I thank the Chair. I am glad you can hear me now. We thank the committee for the invitation to discuss issues relating to direct provision. For committee members who do not know us, Doras is an independent NGO that works to promote and protect the rights of protection applicants and migrants. We do that through direct support and advocacy. Our work covers immigration, international protection, refugee resettlement, anti-trafficking, integration, and anti-racism. We support more than 1,200 people a year through our advice and information centre in Limerick. The majority are either in the international protection system or from a refugee background.
In my opening statement, I will focus primarily on current issues but, first, I will say a few words on the White Paper on ending direct provision. We have welcomed this. As the committee members will know, it outlines a two-phase system with people spending up to four months in a reception centre, before moving to own-door or own-room accommodation in the community. We welcome the limits on stays in reception centres, the emphasis on early integration supports, and the focus on the needs of children, families, and people with particular vulnerabilities. It is important to note that the White Paper recognises the importance of fair and fast international protection procedures. This puts the onus on the Department of Justice to ensure adequate steps are taken to reduce the time spent in the asylum process. Mr. Nick Henderson will speak more about the unacceptably long delays at present.
For the White Paper implementation to be workable there also needs to be a clear plan to deal with the large existing backlog in protection cases. At present, there are close to 7,000 people in direct provision, including those in emergency accommodation. We call for leave to remain to be granted to anyone who has been in the system for two years or more, as recommended in the report of the advisory group, which was chaired by Ms Catherine Day.
We are aware of how widespread the violations of human rights are right now in direct provision. The length of time spent waiting for an International Protection Office, IPO, decision is unacceptable. So are the conditions in many centres today. Less than two years ago we published a report highlighting the appalling conditions in Mount Trenchard direct provision centre. While Mount Trenchard was closed in early 2020, some or all of the issues we raised on that centre still apply to centres around Ireland. Because of this, independent human rights-based monitoring of all centres is long overdue. In October, the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth announced that the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, would do this. To date, this has not happened. The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy Roderic O'Gorman, said that agreement has been reached with them in principle. Yet, HIQA is still not expected to undertake its monitoring role until the end of this year. The likely need for legislative change to put this in place has not been addressed. This is worrying.
As was highlighted in the recent Ombudsman for Children’s report, direct provision is particularly unsuitable and unsafe for children and families. The same is true for victims of trafficking and victims of other forms of domestic, sexual, and gender-based violence. Another major area of concern for us is mental health. It has been found that protection applicants are up to 15 times more likely to be diagnosed with depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, than the majority of the population. They have to cope with experiences of forced migration, which can include trauma, torture, the consequences of war and conflict, and human trafficking. The impact of these are worsened by living in direct provision. The effects have been particularly acute during the Covid-19 pandemic. We produced a report on this towards the end of last year. Some issues that we highlighted in that report are, first, congregated accommodation. Single adults have to share bedrooms with others, which is a cause of conflict, fear, anxiety, and distress. This, along with the length of time spent in the system, exacerbates pre-existing mental health conditions. Second, substance misuse and addiction are a reality for many people in direct provision. This is linked to social exclusion; long-term unemployment and forced idleness; stressors associated with migration; and traumatic experiences. However, the substance misuse and addiction services that are available to people in direct provision are inadequate. Third, not having on-site, targeted supports have been a key failure of the direct provision system. Staff in centres generally do not have adequate training. In principle, mainstream mental health services are available to people in direct provision. In practice, however, there is limited knowledge of how to access these services. Access is further diminished by cultural barriers and the lack of multilingual mental health services.
Another area we have looked at recently is access to employment and decent work for protection applicants. Many, but not all, have the right to work. Our report highlighted a number of key issues that impede their labour market integration. This report was published in March. Some of the issues included factors such as the locations of direct provision centres, which are often remote; language; lack of recognition of skills and qualifications; problems accessing services to address other needs like housing, healthcare and education; employer engagement; and administrative barriers, such as work permits and not being able to get a driving licence.
I will finish this opening statement by noting that essentially this once again highlights how implementing the White Paper and ending direct provision is a complex body of work. It requires a whole-of-government approach. It has got to be done. Direct provision is an abuse of human rights and it has to be ended.