I assume the Deputy is referring to the four properties purchased in 2000 by the Office of Public Works to accommodate asylum seekers in Rosslare, Carlow, Donnybrook and Macroom, which were not brought into use together with the leasing arrangement entered into by OPW in 2002 for the construction of a custom-built accommodation facility in Kilkenny.
I will set out the circumstances that gave rise to the acquisition in 2000 of these and other properties by my predecessor through the OPW together with other accommodation facilities to accommodate asylum seekers to give as full a picture as possible. In the autumn-winter period of 1999-2000, the number of people entering the State to claim asylum increased threefold when compared to the early part of 1999. The number who claimed asylum in the first three months of 1999 was 826 while in the last three months of the year, the number had increased to 3,278.
In a matter of months a situation which was manageable had become virtually unmanageable. Moreover, there was no way of predicting this, as it was, and still is, entirely demand driven. The State is obliged in domestic law under the 1951 Geneva Convention to have in place arrangements to process each and every application for asylum, irrespective of how many may apply. In November and December 1999, lengthy queues of asylum applicants, including infant children, outside the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner were a daily occurrence. Over that period, and into early 2000, almost 500 children were included in the numbers of persons applying for asylum. Queues began forming at 6 a.m. and remained in place until 8 p.m. Health board staff, who at that stage had the task of accommodating newly arriving asylum seekers, were faced with the difficulty of trying to find accommodation for, sometimes, up to 100 men, women and children a day. On some nights, applicants had to be turned away because no accommodation was available. At that time there were also reports in the media of asylum seeker families having to sleep in two Dublin parks.
Quite clearly the situation had reached a critical stage. Accommodation facilities in the Dublin area had been exhausted and the number of persons travelling to the State to claim asylum had reached a level which was unthinkable six months previously.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
During this period the Government had been considering this issue with a view to identifying urgent and badly needed solutions. The situation was also giving rise to grave concern to the UNHCR with the result that its then representative in Ireland indicated to the former Minister that it would support such extreme measures as the accommodation of asylum seekers in tents in the absence of other solutions. In so doing, the UNHCR, while acknowledging the seriousness of the situation in an accommodation market which had been exhausted, also made it clear that the State had both a legal and moral obligation to ensure that newly-arriving asylum-seekers were accommodated. The situation was such that the option of using tents was urgently considered in association with the Defence Forces. Senior management from the directorate for asylum support services — now the Reception and Integration Agency — travelled to the Netherlands to assess, among other accommodation options, tented pavilions. However, tented accommodation had to be ruled out after detailed assessment on fire safety grounds.
The Government decided that from April 2000 the system of direct provision and dispersal should be introduced to address the needs of asylum-seekers. The reason for the lead in for that decision to come into effect was to enable accommodation and related facilities to be identified, procured and readied for use and to mirror the implementation of a similar system in the UK with whom we share a common travel area. However, the ongoing daily pressure of finding accommodation for newly arriving asylum seekers meant that, in reality, there was virtually no lead in period for identifying suitable accommodation options.
Moreover, the Government also decided that the task of arranging accommodation and generally implementing direct provision should be given to a new cross-departmental directorate for asylum support services within the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The OPW was also assigned the task of assisting the directorate in this regard. Immediately the directorate set about the task of procuring suitable accommodation throughout the country.
At that point, it had two key objectives. The first was to identify accommodation facilities throughout the State which could be brought into use immediately to deal with the large numbers who continued to arrive every day. In that regard, the pattern established in the second half of 1999, when the number of new asylum-seekers was at about 1,000 per month, continued into the new year and almost 5,500 new applications were made in the first six months of 2000. The second key objective was to identify properties which could be made available in a slightly longer timeframe, that is, to meet the anticipated demand in the latter part of the year. In March 2000, the Government decided that, over time, a mix of accommodation solutions should be put in place to give effect to the system of direct provision and dispersal. The mix decided by the Government was as follows: permanent accommodation, 4,000 places; system-built or prefabricated buildings, 4,000 places; mobile homes, 1,000 places; flotels, 1,000 places; and the commercial sector, 2,000 places.
During 2000, a total of 69 properties were brought into use to accommodate newly arriving asylum seekers under the system of direct provision. During this time, nine of these properties had been purchased by the OPW and these comprised of six hotels, one hostel and two premises which had been in institutional use. A further three facilities were developed on State-owned sites as mobile home centres.
Planning requirements in respect of these State-owned facilities were addressed by the making of ministerial orders under the Local Government (Planning and Development) Act 1993 in respect of two hotels and three mobile homes sites. In the case of the other four properties no change of planning status was required. These orders were made on foot of clear, unequivocal and unambiguous legal advice from the Office of the Attorney General. At no stage in the procurement of properties for rent, lease or purchase did the RIA act without the prior advice or contrary to the advice of the Office of the Attorney General.
While there was hostility and objection to the arrival of asylum seekers in some of the communities where these facilities are located, no legal challenge was mounted by the communities to the validity of the planning mechanism used. Controversy and significant local opposition arose almost immediately in respect of some of these properties — both State and commercially owned — with local communities expressing fears about the arrival of asylum seekers in their neighbourhoods. However, these difficulties were addressed by compromise in all cases where they arose except of course in relation to four properties which had been purchased, where compromise proved elusive.
Sustained and repeated efforts were made to address the concerns of local residents in the areas where these properties are located but without success. Local interests in Macroom and in Donnybrook exercised their right to challenge the use of the properties through the courts on planning grounds. The proposed use of the premises in Macroom remains the subject of legal proceedings while in the case of the premises in Donnybrook, Broc House, judgment in favour of the respondents was delivered on 30 April 2004. Having regard to the substantial financial outlay that would be required to bring Broc House up to current regulatory standards, the time lag before the works could be completed and a review of the RIA accommodation portfolio in September 2004, it was determined that Broc House was no longer required for the accommodation of asylum seekers. Discussions are ongoing between the OPW and the Health Services Executive for its use as a community-based health care facility.
In the case of the hotel in Macroom it was determined on foot of a review of the RIA accommodation portfolio that it was no longer required for the accommodation of asylum seekers. In the light of this review, the RIA requested the Office of the Chief State Solicitor to make contact with the residents' solicitors with a view to brokering a mutually acceptable agreement. Discussions on the matter are ongoing.
Asylum seekers have been accommodated since early 2000 in hotels and former institutional-type facilities without problems on the planning front. These include ten properties owned by the State and 120 properties which are or were procured on a commercial contract for services basis. In the case of the property at Myshall, County Carlow, significant local opposition manifested itself as soon as it became known that it had been purchased by the State to accommodate asylum seekers. There was very serious concern about maintaining the safety of asylum seekers in that location. In March 2001, the Department of Health and Children was being pressed to provide a facility for autistic children and RIA advised that, in the particular circumstances, it was no longer proposed to use the building as an asylum seeker accommodation centre and that it could be developed for the proposed alternative use. The property was transferred to the Department of Health and Children for no consideration in 2002.
As regards the property at Rosslare Harbour, this was purchased for use as a reception centre for all asylum seekers arriving in Rosslare. The situation in Rosslare had become critical because, at that time — 2000 — the number of asylum seekers arriving off ships there was almost equal to the number who made their claims at Dublin Airport. The Devereux Hotel presented a ready made solution and was available for immediate occupation which, given the numbers arriving at the port, was a key factor. However, due to the introduction of a number of initiatives by the Garda National Bureau of Immigration, in co-operation with the French Immigration authorities, the number who applied fell from a high of almost 1,500 in 2000 to less than 100 in 2001. Since then the number of applicants in Rosslare has remained low. Notwithstanding the fall-off in numbers applying at Rosslare, a 24-hour picket was placed on the premises and it was made clear that any attempt to accommodate asylum seekers would be resisted to the point of physically blocking the entrance. In September 2001 the OPW was advised that, in the light of the completely altered circumstances in Rosslare, the property was no longer required as a reception centre for newly arrived asylum seekers and I am informed the OPW has sold the property.
In the more recent case of the Kilkenny site, the use of the planning order was challenged in the High Court. Three of these type of facilities had already been constructed and brought into use in Clare, Cork city and Finglas by that stage and in each case, the planning mechanism which has given rise to the legal challenge in the Kilkenny proposal was used without difficulty. Arising from the review of accommodation by RIA in September 2004 when it was determined that the construction of an accommodation centre of this site was no longer warranted, the proceedings were settled between the parties.
The procurement of suitable accommodation for newly arriving asylum seekers continues to be a significant challenge. Since the system of direct provision and dispersal was introduced, more than 38,000 asylum applicants have been accommodated under this system. The RIA is operating 83 centres in 25 counties accommodating almost 8,000 asylum seekers and it should be borne in mind that it was only in the case of these four properties and the site in Kilkenny that it did not prove possible to achieve community acceptance of asylum seekers.
On the basis of the information available, expenditure on asylum seeker accommodation was necessary. I am satisfied direct provision is a fair, humane and cost effective way of meeting the accommodation and ancillary needs of asylum seekers and the Government has no plans to change the system.