The Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) of my Department is charged with responsibility for the accommodation of asylum seekers while their applications for protection are being processed. Currently, there are over 5,000 persons accommodated in 37 RIA centres located throughout the State.
I should firstly say that the correspondence supplied seems be only part of a longer piece from the Newbridge Asylum Support Group and relates to recent issues in the Eyre Powell Asylum Accommodation Centre in Newbridge which is under contract to RIA for the accommodation of asylum seekers.
Before dealing with the broader issues raised here, I want to explain that on 10 April, 2012 a detailed written complaint listing 12 areas of concern, signed by a number of residents, was sent to the manager of the Eyre Powell centre through the aforementioned support group. The concerns revolved around food, hygiene and the attitude of management towards residents. The complaint was simultaneously copied to, among others, the media, local TD's, various official bodies and other NGOs.
RIA is confident that the independent company contracted to carry out inspections, QTS, which won the contract following an open tender competition, has carried out its functions properly. I am informed by RIA that some of the issues raised by the residents in their letter of 10 April, 2012 had already been highlighted by QTS and that steps were already in train to address them. Following receipt of the complaint of 10 April, RIA issued a notice to residents acknowledging their complaints and said that they would be fully investigated. Subsequently, in addition to inspections by RIA, the centre was subject to two inspections by QTS, which focussed in particular on the operation of the kitchen and dining area as well as on general safety and health standards at the centre. On 5 July, 2012 the most senior official in RIA wrote to the residents of the centre informing them of the outcomes of the engagement which had taken place. These outcomes centred on improvements in cleaning and food provision in the centre. The notice recorded the positive feedback from residents and the improved atmosphere in the centre.
In relation to the broader issues raised by this case, the rights of residents in RIA centres are, put simply, protected in three ways:
(a) RIA's House Rules and Procedures which set out the type and standard of service that an asylum seeker should expect whilst residing in direct provision accommodation. The Rules set out the entitlements and obligations placed on centre management and on residents and, in the event that these aren't being met, a complaints procedure to be invoked by either party. This complaints system is considered by RIA to be broadly in line with the guidelines set out by the Office of the Ombudsman for ‘internal complaints systems'.
(b) Over and above the House Rules themselves, the interests of asylum seekers are protected through regular ‘clinics' in centres where residents can speak directly to RIA headquarters staff without local centre management being present.
(c) Inspections take place in centres, by RIA staff and by QTS, to ensure that centres are adhering to their contractual obligations. It cannot be emphasised enough that all inspections are unannounced. Inspections are not to be confused with ordinary day-to-day visits to centres by RIA staff in connection with operational, health or educational matters where management would know of their arrival in advance.
Issues of concern are also brought to the attention of RIA by representatives of statutory or voluntary agencies working with asylum seekers, as was the case here.
The thrust of the various processes described above is that problems, which inevitably arise in a system as complex and diverse as the Direct Provision system, are ‘surfaced' quickly and dealt with. What is intended is a continuous interaction between residents and management with a mutually supported aim of maintaining and improving standards. I am not convinced that visiting committees can add to this objective. It would be mistaken to draw an analogy between asylum accommodation centres and prisons. The latter are places of detention and the circumstances which require visiting committees there are not present in the former. The various processes described above are intended to empower individual asylum seekers. Whilst local support groups are entitled to interact with residents, it is neither appropriate nor effective in the long run that residents are encouraged to believe that any issues they may have with centre management can only be intermediated through such groups.
As a learning organisation, RIA believes that there is always room for improvement. RIA accepts that issues arising in the centre were neither surfaced nor addressed as quickly as they might have been. As a consequence, RIA in its notice to residents on 5 July, 2012 reiterated the importance of using the House Rules complaints system and stressed the benefits of raising issues one-to-one with RIA staff during clinics. RIA has already improved the presentation of its advance ‘clinic' notices in centres encouraging residents to raise confidentially issues of concern. The problems which arose at this centre reinforced the need for another development which was already under way. That is, QTS has been asked to redesign the template form used by RIA staff in their inspections and to provide more detailed guidelines and training for its completion by RIA staff in respect of each inspection. This latter development has two purposes: firstly, to train RIA staff to identify more accurately issues of concern and, secondly, to allow RIA by the end of this year, or early next year, to publish completed inspection processes for each centre directly to its website —www.ria.gov.ie.