That Dáil Éireann:
— 2014 marks the 14th year of the existence of the direct provision system in Ireland;
— over 4,300 asylum seekers are currently residing in the 34 direct provision centres in the State, some of whom have been living in these centres for up to and more than ten years; and
— that more than one third of these residents are children who have spent a great deal of their lives, or their entire lives in these centres, which is having a negative impact on their safety and development;
— that the direct provision system is an ineffective and costly system that is not fit for purpose;
— concerns raised by the United Nations Human Rights Committee regarding the ‘prolonged accommodation of asylum seekers in direct provision centres which is not conducive to family life’;
— concerns raised by the Special Rapporteur on Child Protection in relation to the detrimental effect of direct provision accommodation on children and on parents’ ability to provide adequate care;
— the social injustice of denying children residing in direct provision centres the opportunity to progress to third level education;
— that the personal allowances of €19.10 per adult and €9.60 per child per week are wholly inadequate to address the cost of living;
— that the proposed protection Bill providing for a single application procedure for the investigation of all grounds for protection, in itself, will not benefit those who have already begun the process of applying for asylum in Ireland; and
— the Minister for Justice and Equality’s pending establishment of a direct provision working group to improve the current system is unnecessary considering the plethora of information available for the Government to act now and provide an alternative system; and
calls on the Government to:
— abolish the direct provision system and introduce a legislative framework for specialised reception centres operating as ‘one-stop-shops’ for newly arrived protection applicants, providing access to the necessary services for the identification and assessment of needs;
— provide appropriate self-catering accommodation which respects family life in a system that embodies the best interests of the child, as well as identifying and properly supporting individuals with special needs and vulnerabilities;
— ensure the availability of early legal advice and independent complaints and inspection mechanisms;
— provide for the transfer to independent living within six months if a decision on a person’s status has not been reached by then;
— lift the prohibition on employment to allow residents of direct provision centres to work within six months if a decision on a person’s status has not been reached by then, to enable them to be actively participative in society, giving them a sense of worth and purpose in their daily lives which is a basic need of every human being;
— introduce a strategy for implementation of the new system with a clearly defined timeframe to adapt to a reformed system of accommodation for asylum seekers; and
— introduce a mechanism that allows asylum seekers that have already begun the process of applying for asylum in Ireland, and who are therefore unable to avail of the single procedure, to be fast-tracked to ensure no further unnecessary delays ensue.
I am sharing time with Deputies Finian McGrath, Seamus Healy, Ruth Coppinger and Catherine Murphy. I will be using 15 of the allotted 40 minutes and the remainder will be shared equally among the other three Deputies.
"Imagine if we saw the potential of refugees not the imagined risk. The opportunity not the fabricated crisis. Compassion not fear. Imagine." This is a quote from the founder and CEO of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Australia. It is an observation with which it is important to begin this debate and for everyone to keep in mind in the context of the motion before the House.
The number of refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people worldwide has for the first time in the post-Second World War era exceeded 50 million, which truly is astonishing. When I see this figure it brings to mind the 4,300 plus asylum seekers - over one third of whom are children - in Ireland who are living, if one can call it that, in inhuman conditions not fit for the 21st century in the 34 direct provision accommodation centres throughout the country. This system must end. For 14 years people from these centres have come to me desperate for assistance. At this stage, some of them have been living in direct provision for over ten years. I know from their experience, and from mine in representing them, that these centres are not fit for purpose and they effectively operate as open prisons. In particular, I am concerned about the protection of children in these centres. Many of the children in question were born into this system and know no better life.
While there has been much talk recently on reforming the system, the Government has done little in respect of the matter. The direct provision working group which is being established will not result in the reform that is required because it is being asked how the current system might be improved when what is actually needed is an alternative. Concerns raised about direct provision since 2001 include the lack of any legal basis for the system of direct provision; and reports of poor food quality, infestations, cramped living conditions and individuals institutionalised in the system for several years. Reports relating to prostitution and safety issues in respect of children are nothing new for anyone who has worked in this area, despite the fact that these issues only received media attention quite recently. As a result of the fact that there is a limited choice of food, movement and shared living space, curfews and restrictions on visitors to the centres, it is claimed - and rightly so - that the system breaches the right to private and family life under Article 8 of the Convention on Human Rights. In fact, some of the asylum seekers with whom I have worked are unable to attend the debate tonight and tomorrow night because they cannot break their curfews.
Despite the recent media attention this issue has been receiving - it is about time too - I have been wanting to raise it during my allotted Private Members' time for almost a year. When it began to receive increased attention during the summer and when it seemed clear announcements were pending, I briefly considered whether there was any point in proceeding with tabling this motion if we were on the precipice of great change. Then, earlier in the summer, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald, ruled out any consideration of the question of extending the right to work for asylum seekers. Shortly thereafter, the establishment of the working group was announced. Subsequently, the Minister has continued to make reserved comments. Everyone here who has an interest in the direct provision system can indicate what needs to be done because the experts have been informing us about the matter for quite some time. While I am sure there are good intentions on the part of the Minister of State with responsibility for equality, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, this is just another delaying tactic on the part of Fine Gael that will result in a much diluted version of what must to be done. That is just not acceptable.
Most Members will agree that the current system just will not do. I am glad the matters in this regard have moved forward, even though there is still an undercurrent of discrimination against asylum seekers that is being fed by a flow of misinformation. However, the motion is not about fixing the wrongs in the direct provision system. Rather, it relates to constructing an alternative and it is in this light that I want to progress the debate. The motion calls on the Government to abolish the direct provision system and introduce specialised reception centres operating as one-stop-shops for newly arrived protection applicants providing access to the necessary services for the identification and assessment of needs; provide appropriate accommodation which respects family life in a system that embodies the best interests of the child as well as identifying and properly supporting individuals with special needs and vulnerabilities; ensure the availability of early legal advice and independent complaints and inspection mechanisms; provide for the transfer to independent living within six months if a decision on a person's status has not been reached by then; introduce a strategy for implementation of the new system with a clearly defined timeframe to adapt to a reformed system of accommodation for asylum seekers; lift the prohibition on employment to allow residents of direct provision centres to actively participate in society, giving them a sense of worth and purpose in their daily lives, which is a basic need of every human being; and introduce a mechanism that allows asylum seekers that have already begun the process of applying for asylum in Ireland and who are, therefore, unable to avail of the single procedure to be fast-tracked to ensure no further unnecessary delays ensue.
This issue goes beyond party politics, it is a human rights issue. I, therefore, urge all parties and Independents to accept the motion. In its observations published last July, the UN Human Rights Committee rightly put Ireland to shame regarding its direct provision system when it expressed its concern "at the lack of a single application procedure for the consideration of all grounds of international protection, leading to delays in the processing of asylum claims and prolonged accommodation of asylum seekers in direct provision centres which is not conducive to family life". The committee recommended that Ireland "take appropriate legislative and policy measures to establish a single application procedure with a right of appeal to an independent appeals body without further delay" and that the Government should ensure that "the duration of stay in direct provision centres is as short as possible and introduce an accessible and independent complaints procedure in direct provision centres". The Government appears to believe that the introduction of the single application procedure for protection will solve everything. However, the proposed legislation will have no impact on the thousands of asylum seekers who have been left waiting years for decisions on their status. The number in this regard continues to grow but we have not yet even been presented with the draft heads of the proposed protection Bill. Regardless of this, there should be respect for basic human rights in any centres which accommodate asylum seekers, however short their stay. By only fixing some of the problem, all the Government is doing is papering over the cracks.
Mrs. Justice Catherine McGuinness put it aptly when she warned that a future Irish Government will be obliged to issue a State apology to and compensate former direct provision residents, particularly children. Last summer we learned that social services have been alerted to over 1,500 cases involving young asylum seekers. The issues investigated by child protection staff in respect of these cases include inappropriate sexualised behaviour among children, the inability of parents to cope, young people not being supervised and mental health problems. In addition, the figure to which I refer indicates that the volume of reported concerns over children living in direct provision accommodation are between three and four times the rate for young people who live in the general community. The 2012 report by the Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, highlighted the real risk of child abuse in direct provision accommodation arising from shared sleeping arrangements whereby single parent families are required to share with strangers and teenagers are obliged to share with parents and siblings of the opposite sex.
The "E" grade given by the Children's Rights Alliance in its Report Card 2013 in respect of the right to equality and non-discrimination exemplifies how asylum seeking children are being treated. Article 2 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, UNCRC, requires states to ensure that children are not discriminated against, including in the context of the status of their parents, while Article 7 stipulates that a child shall have a right to a nationality. It has been affirmed that the enjoyment of rights stipulated in the UNCRC is not limited to children who are citizens of a state party and must, if not explicitly stated otherwise, also be available to all children - including asylum-seeking children - irrespective of their nationality, immigration status or statelessness. The UNCRC also calls on states to ensure that all young children are guaranteed access to appropriate and effective services - including programmes of health, care and education - specifically designed to promote their well-being and that particular attention should be paid to the most vulnerable groups of young children and those who are at risk of discrimination. The latter category includes asylum-seeking children. We all know that we are failing miserably in the protection of such children. This is also widely known elsewhere. Last year authorities in the North sought to return a Sudanese asylum seeker and her three children to the Republic, where they initially sought asylum. However, the High Court in the North prevented the move on the basis that returning the family to direct provision was not in the best interests of the children. The presiding judge, Mr. Justice J. Stevens found that "the well-being both emotionally and financially of the primary carer and the importance of that to the well-being of the children in her care would point significantly to the best interests of the children being to remain in Northern Ireland". That is a sad indictment of the system in this State.
Children must be accommodated as a priority in a safe environment where their welfare can be protected and their natural development nurtured. Essentially, parents need to be able to parent and the family should be self-contained as a family unit as much as possible. For child protection to be at the heart of the reception system, appropriately trained staff should be present within the accommodation system and not simply at a national central point with remote access.
As most people know, Ireland is one of only two European Union member states where asylum seekers are prohibited from working after a designated period. The Government argues that extending the right to work for asylum seekers would almost certainly have a profoundly negative impact on application numbers. However, there is no evidence to support this claim. The Health Service Executive has documented the negative health effects among asylum seekers of not being able to work: "Lack of entitlement to work, when this restriction extends over a long period, may further compound mental health, with boredom, depression, sense of isolation and loss of self-esteem commonly reported symptoms," it concluded in a recent report. When a person is denied the right to work, he is denied the right to provide for himself, he is denied his individuality and responsibility and there is no sense of control in his life. The matter was aptly put by an academic and journalist:
To deny the right to work is to deny a fundamental source of human dignity. Work contributes to a sense of self worth that is essential to well-being. It can be a vital coping mechanism, particularly for people who have suffered trauma and upheaval. That is one of the reasons why the right to work is enshrined in international treaties...including the Refugee Convention and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. To deny asylum seekers the right to work is to put their mental and physical health at risk.
The fact is our direct provision system has cost the State an extortionate amount in recent years, but it is providing little in terms of a decent standard of living. The State has given more than €850 million to private firms for the provision of accommodation and food since direct provision was established. Many of these companies are large firms involved in the property, hospitality or catering business. Several have moved to shield their company accounts from public scrutiny and, in some cases, their beneficial owners include companies in offshore jurisdictions such as the Isle of Man or British Virgin Islands. While many cynics would use this information to argue that we already do too much for them or that we should send them all back where they come from, the fact is these costs exist because of the reluctance and resistance to deal with minority groups living in and being processed through an ineffectual system.
If the asylum process did not take so long with residents spending many years in the system, costs would be cut immediately. However, as mentioned previously, the single procedure in itself is not the answer. The introduction of a self-catering system instead of handing-out millions to private companies would introduce more transparency as well as respect for family life. It is not a question of costs as much as how we treat our fellow human beings. There is no denying the cost and transparency element involved which, if rectified, would in fact improve how we treat asylum seekers.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said:
When we oppress others, we end up oppressing ourselves. All of our humanity is dependent upon recognizing the humanity in others.
Where is the humanity in direct provision? What is needed is an alternative system that respects the human rights and basic needs of each individual and family for the duration of their stay, a system which is efficient and transparent and which allows asylum seekers to be productive in society rather than imprisoned living a life of degradation. I believe what is proposed in the motion would do precisely this.
I recognise several Deputies from all parties and none feel strongly on this issue and that the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, had a particular interest in this issue as a backbencher and has stated his wishes to reform completely the system numerous times since entering office. I believe we are similarly minded on this issue and I hope he is given the space to do what he is in the Department to do. We have a responsibility as a nation and as a member of the UN Human Rights Council such that when people come to our country looking for protection they are treated with the dignity and respect that should be afforded to all human beings, and that they can live in the knowledge that they and their children will be safe for however long they remain in our country. Therefore, I call on the Government to accept the motion, introduce a strategy for the implementation of the new system and begin on the path to meaningful reform.