‘Direct provision’ accommodation for asylum-seekers is inhumane, anti-family and profligate – Sue Conlan
I don’t know how I am going to cope. I have spent seven years living like a robot. I have been told where to go, what time to go there and almost what to eat”. These were the words of an intelligent, articulate woman from East Africa, spoken to me over a year ago. She had been living in Ireland for seven years but for all of that time she had been in accommodation centres run by the State for those seeking asylum. She was moved several times to different accommodation centres around the country. She had just learnt that she was finally to be given permission to stay in the country. She had been given a few weeks to move out of the accommodation centre, find a place to live and start making decisions for herself and her three children, all born in Ireland.
The Direct Provision system was set up in 2000 in response to a crisis towards the end of the 1990s when the numbers seeking asylum in Ireland had increased rapidly. As of December 2012 there were 4,806 people living in the accommodation centres. More than a third of residents in the accommodation centres have lived in them for more than three years. It is difficult to understand why the authorities maintain this system when the evidence is clear that it comes at huge expense, both financial and human.
The accommodation centres are known as ‘Direct Provision’ because the state provides directly for the immediate physical needs of asylum seekers. It is a system that has never been set out in legislation or defined in any publicly-available document. It has been rolled out in the form of accommodation facilities whose original use was for short term stay – mobile homes, holiday chalets, hotels, students’ hostels – with just a small number of purpose-built accommodation centres. All of the accommodation centres have been owned, or run, by private companies. These companies have never been required to have any particular training or capacity to accommodate, on a long-term basis, vulnerable adults and children. Dispersal around the country is a central feature of the system. By and large, it is a system that is on a ‘no choice’ basis. You go where you are told, when you are told and often with little notice.
Mobile homes, holiday chalets, hotels, students’ hostels – with just a small number of purpose-built accommodation centres, all run by private companies
In February 2010, I spoke at the launch of a report published by the Free Legal Advice Centres. “One size doesn’t fit all” reviewed the Direct Provision system on its tenth anniversary. The launch was covered in the media and led to a phone call to me from a Dublin woman. She told me about the struggle that she and her husband had to pay their bills and keep their heads above water. That is in itself another story that is sadly too common for many in Ireland today. She said that she and her husband would love to give up that struggle and go and live in a holiday chalet where all their needs were met. She had no sympathy with those who advocated for a better system than the one of Direct Provision or with those who lived in the centres.
I don’t blame that woman for thinking that asylum seekers have it easy. Yes she could, if she wanted to, imagine the difficulty of having just €19.10 per week for herself and €9.60 per week for her children. But she doesn’t know what life is like when you are forced to be dependent upon the state, year in year out, with no control over your life and no opportunity to work or make any significant decisions for yourself let alone for your children. She cannot know the effect of forced idleness and the anxiety that comes from not knowing when you will be able to move on and begin to settle down. She could not know the fear of living with the threat of deportation. She doesn’t know the impact of being a victim of torture or sometimes unspeakable trauma that some of those who seek asylum in Ireland today have been subjected to.
The evidence that suggests something is seriously wrong with the system is clear. The financial costs are high. Recently it was revealed in reply to a parliamentary question from Maureen O’Sullivan TD that the state paid over €655 million between 2000 and 2010 to the private contractors that own these Direct Provision centres. The human costs are particularly evident when the impact upon children is considered.
Children form an increasingly large group among the residents in Direct Provision centres. 32% of residents in 2008 were children (a total of 2300). By the end of 2012, the proportion was 38% (1818 children). They occupy a living space in close proximity both to those to whom they are related and those that they have no connection with whatsoever. For many, all they know is this form of institutionalised living.
The Reception and Integration Agency oversees the Direct Provision system. This is a multi-departmental agency, under the Department of Justice, Equality, and Defence, which includes the HSE and the Department of Education and Science. The HSE is represented through its unit on Child and Family Services that has a duty to assess reports regarding a child’s welfare or safety. This unit provides statistics in the Reception and Integration Agency’s Annual Reports on the referrals made to it which relate to child protection issues – see chart 3.
The response to the child-protection issues raised in the Reception and Integration Agency’s Annual Reports may be to blame the parents for their inabilities as carers. But the ability to be a parent and provide for and protect your child is affected by your circumstances. In the case of families in Direct Provision, parents are infantilised and denied the opportunity to fulfil their responsibilities. That is contrary to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which requires States to provide “appropriate assistance” to parents in the performance of their duties.
In 2012 the Irish Refugee Council published a report with examples of malnutrition, poverty, overcrowding, lack of play space and the detrimental effect on family life. There has been no formal response
In September 2012, the Irish Refugee Council published a report entitled “State sanctioned child poverty and exclusion: the case of children in state accommodation for asylum seekers”. The report examined how children, some of them Irish citizens, have been treated in the Direct Provision system. The evidence, dating back over ten years, included examples of malnutrition, poverty, overcrowding, lack of play space and the detrimental effect on family life. There has been no formal response from any Government Minister to the Report.
The reference point for this report was the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by Ireland in 1992. The Reception and Integration Agency has stated that it seeks to adhere to this Convention. However the Convention includes the rights of children to the development of their full physical and mental potential; the right to protection from influences that are harmful to their development; and the right to participation in family, cultural and social life. The Irish Refugee Council report suggests a significant gap between the reality of Direct Provision and Ireland’s commitments under the Convention.
Appearing before the Dáil Public Accounts Committee on 21st March 2013, Brian Purcell, Secretary General of the Department of Justice, stated that the system of Direct Provision would stay for the foreseeable future. This is not good news. It will take time to replace the system of Direct Provision, but it will have to go, as the evidence cannot be ignored for much longer.
Laborious asylum process
Persons seeking asylum apply to the Office for Refugee Applications and, if refused, may appeal to the Refugee Appeals Tribunal (RAT). Failed asylum-seekers may then seek judicial review of these decisions in the High Court. Such proceedings must be initiated within 14 days. Many – probably most – failed asylum-seekers challenge negative decisions in the courts. Very significant delays are experienced in these cases. There are at least 2,000 cases waiting to be heard. Four High Court judges are assigned full time to the Asylum list and they hear about 8-10 cases each week. Cases being heard this year may relate to asylum decisions taken 4-5 years ago. While waiting for cases to be heard, asylum seekers live in what many believe is substandard ‘direct provision’ accommodation. Applicants receive approximately €19 per week and are prohibited from working. Years of forced idleness and cramped accommodation has detrimental effects on people. Children are reared in these unsatisfactory circumstances as their parents pursue court challenges. Even if they are successful – and many of them are as decision-making in the RAT is frequently found by the High Court to be deficient – their asylum applications are sent back to the RAT to be re assessed. Sometimes the new decision is itself reviewed.
Once the asylum application has been reviewed by the court, the failed asylum seeker is then entitled to seek a form of protection known as ‘subsidiary protection’. In every other EU state, the asylum application and the subsidiary-protection application are assessed simultaneously. In Ireland they have been separated. Thus a failed asylum-seeker, if unsuccessful in court, will then embark on the subsidiary-protect procedure and this too can be challenged in court in a years-long process. It is regrettable that both applications are not heard together and that asylum seekers cannot have their cases determined in weeks rather than years. Expedition would be in the interest both of applicants for refugee status and of the State.
Sue Conlan is CEO of the Irish Refugee Council. The Irish Refugee Council is co-ordinating a National Day of Action about the Direct Provision system on 23rd April 2013. For more information contact the IRC on email@example.com