I thank the committee for inviting us here today to address these critical issues. Nasc is an NGO and a charity that works with people seeking protection. We work with refugees, migrants and their families to realise and fulfil their rights. Nasc runs a free legal information and drop-in service that supports 1,300 people annually. We also deliver outreach to the five direct provision centres in Cork city and county. Nasc was also a member of the working group on direct provision and the protection process and a member of the advisory group established to develop national standards for direct provision.
I welcome the fact that the committee are examining both our asylum reception system direct provision and also the protection process, as the two are inextricably linked and cannot be viewed or repaired in isolation. Given the breadth of the committee's remit, I will focus on a few key issues and recommendations that have emerged based on our 19 years' experience working with protection applicants and other NGOs on these issues.
The journalist Masha Gessen had a piece on direct provision in The New Yorker magazine last week, titled, "Ireland's strange, cruel system for asylum seekers". Most Irish people would not find it strange that the State's chosen model for reception of people seeking protection is one of institutionalisation. Historically we have always institutionalised, excluded and contracted out the care of vulnerable adults and children. It is clear from listening to the powerful testimonies from members of the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland, MASI, at the last hearing that our for-profit, institutional model of reception fails to respect the human dignity of asylum seekers in Ireland. Our current reception system takes an out of sight, out of mind attitude leading to a systematic and structural othering of people seeking protection.
It must also be acknowledged and welcomed that there now exists a real openness within the Department of Justice and Equality and in some political quarters to radically change and overhaul our protection system. This is building upon a number of important positive changes that have already been made in recent years including opting into the reception conditions directive, which puts our reception system on a statutory footing for the first time and provides additional remedies and protections for applicants including a vulnerability assessment; the granting of open access to the labour market for protection applicants who have not had a first instance decision on their application within nine months; and, the development of national standards, which when implemented will apply to all accommodation centres. We have had an increase in the weekly allowance of €38.80 for adults and €29.80 for children. Notwithstanding these improvements, serious structural and systemic issues remain and will continue to prevail for as long as we retain the current institutionalised for-profit model of asylum reception.
Many of the underlying issues caused by for-profit institutionalisation and lack of oversight or accountability remain. We recognise that dismantling a system that has been embedded for almost two decades is challenging and will not and cannot happen overnight. However, there are a number of critical steps that urgently need to be taken to begin to move us towards a protection and reception system that addresses and respects the fundamental human rights of protection applicants. First, delays in the determination process have been a constant feature of our protection process. The current median wait time for processing of applications now stands at 15 months. This is a long way off the promised six-month wait time originally cited when the International Protection Act 2015 was enacted. In our experience, the wait time with no upper limit is one of the primary issues raised to us by applicants. Additional staff and resources must be allocated to the international protection office to ensure that it can deal with all applications on hand at any one time in a timely and efficient manner.
Secondly, chapter of 3 of the McMahon report which deals with the determination process provides a number of very clear, unanimously agreed but yet to be implemented recommendations aimed at improving the process. These include consideration of introducing a rolling system whereby all persons in the protection system for five years or more should be granted a protection status or permission to remain if they have co-operated with the process in line with statutory obligations, an annual review of the system with a view to making recommendations to guard against any future backlogs and introducing mechanisms to regularly review the quality of decision making. The civil Legal Aid Board must also be properly resourced to ensure that applicants have access to effective, early legal advice.
As was demonstrated in the McMahon report, a reduction in processing times and improvements to the decision-making process not only benefit protection applicants, but in the long run will result in cost savings to the State. These recommendations were made in conjunction with multiple Departments and were unanimously agreed as significant steps to improve the protection process. They must now be implemented in line with the McMahon report.
In addition to implementing the above recommendations, with regard to short to medium-term improvements to the material conditions for those living in the current system, we call upon the Government to introduce with immediate effect the vulnerability assessment which is provided for under Article 21 of the reception conditions directive. This obligates member states to take into account the special reception needs of vulnerable applicants. This is a legal requirement and not an optional extra. We would also recommend that the national standards are published and implemented and that an appropriate, independent inspectorate body such as HIQA be appointed as the inspectorate to implement the standards. In line with the McMahon report, all families should have their own private living space and adequate cooking facilities must be installed in all centres.
I will now turn to the longer-term changes that need to be made to create a protection system that is reflective of the key tenets of a modern democracy, a system that respects privacy and human dignity. We fully agree with the recommendation of the Irish Refugee Council that responsibility for the provision of reception to protection applicants should not be under the aegis of the Department of Justice and Equality as its expertise does not lie in the provision of housing and social care.
A housing policy approach needs to be employed. A cross-governmental response is needed as the issues that need to be addressed are multifaceted and cut across a number of Departments. Similar approaches are commonly employed by other jurisdictions, such as Canada and Australia, when seeking to address critical social issues.
We need to move from our current reliance on private accommodation providers and create the conditions upon which approved housing bodies with expertise in the provision of housing and social care can provide suitable self-contained accommodation for protection applicants. This will require changes to the tendering process and to social housing funding streams to allow for a variety of accommodation types in the community. We need to move away from institutional settings. The State should also build fit-for-purpose self-contained housing units. The accommodation provided must be a blend of independent and supported living to cater for the needs of all applicants. Requisite supports should be provided.
It has been four years since the publication of the McMahon report and, like most reports, compromises were made on both sides to achieve a consensus. While the report is by no means perfect, it contains clear and important recommendations which, if implemented, would greatly improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our determination procedure, and would provide a good starting point for a more fundamental realignment of our protection and reception system. The lack of implementation of some key recommendations is possibly why, four years later, we are here today. All the while, the real human casualties of the Government’s inaction are the men, women and children living in limbo, waiting in a system that as Gessen cogently noted, “boils the process of seeking asylum down to its essence: waiting”.
I thank the committee members. I would be happy to answer any questions they may have on our statement. Within the bundle of submissions we have provided, there is also a submission from Amach! LGBT, the group that was supporting Sylva Tukula. As the committee knows, that issue arose in the media last week when it was discovered that Sylva was buried without her LGBT family in Galway and her friends and family in the Great Western Hotel ever having been notified.