I thank the Chairman and members for inviting me to speak today on the direct provision system for accommodating applicants for international protection.
I have been to the forefront in seeking reform of this system and, to that end, I very much welcome the committee's interest in this matter. It is my wish that this engagement today helps, not hinders, the ongoing consultative process which I will explain in more detail in a few moments.
The direct provision system came about in the context of an unprecedented increase in the numbers of asylum seekers coming into the country in the late 1990s. At that time, the majority of protection seekers lived in Dublin and were treated as homeless, which involved emergency accommodation and local authority housing. The shortage of accommodation reached crisis point and the then Eastern Health Board understandably could not cope. There were reports of protection seeker families sleeping in parks. In November 1999, the Government resolved the crisis by having the needs of protection seekers met by a system of direct provision which involved the dispersal of protection seekers throughout the country.
It is 15 years later and more than 4,400 persons live in 34 asylum accommodation centres throughout the State, which is a reduction from 60 centres in 2008. That is a simple statistic. If one drills down further, one will see the human element involved. Of these residents, approximately one third are adult males, one third are adult females and one third are children. Drilling down further, 36% of residents have been in the overall system for up to three years, 43% for between three and seven years and 21% for seven years or more.
Everyone living in direct provision has his or her own story to tell. People may be at different stages of the protection determination process or may even have taken a legal challenge against a negative decision made in respect of them. Indeed, they may be at the end of the process but cannot move on. For example, more than 500 of the residents in the direct provision system have permission to remain in the State but cannot move on because of difficulties sourcing private accommodation. Almost 600 residents have deportation orders outstanding against them, the vast majority of which issued over a year ago. They are required to report periodically to the Garda National Immigration Bureau. There are many reasons orders are not or cannot be enforced, including the issuing of legal actions, the making of sequential protection applications for members within a family group, the absence of the travel documents required for the return to the country of origin and so on.
Members of the committee have visited centres to see for themselves the conditions in which residents live. I have done so too. I have visited a centre in Sligo, two in Waterford, two in Limerick, one each in Galway, Laois and Clare, three in Dublin and also Mosney. Members will have seen, as have I, that all residents share the common experience of a life revolving around waiting and hoping. Residents cannot cook for themselves, engage in work or otherwise gainfully occupy themselves during the day.
It has to be said that the direct provision system does not exist in a vacuum. It has to be seen in the context of the overarching international protection processing system of which direct provision is but one element, albeit a very important one to those who have to avail of its services. To make progress on direct provision, it is necessary to address both it and the protection system itself in a coherent, thought-out fashion. This is what the Statement of Government Priorities 2014-2016 commits us to do.
In terms of processing, last week the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald, published the general scheme of the international protection Bill, the aim of which is to reduce waiting times for asylum applicants. The key purpose of the Bill is to replace the existing multi-layered protection determination system with a single procedure, the aim of which is to enable timely and efficient protection decisions to be made. This single procedure will identify at a much earlier stage those who are in need of international protection and will be granted status and those who have no entitlement to stay in the State and who can safely return to their countries of origin. The single procedure has been requested for many years by many NGOs and others. The intention is for the Bill to deal with as many of those who are currently in the system as possible. A practical approach is envisaged with those who have reached a certain point in the existing process continuing along their current path while others at earlier stages of the process will be brought within the single procedure.
In addition to committing to legislative change in this area, the Government has set up an independent working group to report to it on improvements to the protection process, including direct provision and supports for asylum seekers. It is chaired by the former High Court judge, Dr. Bryan McMahon, and comprises senior officials from all relevant Departments, the UNHCR, representatives of academia and various NGOs who have a long-standing interest in this area and other representatives of civil society. The working group developed a work programme early on and established three subgroups to deal with the following themes. The first deals with conditions in centres, the second deals with supports for asylum seekers and the third deals with improving the processing of protection claims, essentially the long stay problem. Almost 40 meetings at plenary and subgroup level have taken place since the first meeting of the working group on 11 November 2014.
The working group has taken evidence directly from residents in the direct provision system both in writing and orally, visited centres around the country and spoken directly to residents. It has engaged with particular groups of applicants including children, victims of torture, victims of trafficking and sexual violence, members of the LGBTI community and has taken oral and written submissions from a number of experts in this field, including the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and the special rapporteur on child protection, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon. The chairman of the group has publicly stated that these contributions have informed the sense of urgency that has underpinned its work. He has gone on to say that all of its members are genuinely engaged in the task at hand, namely, to identify a set of recommendations to Government for improvements that will bring tangible benefits to existing and future applicants. The chairman says that the deliberations of the working group are at a crucial stage with each of the subgroups developing their proposals for submission to the plenary group over the next number of weeks. The Government recognises that the issues to be examined by the working group are complex and require thorough consideration to ensure that recommendations are practical and sustainable from a budgetary perspective and do not undermine existing border controls and immigration policies.
When I wrote to the committee on 21 October 2014, I said that I hoped to be in a position to brief members on the first stages of the working group's work. At that time, I anticipated that the working group would issue an interim report. However, as is the right of the independent group, it decided not to issue an interim report and proceeded with its work on the basis that it would issue a singular report. While the agreed terms of reference do not indicate a timeframe for the working group's deliberations, I understand that it will be only a matter of weeks after Easter when the report will be ready.
The working group published its work programme in November 2014 fleshing out the issues to be discussed by each of the three themed subgroups to which I referred earlier. I arranged for the work programme to be circulated to the committee before this meeting. From my own perspective, some of the key issues relate to the scope for residents to prepare their own meals within existing or new physical structures; limitations on the length of time persons spend in the direct provision system; financial supports; and improved processing times. It would be futile and damaging at this crucial stage of its proceedings to second guess the work of the group. We have to allow it to complete its work. I do not propose to engage in any detailed discussion on any of the issues in the work programme on which the working group may make recommendations. That is the group's job. I have every confidence in the capacity of the chairman and members of the working group to do their work.
This is a difficult subject. I have no doubt that there have been robust discussions within the working group. As practising politicians, we know that negotiations and discussions are sometimes hard and that there are varying shades among the membership of any group engaged in such discussions. We all recognise the importance of working together to achieve real, tangible change. I am firmly of the belief that more can be achieved within the working group than outside it. I know the committee will allow the process to continue and to give it a fair wind. As part of its deliberations, I had arranged for the working group to be provided with a transcript of the proceedings on this subject at this committee on 22 October 2014. Similarly, I will arrange for a transcript of today's proceedings to be provided also. I look forward to hearing the views of members on this matter.