Thursday, 3 October 2019

Questions (3)

Jim O'Callaghan

Question:

3. Deputy Jim O'Callaghan asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the number of asylum seekers being housed in emergency accommodation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40230/19]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Justice)

I am sure the Minister of State will agree that the asylum system is under considerable pressure and that has been added to by events of this week. When people come into the country looking for international protection, we obviously have an obligation to provide them with shelter. We do that through the direct provision system in centres. It appears now that we also need to avail of emergency accommodation. How many asylum seekers are in emergency accommodation at present?

I thank the Deputy for his question. My Department is responsible for offering accommodation and related services to international protection applicants while their claim for protection is being examined. These services are demand led and generally it is difficult to predict demand far in advance. Due to an unexpected rise in applications - figures have increased by 53% in the first nine months of this year - existing direct provision centres, which offer accommodation, food, utilities and a suite of State services, have reached capacity.

There are ongoing tendering processes for new accommodation centres. Pending the opening of such new centres and in order to ensure that we continue to provide accommodation for all applicants who require it, the International Protection Accommodation Services, IPAS, formerly the Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, has been accommodating applicants in emergency accommodation in hotels and guest houses.

As of 26 September, there are 1,389 applicants residing in 34 emergency accommodation locations around the country. My Department does not disclose the specific location of emergency accommodation centres in order to protect the identity of international protection applicants.

It is important to note that there is no obligation on any applicant to accept the offer of accommodation. Applicants may source their own private accommodation or choose to stay with friends or family and some do.

Every effort is being made to reaccommodate applicants, who are in emergency locations, to a dedicated accommodation centre as soon as possible. My Department is actively working on securing additional capacity, both in existing centres and through sourcing new centres. IPAS has sought expressions of interest from parties interested in providing accommodation and related services to people in the international protection process and has also launched a nationwide, regional tendering process to secure new accommodation centres.

I am concerned that 1,389 people are staying in hotels and guest houses while their applications for international protection are being processed. We have a problem in the direct provision centres with people who have been granted international protection not moving on because of the shortage in the housing system. What is the Government's plan to provide further accommodation for the increasing number of people coming and seeking asylum? We have obviously had difficulties in establishing direct provision centres as we saw in Oughterard this week. We need to be careful. We have generally dealt well with the issue of immigration. It is apparent that some people from outside the country are opportunistically going to places such as Oughterard for the purposes of drumming up a racist agenda. We need to be careful that we do not allow their populist and racist appeal to spread in the country. One way to ensure that does not happen is by the Government having a clear plan in place to ensure people seeking asylum are accommodated in the future.

The Deputy is correct. As I stated, we have had a very large increase on the number of people looking for international protection this year. We have sought expressions of interest from parties interested in providing accommodation and related services. A combination of factors have led to this, including the rising demand for bed spaces and the high volume of residents who have status who continue to live in accommodation centres. There are 855 persons with permission to remain residing in accommodations as of 25 September. The State has a legal obligation to provide reception conditions to applicants for international protection, including bed and full board. The use of emergency accommodation is an interim measure while we seek to assist those with status in accessing mainstream housing. We work in partnership with agencies such as Depaul, the Peter McVerry Trust and others to secure permanent accommodation for people who have status here. They are working very hard in that regard. They are very reputable agencies with expertise in this area.

We need to look at other options because the system is creaking at the edges. We need to look at using State-owned accommodation. We have a considerable number of State properties that could be converted into a centre where people could be housed. We should also look at a system of fostering. Many well-intentioned people want to help those who are seeking asylum. If we had a system in place similar to the fostering of children we could get some uptake in respect of it. People could be paid for taking in and putting up a small family or individuals who are seeking asylum for a limited period. Obviously, they would need to be vary carefully vetted. It is an option that we need to consider. Unless we get a hold of this issue, it will be manipulated and people from the far right will take advantage of it. Fortunately, we have avoided the worst excesses of far-right politics. Just because we have avoided that in the past it does not mean we will always be able to avoid it in the future. Opportunistic people are trying to use this issue for their own right-wing political agenda.

I share the Deputy's concerns about the right-wing agenda. We have avoided that and do not want it to take hold. We have 38 centres working very well and the local communities have welcomed people looking for international protection in those centres. They have acknowledged that the people who have come to live in their areas have added positively to their areas. They have got involved, have integrated and have worked with the community in tidy towns and other such ventures. Their children are going to school. People can work after nine months and we may soon reduce that further.

It will improve the diversity and wealth in areas in a big way. We have 38 centres working very well. If people around the country are interested in assisting and supporting us please contact us. We have considered what the Deputy has suggested, State-owned property, and we have improved standards enormously in these centres. They are unrecognisable now. Almost half of the people have self-catering accommodation. Many also have own-door accommodation. I have recently launched a new set of standards that these centres will have to adhere to under law. We have improved the conditions. The Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for Children can also visit these centres and have an oversight role. I thank the Deputy for his support in this matter and we continue to work as hard as we can to improve the situation.