I am pleased to have the opportunity to make a statement to the House on the matter of supports for international protection applicants. We had a thoughtful and respectful debate on this issue in the other House on 13 November. I am sure today will be the same.
I simply want to reflect on the fact that the international humanitarian laws which we are bound by 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 towards the plight of those fleeing conflict, but I believe that we need to not only honour our commitments to those seeking asylum but also to honour their origins.
The EU has now 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 and circumstances. These grounds relate to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, nationality, religion, political opinions 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 from real life situations endured by people in their countries of origin. It is important that we bear this in mind during our discussions on this issue. While we can all appreciate the desire to create a better life for ourselves and our loved ones that, in itself, does not meet the strict qualifying criteria for international protection.
Once a claim is made, a legal process is set in train. While that process is under way, we offer a range of State services to applicants without means, including food, accommodation, health services, utilities and educational provision for children. In general, and in common with most other EU member states, 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 situation has changed in recent times. I want to make clear that there is no obligation to accept the offer and there is no restriction on an applicant's freedom of movement throughout the State while these offers are being made.
I have heard people falsely describe the centres as places where people are unlawfully detained or incarcerated. I have heard these places described as open prisons. I have heard them described as places of custody. I have heard them described as places that are inhumane. As my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, stated in the recent debate in the other House, once people start using that language they are saying that asylum seekers in some way deserve to be locked up, that they are prisoners and they are creating fear. We must be careful about our language because such language is not correct. Such language is false. It is wrong. I would go further and say that language is dangerous.
Some Members of this House will remember the context of the introduction of direct provision 20 years ago this month. The then Government opted to move away from a system of allowances where applicants essentially fended for themselves with financial help from the State, to a centre model where services are directly provided to residents. The reasons for this move included the prevalence of homelessness among applicants and the vulnerability of many, including to human traffickers.
Since the introduction of direct provision, over 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. Over 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 who wishes to do so. I made this offer during the Dáil debate and I repeat it here in the Seanad. What this Government and its predecessor have focussed on is identifying and systematically addressing the flaws in the direct provision system to ensure that 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 opinions or membership of a particular social group, or where that person would be at risk of suffering serious harm if he or she were to be returned. Any credible alternative put forward to replace the system must be capable of providing the wrap-around services that applicants need on arrival. They are seeking protection in a strange country where they may not know the language or customs - they certainly would not know the law. Recognising the complexity of their needs, 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 EU (recast) reception conditions directive. This directive brings with it a series of standards and rights for applicants, which we are now legally obliged to deliver. I am pleased that in Ireland 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 than the services which obtain in many fellow EU countries. Opting in to the directive built on a concerted effort to tackle many of the shortcomings in direct provision through a working group chaired by Mr. Justice Bryan McMahon. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Mr. Justice McMahon for his dedicated work – along with all those who assisted him on the working group. I want to also acknowledge the leadership shown by the former Minister for Justice and Equality, Mr. Alan Shatter.
Arising from the McMahon report significant improvements have been introduced in recent years, such as the roll-out of independent living where applicants can cook for themselves, and private living spaces for families. Residents also now have access to the services of the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for Children. Indeed, I was pleased to hear the comments of the Ombudsman, Mr. Peter Tyndall, speaking at the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality on 25 September last. Referring to other centres that had opened recently in places such as Lisdoonvarna and Wicklow, the Ombudsman stated that "it was important to note in the current context that a lot of the supposed outcomes – in terms of opening a centre, in terms of integrating communities – have not transpired". Mr. Tyndall also stated that people should treat others as they would wish to be treated. That is a simple but powerful message that we should all try to live by.
In line with the EU directive I have referenced, access to the labour market is provided for applicants who are waiting nine months or more on a first instance decision on their protection application. This means that applicants can become economically independent giving them more options regarding their accommodation and living arrangements. To date, I have granted labour market access permission to more than 3,400 eligible applicants, including over 2,500 to residents in accommodation centres, and further applications are being approved on a daily basis.
In addition to the improvements that are being made to living standards and conditions, we are also speeding up the processing of protection applications. I accept that this needs to be quicker and 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. Earlier this month, the international protection office commenced interviews by video conference with applicants based in Cork. This gives us greater flexibility to meet the needs of international protection applicants nationwide and it is planned to roll out this service in other locations shortly. I sought and achieved an additional €1 million under the Justice and Equality Vote in the budget, which will allow for extra staffing resources to further improve processing times of cases on claims and applications.
The International Protection Act 2015, steered through the Oireachtas by my predecessor, Ms Frances Fitzgerald, MEP, introduced a single application procedure for the first time. This involves all elements of a person's protection claim - refugee status, subsidiary protection status and permission to remain - being considered together rather than sequentially as before. The aim of the single procedure is to help reduce waiting times significantly and to ensure that we are identifying 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 where applicants have lived in an accommodation centre for many years crop up in the media and these are understood to be the norm. That is far from an accurate picture. Where an applicant is in a centre for many years, there is generally a complex set of reasons. For example, it may involve a case where an applicant has received a negative decision, or a series of negative decisions on his or her application, and is exercising the right to appeal. This can often be through the courts which can take some time. An applicant with a negative decision may be a family member of another person or persons with a live application and we strive not to split up families.
While it is our wish that those granted permission to remain would move on from our centres to allow new applicants access to services provision, there are almost 850 people with status or permission to remain continuing to live in our centres. My Department is assisting these people to access mainstream housing with the support of organisations like DePaul Ireland and the Peter McVerry Trust. We are making some progress in this regard and I acknowledge that partnership between my Department and these agencies.
Continuing to accommodate people who are no longer in the protection process, combined with a 60% increase in applicants this year, is placing considerable strain on our reception system. As a result, a considerable number of people are now being accommodated outside of our centres in commercial hotels and guest houses on an emergency basis. This is not a satisfactory situation and one I want phased out as soon as possible. Accordingly, it is essential that new accommodation centres are opened in order that the full range of services can be delivered in a structured manner to persons seeking our protection.
My Department is running procurement competitions on a regional basis throughout the country to find and secure accommodation. My preference would be to locate any new accommodation centres in larger urban centres but that option is not always open to my Department. Indeed, in the current climate, it is rarely open to us. Rapidly increasing numbers of applicants mean we need to identify and open centres quickly. We tender and a commercially sensitive procurement process is undertaken. The negotiation is with the proposed provider who is generally required to complete mobilisation works in line with our standards.
I am keenly aware of the dissatisfaction expressed by communities who hear through a rumour mill that a centre might be opening in their area. If the contractual arrangements are not finalised, these communities feel frustrated when the Department is unable to publicly comment. I, and in particular my colleague the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, have spoken to many people in this situation. It was also raised by several Deputies during the Dáil debate and I expect Senators will have similar views. The common concerns expressed relate to service provision, education, health, transport and so on. Where a centre is opening, it is the responsibility of the Government to ensure that provision is made for any additional services required. It is clear we need to communicate clearly and promptly with communities on these issues to provide them with the information and the reassurances they need. We do not spontaneously create hotel rooms or apartments or other accommodation in a location when we propose to open a centre. These accommodation facilities already exist and could be fully occupied by anyone at any time. It should not create an issue that the occupants happen to be international protection applicants, however.
I remind communities that accommodation centres are not new. They are located all over the country and community relations are harmonious in all of these locations. I am familiar with the centres located in my constituency. There was some unfounded controversy last week about the visiting of centres. May I ask Senators, who under the Constitution might not have constituencies but de facto do having regard to our political system, to visit and become a friend of their local centres so as to become acquainted with and acknowledge the work that is happening there. They will find it a worthwhile exercise. The same goes for local authority elected members who are also leaders in communities.
I was disappointed to see demonstrations outside premises due to house asylum seekers recently. I understand those demonstrating may feel they are sending a message to the Government. They need to be conscious that it is not only the Government which is listening. The people to be given shelter on a temporary basis are also listening, along with every person from a minority background in the country. 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 am appealing directly to all of our people, but also to people who have the opportunity to speak up to show support for asylum seekers and refugees and for the local communities being asked to welcome them. I commend the community in Borrisokane, County Tipperary, and its public representatives for their positive approach to the new centre recently opened in their town. Their constructive engagement with my Department has ensured that 16 families will spend this Christmas in their new homes surrounded by a supportive and welcoming community.
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. We have also established two groups to review the reception system in the context of the State’s commitment under the EU directive, as well as to examine how we can continue to improve conditions and communications. We need to improve and get right communications. An interdepartmental group, chaired by the deputy Secretary General of my Department, has been established to ensure all Departments are proactively delivering on their responsibilities. There is a responsibility on the Departments of Health, Housing, Planning and Local Government and Community and Rural Affairs, particularly with centres going into small rural communities. We must respond with a whole-of-Government approach. The group is reviewing the management of applicants for international protection, considering the short to medium-term options which could be implemented in addition to, or in replacement of, the existing system, as well as the implementation by all parties of the State’s obligations under the directive.
The new head of the International Organisation for Migration just this week stated that the housing of asylum seekers seeking international protection in Ireland is not a bad system and compares favourably with those of other European countries. The second group is a consultative group chaired by Dr. Catherine Day, the former Secretary General of the European Commission. This group, which is currently 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 for supporting asylum seekers. A chairperson like Dr. Catherine Day will be independent of me in the manner she goes about her business in this regard. Mr. Justice Bryan McMahon performed a good service in this regard, as indeed has Judge Paddy McMahon. Both men offered advice to the Department from time to time and acted in a wholly positive way. We need to continue to develop relationships of a most positive nature between local communities and the systems in place to support asylum seekers and those seeking international protection.
I look forward to the outcomes of their important work and to hearing the contributions from Senators in today’s debate.
On my behalf and that of the Department and the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, in particular, who spends a significant amount of his time dealing, or should I say grappling, with issues because they are complex and difficult, I commit to engagement with Senators and invite them to engage with me in a positive way because we need to ensure that our own national legal obligations are fully complied with. I would go as far as to say that we have a moral obligation, but I accept that this is something on which Senators may have a different opinion. We are not a House of morals. I believe we have a moral obligation and duty to those seeking international protection on our shores. Let us work on this together because we can improve it. We need to get it right but we need to ensure that in the course of improving matters, we do not give oxygen to those in our community and from elsewhere who are stoking up fears from outside communities to allow them to gain root. This would be a tragedy that would compound the tragedy being faced by the vast majority of people seeking international protection in our country.