By Sue Conlan
Emily O’Reilly, European Ombudsman, recently described Direct Provision as the “human-rights elephant in the room”. The Working Group on the Protection Process [for asylum seekers], that recently submitted its final report, has looked at the elephant but, perhaps not emboldened enough given its terms of reference, it decided to look away again. A fundamental human rights issue therefore still calls for political attention. For the Irish Refugee Council and others, the ‘End Direct Provision’ campaign is needed now more than ever.
The origins of the Working Group lie in the ‘Statement of Government Priorities 2014 – 2016’. This committed to two related steps: bring in a single application procedure for asylum seekers through legislation; and establish an independent Working Group “to report to Government on improvements to the protection process, including Direct Provision and supports for asylum seekers”.
The General Scheme of the Bill was published in March 2015. It proposes a single procedure for international-protection applications to replace the existing multi-layered system. This is supposed to lead to “more timely and efficient protection decisions”.
The Department of Justice and Equality organised a Roundtable discussion for NGOs with Ministers Fitzgerald and Ó Ríordáin, before establishing the Working Group. The themes were: Direct Provision; Supports for Protection Applicants including for education, training, healthcare, social welfare entitlements and access to employment; and Issues relating to the process of determining international protection.
At the first meeting of the Working Group, the Chair, Dr Bryan MacMahon, proposed that its work would be organised around similar themes: Living conditions; Supports and services; and the protection application process. The Working Group therefore proceeded on lines already drawn up by the Department of Justice and Equality.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is safe to say that government did not want the Working Group to consider and provide input into the International Protection Bill. This is despite this legislation being central to the strategy underpinning the report of the Working Group. Frances Fitzgerald, Minister for Justice and Equality, indicated in her response to the Working Group report that “successful implementation of key recommendations is dependent on the early enactment of the International Protection Bill” .
The Working Group ended up proposing changes to the asylum application process only because of the tenacity of individual members of the Group. You would think from reading some of the subsequent comments of the organisations represented on the Working Group that the International Protection Bill was the fruit of their work. Not so: it would have been brought forward anyway, even if the Working Group had never existed.
The International Protection Bill is due to be published in September. If amendments to the General Scheme are made, based on the substantive recommendations from the Working Group, it will be a good indication that the Minister intends to have regard to the view of the Working Group she set up. But that is not certain.
The main recommendation in the report for those currently in the system affects asylum seekers only once they have been there over five years, unless the application is processed resulting in either deportation or asylum. In effect, the Working Group’s proposals are founded on the principle that no person should be in the system for five years or more. That is a remarkably restricted agenda and cannot have been proposed with any regard to submissions and comments made by asylum seekers. They would not sign up to such a limiting starting-point.
Even worse, the proposals for those in the system more than five years will only come to fruition if the Minister accepts the recommendations made by the Working Group about resources. Those involved will then face the uncertainty of moving on from Direct Provision with little or no support to do so. Those who have ‘served’ less than five years will continue to be left waiting in a largely unchanged Direct Provision system.
A number of NGOs, and the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, used language to welcome the report that, it can only be assumed, had been agreed in advance. The language of decisions being reached by or through “consensus” dominated media statements on the day of the report’s release – from organisations such as Nasc, Jesuit Refugee Service, UNHCR and Spirasi.
They referred to the fact that this consensus included government departments.
However, now government departments have been left on their own to argue about what they can or cannot implement in a context of competing demands, particularly on their budgets.
Apart from the Ministers and the Chair, it was the NGOs and UNHCR, with a few asylum seekers, that fronted the report launch, even though they are no longer able to influence its progress and implementation. •
Sue Conlan is CEO of the Irish Refugee Council. She resigned from the government’s working group on refugees in March