The Working Group on Direct Provision and the Protection Process, of which Nasc was a member, reported over a year ago. The Tánaiste and Minister for Justice Francis Fitzgerald proclaimed last June that “140 of 173 recommendations have been implemented, partially implemented or are in progress”. Despite the highly qualified nature of this statement, one would be forgiven for thinking that huge reforms have been made or are about to be made in our reception and protection system. Do we now have a system that “treats asylum-seekers with the humanity and respect that they deserve”?
Humanity and respect were the principles upon which the Working Group was formed. The answer to this question therefore turns upon the word “deserve”. It shifts the focus from the creation of a clear rights-based reception and protection system, to a system where marginalised people fall into categories of “deserving and undeserving”. Asylum-seekers and their families would seem to fall squarely into the “undeserving” category, housed in old hotels and convents, often on the outskirts of towns and cities, out of sight of normal populations. The reality of our asylum-seeker regime makes definitively clear the value we assign to them.
What has changed for the 4,303 people currently living in Direct Provision? The single most successful outcome of the Working Group report was the introduction of an informal scheme that saw the granting of residency to over 1,000 residents who had been in the system for five or more years. Importantly, this involved the revocation of deportation orders on an unprecedented scale. This was very welcome and commendable.
The student pilot scheme granting access to third-level education for asylum-seeking school-leavers, who have spent more than five years in the system, was renewed this year. This is a very limited scheme, however, and only two young people benefited from it in 2015.
The living allowance for children in Direct Provision was increased by a modest €5.40 bringing the weekly allowance to a paltry €15.60 per week. This is well below the €29.00 per week recommended by the Working Group. The adult allowance remains at €19.10 per week and, revealingly, no increase was announced in this year’s Budget.
A number of the key transformative recommendations of the Working Group have not been implemented or have only been partially implemented. Asylum-seekers still do not have the right to work. It seems that realisation of this right is as remote a prospect as it was when our current system was designed, in 2000. The introduction of the International Protection Act 2015, amounts to a missed opportunity to provide for this right and other associated rights outlined in the EU Directive laying down standards for the reception of applicants for international protection.
The Act also fell short in safeguarding the rights of asylum-seeking children. It failed fully to implement a key Working Group recommendation that called for the inclusion of the general principle that the best interests of the child be a primary consideration in all actions concerning children in the reception process. In the Act, consideration of the principle is only reflected in a small number of limited provisions and does little to provide real safeguards and protection for the rights of asylum-seeking children.
Minister Frances Fitzgerald has agreed “in principle” to extend the remit of the Ombudsman for Children to children in Direct Provision but this has yet to happen. Recently, the Children’s Ombudsman, Dr Niall Muldoon, repeated his call on the Minister to “take this recommendation on board” and stop the “huge, indefensible, discrimination between the children living in Ireland who have a defined status and those who are awaiting a decision on same”. Do asylum-seeking children not “deserve” the full protection of his office?
Almost a decade ago Dr Liam Thornton described Direct Provision as both “exclusive and excluding”. It is exclusive in that no other population, save those in our prisons, live in a setting that precludes them from accessing mainstream social-welfare payments, and condemns them to a life of enforced poverty and idleness where they are prohibited from working to support their families. The system is excluding as asylum-seekers, despite the initial public outcry and support for reform and the publication of Report of the Working Group on Direct Provision and the Protection Process, remain excluded and marginalised from mainstream Irish society.
The Government must change its attitudes and priorities to fully implement the recommendations of the Working Group to enable our asylum-seeking community to live with dignity and respect.
By Fiona Finn