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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 30 Jul 2020

Vol. 270 No. 10

Skellig Star Direct Provision Centre and the Future of Direct Provision: Statements

I thank Senators for inviting me here to speak today on what is a very important topic for them, and for me as Minister for Justice and Equality.

The direct provision system has provided accommodation, food, healthcare and other essential needs for more than 65,000 people since its inception some 20 years ago. While it ensures their basic needs are met, the intervening years have taught us that people claiming international protection need much more than that. They need a holistic system, one that is responsive to their individual needs and one that fully respects their dignity, right to privacy and to family life.

A number of important reforms have been introduced in recent years under my predecessors, most notably the roll-out of cooking facilities in centres to support independent living. I acknowledge that is not the case everywhere, but that is the intention. Another change has been the introduction of labour market access to foster greater economic independence, and the agreement of national standards to promote consistency in services and standards in centres. However, that is not enough. That is the reason the Government has committed to ending the current system of direct provision within the lifetime of the Government and to replacing it with a new international protection accommodation policy that is centred on a not-for-profit approach.

Responsibility for the accommodation system is transferring from my Department to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. Officials from both Departments are making the necessary arrangements to facilitate the transfer of functions as quickly as possible. Last year, as Senators will be aware, we asked Dr. Catherine Day to bring together an expert group, with representation from asylum seekers and NGOs, to examine best practice in other European states in the provision of services to international protection applicants, to examine likely longer term trends and to set out recommendations and solutions. Any new system for the provision of accommodation and additional supports to international protection applicants will be informed by the report of the expert group. The report had been expected by the end of the year but it has now been brought forward to the end of September. The intention is to publish a White Paper by the end of this year, which will be very much informed by the recommendations of the expert group, which will set out how a replacement to the direct provision system will be structured and the steps we can take to achieve that.

It will be a matter for my colleague, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability and Integration, to progress this matter following the transfer of these functions to that Department in the coming weeks.

Turning now to what is happening in Cahersiveen, I appreciate the concern that Senators, and others who have raised the issue with me, have for the residents. I share these concerns. It is a matter of deep regret to me as Minister for Justice and Equality that the residents of the Skellig Star in Cahersiveen felt their concerns required this type of action. I take these concerns very seriously, as do officials in the Department. It is a very serious situation that a group of people feel they needed to put their health at risk by refusing food in order to have their concerns listened to.

The transfer of direct provision residents to Cahersiveen arose because of the pandemic. It has been a very difficult situation for everybody. In particular I acknowledge how difficult this has been for the residents, who include children, not just in dealing with the move from where they had been staying but the subsequent challenges we have all had to endure during the Covid crisis.

I fully appreciate that the outbreak in the centre was extremely distressing for residents, for staff and the wider community. I am thankful the HSE declared the outbreak over on 20 May. In the interim, a number of measures have been introduced to make life more comfortable for the residents, particularly for those children who are living there.

My officials have been on site in recent days to assess the situation first hand and, most importantly, to listen to the concerns of the residents. They have been also tasked with examining issues raised around the provision of meals and any issues arising due to the boil water notice in place in the town. Following their visits, my officials have informed me, based on their examinations, that residents have access to clean and safe drinking water and meals. I am conscious they cannot cook their own meals, which is something we see in many places, and this is very difficult. I am someone who likes to cook and prepare my own meals and I know this is a very difficult situation for people. Residents have concerns and any outstanding issue is being followed up for resolution as a matter of absolute priority.

I am also aware that a number of residents have made applications for transfer from Cahersiveen to alternative accommodation. Yesterday, the Department wrote to the residents in Cahersiveen to inform them that restrictions on transfers are now being relaxed. They had been imposed throughout the country because of the pandemic. These restrictions were necessary as a precaution during the pandemic but as we have been able to manage the effects of the pandemic in the centres these restrictions can now be eased.

The centre in Cahersiveen was opened as emergency accommodation at the outset of the pandemic. Our policy always has been to withdraw from emergency accommodation as quickly as possible and, in particular, to ensure that families spend as short a period as possible in such accommodation. My officials will be implementing this policy in relation to Cahersiveen. Places for the first families are being identified and their moves will be completed by the end of next week. Other residents in the centre will be moved to permanent accommodation as soon as spaces can be found. This process will be completed in a relatively short period of time, no more than a few months. Realistically, I would like to see this done by the end of the year. I have spoken to the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, who will take over the portfolio and this is something to which we can agree.

In the interim, my officials are also working on solutions to facilitate the transport needs of residents to ensure they can visit larger towns in the area and we will continue to listen to residents as regards other additional supports they may require in the wake of recent events surrounding the centre.

Since we opened the centre in March, in response to the early stages of the pandemic, the health and welfare of residents has been foremost in our mind. This will continue to be the case for me as Minister for Justice and Equality, just as it will be for my colleague, the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, and for the Government.

To discuss the issue of direct provision more generally, the replacement of the direct provision system will not happen overnight, unfortunately, and we know this is the case. Existing centres will continue to operate in the short to medium term but further changes will be made and I will outline some of them. Many of these have been signalled to Senators in the briefing note circulated by Dr. Day. They include extending the right to work. Having visited Mosney recently, I know one thing people want to be able to do when they come from a country where they have been working and providing for themselves and their families is to be able to work. The impact that not working can have on their mental health is huge. Other changes include exploring alternative housing models and funding provisions and giving clear guidance to ensure all applicants can open bank accounts. This is something simple but absolutely vital. Also included is reducing the amount of time taken to process positive decisions. While this time has been reduced significantly in recent years we need to reduce it even further. Other measures include ensuring that binding standards for centres are applied and enforced by January 2021. These changes also include compulsory training and regular networking for centre managers and moving away from the use of emergency accommodation. This is not a place we want to be and we need to move away from it as soon as possible. Other changes include ensuring vulnerability assessments take place and working with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport on providing access to driver licences. In the interim, before the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, takes over, I will try to address these issues as we know they cannot happen overnight.

I am sure Senators will agree these changes will have a positive impact on the lives of residents and should be implemented without delay. My officials are working on proposals for consideration to make this happen.

I assure Senators we are doing everything in our power to address the concerns that residents of Cahersiveen in particular have raised. I acknowledge how difficult this must have been and continues to be for them, not least because of the pandemic but also because of the move from where they had been staying, potentially away from family and friends. We want to ensure that in the interim those who have remained will be supported as much as possible and accommodation is being sought for families moving next week. I would like them to feel the course of action they have taken is not the necessary one. I take these concerns very seriously and hope we can address them.

I thank the Minister for being available to join us today. I also welcome the series of commitments she has given on direct provision and, on top of this, her sincere personal commitment as Minister, and I know of the commitment of the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, to address this issue.

There is agreement across the House on the importance of this issue of addressing the immediate challenge in Cahersiveen and the broader question of direct provision. What we have seen in Cahersiveen is totally inappropriate with regard to keeping large groups of people in confined quarters for long periods of time. There are major flaws with the direct provision system, and the Minister outlined them quite clearly. All of us on the Government benches and on the Opposition benches will support plans to abolish the system. The experience in Cahersiveen gives rise to several questions for our State agencies in terms of their response. Inspections were carried out by public health officials of the HSE on the centre in Cahersiveen on 21 and 29 April which highlighted concerns and inadequacies of provision at the centre at the time. On 28 April, public health officials from the HSE Cork and Kerry region urged a move to alternative accommodation due to inadequacies at the hotel, which were compounding the level of infection and making social distancing and quarantining impossible.

We saw the outbreak of a Covid-19 cluster there at the same time as we were seeing outbreaks of clusters of infection at a number of meat plants. Correctly, these meat plants were closed down immediately. The question is why in the case of this centre was public health advice from public health officials of the HSE not followed. I realise the difficulties because we were in a period of lockdown but in terms of responsibility to individuals there was clearly a failure.

We must remember that at the heart of this discussion are individuals and families who have already suffered trauma as they fled from war, torture, famine and oppression. They came and sought refuge here in a country where, rightly, we should be proud of our reputation as a welcoming country. They have been let down by the State agencies.

Their trust that Ireland is a welcoming country has been damaged. This, of course, was all compounded by the boil notice that was issued for Cahersiveen three weeks ago. That should have set off further warning signals and I do not believe the State responded quickly enough.

The people of Cahersiveen have been welcoming. Kerry is a welcoming county and the community there has been supportive. The asylum seekers in Cahirsiveen have got involved in local walking, soccer and other sports groups. I know the local councillor, Norma Moriarty, has been actively engaged with the asylum seekers, the staff and management of the centre.

I welcome the Minister's announcement that she intends to resolve many of the problems and transfer the families insofar as it is possible by the end of next week. I also welcome the Minister's clear commitment to do that. However, if there is a failure to do that, I ask that she would appoint an independent mediator because it is important that we rebuild trust among those who are resident there.

We need clarity as to why public health advice was not followed and a clear statement about that would help. We must also address the long-term issue of direct provision, as the Minister has said, and particularly how asylum seekers can play meaningful roles in our communities.

The face mask I wear in this Chamber was made by Ms Mariam Dudashvili from Georgia. She has been, for some time, based in an emergency provision centre in Courtown. She is a tailor by trade and during the course of the pandemic, she and a friend made more than 4,000 face masks for the local community. I know the Minister has already accepted a manifesto from a number of those in direct provision centres in Wexford about how the system can be reformed and it is important that, as we reform the system, the Minister, her officials and the Minister with responsibility for children, disability, equality and integration, Deputy O'Gorman, will engage with those who have had direct experience of the system. Those who have gone through and understand the direct provision system have a contribution to make to the reform process. More than anything else, we should not look at this as dealing with a problem. We must look at the potential contribution those who come and seek refuge here can make. I am not talking just about tailors like Mariam. A diversity of cultures has always helped to build Irish society.

I hope we will see contributions from some of the asylum seekers who have been involved in politics internationally. My own party was founded and contributed to by people with names such as de Valera, Lemass and Markievicz which shows how we can be enriched by other cultures.

I also ask that in addition to addressing some of the issues which she outlined, including employment, the Minister would also address access to education. One of the difficulties for many asylum seekers is that they can go through our entire second level school system and get a place in third level education but continue to be treated as international students, they must pay fees and do not have access to Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grants. It is important that we address access to education for asylum seekers. I again thank the Minister for her commitments.

I thank the Minister for making herself available at such short notice which, in itself, is a strong statement of how seriously she is taking this situation. I have heard her assurances in that regard and that she is closely monitoring the situation in Cahersiveen. I congratulate her on her forthright response and willingness to act.

It has been, no doubt, a very difficult time for the residents in the Skellig Star Hotel and the concerns they have raised are particularly upsetting. The pandemic has been a time when the expectations and hopes of the entire country were suddenly arrested and we were thrust into an unknown world, filling us all with apprehension. The necessary sudden and dramatic suspension of anything that resembled normality as a result of the virus, culminating in the lockdown, while life-saving and absolutely the right action to take, has undoubtedly left a scar on our national psyche. Facing into this pandemic, we were all left with a sense of helplessness, facing an unknown and fearful enemy-----

I apologise for interrupting. The acoustics here are great so I remind Senators to use modern technology and send text messages to each other if they wish to communicate. We changed Standing Orders so that could be done.

I thank the Cathaoirleach. As I was saying, we were all facing an unknown and fearful enemy in the virus but most of us at least had the comfort of our own hall door to close and to feel secure behind. I can only imagine that the pandemic and the sudden, albeit necessary, relocation to emergency accommodation in the hotel has been difficult for the residents of the Skellig Star, given that they have already experienced trauma in their lives. That relocation, the experience of the pandemic, the outbreak of the virus within the hotel and the horrible unknowns within that, undoubtedly exacerbated their feelings of helplessness, resulting in their current actions.

I welcome the news that officials from the Minister's Department and the international protection accommodation service visited the site and carried out an inspection. It is a relief that the objective evaluation confirmed that residents do indeed have access to clean, safe drinking water and meals. It is also reassuring to know that officials have ensured that supports are available to the residents. I heard the Minister say that some matters remain outstanding and are being followed up by her Department, that officials have written letters and have things in hand. I acknowledge that.

The pandemic circumstances of recent months have been unprecedented in the history of the State and the circumstances in Cahersiveen cannot be viewed apart from that context. However, it is important that the requests of residents for transfers are considered and facilitated now that restrictions have been relaxed. I welcome the statement that the Minister made in that regard.

In light of all of this, it is a matter of regret that the residents have taken, and continue to take, the action they have. I appeal to them to cease. It is a statement of their sheer desperation to be heard that they would take such serious action.

Direct provision as a means of catering for the process of asylum seekers is a challenging structure, juxtaposed as it is to a general housing shortage. The trajectory for some time now has been to replace it with more suitable arrangements. As the Minister has stated, an expert group was formed last year under Ms Catherine Day, a former Secretary General of the European Commission, who has chaired a cross-section of stakeholders including formal civil servants, refugee and migrant rights organisations. The group needs to hear from residents and perhaps the particular group of residents about which we are speaking would make a valuable contribution to the wealth of knowledge. The objective of the expert group is to recommend set time limits for the different stages of the asylum seeking process and report on best practice in the European Union that we could adopt. The group has worked to accelerate an outcome and, as recently as 5 June, Ms Day confirmed that the report should be available in September. This is commensurate with what is stated in the programme for Government and the work to end the current system with all of its inherent, definitely expressed and agreed hardships has already begun.

It is also of note that the overall goal of reforming direct provision is hoped to be achieved in the lifetime of this Government and that the interim policy is to ensure that accommodation centres meet the Government's policy objective of having independent, self-contained living arrangements for residents so they may cater for and look after themselves. It is important that a right to work is available to them. In January of this year, I made a speech in the context of recruitment and the recruitment industry in which I noted a sheer lack of talent. We are running out of talent and I suggested we look to direct provision because there is a wealth of people with skills, talents and knowledge there that we could harness for the betterment of the nation. It is important that those people have a right to work.

It would be terribly disingenuous of anyone, especially the members of the expert group, to believe that the direct provision system can be changed overnight. The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, has reported that there are more than 7,700 people seeking asylum in the system and the figure in emergency accommodation, as of 5 June, was 1,647. With those numbers in mind, we must acknowledge that the dismantling of direct provision will take time.

I welcome that these residents are being listened to and their concerns addressed. I look forward to a speedy end to their current actions and resolution of the situation.

I would like to share time with my colleague, Senator Mullen. I will take four minutes and let him have two, if that is okay.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the Minister to the House. If she performs as she did in her role as Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, the Department of Justice and Equality will have a great Minister.

I am delighted to see her here. We have been bashing this about for some time.

I became a Member of the Seanad in 2014 and, at some point in 2014 or 2015, Senator Norris introduced a Bill on direct provision. All of those in this House at the time said some grand words. We were going to fix the problem overnight. We have not fixed the problem. We have never tackled the problem of asylum seekers, refugees and economic migrants coming into this country. I do not believe that anybody in this Parliament, apart from myself, went to Sicily to see at first hand how the process operated when there were literally tens of thousands of migrants crossing the Mediterranean. God help them. At least the young men were able to care for themselves but I met young women in Sicily and what they went through to get there from Tripoli and various other parts of north Africa was unbelievable. I am afraid grand words about asylum seekers, direct provision and so on rest absolutely nowhere with me.

I have not been to Cahersiveen so I will not speak about it. I do not believe in speaking about things I have not seen at first hand. I am, however, extremely concerned that the programme for Government states that we are going to develop a not-for-profit direct provision centre. I would love somebody to explain what this means. The State shirked its responsibility to provide proper accommodation for asylum seekers, refugees and economic migrants coming into this country many years ago. It took soft options. I am not accusing the Minister; I am talking about the system. It took soft options. It went to small villages in which hotels were closed up because of the economic crisis that began in 2008. It quietly and sneakily went into these villages and did deals with hotel owners, NAMA or anyone else involved in order to bring these most unfortunate people to these villages. We really did not care for the people who came into this country. We treated them as a problem and they have been a problem ever since they arrived.

The other thing we did wrong, as my colleague has pointed out, was to limit access to education. Children born here went from national school through to the leaving certificate. How did that happen? Why did we shirk our responsibility to assess those who came into the country as genuine asylum seekers, genuine refugees or economic migrants so that those who did not fit the criteria for entry could be dealt with in a short period of time and sent home? That might sound heartless but in doing what we have done we have affected those who came to our country. We have made their lives miserable by sticking them in these God forsaken places for years on end.

I do not see a way around profit. I thank the profiteers who provided the accommodation the State could not. I would love somebody to explain that.

The large numbers brought to small villages have decimated political careers in this House. I refer to the careers of both those who won seats and those who lost them. This occurred because of deals being done behind candidates' backs. That was terrible. I hate to see this issue moving from one Department to another. I am not convinced that it will happen.

I thank Senator Craughwell and the House. I have just two points to make. I will start, of course, by welcoming the Minister.

Senator Byrne spoke of the disconnect between the public health response to an outbreak in a meat factory and the response to an outbreak in a direct provision centre, which was a complete failure by comparison. It must be made clear that, once people are in our State and under our protection, they must be given the same level of care and protection as the citizens of our State.

Today is World Day against Trafficking in Persons. There is, of course, a connection between this issue and our direct provision system. There are people in direct provision who have suffered horrendous abuse. Some are victims of trafficking and some have tremendous psychiatric and mental health needs. In fact, persons seeking asylum in the State who live in direct provision centres have particular mental health needs that are not being addressed. I brought this up in a motion in the Seanad last year. The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland has found that depression and mental health problems are five times more common among asylum seekers in direct provision than in Irish society generally. We must provide adequate supports for psychiatric care and mental health care for persons in direct provision.

We must also note our diminishing status as a country that challenges and fights the terrible problem of modern-day slavery and human trafficking, according to the US State Department's trafficking in persons report. We are now in the tier 2 watchlist category along with states like Saudi Arabia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Kazakhstan. Our ambition on paper to combatting human trafficking is not being matched by equivalent positive outcomes or allocation of resources. We have had no convictions for trafficking since 2013. We must pay attention to this issue. I look forward to discussing this with the Minister on future occasions.

I am sharing time with Senator Boylan. I will take four minutes and she will take two. I will begin by expressing solidarity with the residents of the Skellig Star centre. They are the primary reason we are all here today. I welcome the Minister and thank her for joining us. I note the welcome Government Senators have extended to her despite those Senators voting against the motion to invite her earlier this morning. That is an important point to make for the benefit of those watching.

Does the Minister accept that the Skellig Star direct provision centre does not comply with the standards and requirements laid out in the Department of Justice and Equality's guidelines on direct provision published in August 2019? As I understand it, direct provision standards cannot be applied to emergency accommodation. If that is the reality, it sends a shiver down my spine. Fundamentally, that would mean this situation could continue.

I have been engaging with my Dáil colleague, Deputy Daly, who has been working tirelessly with the residents of the Skellig Star and in the local community. It is our understanding that the manager of this facility was told in March, following the building's closure as a hotel in January, that the new owners would reopen it as a direct provision centre within three days. This hotel manager was given three days. No proper training was provided and there was no time for proper Garda vetting. Was it solely a case of getting people in to start generating profits to go into private coffers? That is the crux of the problem with direct provision. This system cannot be about proper care, welfare and support for people who are in extreme need, who sometimes have complex issues relating to post-traumatic stress disorder and other dynamics and who face extreme marginalisation and social isolation when the main driver of some of these centres is solely to generate profit.

Of course, all the feelings I have just referred to are bad enough and, if we are honest, similar problems are widespread in the direct provision and emergency accommodation system but we must then consider the unprecedented dynamic of the Covid-19 crisis. This meant even more complexities in how we care for and protect people and in how we keep them safe. It is clear that the Skellig Star was not and is not properly equipped to deal with the needs of the residents, whether during a pandemic or otherwise. On that basis, will the Minister commit to meeting the residents to hear their concerns directly? I do not doubt for one moment the Minister's sincerity in today professing that she wants to deal with this issue. I take her at her word on that.

Again, on that basis, will the Minister commit to relocating the residents to safer and more appropriate accommodation? Departmental officials should not have had to be dispatched to the centre this week to ensure the residents have safe and clean drinking water. This should not be held up as a fine example of Government taking action. It is a basic right and entitlement. It should not be the case that residents of the Skellig Star centre have to go on hunger strike in protest to call for their safety and well-being. I again ask the Minister very directly and sincerely whether she will commit to ensuring the affected residents in the Skellig Star centre are relocated to safer, more appropriate and, crucially, more compliant accommodation as a matter of urgency. Will the Minister give me a date for that relocation?

I thank the Minister for making time to come in. I will talk a little bit about the broader issue of direct provision. As awful as the situation at the Skellig Star centre is, it is simply the outworking of a cruel system. This cruel system will be a stain on the State for years to come. It is a system that belittles and demeans residents.

I will give an example of the experience in direct provision that I have come to know about through my work and volunteering with Homeless Period Ireland. One woman who is incontinent was offered a bucket by the management of the centre. She had to depend on donations from Homeless Period Ireland. She is not alone. Many women and girls in direct provision rely on donations of period products to get through from month to month. When a Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, of the previous Government instructed direct provision centres to provide period products, in some centres the cheapest products were sought by managers. They were brands I have never seen in any supermarket in the country in my 44 years. That is what happens when a service of this nature is run for profit. Residents become cash cows and there is water rationing. There is cheap food and in some cases there was no hot food option in certain centres. During the summer, people were offered cold salads. There is broken heating, as was the case with the Skellig Star in the cold months at the start of the lockdown.

I commend the residents of the Skellig Star for taking a stand and shining a light on the woeful conditions they are made to endure. The Minister is sincere and I hope she ensures that these people are moved as soon as possible. I look forward to working with the Government in the context of its proposals relating to how we move from a position of for-profit direction provision to a process that will operate on a not-for-profit basis and be both human rights-compliant and a fitting standard for this country.

I wish to share time with Senator Hoey.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House at such short notice in response to our amendment to the Order of Business this morning. We appreciate it. I welcome the Minister and commend her on her appointment. It is well deserved and it has always been a pleasure to listen to her in the House, both now and when she had a previous role.

I wish to briefly express our support for the residents of the Cahersiveen centre, as outlined by my colleagues, Senator Hoey, yesterday, and Senator Wall, this morning. The news emerged about the appalling conditions in which the Cahersiveen residents were living and I wrote to both the Minister and her colleague, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy O'Gorman, to express concern and ask that these matters be addressed urgently. I am glad to hear from the Minister that action is being taken urgently in this regard.

Direct provision was originally introduced as an ad hoc and somewhat temporary system but it has morphed into a system with which there have been really serious problems and injustice, particularly in some specific areas. Like many others, I have visited centres and spoken with residents. The system was never suitable for families, particularly those with children. It was never suitable for people who wanted to do their own cooking and there previously was no facility for people to cook. As we know, self-catering facilities were only used more recently and it is a real problem. The long wait in the system of accommodation is a serious problem as it was originally intended to work for a short term.

The State approached the right to work in a grudging way by denying it initially and then only introducing it following a court action. Ireland is an outlier in that regard when compared with other jurisdictions and how they deal with asylum seekers' right to work. We should be clear on how we measure up.

I very much welcome the commitment in the programme for Government to replace direct provision by ending it, as we in Labour have called for, and replacing it with a new international protection system based on a not-for-profit approach. It is the right way to go and I am glad that Dr. Catherine Day's expert group is looking into best practice elsewhere to see how we can learn from it. It is good her report is due at the end of September and a White Paper is due by the end of December.

We accept that this cannot be done overnight. There must be a proper and adequate system to replace direct provision but we will hold the Minister, her Department and her colleague, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, to account in order to ensure that the system is abolished so that we can see this country return to being an Ireland of the welcomes, as it should have been and tended to be. Others have spoken very eloquently about the positive contribution made by those from other countries and we must bear that in mind. I am very heartened by the Minister's comments in that regard.

I thank the Minister for coming here today and I look forward to the work to be done by both her Department and that of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs on the matter. I will speak specifically about the Cahersiveen case, using many of the words of the people who are there. In their words, the people in Cahersiveen are already victims of trauma, including torture and rape. There are over 100 residents in a 56-room hotel and it has been known since April that this accommodation was unsuitable because, even outside a global pandemic, sharing rooms with non-family members is not appropriate. We have evidence from a number of people who stated in April that this was not suitable accommodation. Dr. Tony Holohan stated it was not possible to observe social distancing when sharing rooms with people who are not part of a family. There have since been 23 confirmed cases of Covid-19 at the centre, including in one child. I ask the Members present to think for a moment about what this is like. These people have fled a country, experienced torture and rape and were terrified of their lives before being put into a hotel in Ireland at one end of Ireland and mixing with people they do not know while a virus is spreading and residents in the accommodation are getting sicker. This is not the island of a thousand welcomes that Ireland is supposed to be.

When the Minister announced she would come to the House today, I very quickly took time to speak with representatives from the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland, MASI. I spoke with some of the residents in Cahersiveen working with some of the people in the centre and, through them, one of the residents. The representatives of MASI were on their way to the centre but I have received a message to say they were not allowed into the direct provision centre to speak with residents. Why are these people from MASI not being allowed to speak with residents when they advocate most for these people?

They also want to know if the Minister will intervene and listen to the residents who have been traumatised over the past few months, not to mention their experiences in the past few years. The statement from the residents of the Skellig Star has gone around and I am sure the Minister has seen it. Will she ensure access to a social worker in order that these people can have their health catered for and monitored regularly? Will the Minister ensure the residents can be transferred to an appropriate accommodation centre, such as Tullamore or Mosney, where a proper vulnerability assessment and adequate treatment for trauma can be done? When the Minister's officials went to the centre, why did they only speak with one resident and refused to speak to residents as a group? The residents do not want to be separated and they want to speak as a group. They fear what will happen to them if they are separated. There are currently 41 residents left in the facility and 30 residents have left. Do we know what happened to those residents? Where are they? Are they on the streets, where they might perceive it to be safer for them than staying in the Cahersiveen centre? What exactly is the Minister going to do about those 30 residents?

Immediate action must be taken. I have a quote from a resident that was given to me a few minutes ago, who said:

They should understand the emergency of our situation, and hence we have gone for so serious a step as a hunger strike. This is not something to discuss leisurely for days. Immediate action must be taken.

I ask the Minister what immediate action she will take, not to close the centre in a matter of weeks or months, but rather a matter of days. The test of this Minister and that of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, in the context of how they seek to end this system, will be how they treat the residents of Cahersiveen in the coming days.

I have no doubt that the Minister and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs are just as concerned as all the people in this room about the current issue that has been landed in their laps.

I will read from a letter by a group of asylum seekers staying in a direct provision centre because their voice is not in this Chamber. It states, "Dear Ministers and IPAS. We are the residents of the direct provision centre in ...". I do not even need to name which one because this could be true of every single direct provision centre in Ireland. It continues: "We are tired. We are sick. We are becoming crazy. Until now, we did not say it because we were afraid this letter would interfere with our cases. Now we have decided to speak. We are tired." It also states: "Transport is a problem and this is a rural place. We use all our money to use the bus that goes once a week.", and: "We have many problems. We had an opportunity to speak with IPAS but we were afraid and we were afraid of the people in the hostel losing their jobs." These are extracts, and the letter continues, "We are often served chicken that has expired and has a very bad smell" and "We are often accused in the wrong". It states, "In some rooms the heater is not working, even in the winter time. Only because the community around us has embraced us and gave us blankets did we survive the winter" and "One of us was sick and we asked the director of the centre to call the doctor. He gave my friend paracetamol and did not call the doctor". It continues, "The manager likes to control us and order us. Some people feel like he is bullying and we feel like we are being treated like animals and slaves".

The letter continues:

There is no access to the poolroom. He locks it when we want to use it. It is the only thing we have to do. We should be nothing without the community of people around us. It is hell on the inside and like paradise on the outside. This is a place without opportunity, without job, without transport. We want peace. We want respect. Please see some way to transfer us for a better place where there is respect.

I apologise for interrupting the Senator. For the information of Members, it is not permitted to read a statement attributed to people outside the House directly to the House.

The writers of the letter finish up by asking to be transferred to a better place.

I have worked with refugees, including Tibetan refugees, in a number of different settings. I was doing work in this area as far back as 1995, when direct provision was first experimented with in County Clare. People were getting stopped at Shannon Airport, due to American immigration requirements, and they were taken to Ennis. That was 25 years ago. Now, in 2020, the Minister must make it her legacy to put a stop to direct provision. We teach our children about human rights and the equality of all humans. If we, as adults, are not showing that equality of treatment to our fellow humans, how can we expect our children not to be racist and to treat other people with respect? We live in a very diverse society in Ireland, with people of all colours and creeds living here. How will we get our children to treat all people with respect if we are not doing the same for the people living in direct provision centres?

Some of the people I have met are surgeons, healthcare assistants, doctors, mathematicians and physicists. They are just like us but we throw them into these places where there are no opportunities. Some asylum seekers have been granted asylum and received work permits but there is no opportunity for them to get a job, even during the boom, because we put them in places where there is no rural transport and make them live on €38 a week. They will never get out of those places in such circumstances. We are making the problem even worse. I believe the Minister, Deputy McEntee, and her colleague, the Minister with responsibility for equality and integration, Deputy O'Gorman, are the perfect team to finally put to bed this horrific and barbaric treatment of our fellow humans. I will give the Minister, Deputy McEntee, the letter from the people in direct provision. They are asking her to respond and they want an opportunity to meet her. I look forward to her and the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, finally resolving this matter.

I thank the Minister for taking the time to come to the Chamber and listen to the important points raised by Senators. I want to start by saying that people in direct provision are not just like us. In fact, they are far from like us because they are living in hell under this State. No matter who we are or where we come from, we all deserve a roof over our heads, a place to call home and water and food to keep us healthy and alive. For many people who seek asylum in Ireland, they do not get those things. Right now, there are families in Kerry who are living in fear, in accommodation that is not suitable and which puts them at risk of catching Covid-19. They are fearful and worried about their health and their future.

Direct provision is dangerous. That is not just my opinion or the opinion of the people who are seeking asylum and living in the direct provision centres that are owned by private companies which make profit out of warehousing human beings. In a statement today, the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland, MASI, and other groups, together with residents, calls on the Department of Justice and Equality to move asylum seekers out of the Skellig Star centre without delay. The Government has committed to ending direct provision but what exactly does that mean? How much worse does the situation have to get and how much more cruelty will be allowed against the people in direct provision, who are living at the very edge of Irish society and do not have a say in that society?

We have a long history in Ireland of treating unwanted people a certain way. As an unwanted person, I know what that feels like. There is a history of putting up high walls and hiding us away from wider society. We have had scandal after scandal, apology after apology and report after report. We are violating people's human rights by putting them in direct provision centres. They were set up more than 20 years ago with the intention that people would go into them for six months, after which they would be able to live their lives. The system has never worked like that. It is clear that the treatment of asylum seekers in Ireland, especially children, is yet another scandal for the State. How will the Government choose to be remembered by history? Will it be remembered as the Government that dragged its feet and did nothing about the violation of the human rights of people in direct provision, or will it be remembered as the Government that fully put an end to that system?

Everybody in this House would be very grateful if the Minister could, if possible, give a timeline for how the Government intends to deal with this matter. Where there is a will, there is a way and the will must be there to take action now. Nobody knows the shoe is cutting only the person who is wearing it. We can stand up here today as white people and talk about what is happening to people in direct provision, but none of us knows what it feels like to live there. We are all in agreement that action needs to be taken. We would like nothing more than to know when that action will be taken, and the deadline in this regard, for the people living in these horrible conditions.

I have very little time in which to speak, but everything that needed to be said has been said in an incredibly eloquent way by colleagues. The issues that have been raised include access to heating, food, water, transport, basic health and basic education. These are fundamentals for any society and when anyone in society is not getting them, it is a disgrace to all of us. Yet that is what is happening to people in direct provision, in Clare and Galway as well as in the Skellig Star facility. Can the Minister guarantee not just that people will be moved but that there will be no more contracts signed with private providers for direct provision centres? Giving a commitment not to sign a single new contract would set a timeline and give the urgency that is needed to address the situation. I remind the Minister that the same and worse issues apply to the asylum detention centres we are funding in Libya and across the developing world. They are part of the same shameful architecture of exploitation.

I thank Senators for having this debate. I can hear and see their sincerity in making their points. I hope I have addressed some of their concerns in my opening contributions, but I also take on board the other issues they have raised. I had the pleasure some time ago, having just got back from a European Council meeting together with the then Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, of meeting a large group of people from among the hundreds who had arrived into Baldonnel from Syria. I had an opportunity to meet those families and engage with them. Men were coming up to me with CVs and other documents detailing their expertise and the work they had done at home. These are people who had left their lives behind and were looking to set up new lives here. They wanted to work, to provide for themselves and their families and to see their children go to school. They had come from very difficult circumstances and wanted to start afresh in this country.

Dealing with the issues in the direct provision system is an absolute priority for me in the short space of time that it will be under my remit. It is a priority for the Minister with responsibility for equality and inclusion, Deputy O'Gorman, and for this Government to ensure we get it right for the people in the system and that we support them in starting a new life. We are already working to address some of the concerns and I take on the board the additional concerns outlined by Senators. We will try to address them as quickly as we possibly can. In regard to Cahersiveen, I give a commitment that families will be moved by the end of next week and that as accommodation becomes available, remaining residents will be also moved. My intention is that the process will be completed by the end of the year and I know this is likewise the intention of my colleague, the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman.

In the interim, I thank the residents for their patience - if I could use that word - but I implore them not to put their health or welfare at risk. I am sorry they felt this was the route they had to take but I am listening to their concerns and I am taking them very seriously, as are the officials in my Department, in trying to address those concerns. As Senator Higgins has outlined, Cahersiveen is not the only centre where these kinds of concerns have been raised. Others have been mentioned by Senators here today. This underscores the absolute importance of the root and branch reform of the system for accommodating international protection applicants that we are now undertaking. We are trying to fulfil that commitment as set out in the programme for Government. The Dr. Catherine Day expert group report will be absolutely instrumental to that. Having seen an interim report presented by Dr. Day based on her own recommendations, I can already see the progress we will be hopefully able to make while we transition into this new type of support, and hopefully abolish for good direct provision as it currently stands.

In the meantime I ask Senators to encourage any direct provision residents from Cahersiveen who contact the Senators with their concerns to raise them directly with my Department so we can address them directly. If the issues are not raised or not addressed to their satisfaction the Office of the Ombudsman or the Office of the Ombudsman for Children can also provide further assistance, but we do not want it to get to that point. It needs to be addressed and I want to ensure my Department can support Senators to do that. Alternatively, centre residents can access a freephone number for the Jesuit Refugee Service, where they can make contact and raise issues in confidence if they wish to do so.

Senator Ó Donnghaile raised the point about Garda vetting. I assure the Senator that it is compulsory for employers to obtain Garda vetting disclosures and it is no different here. There are penalties for people who do not do this. I assure Senators that this is an absolute necessity. I think we all know that the current system is far from perfect but I believe the commitments in the programme for Government provide us with a unique opportunity, after 20 years, to finally get this right. I acknowledge Senator Craughwell's comment that this is taking a long time. We do, however, have to acknowledge the significant improvements that have been made over the years and how these have allowed people to live a much better life, albeit still somewhat on pause, until they can start in earnest.

The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Roderic O'Gorman - and while he would certainly speak for himself I know that I can say this - and the Government are fully committed to providing every support possible to asylum seekers who have come to this country in desperation. They are in need of our help and they deserve no less.

Having an expert group with representatives from asylum seeker groups provides us with a unique insight into the lived experience of the direct provision system from the people who understand it best. Their insights will, I hope, help to shape Government policy to ensure we can have an accommodation and support system that is fit for purpose, and which is responsive to the needs of asylum seekers. Like each and every Senator here, I look forward to seeing the outcomes of Dr. Day's important work, which will feed into the development of the white paper to chart a course for replacing the direct provision system and the steps towards achieving it.

I shall now turn to education, which is a longer term objective. We face significant challenges across the educational sector. Children who reside in direct provision accommodation, like other children, are under the guardianship of their parents, but where possible we have tried to reach out to ensure that in the same way as children elsewhere these children have been able to continue to engage with their teachers and to engage in education. We have tried to ensure this is absolutely the case here. My Department has developed a strategic framework for engagement on child and family issues in this regard. We have outreach to a number of groups including Tusla, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, the Department of Education and Skills, the Department of Rural and Community Development, the HSE, the Children's Rights Alliance, One Family and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, to work closely with these families to make sure we are focusing on a number of key themes of child and family welfare, identifying education requirements, and more generally the provision of activities for children throughout all of this. We have made every effort to ensure that support is there, and to ensure that technology is available so they can continue with remote learning.

I thank Senators for raising this extremely important issue. I am listening and I acknowledge the challenges. We are working to move away from a system that often does not work, but we have to acknowledge that a huge amount of effort has gone into trying to make it work for people. In the interim I would prefer not to see people put their own health at risk. I say to the centre residents in particular that we are trying to address their concerns and from next week onwards we will be moving families, and beyond that we will be moving other people as quickly as possible.

I thank the Minister for coming into the House. Being from Kerry, I am aware it is a concern for people I know in Cahersiveen and in the county. I thank the Minister for taking the time to come into the House to outline the situation and what the Department is doing at the request of Members.

Sitting suspended at 4.46 p.m. and resumed at 5.05 p.m.