With all the attention on responses to the new refugee crisis, it is important not to forget those festering within the existing asylum-seekers’ system, Direct Provision.
The Working Group on Direct Provision and Protections Process deliberated for over six months and published a report in June 2015 with 173 recommendations. All of these recommendations were reached by consensus by all members of the Group. This included the heads of all the relevant government departments. All members of the Group engaged with the process. The recommendations are achievable, clearly costed, would go a significant way to resolving some of the most significant flaws in the asylum-protection system.
The sole response of the Minister for Justice, beyond describing the report as “food for thought”, has been to establish a so-called ‘Transitional Task Force’, whose principal role would seem to be the production of an information booklet for those currently exiting Direct Provision. This response is tantamount to a grand betrayal.
In July 2014, the government, in its Statement of Priorities, committed to “treat asylum seekers with the humanity they deserve”.
In the months that followed, asylum-seekers up and down the country came out of the shadows and publicly protested about the conditions that they and their children have had to endure for years on end.
These protests reflected the oppression of a vulnerable population now seeking to assert their fundamental human rights.
For the first time in 15 years the voices of asylum-seekers shaped the discourse on Direct Provision and shone a light on what life was really like inside one on the biggest institutional settings in the country. This was a pivotal moment, and one that acted as a catalyst for the State to come good on its promise. Thus the Working Group on Direct Provision and the Protection Process was established and charged with recommending reforms to “show greater respect for the dignity of the persons in the system”.
A critical aspect of the work of the Group was the direct engagement with residents in Direct Provision. Many were reluctant to participate, having a mistrust in the State that had been the architect of such a dehumanising system. Nasc and other NGOs, as members of the Working Group, encouraged asylum-seekers to participate and they took up this call. In powerful and compelling testimonies, the Group heard what life is like inside the Magdalene Laundries of our time.
“The Direct Provision System had been a prison to many people, undeservedly serving unending sentences”, “as we kill the time the time kills us” and “people are made feel like criminals whilst exercising their human right to seek refuge”. Enforced idleness, lack of personal autonomy and privacy, mental illness and poverty featured strongly in the testimonies.
Children, many of whom were born in Ireland, said that they felt different from their peers and they longed to be accepted as “normal”. They wanted “sleepovers”, “friends”, to see their dad working or “to eat food made by my mam”, or “go to Centra”. For some the pressure was too much to bear: “we cry we are not happy like this. In school I keep thinking about this with teary eyes”. These voices informed the recommendations of the Group.
Now we have finally agreed to take 4,000 refugees outside the Direct Provision system, is it too much to ask of one of the richest countries in Western Europe, with one of the smallest asylum-seeking populations, to adequately provide for the very basic needs of our asylum seeking families and children, some of whom have lived in the system for over a decade? The lack of response from the Minister for Justice indicates that yes, it must be too much to ask. This is a betrayal of the trust of asylum-seekers and their families who were urged to trust in the process and who believed that this time it would be different.
The Minister must now implement immediately the key recommendations of the Working Group. Otherwise the report of the Working Group is no more than a cynical exercise. This includes: increasing the Direct Provision Allowance to €38.74 for an adult and €29.80 for a child; granting residency to those in the system for five years or more; extending the remit of the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for Children to cover Direct Provision; and introducing cooking facilities in the centres.
These actions might go some way in restoring the faith of asylum seekers that our government is willing to show greater respect for their dignity and treat them with the compassion and humanity that is their right.
The failure to act will add the further injustice of creating a process that gave asylum-seekers a glimmer of hope only to have that hope extinguished for political expediency. •
Fiona Finn is CEO of Nasc which links migrants and ethnic minorities to their rights; and was a member of the Working Group. www.nascireland.org