Commencement Matters

Direct Provision System

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy David Stanton, to the Chamber.

Six months ago a Korean woman in her early thirties came to Ireland with her six-year-old son to seek asylum. On arriving, they were sent to Kinsale Road Accommodation Centre in Cork, where they slept in a cramped single room, washed with strangers in communal showers and ate at set times in the canteen. The mother was told she was prohibited from working. They were also told that they had no right to child maintenance, social welfare or rent allowance payments. Instead of being granted such basic rights, they were granted a weekly allowance of €30 between them, a pittance of a handout. Four weeks ago, after enduring six torturous and isolated months at the centre, gardaí were called to the centre to investigate the suicide of the very same young Korean mother. This is the direct provision system in Ireland in 2016.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, the secretary of the Kinsale Road Accommodation Centre Action Committee, Mr. Mahmud, publicly stated the inhumane treatment of this woman in a direct provision centre had triggered her suicide. His comments are far from controversial. He joins a plethora of organisations and reports that condemn direct provision as an horrendous, dysfunctional system in which the State has caused and continues to cause a great deal of physical and mental damage to asylum seekers.

In 2015 the Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions described the direct provision system as not being fit for purpose. HIQA, in the same report, stated it had grave concerns about the mental health of those in such a system. In 2015 the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights stated it was a severe violation of human rights.

We are leaving people in the centres for years. There are now over 4,500 asylum seekers in direct provision centres, over half of whom have been in the system for five years or longer. Imagine living for five years or more in a direct provision centre without being entitled to look for a job, a house or a third level education. We are sitting back and doing nothing while the people concerned watch years of their lives pass them by. Children are being born in direct provision centres and raised within a system that institutionalises them into accepting such a dysfunctional and inhumane way of life. How can we allow this to happen?

Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, the former Minister of State with responsibility for equality issues, visited a centre in Galway and said the system was inhumane and that he would not stand over it. However, he has now left the Cabinet table and asylum seekers are still in the centre. What exactly will the Minister of State, Deputy David Stanton, do about it? Earlier this year the Government dropped its commitment to implementing the recommendations made in the McMahon report which called for reform of the direct provision system. That decision was a disgrace. When exactly will the report be implemented in full? When will asylum seekers be allowed access to third level education? When will they be allowed access to internships and apprenticeships? When will a standard setting committee and inspectorate be established? When will those in direct provision centres be given the right to work? When can we start to debate the system we would like to see replace the shameful and discredited direct provision system?

I thank the Senator for raising the issue. I welcome the opportunity to update the Seanad on behalf of the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality on developments in the provision of services for asylum seekers in Ireland. Of the 23 recommendations made in the report of the Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions, 13 have been implemented, where feasible, in respect of health and community welfare and a prescription charge waiver; six are in progress or under examination in the areas of catering, family space, an independent inspectorate and ombudsman; three relate to the recast reception conditions directive and have not been implemented; and one, recommendation 8.1 which calls for the replacement of the direct provision system, has not been implemented.

The Senator mentioned the McMahon report on the protection process, including the direct provision system, which was published in 2015 and is the key driver of change. The report of the Public Service Petitions and Oversight Committee raises some of the same issues covered in the McMahon report.

The Tánaiste and I are committed to reforming the direct provision system in line with the programme for Government, with a particular focus on families and children. Significant inroads have been made in dealing with the length of time spent in the direct provision system and the position will be further improved with the implementation of the International Protection Act 2015 and, in particular, the single procedure.

The Tánaiste is introducing a number of pilot projects before the end of 2016 which will see the installation of catering solutions in accommodation centres. They will facilitate families in cooking for themselves. It is intended that they will be rolled out in more centres in 2017. This work will proceed alongside changes to the accommodation profiles to provide more living space for families.

The Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, through centre managers, is engaging locally to develop "friends of the centre" groups. An equality and diversity training programme will also be rolled out for centre staff.

The Department of Education and Skills has introduced a pilot scheme to allow asylum seekers avail of third level education.

The rate of payment for children in direct provision centres has increased to €15.60 since January 2016. The Department of Social Protection continues to make other support payments, including back to school payments.

Legislative change to extend the remit of the two Ombudsman offices to direct provision accommodation services is being put in place. The RIA and other Departments providing direct provision services have always been subject to the Freedom of Information Acts.

Health services for asylum seekers are mainstreamed and provided on the same basis as for Irish citizens. Asylum seekers in direct provision accommodation qualify for a medical card and do not have to pay the prescription charge. They can access the same GPs, mental health and other health supports as any other medical card user in their locality.

Ireland did not opt in to the 2003 reception conditions directive or its 2013 recast. The main reason for this relates to a right to work for asylum seekers who are awaiting a first instance decision on their application after nine months, which is contrary to national law. The Refugee Act 1996 provides that applicants for international protection shall not seek or enter employment or carry on any business, trade or profession during the period before the final determination of their application. This prohibition is restated in the International Protection Act 2015. The key concern in this regard is that both the asylum process and the wider immigration system would be undermined in giving immigrants who secure entry to the State on foot of claims to asylum the same access to employment as immigrants who follow the lawful route to employment. There is an effective visa and immigration system in place for those who wish to lawfully migrate to the State for employment purposes.

I am not happy with that response because it is a classic Civil Service scripted response. It does not deal with the questions I asked the Minister of State. It is a very disappointing response, in particular, to the question about the right to work. Ireland is one of only two countries in Europe that does not recognise the reception conditions directive, which reflects very badly on us. The people concerned deserve to have the right to work. The Minister of State did not give a timeframe for when increased payments to adults will be made. Pilot schemes which allow access to third level education are no replacement for actually giving people their rights. What I take from the Minister of State's answer is that he is happy for the people concerned to continue as second-class citizens in the State. That is no way for a republic to act.

I again thank the Seanad for giving me the opportunity to speak on behalf of the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality on this subject. It is important in the first instance that those seeking protection in Ireland be provided with supports while they await a decision on their request for protection. Food, shelter, health and education are among the basic supports provided.

What we are working towards is the enhancement of supports for such persons. This includes the provision of supports for those in the asylum process, programme refugees arriving from UNHCR refugee camps and those relocated within the European Union from the Mediterranean hot spots. For those who are granted permission to remain in the State, there are other needs to be met based on transition and integration, employment, health and welfare.

Will the Minister of State answer my question?

The Minister is looking at all aspects of service provision from pre-arrival through arrival and beyond. Migration is the greatest challenge facing the world today. It is the key issue for the European Union and Ireland as a member of it. There are many challenges to overcome to help those seeking our assistance. We will continue to work to continue to improve and develop our services in line with international best practice.

When will the Government increase the adult payment?

I have visited most of the direct provision centres and will continue to work to improve the conditions in them into the future.