I thank the committee for the invitation to speak today. As the committee is aware, the Ombudsman for Children's Office is an independent statutory body that was established in 2004 under the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002. Under that Act, we have two core statutory functions: to promote and protect the rights and welfare of children up to 18 years of age; and to examine and investigate complaints made by or on behalf of children about the administrative actions of public bodies, schools and voluntary hospitals that have or may have adversely affected a child.
Our Safety and Welfare of Children in Direct Provision investigation report is the latest in a series of publications by our office on the direct provision system, which affects part of the strategic cohort of children that we have targeted. This investigation joins our Direct Division and Life in Lockdown reports, which were both published last year. It was an own volition investigation, which means that we did not need a complaint to begin examining a matter because I was able to initiate it upon learning of serious concerns about an issue. This is significant, given that, since we began accepting complaints on behalf of children in direct provision in 2017, we have found that residents are reluctant to complain or draw attention to themselves in case it hampers their applications for asylum or their living conditions. The initial complaint we received was from a parent in the direct provision system who had concerns about overcrowding, the nutritional content of the food, the lack of safe play areas for children and poor communication from centre management about facilities and how to make a complaint. When that parent chose not to progress the complaint, we still had serious concerns. As such, we decided to launch an own volition investigation into how IPAS was assured about the safety and well-being of children.
When we started examining, we became aware of child protection and welfare concerns within the direct provision centre concerned. We then took the decision to expand the investigation on child protection to include all accommodation centres and to cover the role of Tusla, as we could not be sure that these issues were isolated to one place.
Our investigation has found that the direct provision system of accommodation does not promote the best interests of children. An independent inspectorate was not in place despite being recommended in the McMahon report in 2015. IPAS, which is responsible for accommodating asylum seekers, was not following its own child protection procedures and accommodation was not being sufficiently inspected. An accessible and independent complaints procedure was not available for parents and the vulnerability of children living in direct provision was not being recognised or assessed. Tusla was not gathering data about children living in direct provision that might identify risks and inform strategic planning. Tusla did not recognise the inherent vulnerability of children in the international protection process and did not make adjustments to help them to reach their full potential.
We made a series of recommendations to IPAS and the Child and Family Agency. We called for them to recognise the inherent vulnerability of children in the international protection process, work together collaboratively and meet children's needs locally. Separately, we asked IPAS to end the use of commercial emergency hotels immediately and to put in place a well-resourced quality assurance mechanism to monitor complaints, child protection and welfare concerns and any other incident. Extensive cultural sensitivity training, as well as training in gender, equality, human and children's rights, is needed for staff working in direct provision centres. We asked Tusla to develop an intercultural strategy to inform the provision of its services to these children and families.
We were acutely aware that the investigation was published against the backdrop of the White Paper on ending direct provision. While the White Paper, which was published last February, was a welcome step, it must not prevent immediate improvements in the direct provision system. There are still children living in direct provision accommodation, and even if everything goes to plan with the White Paper, they have another few years within the system ahead of them. As we all know, a year is a long time in a child's life and childhood experiences stay with us right into adulthood. We cannot allow the White Paper to become the standard response to all issues relating to direct provision and it will not be accepted as justification for poor services, poor administration or inaction for those currently in the system.
We have engaged positively with IPAS and Tusla around our recommendations and they have both made strong commitments to their implementation. I look forward to seeing immediate action and progress. We will request a six-month and 12-month update from both agencies.
This investigation joins our Direct Division and Life in Lockdown reports, which were published last year, and I would like to offer a short summary of those important documents, if I may. The Direct Division report was launched in July 2020 - I am afraid there is an error in my written statement - and outlined the views and experiences of children living in direct provision accommodation. Through engaging with children aged between 12 and 17 years across nine centres, the report shines a light on the reality of life in direct provision centres as well as their experiences in school, the local community and wider Irish society. The report highlights a number of issues and challenges faced by children living in that accommodation, including a lack of space and privacy, with many children reporting that there were cameras everywhere. Discrimination and racism at school and in the community were reported, with children frequently experiencing the use of racial and sectarian slurs and bullying. Children also reported that some teachers expressed racist or discriminatory sentiments or were covertly racist. Financial constraints and geographical isolation were also cited as barriers to social integration.
While many children struggled to do so, some of them identified positive elements that helped them to feel included and a part of their schools, communities and wider society, such as inclusion in community events and sports. Within schools, some children said that teachers, staff and students had shown respect for different cultures and religions, exemplified by the provision of prayer rooms, permitting the wearing of hijabs and offering halal food in the canteen.
We must always remember that access to services such as education, housing and transport, as well as establishing friendships, taking part in community activities and being accepted in our wider society, are things that many of us take for granted and we expect for our children. However, children living in direct provision accommodation must learn how the systems in Ireland work and navigate those, generally while learning a new language and often while dealing with trauma.
The findings presented in that report are stark. The children highlighted a number of challenges and difficulties, including a lack of space and privacy, geographical isolation and a lack of transport options, as well as financial constraints. At school and in their local communities, many children felt discriminated against, feeling that the colour of their skin was how they were judged by many Irish people. The children made suggestions for changes, some very simple and small, others large and systemic, that would help improve their lives in school, the community and wider society. The issues highlighted by the children must be considered to ensure that, for as long as the current system remains, the direct division that they experience is addressed and remedied.
In December 2020, we launched Life in Lockdown, which reported on the views and experiences of children living in direct provision accommodation during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown.
Following on from our original Direct Division report, we spoke to a small number of children about what life was like for them during the first lockdown. Living in confined spaces; losing the physical, educational and social environment of school; poor Internet access; and the high number of cases reported within direct provision accommodation all contributed to children's increased levels of anxiety and sense of isolation. Up to 24 October 2020, 313 cases of Covid-19 were reported within direct provision accommodation. At that stage, this represented 4% of all direct provision residents in Ireland compared to 1.3% of the rest of the general population who had contracted the virus at that time.
The issues outlined in our Direct Division consultation, such as social exclusion, physical isolation from their communities, lack of facilities and lack of space and privacy, remained and were often intensified during the pandemic and restrictions. Issues with online learning were also highlighted as a problem. Such issues, including lack of hardware and Wi-Fi and not having English as a first language, made homework and classes much more difficult for those children. The boredom, loneliness and frustration felt by most people during lockdown was magnified for children living in direct provision accommodation because they had to stay indoors, often in one small room, with their whole families for months. It was a terrifying vista for many.
It is clear that our international protection system has many flaws. Our office is delighted with the commitments in the White Paper to bring about positive change. We have urged the Minister, Deputy O’Gorman, Tusla and all others involved in the system to continue to improve things in the present while working to help create a new, better and more humane system by 2024. I thank the committee again for the invitation to speak in front of it. Myself and my colleague, Ms Ward, will be very happy to answer any queries that members may have.