right to work." People Before Profit TD Brid Smith says more resources need to be allocated to reducing waiting lists for asylum applications, and that all people in the system should have a right to work and study. The party would increase the "paltry" weekly allowance, but would continue the use of current accommodation centres provided they are "up to scratch."

The Green Party offer a comprehensive proposal to scrap the system, replacing it with an "efficient and humane" alternative. This would grant the right to work after six months, create an independent appeals mechanism, extend the remits of the Ombudsman and Children’s Ombudsman, codify rights for refugees and migrants, and ensure all children in Direct Provision would have the right to third-level education.

Renua do not mention Direct Provision in their manifesto, but Communications Officer John Drennan derides the existing "prison camps", saying the party favour "comprehensive reform" and that "refugees should be checked for security purposes as quickly as possible, and integrated as quickly as possible".

According to the latest Red C poll for Paddy Power, parties who support the continuation of Direct Provision hold 59% of public support, while those who want it dismantled has 25%.

But for all the party pledges, what has actually been done to assist those in the Direct Provision system?

'A missed opportunity'

Government promises to introduce meaningful reforms will ring hollow for many.

The International Protection Bill, signed into law in December, did contain some changes to Direct Provision. These include an increase in the children's allowance of €6 per week, waiving of prescription charges, and support for children to access third-level education. It also established a streamlined, single-application procedure for all asylum seekers.

But the bill's formation and passage through the Oireachteas revealed an entrenched reluctance to make fundamental changes to Direct Provision, or even to consider an alternative system.

A Working Group, including members from the UNHCR, NGOs, academia and government bodies, was established in October 2014 to recommend "what improvements should be made to the State’s existing Direct Provision and protection process and to the various supports provided for protection applicants", while not significantly increasing costs or compromising border security. Hamstrung by these terms of reference, the report was never likely to be revolutionary. However, even within these limits, reform was hindered.

In March, Irish Refugee Council (IRC) CEO Sue Conlan resigned from the group, saying members had not seen or discussed the heads of the bill published by Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald, which she described as "too much of an enforcement measure".

The Minister's department said this was a matter of procedure, but the IRC, along with several other Irish refugee organisations, continued to criticise the progress of the bill. By December, when it had reached the Seanad, the UNHCR and other NGOs called it a "missed opportunity". Four of them went further still, calling for the withdrawal of the bill, citing lack of debate and 'cherry picking' of the Working Group's recommendations. 

"With the benefit of hindsight, it is safe to say that government did not want the Working Group to consider and provide input into the International Protection Bill", wrote Conlan in September.

She also criticised the government focus on 'pull factor', the idea that any improvements would attract more asylum seekers. This claim is not backed by hard evidence and is not considered genuine in academia, but was given a "certain kind of reverence" by Government officials, she wrote.

Nasc CEO Fiona Finn, who was also a member of the group, concurs. She says the government is "obsessed by the notion of pull factor" and believes a single application procedure can "magically cure" the system's problems.

The bill was guillotined by the government just before the Oireachteas' Christmas break, a process called "a sham" and "a charade" in the Dail. Labour TD Michael McNamara was removed from the chamber for objecting to the guillotine. Even President Michael D Higgins showed concern over the rapid passage of the bill, referring it to a Council of State - only the second time since taking office he has done so - before signing it into law.

The final legislation was a far cry from the Working Group's recommendations. The increase in children's allowance from €9.60 to €16.60 - the first rise in 16 years - came far short of the €29.80 recommended in the report. The allowance for adults remained untouched, rather than doubled.

Of the report's 176 recommendations, Finn says "very little" were adopted.

She says the key reforms introduced by the International Protection Bill were already in the works before the publication of the Working Group's report. The HSE was already pursuing the waiving of prescription fees, and Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan had already announced a pilot scheme to give third-level access to children in the system for five years who had completed their Leaving Cert.

Finn says the government was "shamed" into increasing the children's allowance by the UN, and accused the state delegation of lying about its engagement with the Ombudsman for Children during January's hearing in Geneva, when the Ireland was examined on its compliance with the Conventions of the Rights of the Child.

The delegation, lead by Minister for Children James Reilly, was scolded on several failings, including the state's treatment of asylum seekers. Committee Chair Gehad Madi from Egypt said many children had spent "the whole of their childhoods" in Direct Provision centres, and  the increase in children's allowance was "below par" and needed to be raised further.

Finn acknowledges elements of a scheme proposed for those in the system for over five years have been implemented, leading to an increase in residency permissions, but regrets the government's refusal to enact safeguards suggested by EU directives.

Minister of State with responsibility for Direct Provision Aodhán Ó Ríordáin said the Working Group report was the sole basis for the International Protection Bill, calling it the "only game in town" in the Seanad. He said the recommendations not included in the bill were being considered by a Cabinet sub-committee.

However, another cross-party report from the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions, published in May last year, was far more damning. It condemned the Direct Provision System as "not fit for purpose" and its weekly allowance as "derisory".

It recommended Ireland opt in to EU Directives 2003/9 and 2013/33, thus allowing asylum seekers to work after a waiting period no longer than nine months, in line with other EU countries.

The report called for each centre to have one designated Department of Social Protection worker making weekly visits, offer self-catering facilities to residents, and ensure students have full access to third-level education and grant support.

Greater transparency was also proposed, as well as bringing Direct Provision under the remit of the Ombudsman, Children’s Ombudsman and Freedom of Information Act.

Here, both reports agree. The Working Group also recommended expanding the roles of the Ombudsman and Children’s Ombudsman. Though not included in the International Protection Bill, in early February Minister Fitzgerald committed to legislate for this.

However, a spokesperson for the Ombudsman says they have no knowledge of the progress made, if any, on this issue. They suggested the election was probably a bigger issue at the moment.

Unfortunately for the thousands living in Direct Provision centres across Ireland, there will probably be another bigger issue after that.