Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Ceisteanna (5)

Jim O'Callaghan

Ceist:

5. Deputy Jim O'Callaghan asked the Minister for Justice and Equality if the fact that 35% of residents of direct provision centres have been there for more than two years will be addressed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47617/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Justice)

As of this month, approximately 7,500 people are availing of accommodation services under the direct provision system run by the Department of Justice and Equality. In total, 35% of those residents have been waiting in direct provision more that two years, and 22% have been waiting more than three years. What is the Government's plan for dealing with this ever-increasing issue and does it have a proposal for ensuring people can get out of direct provision much faster?

I thank the Deputy for his question. International protection is a complex legal process driven by both national and international law, which works to protect the rights of those genuinely seeking protection by ensuring that all applications are examined in a consistently rigorous and fair manner. My Department has introduced a number of measures aimed at reducing the time taken to determine applications. The International Protection Act 2015 introduced the single procedure process for the determination of protection applications. Under that process, all elements of a person's protection claim, including refugee status, subsidiary protection status and permission to remain are considered together rather than sequentially.

An applicant who applies for international protection today can expect to receive a first instance recommendation or decision within approximately 15 months, provided no complications arise. Prioritised cases, which include especially vulnerable groups of applicants such as unaccompanied minors, are being processed in just under nine months. My Department is working hard to achieve a target of nine months in the vast majority of cases. An additional €1 million has been provided in budget 2020 for immigration service delivery, which includes provision for additional staffing to fast-track applications. This will further reduce the time needed for considering applications for international protection as well as pressures on the accommodation systems.

As of 31 October 2019, the mean length of stay in international protection accommodation services, IPAS, was 21 months, down from 38 months in 2015. That is a reduction of 17 months over four years. Where an applicant has been in a centre for many years, there is generally a complex set of reasons. These can include difficulties and delays in the applicant producing the required documentation and in verifying that documentation. In addition, such cases generally involve the applicant having received a negative decision or series of negative decisions on their application and then exercising their right to appeal, often through the courts, which can take time.

The figures on those in centres over three years also includes a substantial group of people who have received permission to remain. While we wish that those granted permission to remain will move on from centres in order that new applicants can access service provision, approximately 847 people with refugee status continue to live in the centres. A total of 532 of those people have been residing in the centres for three years or more. This represents 30.69% of the total number of applicants who have been IPAS residents for three years or more, which is 1,743. While people are under no obligation to accept accommodation in the IPAS, the Deputy will be aware of the current difficulties faced by people trying to source and secure accommodation. My Department is assisting those with status to access mainstream housing with the support of organisations such as Depaul Ireland, the Jesuit Refugee Service and the Peter McVerry Trust. So far this year, 675 people have been assisted in transitioning from IPAS to permanent homes in the community.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. We have to be frank here. I regret to say that a message is going out that the Government has lost control of the issue of direct provision. The public are getting that impression because proposals for direct provision centres are being blocked simply because of local opposition. The message going out is that the country is unable to sustain the numbers involved and that if people put up local objections, they will be able to stop centres being built. We know that is not the case. The numbers applying for international protection and subsidiary protection in this country are relatively small by European standards. Some 3,600 applied last year, and up to 4,000 will likely apply this year, for reasons that have been explained. Part of the problem is that there is huge uncertainty about where people will stay. I welcome the Government's recent announcement that it will try to use State accommodation to house these people, for which we have been calling for many months and years. State accommodation can be used. Alternatively, we may have to build State accommodation for this purpose, as it is a long-term issue. I ask the Minister of State for an update on what will happen with that State accommodation.

Every option is being pursued to try to identify and locate accommodation for people who come here looking for international protection. As I said, so far this year, of the people who have received status, 675 have got help to transit into permanent accommodation in the community. Officials from the Department meet regularly with colleagues from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and staff from the City and County Management Association to work collectively to ensure those with status or permission to remain are assisted to move on to longer-term accommodation as soon as possible.

A new accommodation centre opened in Borrisokane on 28 October. Eight families have now moved there and have settled in well. I thank the community in Borrisokane for their co-operation, assistance and support in establishing friends of the centre there and showing Borrisokane to be a very welcoming town. We also have accommodation centres in other parts of the country, 39 in all, and they are all working very well. Local friends of centres have been established, local people are assisting and, in fact, in some cases problems arise because the local people send in too many gifts and presents to the people living in the centres as they are so generous. I call on all other communities in the country to look at this and to see the benefits accommodation centres bring. There is nothing to fear, as the Deputy said, and nothing to be worried about. We have the records. People can visit centres, see them in operation and meet the people to see how well the centres are working.

In other similar European countries, such as Denmark and Finland, there is a similar system to here in that they have accommodation centres where people stay while their applications are being considered. Where we differ is that people are staying for too long. We have seen that 22%, which works out at 1,600 people, have been in direct provision centres for more than three years. That allows people to say, legitimately, that this system is unfair on humans and is inhumane. We need to recognise that we need to stop situations developing where people are kept here for longer than one year. This accommodation is suitable for people to stay for one year while their applications are being processed.

Of course, part of the problem is the housing crisis because the reason people are staying on in direct provision centres, and we know there are 770 people there who have been granted international protection, is because when they go out into the outside world, they find it impossible to get accommodation. Therefore, it is linked to the housing crisis.

I acknowledge what the Minister of State has said. There are very many communities, including people in my own constituency and throughout the country, who welcome migrants. We need to talk more about those welcoming communities rather than just highlighting the objections in a small number of communities.

I thank the Deputy for his comments. Last week, we launched Community Sponsorship Ireland, to which I bring the attention of colleagues. Through this initiative, local communities can welcome a refugee family into their community, and there have been a number of examples during the pilot scheme, which has worked very well.

The mean length of stay in accommodation is now 21 months, which is down from 38 months in 2015, so progress is being made and I am determined progress will continue to be made in this regard. This year, with the help of Depaul Ireland, the Jesuit Refugee Service and the Peter McVerry Trust, we have assisted 675 people to move into accommodation in the community from IPAS accommodation. A huge effort is being made to shorten the time people are in the centres, to shorten the amount of time it takes to make decisions, and to help people move on into accommodation when decisions have been made in their favour.

As I said, this is a complex area and there are many reasons people spend longer than we would like in the centres. However, I am sure the Deputy will agree with me that progress is being made and I want to confirm that progress will continue to be made in this important area.