By Reuben Hambackachere. Background article by Niall Crowley follows below.
On the 21st of April 2015 I officially submitted my resignation as the named individual representing the Core Group of asylum-seekers and Refugees on the Government Working Group established to examine improvements to the protection process and the Direct Provision system.
The working group was set up as the Government’s response to the countrywide protests by asylum-seekers living in direct provision and their supporters. This response presented the Government with an opportunity to remedy a broken system for asylum-seekers. The structure of direct provision raises cause for concern for the Irish state, given the level of public resources invested in the system and its administration.
I felt that, coming together with so called experts on the issue, this was a step in the right direction to overcome the cultural blindness that I believe is one of the factors underpinning this failed system alongside the fact that there is no legislative framework for these reception centres. There were restrictions in the terms of reference in relating to coming up with an alternative for those who live in this system. I felt this needed to change immediately if there was to be any credibility that the rights of asylum-seekers would be upheld in line with Ireland’s international obligations under various human rights instruments. However, I took up my position with the hope that the Working Group would be committed to the liberation of people who are being oppressed.
It was not long before I discovered that some members of the group could see the problem but did not think they were a part of it. My participation on the Working Group was an opportunity to see and learn how decisions are made or not made. I am glad I stayed up to the time I did. I participated in the consultation process and most of the plenary and thematic meetings. I felt I was well informed and had given it my best when I made my decision to exit.
I initially agreed to be on the Working Group on the basis of a mandate to negotiate and safeguard that the report and its recommendations would offer real progressive change, and restore the dignity of asylum-seekers and their children through the creation of a protection system underpinned by human rights and in line with international best practice. During the period that I was a Working Group member I pushed hard to ensure that the voices of asylum-seekers and refugees were heard. I believe that the issues of concern to asylum-seekers were well articulated during the consultation process. It was therefore my realistic hope that these issues would inform the recommendations of the Working Group.
However, after conscientiously going through all three thematic sub-group draft reports, which will form the final plenary report, I feel that the proposed recommendations fall far too short of my own expectations and probably those of the asylum-seeking community
Central amongst my concerns was that without the option to discuss any alternative to direct provision or even to submit an alternative report without referring to the terms of reference, very little change would be made to the current system. Personally, as things stood I could not stand over the limited recommendations that were going forward from the sub-groups to the plenary, nor sign my name to them. My conscience will not allow me to endorse an exercise that has not truly taken into consideration the issues that were clearly articulated by asylum-seekers during the consultation process and through other submissions.
However, the decision of the Core Group of asylum-seekers and refugees is to stay on and continue to fight. It is my hope that the Core Group will capitalise on my resignation and push further for recommendations that have some positive outcomes for the people caught up in this system. Communities which experience inequality, poverty and injustices should be protected and their rights vindicated. Ultimately, I believe high standards must apply to any reception system underpinned by the requirements of the EU Reception Directive.
I am still participating in the struggle to end direct provision and I will continue to campaign and fight for the rights of all people let down by the current system which is broken and only results in further marginalisation. This system props up a flawed model that does not work for my comrades in the core group and beyond them for the wider community of asylum-seekers.
By Niall Crowley
Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, left no one in any doubt about his opposition to Direct Provision speaking in the Dáil in September 2014. “It is no secret that I have been, and continue to be, a critic of the Direct Provision system as it currently operates and want to see it reformed into something that we can be proud of in a civilised society that describes itself as a Republic. I have described it as inhumane, intolerable and as a system that I refuse to stand over in its current form.”
He referred to the decision to “establish an independent working group to report to Government on improvements to the protection process as a whole as well as on Direct Provision and supports for asylum seekers in particular.” He promised: “We have form in this regard, we pledged to end the degrading practice of slopping-out in Mountjoy and we did. We pledged to close St Patrick’s Institute for Young Offenders and we have. We will not be found wanting in respect of Direct Provision”.
Direct Provision for asylum seekers was introduced in April 2000. Asylum seekers get full-board accommodation and a personal allowance of €19.10 per adult and €9.60 per child per week. They may not work. In November last year the High Court found that the system was not a breach of human rights, though there were issues with the way the case was pleaded. It was originally envisaged that no one would spend more than six months in the system. Before this, asylum seekers were able to get social welfare payments and rent supplements while their claim for refugee status was being processed.
The Reception and Integration Agency was created to oversee the system. Contracts were entered into with companies around the country and some properties were purchased. None of the companies had any experience of working with asylum seekers or refugees and none of the accommodation centres was designed for long-term living.
Though the number of asylum seekers entering Ireland rose from only 15 to around 11,000 in the decade up to 2002, the numbers remain small comparatively. In the 20 years to the end of 2013 around 10,000 were granted refugee status, 6,100 were naturalised and 4,732 family members joined them here. The UN has noted an absence of policy for both refugees and other migrants, and of the integration indicators on which it might be based. January 2015 figures from the Reception and Integration Agency show that there are 4,460 people in Direct Provision, including 1,482 children under 18 years of age. All bar 695 of these people have been there for six months or more, and 1,631 people have been in Direct Provision for five or more years. A December 2013 UNHCR study highlighted the negative impact of Direct Provision: “the flight experience and reception conditions upon arrival in Ireland were emphasised as impacting on the employability of refugees and on their mental health”. It pointed to particular difficulties for children being brought up in the centres.
The Minister’s working group was established in October 2014. Its terms of reference are “to recommend to the Government what improvements should be made to the State’s existing Direct Provision and protection process and to the various supports provided for protection of applicants; and specifically to indicate what actions could be taken which are directed towards: (1) Improving existing arrangements in the processing of protection applications; and (2) Showing greater respect for the dignity of persons in the system and improving their quality of life”. The working group is to report at the end of May.
In March 2015 the first hints that all was not well with the working group emerged with the resignation of Sue Conlan, CEO of the Irish Refugee Council. Her letter of resignation stated: “We entered into this process in good faith and did everything possible to make it work. We feel that to carry on with the process goes against the best interests of the people in the protection system now and those who will come to Ireland seeking protection in the future”.
Her blog suggests that the Minister’s fine words at the start of the process will not be matched by the report of the working group. She wrote, “I have no problem with the state making ‘direct provision’ for the accommodation and support of asylum seekers that meets their particular needs. If we are serious about “showing greater respect for the dignity of persons in the system and improving their quality of life” then we wouldn’t be trying to square a circle which is essentially what the Working Group is trying to do by suggesting improvements to a system that is fundamentally in contradiction to that statement” .
There has now been a second resignation from the working group, that of Reuben Hambackachere, the sole representative of the Core Group of Asylum Seekers and Refugees. Credibility is rapidly being stripped from a process that was inaugurated with such high expectations. Little hope remains that the working group will deliver something we can in any way “be proud of”. •