I am pleased to have the opportunity to make a statement to the House on the matter of supports for international protection applicants. I wish to reflect on the fact that the international humanitarian laws by which we are bound as proud and active members of the United Nations have their origins in horrendous conflicts, not least the Second World War. That gargantuan conflict began on this Continent and resulted in tens of millions of people being persecuted, displaced, starved and killed. The passage of time and the success of the European Union in bringing peace to this part of the world may have contributed to an occasional complacency or ambivalence to the plight of those fleeing conflict, but we need to honour both our commitments to those seeking asylum and their origin.
The EU has developed its own body of law dealing with these issues. Ireland, like other countries, is obliged by EU and international law to examine the claim of any person who comes here and claims international protection, also known as asylum, under clearly defined grounds. These grounds relate to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, nationality, religion, political opinion or membership of a particular social group or where the person would be at risk of suffering serious harm if returned to his or her home country. Sadly, each of these grounds arose not from theory but, rather, from real-life situations endured by people in their home countries.
Once a claim is made, a legal process begins. While that process is in train, we offer a range of State services to applicants without means, including accommodation, food, health services, utilities, educational provision for children and so on. In general, these services are offered in centres which have over the years allowed for the swift provision of services to applicants. In the past, many applicants did not avail of the services on offer, but that has changed in recent years. I wish to make clear that there is no obligation to accept the offer and there is no restriction on an applicant's freedom of movement within the State.
Some Deputies will remember the context of the introduction of direct provision 20 years ago this month. The then Government opted to move from a system of allowances whereby applicants essentially fended for themselves with financial help from the State to a centre model. The reasons for the move included the prevalence of homelessness among applicants and the vulnerability of many, including to human traffickers. Since the introduction of direct provision, more than 65,000 people have been helped by the system.
It is no surprise that at the moment of its creation the system was not perfect. Indeed, it had many flaws. Through the years, many people have blithely called for its abolition or repeated untrue rumours about the nature of the direct provision. I am not aware of anyone who has proposed a workable alternative for service provision but I am open to engaging with anyone from within or outside this House who wishes to so do. The Government and its predecessor have focused on identifying and systematically addressing the flaws in the direct provision system to ensure we provide the best possible services to applicants in the best possible way.
Direct provision is a guarantee of shelter, food and a place of safety to a person who claims international protection on the basis of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, nationality, religion, political opinion or membership of a particular social group or where the person would be at risk of suffering serious harm if returned to his or her home country. Any credible alternative put forward to replace the system must be capable of providing the wraparound services that applicants need on arrival when seeking protection in a strange country where they may not know the language, customs or law. Recognising the complexity of their needs, a range of supports and services for international protection applicants are delivered under a whole-of-government approach.
Last year, our reception system was placed on a statutory footing for the first time when the Government decided to opt in to the recast EU reception conditions directive. The directive brings with it a series of standards and rights for applicants which we are now legally obliged to deliver. I am pleased that we can now be confident that our services are on a par with those in other EU countries. In fact, in many instances, our services are much better. Opting in to the directive built on a concerted effort, through a working group chaired by Mr. Justice Bryan McMahon, to tackle many of the shortcomings in direct provision. I wish to take this opportunity to thank him for his dedicated work, along with all those who assisted him on the working group. I wish to acknowledge the leadership shown by the former Minister for Justice and Equality, Alan Shatter, and the former Minister of State, Senator Ó Ríordáin, in beginning that process. Arising from the McMahon report, significant improvements have been introduced in recent years, such as the roll-out of independent living whereby applicants can cook for themselves and there are private living spaces for families. In addition, residents now have access to the services of the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for Children.
In line with the EU directive to which I referred, access to the labour market is provided for applicants who are waiting nine months or more for a first instance decision on their protection application. This means that applicants can become economically independent, giving them more options in respect of their accommodation and living arrangements. To date, I have granted more than 3,400 labour market access permissions to eligible applicants and further applications are being approved every day.
In addition to the improvements being made to living standards and conditions, we are speeding up the processing of protection applications. I accept it needs to be quicker. We continue to strive to improve matters. My Department is taking all reasonable measures to achieve this while acknowledging that the processing of applications is complex and that each application deserves and receives an individual assessment.
The International Protection Act 2015, steered through the Oireachtas by my predecessor, Frances Fitzgerald, introduced a single application procedure for the first time. This involves all elements of a person's protection claim, including refugee status, subsidiary protection status and permission to remain, being considered together rather than sequentially, as was previously the case. The aim of the single procedure is to help to reduce waiting times and to ensure that we identify at the earliest stage possible those who need our protection and those who can safely return to their home country.
From time to time, cases of applicants who have lived in an accommodation centre for many years crop up in the media and are understood to be the norm, but this is far from an accurate picture.
Where an applicant has been in a centre for many years, there is generally a complex set of reasons which include, for example, where an applicant has received a negative decision on his or her application, or a series of negative decisions, and is exercising his or her right to appeal, often through the courts, which can take some time. An applicant who has received a negative decision may be a family member of another person or persons with a live application and we do not split up families.
While it is our wish that those granted permission to remain will move on from centres in order that new applicants will have access to service provision, there are more than 700 people with status or permission to remain continuing to live in centres. My Department is assisting them to access mainstream housing with the support of organisations such as Depaul Ireland and the Peter McVerry Trust. We are making some progress in that regard.
Continuing to accommodate people who are no longer in the protection process, combined with a 60% increase in the number of applicants this year, is placing considerable strain on the reception system. As a result, a considerable number of people are being accommodated outside the centres in commercial hotels and guesthouses on an emergency basis. This is not satisfactory; it is a situation I want to see phased out as soon as possible. Accordingly, it is essential that new direct provision centres be opened in order that the full range of services can be delivered in a structured manner to persons seeking international protection.
I am keenly aware of the dissatisfaction expressed by communities that hear through the rumour mill that a centre might be opening in their area. If the contractual arrangements are not finalised, many feel frustrated when the Department is unable to comment publicly. The Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, and I have spoken to many people who find themselves in this situation. The common concerns expressed relate to service provision in the areas of education, health, transport and so on. Where a centre is opening, it is the responsibility of the Government to ensure provision is made for any additional service required. We need to communicate clearly and promptly with communities on these issues to provide them with the reassurance they need. I remind communities that direct provision centres are not new. They are located all over the country and community relations are harmonious in all of the locations. I am very familiar with the centres located in my constituency.
I was very disappointed to see demonstrations outside premises which were due to house asylum seekers. I understand those demonstrating may believe they are sending a message to the Government, but I ask them to be conscious that it is not only the Government that is listening. The women and girls who were to be given shelter on a temporary basis are also listening. Every person in the country from a minority background is listening. Far right anti-immigrant activists are also listening and looking for opportunities to incite fear and hatred, as far right groups have done throughout history. I appeal directly to all of the people, including those who have the opportunity to speak up, to show support for asylum seekers and refugees and the local communities that are being asked to welcome them.
As part of our continued commitment to improving the lives of asylum seekers in the State, the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, and I have recently published new national standards for accommodation centres. An interdepartmental group chaired by a deputy Secretary General of my Department has been established to ensure all Departments are proactively delivering on their responsibilities. The second group is a consultative group chaired by Dr. Catherine Day, former Secretary General of the European Commission. This group which is being established will advise on the implementation of the new national standards. It will also identify good practice in other European countries, examine international protection and migration trends and advise on developing positive relationships between local communities and the systems in place to support asylum seekers. I look forward to seeing the outcomes of its important work.
I welcome this debate and look forward to hearing the contributions of the Deputies opposite. I assure them that I will be very happy to engage with them on any alternative or improvement they might suggest. Ultimately, this is a serious and complex challenge. We all need to work together to ensure best practice obtains within the State.