Direct Provision and the International Protection Application Process: Discussion (Resumed)

The purpose of this part of today's meeting is to continue a series of engagements examining the direct provision and the international protection application process. This is the third of four hearings and a visit to direct provision centres will also be included later this week. We are joined by Ms Tanya Ward, chief executive, Children's Rights Alliance, and Ms Julie Ahern, access to justice manager; Ms Fiona Finn, chief executive, and Fiona Hurley, communications and policy manager, NASC, the migrant and refugee centre; and Dr. Liam Thornton, University College Dublin. They are all welcome here to discuss this important issue.

I will shortly invite the nominated witnesses to make their opening statements, which I propose to do in the order in which I introduced them. Before doing that, I first have to advise on privilege for witnesses who come before an Oireachtas committee. I draw the attention of our guests to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

By virtue of the salient rulings of the Chair, members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

Ms Tanya Ward

The Children's Rights Alliance is an umbrella group, which brings together more than 100 member organisations with the goal of making Ireland one of the best places in the world to be a child. We were members of the working group appointed by the then Minister for Justice, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald. It was our job on the working group to represent the interests of children and young people and a lot of our work was informed by our member organisations, which put significant time and investment into the working group process. The human rights issues I witnessed during that time were some of the worst I had ever witnessed. There was huge institutionalisation, not only of the people living in the system but of the people working in the system and managing it. There was huge overcrowding, hunger and welfare issues, mental health issues and issues of basic human dignity. One of the only positives I saw was that children were able to go to school and that made a big difference, both to children and families. By and large, though, they were living in abject poverty, isolation and exclusion.

There have been significant changes since the working group process. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs carried out a consultation with children and young people in the direct provision system and, while some of what they found was very disturbing, there has been some action on it by the Department of Justice and Equality. The direct provision payment for children was €9.60 for a 15-year period but it has now increased to the McMahon recommendation of €29.80. The first increase was by Deputy Joan Burton when she was Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection and another was made by Deputy Leo Varadkar, with the most recent increase being put in place by the current Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty. The Ombudsman for Children can now take complaints from children in direct provision. There was no public oversight of the direct provision system at the time and it was allowed to continue with poor procurement procedures, no public oversight by bodies such as Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, and no proper complaints mechanisms, meaning that ill treatment and maladministration were allowed to continue. There have been improvements in cooking facilities and a significant work has gone into the development of national standards for refugee accommodation. Our view of how to change direct provision is that we need to accommodate families in own-door accommodation in small clusters, with social care from people working on site.

Some of these families are very vulnerable but, at the same time, they were being institutionalised in these institutions by people with no experience of working in direct provision or working with refugees at all. In our view, the national standards could provide for that. One key recommendation is that families should be in own-door accommodation.

Another improvement was a reduction of overcrowding over the period. There was certainly an effort to try to address that because it was inhumane. While on the working group, one centre I visited had four women living in a hotel room with their beds side by side. They spoke different languages and had been living like that for four years. That was the kind of overcrowding we were seeing at that time.

The last improvement is that people who had been in the system for five years or more had their claims expedited and several thousand refugees got out of direct provision as a result.

In terms of where we go next, I must say that some of these improvements are being overshadowed by the fact that we have more than 500 people seeking asylum, including children, now in these emergency accommodation facilities that are very close to situations where children are living in homeless accommodation. They and their health needs have not been assessed. We are concerned that some of the children do not have access to schools, nor do the parents have support to find a school, and we are also concerned about child protection issues in these centres. Direct provision centres must comply with Children First procedures and have a dedicated liaison person. We do not know what is happening with these emergency centres and we are concerned about that.

We must implement the national standards that are yet to be published if we are serious about changing the system. We also must have unannounced public inspections. It is not good enough for a private operator to look at whether the provider complies with the contract. We must have a body like HIQA. That is the only way we will get the assurance that we will never go back to the direct provision of the past.

The last point I want to bring to the attention of the committee is in the area of welfare and child protection. We know at the moment that, within the Reception and Integration Agency, the role of social worker who has overall responsibility for overseeing the system has been vacant since November. That is a long time. At the same time, we have emergency facilities opening. Who is the watchdog? Who is keeping an eye on what is happening for these children throughout the system and in these emergency facilities?

I also want to bring attention to unaccompanied minors within the system. The working group met many of them and the Children's Rights Alliance has met many since. Many of our member organisations have been communicating with us and the main issue coming from them is that oftentimes asylum applications for unaccompanied minors are not being lodged by the social worker when they arrive in the country. They are discovering this at the age of 18, at which stage they are often sent into the direct provision system.

In summary, there have been significant changes since the working group report. There are also significant challenges which must be dealt with. I absolutely think those challenges are not insurmountable and can be addressed through good decision making and by using the evidence.

We have two Fionas before us. I will ask Ms Finn to give her opening statement on behalf of Nasc, the migrant and refugee centre.

Ms Fiona Finn

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.

Thank you. I welcome that additional information. I now ask Dr. Thornton to address the committee.

Dr. Liam Thornton

I thank the committee for the invitation to discuss the system of direct provision in Ireland. I am an associate professor in UCD school of law, and human rights legal obligations and the system of direct provision has been a topic of my published research for some time. I have provided the committee with a full submission and wish to highlight some of my key recommendations, which I invite the committee to consider. These include recommendations on better respecting and protecting the right to work for international protection applicants and reducing the length of time before applicants can access the labour market, as well as ensuring this includes all international protection applicants, given many, due to legacy issues, may not be provided with the right to work. I invite the committee to recognise that direct provision, in and of itself, is a gross violation on the rights of the child and, indeed, all persons who may be subjected to this system. I echo many of the recommendations based on the detailed expertise of the Children's Rights Alliance and Nasc and would further call for an increase in the direct provision allowance, now called the daily expenses allowance. In particular, as a first step, we must ensure that all children within direct provision receive the payment of child benefit. This can be achieved through an amendment to the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005.

I also make a number of recommendations on aged-out separated children, who are children who enter Ireland aged under 18 without a parent or guardian. Once they reach the age of 18, they are moved into direct provision. The direct provision system, as an institutionalised system, is absolutely not appropriate for aged-out separated children. As the committee has heard over previous weeks and again today, the system of direct provision is one that sets human rights at naught and destabilises and impacts negatively on the rights of the child, the rights of families and the rights of individuals subject to this system. Established as a system that was intended to last no more than six months, as Ms Finn mentioned, we now have a system of institutionalised living which many international protection applicants will be subjected to for many years.

The role of law and State administration to date as regards the needs of persons within the international protection system is one that rejects international protection applicants as being holders of human rights. The State’s approach to international protection applicants has sought to justify years of institutionalised living, years of the inability to do something as simple as decide what to eat and when to eat, years of having to live in hostel-style accommodation, with little to no say about who they can or must interact with, and years of children never seeing their parents or guardians prepare a meal except under the watchful eye of accommodation managers.

What value is the phrase "human rights" where the right to decide such intimate and basic aspects of one’s life is withdrawn for years, without any end date? Convicted of no crime, international protection applicants are segregated from Irish society and condemned to live a half-life. That so many other countries in the European Union treat persons seeking international protection considerably worse than Ireland is no justification for Ireland refusing to respect, protect, vindicate and fulfil the full array of human rights which all individuals, including international protection applicants, have under the State's freely accepted international human rights legal obligations.

Based on my analysis of the law, policy and administration of the system of direct provision, I have concluded that the direct provision system is not fit for purpose and should be abolished. Alternatives to the system must respect, protect, vindicate and fulfil all human rights - civil, political, economic, social and cultural - while persons within the international protection system have their claims for international protection assessed. Failures in State administration for timely determination on whether an individual meets the definition of being in need of protection is no defence to the significant rights violations to which international protection applicants have been subjected for almost 20 years.

Replacing direct provision may not happen overnight. There will be cost implications, as protecting human rights is never cost-free. However, from nearly 20 years of testimony on the lived experience of international protection applicants and human rights-based research, much of it conducted by NASC, the Children's Rights Alliance and the Irish Refugee Council, one thing is very clear: Direct provision was and still is a gross breach of the most fundamental human right we all should have - the right to dignity and respect.

I thank Dr. Thornton and all of the contributors. I call Senator Black.

I thank the witnesses for their presentations and for the deep and detailed submissions they sent in advance. The committee has covered a lot of ground in the last few weeks and will cover more in the next few weeks. I agree with the witnesses, and I have no doubt, that this is a gross violation of the rights of children and families. It is truly shocking. What we have heard over recent weeks has, for me, been really upsetting, shocking and frustrating.

I want to highlight certain points.

In the context of housing, I have heard two important messages. The first of these is that the responsibility for protection should not fall to the Department of Justice and Equality given that its expertise does not lie in the areas of housing or social care. Second, Ms Finn stated we need to move away from institutionalisation and described the current approach as "out of sight, out of mind", where asylum seekers are isolated and kept at a distance. She suggested that after a short initial period of reception, it would be better to have a form of owned or clustered accommodation embedded in communities. Will she expand on how that might work in practice while ensuring that support and services are available?

An important point made every week is the need for common standards and oversight to prevent abuse. All our guests have suggested HIQA as a suitable body. I have no doubt it is crucial. It is an important recommendation that we as a committee must follow. At a minimum, we need common standards for reception and oversight with teeth to investigate and prevent abuse. If two asylum seekers arrive in Ireland, one may be sent to a centre with cooking facilities, better transport and more space, whereas the other, through no fault of his or her own, may end up in a centre with none of the above. It does not seem right that pure chance is the decider. From Dr. Thornton's presentation, it seems that on a human rights basis, we should ensure that every applicant is treated equally as a baseline and that his or her specific needs or challenges are taken into account. Will Dr. Thornton elaborate on that? If the Chairman allows, I will follow up with further questions after our guests respond.

Ms Fiona Finn

On the alternatives, the Department of Justice and Equality having sole care and responsibility for protection applicants has not worked for the past 20 years, which is a lesson we have learned. We need to do something more radical. I agree with our colleagues in the Refugee Council that while it is not a housing issue per se, housing is one of the main components of how we care for international protection applicants. In our engagement with approved housing bodies, AHBs, which have significant expertise in housing and social care, they have indicated that the structure of the current tendering process does not suit them because it is very much focused on institutional, large, congregated settings. AHBs have a clear ethos and mission but the process does not match with that. We need to start doing work and to engage directly with AHBs. We must move the model away from large, institutional settings, the smallest of which, based on the tenders, houses approximately 50 people. For AHBs, however, 50 is far too many and does not fit with their ethos. We are considering small, pepper-potted forms of accommodations and settings, moving away from the larger settings.

The Department of Justice and Equality should look to build for-purpose reception centres and units. The bottom line for any new reception centre is that it would have to be own-door accommodation in self-contained units, where families can live together. Many have argued asylum seekers should be allowed to live in the community and have access to full housing and social welfare, which is another option. That has been tried in other jurisdictions but the Scottish model has presented several issues and challenges because many vulnerable protection applicants have been left isolated in communities. We are examining the system that best suits protection applicants rather than one that creates an institutional setting, places protection applicants into that and expects them somehow to fit in to the system. We need to change our thinking about the matter and to start considering different models. It is clear our current model of institutional housing of protection applicants is not working. Tinkering with it will not change the fundamental, underlying faults of the system.

If our guests wish to comment on something about which a member may not have directly asked, they are very welcome to do so.

Ms Tanya Ward

I fully support what Ms Finn proposes. On the wraparound services and the approach that might work, a good example is the area-based childhood initiatives, which are run by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs in conjunction with Tusla. When those programmes were being set up, an area was asked to pitch an initiative or programme. Many providers came together, formed a steering committee, developed various approaches and ran them in the community. There are many examples of how services can be provided to vulnerable people and many success stories of how it works. We could borrow from that as a solution.

Under the Scottish model Ms Finn mentioned, I understand that people are placed in housing communities. A potential solution is that an AHB could lease properties in various parts of the country where density is lower. If that is done, however, there must be wraparound services for the people in question.

There are many solutions. It is a matter of thinking big and not reproducing the same results. We need to consider the best sustainable housing accommodation solutions for a vulnerable group of people, hopefully for only a short period.

Dr. Liam Thornton

On why asylum applicants are treated differently, the honest answer is I do not know. I should know, however, because within normal structures of decision-making, if people are to be sent to one centre or another, documents should outline what criteria will be used to make the decision. If such an internal policy exists in the Reception and Integration Agency, I have never seen it and I am inclined to believe that it does not. As Ms Finn and Ms Ward outlined, there are significant pressures on the direct provision system, which might mean the system is in crisis-management mode, where people are moved into direct provision if there is space, or into hotels if not. When there are several applicants, I do not know the rationale for making the decision. I should know, however, as we all should, the basis for making decisions on dispersal.

In the context of standards within institutionalised settings, I would exercise a note of caution. When one begins by stating that there could be standards to watch over settings which, per se, grossly violate human rights, it gives some form of comfort that the system is fine. While they may be appropriate now, when we are not moving away from direct provision, we should proceed with a note of caution about the standardisation of everything. We do not have standardisation in our lives, but due to the USA's failure to realise properly the rights of those in the international protection system, we suddenly need such standards. Where possible and appropriate, human beings need to live free to make decisions such as where and what to cook, and where and with whom to sleep. When we start outlining standards, such as requiring that a room be a certain size, it begins to decide intimate aspects of people's lives, something I find uncomfortable.

The right to work has arisen frequently and I am passionate about the issue.

We heard a story a couple of weeks ago from a family man, who said: "All I want to do is work. Just let me come home to my children and tell them I went to work today. I do not even want payment." He just wants to get up in the morning, do a day's work and come home to tell his children what he did. It is for his own pride. Many asylum seekers said they found the process very limited so far and difficult to access. Dr. Thornton mentioned that applicants can work after nine months if no first-instance decision has been received. As I understand it, nine months is the minimum standard allowed under the EU reception conditions directive but there is nothing stopping us setting this at, for example, six months. Am I correct in saying that? Will Dr. Thornton comment?

If we say the right to work is fundamental to human dignity and well-being, why is it only available to those without a first instance decision? Surely if an appeals process is permitted, which can take time, those rightly awaiting an appeal should have just as much of a need to work, provide for their families and use their skills. I also ask about the likelihood of legal action against the State. Dr. Thornton's longer submission focuses on the various fundamental rights that are being denied by the system, such as privacy, autonomy and decision-making, as well as the rights of children. Section D of the submission covers socio-economic rights, which are guaranteed by human rights instruments. We have already seen a limited right to work extended as a result of legal challenge. In Dr. Thornton's view, could we see further legal challenges on human rights grounds? We have a long history in this country of warehousing people, looking back in horror and apologising, and then setting up costly redress schemes. Should the process be repeated here?

Dr. Liam Thornton

I thank Senator Black for her questions. She is absolutely correct in identifying that Ireland only adopted the minimum standard or obligation with the nine-month period under international human rights law Ireland may be before the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in November or December this year. With other European Union countries, that UN human rights treaty body has stated, six months may be a more appropriate minimum period. As I emphasised in my full submission, perhaps we can go beyond that minimum human rights standard. The EU reception directive does not comply with minimum human rights standards with regard to the delay in accessing work where a first-instance decision is not made.

I absolutely concur with the Senator's analysis that work is so fundamental to human dignity and well-being, perhaps we should consider the degree the people with a negative first-instance decision would be permitted to work while they await the outcome of their appeal before the International Protection Appeals Tribunal. I will not go into the precise details contained in my longer submission but there has been interpretation given to the 2018 reception regulations. It indicates that once people have waited nine months, regardless of whether this was before the 2018 regulations came into force and whether they got a negative decision afterwards and are be awaiting appeal, they should be permitted to work. The decision maker for the International Protection Appeals Tribunal, when she was making a later decision, indicated that felt she had got that wrong so she resiled and stated that she did not want to continue with her incorrect interpretation of law which she might have applied. A significant number of people are still awaiting appeal outcomes having waited for first-instance decisions for well over nine months but they cannot work.

With respect to the likelihood of legal action against the State, we have seen attempted legal action before in a case concerning applicants known as CA and TA. One of the core arguments in the case was that the direct provision system was a violation of the right to private and family life under the Constitution and the European Convention of Human Rights Act 2003. That case failed because Mr. Justice Colm Mac Eochaidh said the applicants, Ms CA and her child, TA, had not provided the requisite legal standard of proof to demonstrate that in the instance, their right to private and family life had been violated. The honourable judge outlined his feeling that direct provision is an exceptionally alien environment for any sort of child to be reared in or even in which to go about one's normal life.

Ms Fiona Hurley

We made a number of recommendations on the right to work in our longer submission. We absolutely agree with Dr. Thornton on introducing a grandfather clause in order to allow people who had been waiting nine months prior to the introduction of the regulations to work. This would not be particularly difficult and it could even be done as a matter in an administrative scheme.

There are a number of practical difficulties. For people with the right to work, that right is relatively broad in comparison with other jurisdictions. For those who have the right, it is good, but there are some small limitations that make a difference. Working in the legal clinics we get quite a few phone calls from employers because they do not understand the piece of paper that people have, as it is quite different from what other non-European Economic Area nationals would have. They ring us for information. There should be an information campaign run by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, perhaps, to educate employers about asylum seekers' right to work. The permission is for six months but most employers do not want to invest in an employee for six months; one would not train somebody in a relatively high-skilled job for a six-month period. If the permission lasted 12 months, it would definitely encourage employers. We explained that the permission is renewable after six months but the six-month duration feels very limited.

There are also practical barriers regarding access to driving licences and bank accounts, and I know these have been mentioned in other hearings as well. This demonstrates the need for multi-agency and multi-departmental involvement in issues relating to international protection applicants. The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport could resolve the driving licence issue. It was not a problem years ago and it is something that has happened over approximately the past two years. Many people are living in relatively rural or very small urban settings and there is just no way for them to get to work. They are living in settings that often have low levels of employment and they are very much limited in what they can access. It needs to be resolved so people can enjoy the rights they have.

Will Ms Ward speak a little more about how children are institutionalised and the long-term impact on their mental health? I again highlight the case of Sylva Tukula, which was absolutely horrifying. It was devastating to hear what happened. She died in direct provision and, as was mentioned, she was buried with no friends or loved ones present. That is heartbreaking and the fact she was buried alone sums up the cruelty of the system and the indignity to which it gives rise. This highlights a fundamental problem, which is that the direct provision system is a patchwork, with cracks all over the place with human beings slipping through them. In this case four or five agencies were involved, including the Garda, the Department, the Reception and Integration Agency, the coroner and centre management but nobody really took responsibility. It is not good enough to state that there was a breakdown in communication. Are these types of gaps in the system common?

Ms Tanya Ward

I will address the first part of that and then hand over to my colleague. One of the big things for children living in the direct provision system is the effect of institutionalisation on them and their parents. Children live through this. One of the best official insights is the HIQA report of 2015, which considered the social work services that were being provided to people in direct provision. What those whom compiled the report found was children who were hungry, who did not have enough clothes or who did not have access to toys or play facilities. These are very basic things that are part of childhood and that are needed for development. They found a lot of welfare issues. The big issue that was coming through as impacting on children was the mental health of the parents. Parents were living through years of a system where they were not cooking for themselves and were reliant on everyone else for everyday decisions without knowing what was going to happen in the future. When I went around to those centres, I asked people about the child protection issues and the parents would say, "I am the person my child is most at risk from. I am breaking down. I cannot take this any more." The Child Care Law Reporting Project shows that there is a very significant number of cases. They are over-represented in the numbers of children taken into care. Children have been taken from parents whose mental health has broken down because of the direct provision system.

The other effects of institutionalisation that we see relate to how children are being treated by centre owners and managers. In one centre, we might find children being treated very well and seeming to have a very good rapport with the people running the system. In another centre, we could find that the children are completely institutionalised and tell us lots of different accounts of things. In one instance, a child told me how they were in the kitchen in the catering facility and they saw the staff making smoothies in the kitchen. The kids got really exciting thinking they were for them; they had never had a smoothie before. The staff saw the kids and slammed the door. The kids realised the smoothies were not for them, they were actually for the staff. That was what was actually taking place. We hear lots of accounts like that because the staff themselves are institutionalised. They are subjecting the children to ill treatment and maladministration, essentially. That is what is happening.

The other thing we see a lot is poverty. Hunger was a massive thing. Particularly in one centre in Athlone, the food was really appalling. The children were in school until 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. The parents had been given a bag of deep-fried food, spring rolls, white rice and so on. It was inedible for the children by the time they came home from school. That was not the case with all centres either. It meant the children did not eat and because they were only on €9.60 a week, the parents did not have any kind of supplementary income to buy other food for the children. Obesity was also coming up because the kind of food that was being provided for children was so poor.

Children also talked to us about how ashamed they were to tell everyone they were living in direct provision. They would avoid play dates. If they were asked to go to a birthday party, they would say they were not available because they did not have the money to buy a birthday present. Parents talked about having to make these really difficult choices, such as, "I would love to send my kids to the local hurling club. I know it is only €2 or €3 but the problem is I need to buy a bottle of Calpol. How do I afford one over the other?" The increase in direct provision payments has been very important for those very basic things, so children can participate in everyday life.

The reality is that if we are going to mind children and give parents the best opportunity to be parents, they have to be cooking for their own families. They have to have their own front doors. The kind of things we were hearing included that a parent was not allowed leave a 14 year old in the main reception room. Children were not allowed to be left on their own. That is not good from a child development point of view. Children need to grow. They need to play on their own sometimes. They need to be away from their parents, particularly as they get older and they want to become more independent. It goes back to the need for own-door accommodation whereby children can have a normal childhood near communities and not in isolation, so they can mix in with Irish children and any other children and just have a normal childhood.

I want to return to the issue of unaccompanied minors that I mentioned earlier. When I was on the working group, we met a lot of children. "Aged-out minors" is the technical term. I met one young guy who was about 19 and who had arrived in Ireland at the age of 12. He had a Dublin accent. I met him in Galway and saw him as another Dub. He was really angry. He was in this particular hostel where it is all men. They eat together in the room while the security guard sits in a glass box. The conditions are very prison-like. What he was really angry about was that he had a family in Dublin and a life there. He said that no one told him an application for protection had not been submitted for him. He found out about it and then he got sent down there. He said he had been ripped out of his community and the family he had in Dublin. He asked why this happened, why no one told him in Tusla that this was going to happen to him. There is a very particular legal issue pertaining to why that is happening. I will pass over to my colleague, Ms Ahern, who has been coming across it through our legal advice service.

Ms Julie Ahern

We have known this was an issue through the members of our legal advice service. They have been presenting us with anecdotal information about situations they hear of, particularly affecting young people who come into the system aged 16. They are coming into the system as unaccompanied minors and there is no application put forward for them in the protection process. We set up our legal information service last year and the issue has been cropping up. I am hearing that young people have no knowledge that an application has to be made for them. They have no knowledge of the implications. It has key implications not only for what happens to them when they turn 18 but actually for their family reunification rights. If an application is made when they are young, it is far easier for them to start applying for family reunification at that point as well.

What we are hearing suggests that there is not necessarily any devious motive behind it or anything. People in authority are making a decision from the point of view of whether it will further harm the child but without considering what it will do the young person in the long term. They might decide that they do not want a 16 year old to have to relive the experience but at 18 that young person is going to be put into direct provision. We must ask if the system is fit for purpose if people are thinking it is going to further harm the child. We need to look at child-friendly justice measures and different things that could be put in place to make sure that professionals do not have a fear of putting a 16 year old through an application process when it is in his or her best interest to get a status. They system should be adapted so that this fear is not there. We are going to continue to document this as part of our work. We will track the trends but it is an issue that really needs to be highlighted. It really does harm children who have no one else with them in the country.

Ms Tanya Ward

I would add one more point on the mental health solution. The research and best practice models from other countries are useful. Some children in the refugee population will actually be very resilient and will not need any support, and some will be very damaged by what they have gone through. It seems that in-school provision is best. This means a psychologist is present within the school system. The child can go and have sessions and get that kind of support. We need to be thinking about what the school is doing in respect of a refugee child and what extra supports are set up. Generally, when a special refugee mental health service is set up, it always gets defunded in recession times and the expertise is lost in the system. We really need to equip the National Educational Psychological Service and the existing services to take on the needs of refugee children. There is a significant gap. In one part of the country, the service is good while it is bad in another.

Ms Fiona Finn

Senator Black referred to the patchwork nature of the system and Sylva Tukula. What happened to Sylva Tukula was appalling. It is emblematic of the institutionalised nature of direct provision. It is that whole process of othering and the dehumanising impact that direct provision has. Sadly, when Ms Tukula died, it just became a function. There were certain procedures that had to be followed so they were going to follow them without ever thinking that she might have a family. Family is much broader than having immediate next of kin. That is a direct result of institutionalisation and how we treat protection applicants.

On the patchwork nature of the system, I agree with the Senator. There are a lot of services available in direct provision and there are a lot of agencies involved in the provision of reception. What is required is oversight, like a refugee advisory body. It was recommended in McMahon and was also in the original Refugee Act 1996. The idea is that there would be some level of oversight and co-ordination.

If we go from centre to centre, we see that Tusla is very active in a particular area and the services provided for children are very good but those services do not exist somewhere else. There is no co-ordination. The idea of establishing an advisory board to oversee all aspects and elements of the protection process, including the determination process and the services provided, is absolutely required. Then we would have a more co-ordinated response and not the ad hoc patchwork response that we have throughout the country.

Ms Fiona Hurley

The documentation we received from Amach includes a statement from a resident that sums up the situation. She stated she was easily fooled into believing the system would show love to Sylva after she died when it failed to show that love to her when she was alive. It really sums up what happened. There was no love or compassion for Sylva. She was forced to live in an all-male hostel. I find it really difficult to get over the horror of that and how difficult it must been for her every day. One would hope it would never have happened if the vulnerability assessment had been in place when Sylva came into the system. This is one of the reasons we need a vulnerability assessment in place, so no one goes through that again. It is very important.

Another part of the statement from Amach highlights the fact that residents have confided to it their fears that something could happen to them if they died, or that if something happened to them, they could also be buried alone. People really need to be reassured that lessons have been learned, that this will not be repeated, and that Sylva will leave a legacy where there has been positive change.

I thank Ms Finn and Senator Black. Before bringing in Deputy Ó Laoghaire, I remind members that at the conclusion of today's hearing, and in preparation for our report, I invite the witnesses for a group picture with members. I am saying it now in case they all disappear on me and that would not do. I thank them for noting this. I call Deputy Ó Laoghaire.

Deputy O'Callaghan is under time pressure.

Deputy Ó Laoghaire has agreed to allow me in ahead of him if that is okay.

That is fine.

I must do a radio interview at 11 a.m. and I apologise. I thank the witnesses for coming before the committee and for their very helpful submissions. So they are aware of the process we are engaged in, we are having extensive hearings and we will go on a visit to a direct provision centre on Friday and then we will produce a report. We want to include in the report recommendations we believe will improve the system as much as possible. We have to be practical about it also. We want to put forward recommendations we believe can be adopted and implemented. Today, we have heard many recommendations from the witnesses. Ms Ward mentioned unannounced HIQA visits and vulnerability assessments, about which we have heard previously. There are also issues with regard to entitling people in direct provision to access to driver licences and bank accounts. These are fundamental simple issues that we should be able to deal with and that the State should implement.

I wish to ask Ms Ward and Ms Ahern about the issues they raised regarding 16 year olds for whom an asylum application is not lodged. Who do we think should be responsible for this and for advising them? How should they become aware of the fact they have to make an application?

Ms Julie Ahern

At present, it is the social worker who has responsibility to make a decision on whether to lodge an application. Social care workers, who care for them where they live daily, ask me what is happening and what are the rights of the young person. I will leave Ms Ward answer the question on who should be the person in place. What is critical is that child-friendly information is provided to children and young people. This should be in a language they can understand. It would be written and oral and would be presented in a way that they would know their rights and entitlements even beyond making an application for protection, including their rights in everyday life.

Ms Tanya Ward

It is possible that a child has an appointed guardian as some of these children do get into foster care. Obviously, this is the best outcome. Unless the foster carer has appointed a guardian it will be the social worker who will have responsibility for lodging the application. The issue arises if the social worker has decided not to do so and we hear various reasons for having made this decision. It might be because of welfare or because they are concerned about the nature of the protection process and do not want to put the child through it. However, they are not balancing the protection rights of the child. It is in the child's best interest to have the application made as early as possible and it is up to the State to adapt its system to ensure it is as child friendly as possible. Children can undergo these situations. Children are very resilient and often refugee children are more resilient than others. We have to look at them in this way.

A recommendation made in the McMahon report was that social workers should obtain legal advice before making this decision. There is a provision in the recent International Protection Act on this. It states the social worker may obtain legal advice. We just do not know what is happening. We know from our experience on the ground and from the helpline that protection applications are still not being lodged. It is something that needs to be opened up because we think those decisions are not being made in the best interests of children. I do not know whether they need legislation but they certainly need guidance on making the decision.

The problem that arises is that when people who arrived at the age of 16 reach the age of 18, they can find themselves transferred to a direct provision centre-----

Ms Tanya Ward

Yes, that is right.

-----which would be a very traumatic and significant change.

Ms Tanya Ward

One way to address this is by providing them with aftercare. One of the problems is that it is very difficult to get aftercare for people who were 16 when they entered the childcare system. There should be an exception for those young people because they do not have a family. They arrived here with no adult to be there for them to back them up, as is the case with any other child with a family in Ireland. This is the solution for them. They should be kept in aftercare. Providing aftercare, making the asylum application and making the family unification application so the family can arrive and look after them and be there for them is the solution for them.

Does Ms Ward believe social workers need to be better informed on the importance of lodging these applications? Should we go down the McMahon route of providing them with legal advice in respect of the application?

Ms Tanya Ward

I certainly think the child needs to have his or her own lawyer in these cases and the lawyer should advise on behalf of the child. That could address the gap with the social worker. It is one way around it.

Ms Finn wants to make a point on the back of the Deputy's earlier question.

Ms Fiona Finn

I want to add to Ms Ward's point. When the issue arose in the working group, many of the NGOs in the group wanted to obligate the HSE to seek legal advice, but this got watered down in the International Protection Act. Seeking legal advice forms one part of the many agencies they may consult. It should be an obligation and it would form part of looking at early legal advice and front-loading legal advice. A critical point is that if a child turns 18 and then goes through the asylum process and gets permission at or after the age of 18, he or she loses all rights to family reunification under the new Act. There is no possibility he or she can apply for parents or siblings to come in.

Whereas if they did it at 16 or 17-----

Ms Fiona Finn

This is why it is a critical point. If people were granted protection status at the age of 16, 17 or up to the day before their 18th birthday, they would still be entitled to family reunification. We have a whole group of children who, in reality, are orphaned in the State.

Ms Finn mentioned it might be better to move this from the Department with responsibility for justice to that with responsibility for housing.

Ms Fiona Finn

Yes.

Does she have concerns because it is not as though we do housing particularly well in this country? Would she be concerned if we transferred this from being a justice issue where there is an absolute obligation on the State to provide shelter and support for people who come seeking asylum? If they were fully integrated into the system without that protection, they would be on the housing list.

Ms Fiona Finn

That protection would still exist. It would not be removed if responsibility were moved from the Department with responsibility for justice. The protection is there under international law. It would not move. What we would suggest is that maybe it should be attached to, or be a separate entity added onto, the housing Department and that funding for the provision of accommodation would be mainstreamed into the housing budget but ring-fenced so that it could not be drawn or used for any other form of housing. It is only by looking at it as a housing or social housing issue that we will begin to move from the model we have.

The ethos of the Department of Justice and Equality is like a control type of ethos and one does not get that if one moves it to another body.

I thank Dr. Thornton for his research in the area. Has any research been done on the impact of the direct provision system on children's access to and attainment in primary education as an issue he is concerned about?

Dr. Liam Thornton

There has been a study done, I believe, by Dr. Deirdre Horgan and others in University College Cork. That study focused more on how children, and more so their parents, come from an institutionalised setting of direct provision, and when they deal with primary schools, sometimes the treatment they receive is not all that pleasant and is not all that different from the control experience within direct provision centres. I believe I have the precise study cited in a footnote.

I wish to back up some of the points made by Ms Ward, Ms Ahern and Ms Finn on aftercare. First, legally speaking, nothing prevents Tusla from offering aftercare to aid ill or separated children. To my knowledge, that discretion power of Tusla has never once been exercised. Dr. Muireann Ní Raghallaigh of University College Dublin, in a number of studies dating back to 2013, has pointed out what we are providing. We have to recognise that, for those who are separated children under 18, Ireland has probably one of the best systems, certainly in Europe if not the world. It is all about building resilience, independence and capacity. As Dr. Ní Raghallaigh has noted, once they turn 18, we tell them to go live in an institution where their meals are provided and they are given a few bob for themselves for the week. The early part of their entry into Ireland is one where there is some form of wraparound care and then, when they are 18, they go into a hostel where every single decision possible is taken away from them.

I thank Dr. Thornton. I thank the Chairman and I thank Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire for letting me in.

Gabhaim buíochas leis na finnéithe go leir as a bheith anseo. Bhí an díospóireacht an-luachmhar. I thank all the witnesses for being before us. I very much agree with the criticism they have made. We have had this debate over recent weeks, including with Mr. Justice McMahon. While there may be points to incremental improvements, fundamentally direct provision is a bad system that continues to fail people's human rights. I believe that not only has it lost the confidence of those in the system who have to suffer it, it has also lost the confidence of the public.

Even aside from the multiple human rights issues that exist in respect of it, it has been very bad value for money as well. I have instanced that it has cost the taxpayer €12.5 billion since 2001. To house, if we want to call it that, a parent with two children costs €40,000 a year through the direct provision system. Much better and more private accommodation with greater dignity could be provided at much less cost than that. From every perspective, the direct provision system is in urgent need of replacement. What has been outlined is very much in accordance with my own views in terms of an integrated housing approach. I advocated such an approach with the Minister in December last. Even in response to Deputy O'Callaghan's points in terms of justice in housing, it is like any of these matters in that there has to be an intersection. The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government cannot be expected to be responsible for making a determination on a person's application for international protection, but in so much as the person is to be provided with accommodation where that is needed immediately, there needs to be a housing approach to that. Certain approved housing bodies can have a role in that. I believe the private for-profit model that has underpinned this has been a significant problem. The Children's Rights Alliance has dwelt a fair bit on this. Is Dr. Thornton in agreement with that kind of approach that involves either approved housing bodies or some form of initiative led by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government or by public housing? Is that roughly what Dr. Thornton thinks? I note there are many other issues relating to direct provision but I ask only in terms of bed and board accommodation.

Dr. Liam Thornton

I am not a housing specialist. I do not have any expertise in housing policy. However, how do we engage with others within the State who are not within the international protection system and who need support? Welfare needs will be catered for by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Housing needs may be catered for either through - not that there is much - local authority housing or rent allowance, now the housing assistance payment. I have issues with supports provided to asylum applicants not being mainstreamed. A significant number of Departments are engaged with various issues, from the Department of Health to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government to, obviously, the Department of Justice and Equality in the determination of claims. Is there a need for absolutely and wholly separated systems while acknowledging there may be a much greater need for engagement and holistic supports for a small number of applicants? From my limited lens from which I can offer advice to the committee on law, how in law we deal with those who may not have enough income? We provide payment from social protection. How do we deal with those who have homelessness imposed upon them or who have to access housing payment supports? We have housing social protection. For healthcare, there is the Department of Health. For child needs, there is the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. My approach is that we have systems in place. Let us utilise those systems, regardless of the legal status of international protection applicants, while acknowledging there will be a small number who will need a more interventionist approach.

I agree with much of what Dr. Thornton said. It follows on from a previous point. Applying for the mainstream system and having specific accommodation for people who are applying for international protection are not mutually exclusive. The way the system is at present, unfortunately, for the entire population, a single applicant for housing would be in line for 11 or 12 years on a local authority housing list, particularly in the cities. What makes sense to me is that a person would have own-door accommodation of a standard provided immediately but that he or she would be entitled to apply for local authority housing and, assuming the person could find it, which is difficult at present, he or she could apply for HAP just the same, but that that person would have that minimum standard to be able to work from. If people are forced to wait for their applications to be processed and status to be granted, that could take three, four or five years or maybe more, and then another nine, ten, 11 or 12 years on top of that before they get accommodated.

Earlier, there was a fair bit of discussion on the unaccompanied minors. I have a brief question. It may have been included in some of the submissions. Is there an available figure for the number of unaccompanied minors in the system at present?

Ms Tanya Ward

The number of unaccompanied minors is actually quite small in contrast to that in other countries. It is quite difficult to get here. There has been an issue with unaccompanied minors in Europe. Many travelled to Europe. Ireland has, by far, not taken the lion's share of them. There was a situation, as the Deputy will be aware, with a number of young people at Calais. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs and Tusla travelled there and offered full refugee protection, full services, accommodation etc., and only a small number of young people opted to come to Ireland.

That is really interesting but it also reflects what we know, namely, that people want to go to a country where they have family members. They do not want to go to a country where they do not have anyone. We are always told that if we make the direct provision system too good, everyone will want to come here and it will be a pull factor. The research does not tell us that. It tells us again and again that people go to a particular country either because a trafficker takes them there and they have no idea where they are going or they have family members there.

There are a small number of unaccompanied minors in the country and the system of reception for them is quite good. The real issue is that their legal protection needs are not being effectively addressed. They should be prioritised and dealt with very quickly so they can make their family unification application. They should then be kept in aftercare if they happen to turn 18.

Our opting into the recast directive is connected to that. One of its requirements of the directive is to have a vulnerability statement. I presume that relates to unaccompanied minors as well. Can any of the witnesses comment on progress in implementing the vulnerability statement?

Ms Fiona Finn

Our understanding is that discussions are taking place between the Department of Justice and Equality and the Department of Health. That is the result of the silo approach being taken towards dealing with reception and international protection. I am not sure what the Departments have concluded. The question is whether responsibility for vulnerability assessment lies squarely with the Department of Justice and Equality or with the Department of Health. It is somewhere in between. A vulnerability assessment goes beyond a health screening. Our sense is that this is a health issue but additional funding has to be provided to the HSE to deliver on the vulnerability assessment.

The other key point is that the vulnerability assessment is not just a once-off assessment. It is not merely a case of someone having an initial assessment on arrival in Balseskin in which the authorities identify whether he or she has special reception needs. Those special reception needs must be provided. The authorities may assess someone and conclude he or she is not suitable to reside in a direct provision centre and that alternative accommodation must be provided. Further to that, however, the vulnerability assessment must be ongoing. Trauma may emerge six or eight months after people arrive in the country. There must be sufficient services to detect and respond to that.

The standards provide a very good pathway for the delivery of the vulnerability assessment in all the centres on an ongoing basis. The foundation blocks are in place and the standards have been agreed. The vulnerability assessment is a legal obligation. It has been in place for more than a year but has still not been implemented. It is a critical element. I cannot answer the Deputy's question because I do not know what stage the process is at but responsibility falls somewhere between the Department of Justice and Equality and the HSE.

Some of the points I intended raising have been addressed already but I will make a brief statement on them. I entirely agree with the point made on the right to work. The people with the greatest need to avail of this right and a large number of those who have been in the system longest do not stand to benefit from it. That is wrong. The location of some of the direct provision centres has been touched upon. While I am certainly not of the view that all of those locations should be in Dublin, the location of some centres makes it impossible to attend appointments in Dublin using public transport. One location which was mooted was Moville or somewhere like that. That would require passing through the Six Counties, which is not allowed.

Dr. Liam Thornton

It could lead to someone getting arrested because, for the time being, Northern Ireland is a separate jurisdiction. It is illegal for a protection applicant to move into another country without the permission of either the Department of Justice and Equality or, in this case, the UK Home Office.

Many direct provision centres leave an awful lot to be desired. That also needs to be addressed. I agree to a large extent with Dr. Thornton in sounding what I understood to be a note of caution on, rather than opposition to, minimum standards. Minimum standards must be an interim measure preceding the replacement of the entire direct provision system, although standards certainly have role. That is my personal view but perhaps the witnesses have a view on the matter. I imagine that when standards come into force a large number of direct provision centres will fall very far short of them. What will happen then? Is it possible that direct provision centres will be closed? Will people be placed in emergency accommodation? That thought occurs to me. The number of asylum seekers in emergency accommodation is already high. According to a reply I received to a parliamentary question, the figure is approximately 600. Emergency accommodation is a frightening system in and of itself.

Ms Tanya Ward

There is no doubt that the standards will require a higher level of provision. There is no doubt that needs to happen. The solution is that, first, the State should start developing a national housing policy for people seeking protection. One of the key powers in the gift of the State is that it can start building. There are great examples of accommodation provision, not necessarily in the refugee space but in other areas of provision such as for people with disabilities. The State could build solid and sustainable accommodation which could be handed over to other people with a housing need in a particular area if it is not being used by people seeking protection. There are many areas where that kind of housing and accommodation could be provided.

The second step, as Ms Finn stated, is to bring in not-for-profit housing providers. All the research shows that when they provide housing it is pretty good and the outcomes are good for the people with whom they are working. If the State made more money available to the approved housing providers they would be more likely to pitch for this type of accommodation. There are many such providers. If given resources and support, even for-profit providers in the disability space could produce own-door accommodation. They could use the pepper pot model and have care providers on the staff. This is not an insurmountable problem. It is possible to do this.

The three elements involved are to launch a building programme, place tenders for not-for-profit providers to develop pepper pot type accommodation and then have providers lease housing and accommodation around the country where it is available. This is possible because we know there are many vacant properties around the country. The Government must make sure people are provided with the right services and support. The solutions are all there. There are plenty of housing providers and practitioners who will be happy to advise the Reception and Integration Agency. The Government just needs to make it happen.

Ms Fiona Finn

Deputy Ó Laoghaire raised a question on standards. I agree that standards will not change direct provision. They represent a short-term to medium-term improvement. However, they will vastly improve conditions in the centres. One of the critical issues is that conditions differ from centre to centre. It is very important that the committee visit several centres to get a true sense of the variety of conditions in them.

With regard to the standards, current providers will have a two-year lead-in period. If the standards come into place in 2020, providers will have two years to bring their accommodation up to the requisite standards. It will not be a case that if a provider does not meet the standards, it can no longer be a provider. The two-year lead-in period was brought in to enable current and new providers to bring their accommodation up to the national standards.

Ms Julie Ahern

I will comment on the emergency accommodation issue, which is a real worry for us. There are big questions around child protection and welfare. In the direct provision system, as we know it, there is an obligation on authorities to comply with Children First, which we raised in our submission. However, we do not know what is happening in these emergency centres. Do they have a designated liaison person? Are child protection systems in place? Do they have their statement? That is a real concern for us. Children are living in potentially very dangerous situations.

Another issue related to that is the need for a child protection and welfare strategy. Such a strategy could address the child protection requirements of emergency accommodation centres. The vacancy Ms Ward mentioned is related to that. There is currently a vacancy in the child and family services unit of the RIA. That person could have oversight of child protection in these emergency centres.

It is key that that position be filled to have oversight over the current gaps in emergency services.

I agree 100%. The scale is becoming quite large. It is an emerging issue and potentially an emerging scandal.

I have two more questions, related partly to what we are talking about and partly to direct provision generally. Inspection and the ability to have oversight of what is happening in centres were raised. When the State approves the optional protocol to the convention against torture, will it improve oversight at direct provision centres and all sorts of other locations?

When considering the structure and accommodation, do we need to address the culture in some of the institutions? I believe the culture played a big part in what happened with Sylva Tukula. I was on the radio about this matter and referred to the contrast with the case of Sean Parker, who was in London. The local authority there went the extra mile to find somebody in Galway who would be able to give Sean a fitting, dignified burial and to ensure he would be properly remembered. Nobody went the extra mile in the case of Sylva Tukula. People can say they were not notified and that nobody told them. Nobody went the extra mile or inch in that instance. That, to me, speaks of a culture that extends not only to the RIA but also to the INIS. The latter is excessively adversarial at times. One of the most incredible sentences I read in my life was in a report to this committee referring to some of the witnesses who attended and some of the determinations made by INIS. A determination refusing family reunification questioned the degree of destruction in Syria, saying it was noted that central Damascus had been relatively unscathed by the war in Syria. I remember reading that and thinking it was just incredible. Is there a cultural element in the INIS and RIA? There are many good staff in those organisations doing their best for those fleeing conflict and seeking a better life here but is there an excessively adversarial attitude to applicants seeking international protection? Do we need to tackle the culture? Am I completely off the mark?

Dr. Liam Thornton

I will address the question on the culture of the Department and of the RIA. I have 20 years of freedom of information documents at my disposal. The Deputy is very generous in describing the attitude as "adversarial". I would put it more strongly but I am not going to right now. I fear it is much worse. A culture of disbelief has been documented in several reports. I recall documents obtained in a freedom of information request in 2008 that refer to a man who had a child with a woman and whose child was considered Irish because the woman was Irish. The man was in a direct provision centre and he asked whether he could be moved to a direct provision centre closer to his girlfriend and child. The case was referred to in the body of the email as another brain-teaser on direct provision. The response was that there was no obligation on the man to remain in direct provision and that it was not the Department's business if he wanted to live near the mother and child, the implication being that he may have had access to his own funds. That is just one example. There are more recent examples. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection started to plan for the increases in the direct provision allowance around July of last year. Quite wisely, it did not inform the Department of Justice and Equality until about 25 September 2018. An official in the Department of Justice and Equality who was asked to offer a comment or express views began by saying, "They are all working anyway." These are two of many unfortunate examples I have and will, due to the 20th anniversary of the system of direct provision, be making available towards the end of this year.

Ms Fiona Hurley

I wish to build on Dr. Thornton's point on the cultural aspect. Partially the issue is because the Department of Justice and Equality controls all the aspects of the life of somebody in international protection, for better or worse. Its remit is to uphold the security of the State and engage in border control. That is its mindset rather than one based on human care or a compassionate approach.

With regard to moving the accommodation to the housing providers, there are many reasons why that is so important. Those coming through our clinics and talking to us are aware their accommodation is provided by the Department of Justice and Equality, the same body that is considering their asylum applications. No matter how many pieces of paper reassure them the two things are separate and that if they make a complaint about one, it will not have an impact on the other, they are not reassured. Having the Department in charge of all that is very problematic because there are so many areas of control.

Disbelief was mentioned. The Deputy quoted a document referring to Damascus. I have come across several visa letters with a similar response. In at least one of the cases, the person was not living in central Damascus, but in the suburbs. This is something we come across. Applications such as those Dr. Thornton talked about, for example, the application of someone in direct provision who wanted to move to be closer to family, are routinely refused. Again, this is because cases are being considered from an immigration and control point of view. Moving responsibility away from the Department of Justice and Equality to another provider would definitely be very helpful in shifting the culture.

Ms Tanya Ward

As has been said, there are many good staff working in the system. That is my experience but the kinds of examples Dr. Thornton is describing point to a system in which staff have not been held accountable for their treatment of people. We are talking about a very exceptional set of circumstances in Irish political life in which one organisation was not subject to any scrutiny by any public body. This is the kind of stuff that happens ultimately. Organisational cultures set in. Moreover, institutionalisation is a factor. The staff in the system become institutionalised and embedded, and committed to the system. Bearing in mind the findings in the Ryan report and other institutional abuse reports, people working within a system really buy into it, try to reproduce it and hold on to it. Obviously, change is important within this space.

The other thing we came across when we were on the working group was the notion of care. There was a nearly constant battle. It was said that the Department does not do care, just accommodation. One would not get that if one worked in other areas or other Departments because there is an understanding that there is a vulnerable population requiring care. The change to the national standards is acceptance that care is now part of what should be offered. That is why we are keen to have the changes implemented as soon as possible. Whoever provides the service will have to have a care component and social care workers on site who can deal with people's needs.

Establishing HIQA's role will be key. Where HIQA carries out unannounced inspections, it absolutely does change practice. HIQA involvement is not expensive. We were trying to work out how much it would cost and went to HIQA to find out. When it had about 4,000 in the system, it said it would involve four inspectors and two administrators. This pointed to a cost much cheaper than we thought. All that would be needed, therefore, is a change to the health Act to give HIQA a role in this area. It has already dealt with accommodation for vulnerable people. It could take this on. It has already been involved in cluster-type accommodation and independent living. It has the expertise. It is very simple to do. If we give the providers a grandfather period, there should be no reason what I propose could not be implemented.

I have what I hope is a very succinct question to round off. I am conscious this has been a busy engagement for the witnesses. In the context of a report, let me home in on Ms Hurley's point on the Refugee Advisory Board. I am keen to tease it out, making reference to what we should be focusing on and how we should be referring to it in the report. Ms Hurley mentioned the legislation allowing for the board. What is the proposed form in this regard? That does not always translate into the best form-----

Ms Fiona Hurley

I know.

That does not always translate into the best form.

Ms Fiona Finn

I know.

The last thing one wants or needs in this context is another layer of bureaucracy.

Ms Fiona Finn

I agree.

We need to get the right people around that table and to determine the terms of reference around functions, powers and remit. I am not across the detail of that. It was news to me this morning. I want to get a broad view on that.

Ms Fiona Finn

From memory - and I may be incorrect - the Refugee Act 1996 set out who should be part of that board. In general, its function was just to oversee the determinations process and consider asylum policy. The board was to meet every two years and to lay a report before the Oireachtas. It was a very good model because there was accountability for decision makers. The board was to meet four times a year. We were looking at the advisory board. Given the fact that there are a number of other agencies involved in the delivery of direct provision, including Tusla to deal with issues arising specifically around children as well as bodies dealing with LGBTQ issues, we may be looking at broadening that advisory board with reference to something like the model of the working group. For all its faults and failings, the working group worked very well as a cross-departmental body. A board might meet quarterly with reports being provided by each relevant Department on progress and issues arising and that information might then be made public. There is a very strong case to be made for looking in particular at the actual protection process for determinations whereby the model set out in the 1996 Act is followed to provide a biannual report to be laid before the Oireachtas. That would provide a strong degree of oversight.

I am happy enough with that response.

Ms Ward's comment on HIQA and the impact of unannounced visits was interesting. Unfortunately, our visits are announced. Even in that context, I hope they provide something more than the simple benefit of engagement. It will be interesting to see. We are visiting Mosney and Monaghan to have a contrast between one and the other.

Ms Fiona Finn

It is quite striking.

I am very familiar with both but particularly with the latter. The committee feels the visits are an important part of the address of the issue, especially for members who have not visited either centre before. I have been to both. We will also be in the land of emergency accommodation as there are many so-called clusters in that part of the country I am honoured to represent. Unfortunately, it is not something of which the people there are most proud.

I thank all of our guests very much indeed. They are the last representatives of the NGO sector to come before us. We are dealing with officials at our final hearing next week. On behalf of the committee, I thank Ms Ward and Ms Ahern, who have attended previously. It was lovely to have them back and I thank them for their contributions. I thank the two Fionas, Ms Finn and Ms Hurley, who have travelled from Cork. I had expected Deputy Ó Laoghaire to start off there as he has a tendency to relate to home base first. However, he did not and put Dr. Liam Thornton in that position. I thank Dr. Thornton also, who had perhaps the shortest journey to be with us today. I wish the witnesses the very best. We invite them to join us for a photograph at the conclusion of the meeting. Further, I put them on notice that we will extend an invitation to them when we publish our report in the autumn. We hope that our deliberations over the remaining period will lead to a report with which our guests will find satisfaction.

The joint committee adjourned at 11.25 a.m. until 9 a.m. on Wednesday, 19 June 2019.