I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for inviting the Department to participate in these important hearings on the direct provision system and the international protection process.
As members will be aware, under EU and international law, Ireland, like other countries, is obliged to examine the claim of any person who comes here and claims international protection under defined grounds. Persons will be granted refugee status if it is shown that they have a well-founded fear of suffering persecution in their home country. Where a person does not meet the criteria under the Geneva Convention to qualify as a refugee, they will be granted subsidiary protection status if they would face a risk of suffering serious harm if returned to their home country. A person who qualifies for neither refugee nor subsidiary protection status will have other humanitarian reasons to be allowed to stay considered by the Minister and may be granted a discretionary permission to remain in the State. The process of examining such applications is set out in the International Protection Act 2015 with first instance decisions considered by the International Protection Office, IPO, and appeals determined by the International Protection Appeals Tribunal - both independent in the exercise of their functions in accordance with the Act. The processes in both offices have been designed with input from the UNHCR.
While an international protection claim is being examined, we offer accommodation and related services to anyone without means. This includes all meals, medical care and utilities. A weekly personal allowance is paid to each person and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection cover exceptional needs. The Department of Education and Skills provides school places for children resident in the centres and children also have access to the free preschool scheme, the early childhood care and education programme. The HSE provides mainstreamed health services to residents. It is a whole-of-Government approach to supports and services for applicants.
There is no obligation on anyone to accept the offer of accommodation and there is no restriction on the freedom of movement of applicants throughout the State. Any notion of incarceration of applicants is wholly misleading and risks stigmatising the residents.
The pressure our accommodation system currently faces is clear. The Reception and Integration Agency of the Department is accommodating 6,108 people - the figure last week - in its 39 accommodation centres and a further 760 people are in emergency accommodation in hotels and guest houses. The use of emergency accommodation is sub-optimal. It does not allow us to provide the full range of services to applicants that the ‘traditional’ centres provide. However, we must ensure that each person arriving today to claim protection, with no advance warning, tonight has shelter, food and any urgent medical care required.
Coupled with an increase in the number of people applying for protection in recent years is the large number of people with an international protection status or a permission to remain who continue to live in RIA accommodation. We have approximately the same number of people in this scenario as we have applicants housed in emergency accommodation. People with status or permission to remain have the same access to mainstream housing supports and services as nationals. We are working intensively with organisations such as the Peter McVerry Trust, Depaul and the Jesuit Refugee Service to assist these people to transition to mainstream housing services but, as members will realise, that is challenging in the current housing environment.
The committee heard from Mr. Justice Bryan McMahon of the improvements that have been made to the system in recent years. Significant improvements have been made to the system to deliver real improvements in living conditions and standards for residents. Chief among these is the introduction of independent living. I understand that most of the members of the committee visited the Mosney accommodation centre last Friday where they will have seen how independent living works first hand, including the foodhall where residents can obtain food and toiletries through a cashless and points-based system. More than half of all residents now have access to cooking facilities and our aim is to have all residents in commercial centres benefitting from independent living by the middle of next year. This will be achieved through our ongoing regional tendering process for the provision of accommodation. Successful bidders will also have to provide dedicated living spaces for families and teenagers, and greater facilities for recreation. Standards developed by an advisory group have recently been finalised and approved by the Minister, and will be applied in all centres. Access to the labour market has also provided an important integration opportunity for eligible applicants. To date, the Minister has granted 2,633 labour market access permissions, including 1,900 to direct provision residents. Residents also have access to the services of the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for Children. Importantly, each centre also now has a friends of the centre group, which brings together residents, community and voluntary groups to increase integration opportunities and provide support for residents by local communities.
The Department is now engaged in its own review of the direct provision system. I chair a high-level interdepartmental group to examine the current system and report to the Minister. As part of this work, we are identifying gaps in service provision, areas where we can strengthen existing service provision and supports, and may propose alternative options for the provision of services to applicants in the short and medium terms. The work of the committee will be an important consideration for the interdepartmental group. As Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, said previously, we would welcome proposals and tender responses from individual non-governmental organisations or groups of NGOs that want to work with us to improve the system. Indeed, we are already working with some NGOs to see how they can play a more active role in supporting residents.
The system has provided a safety net for more than 60,000 individuals and families since its inception 20 years ago but there is room for improvement. These committee hearings are timely and coincide with the work that is already under way in the Department. We have followed the hearings to date with great interest and carefully listened to the testimony of witnesses. We share many of the views that were expressed to the committee. The system of deciding on applications must continue to get faster and the improvements to living standards must continue to be implemented. Where we may differ is on how we get there and how quickly the protection determination process can be made taking into account that this is a legal process, which requires full consideration of all aspects of each individual case. We are open to engagement with all stakeholders to provide a system that is responsive to the needs of applicants, treats applicants with dignity and respect and continues to meet our international and humanitarian obligations to people seeking international protection from the State.
My colleagues and I will be happy to answer any questions that the Chairman or members may have.