Check Against Delivery
I am pleased to have the opportunity to make a statement to the House this evening on the matter of supports for international protection applicants. We had a thoughtful and respectful debate on this issue in the other House on 13 November and I am sure today will be the same.
At the outset, I simply want to reflect on the fact that the international humanitarian laws which we are bound by as proud and active members of the United Nations, have their origins in horrendous conflicts - not least the Second World War. That gargantuan conflict began on this continent and resulted in tens of millions of people being persecuted, displaced, starved and killed. The passage of time and the success of the European Union in bringing peace to this part of the world may have contributed to an occasional complacency or ambivalence to the plight of those fleeing conflict – but I believe that we need to not just honour our commitments to those seeking asylum but also to honour their origins.
The EU has now developed its own body of law dealing with these issues and, Ireland, like other countries, is obliged by EU and international law to examine the claim of any person who comes here and claims international protection (also known as asylum) under defined grounds. These grounds relate to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, nationality, religion, political opinions or membership of a particular social group or where the person would be at risk of suffering serious harm if returned to their home country. Sadly, each of these grounds arose not from theory but from real life situations endured by people in their home countries. It is important that we bear this in mind during our discussions today. While we can all appreciate the desire to create a better life for ourselves and our loved ones that in itself does not meet the strict qualifying criteria for international protection, as I have just outlined.
Once a claim is made, a legal process begins and while that process is in train, we offer a range of State services to applicants without means, including accommodation, food, health services, utilities, educational provision for children and so on. In general, and in common with most other EU Member States, these services are offered in centres which has over the years allowed for the swift provision of services to applicants. In the past many applicants did not avail of the services on offer but that situation has changed in recent years. I want to make clear that there is no obligation to accept the offer and there is no restriction on an applicant’s freedom of movement throughout the State.
I have heard people falsely describe the centres as places where people are incarcerated or detained. As my colleague, Minister Stanton, said in the recent debate before the other House once people start using that language they are saying that asylum seekers in some way deserve to be locked up, that they are prisoners, and they are creating fear. We have to be careful about our language because that language is not correct. It is false, it is wrong and it is dangerous.
Some members of this House will remember the context of the introduction of the system of Direct Provision twenty years ago this month. The then Government opted to move away from a system of allowances where applicants essentially fended for themselves with financial help from the State to a Centre model where services are directly provided to residents. The reasons for this move included the prevalence of homelessness among applicants and the vulnerability of many including to human traffickers.
Since the introduction of Direct Provision over 65,000 people have been helped by the system.
It is no surprise that at the moment of its creation the system was not perfect, indeed, it had many flaws. Over the years many people have blithely called for its abolition or repeated untrue rumours about the nature of the Direct Provision. I am not aware of anyone who has proposed a workable alternative for service provision but I am very open to engaging with anyone who wishes to do so. I made this offer during the Dáil debate and I repeat it again here today. What this Government and its predecessor have focussed on is identifying and systematically addressing the flaws in the Direct Provision system to ensure that we provide the best possible services to applicants in the best possible way.
Direct Provision is a guarantee of shelter, food and a place of safety to a person who claims international protection on the basis of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, nationality, religion, political opinions or membership of a particular social group or where that person would be at risk of suffering serious harm if returned to their home country. Any credible alternative put forward to replace the system must be capable of providing the wrap-around services that applicants need on arrival. They are seeking protection in a strange country where they may not know the language, customs or law. Recognising the complexity of their needs, supports and services for international protection applicants are delivered under a whole of Government approach.
Last year, our reception system was placed on a statutory footing for the first time when the Government decided to opt in to the EU (recast) Reception Conditions Directive. This Directive brings with it a series of standards and rights for applicants, which we are now legally obliged to deliver. I am pleased that in Ireland we can now be confident that our services are on a par with other EU countries – in fact, in many instances, our services are much better. Opting in to the Directive built on a very concerted effort to tackle many of the shortcomings in Direct Provision through a working group chaired by Mr. Justice Bryan McMahon. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Mr. Justice McMahon for his dedicated work – along with all those who assisted him on the Working Group. I want to also acknowledge the leadership shown by former Minister for Justice and Equality Alan Shatter.
Arising from the McMahon Report significant improvements have been introduced in recent years, like the roll out of independent living where applicants can cook for themselves and private living spaces for families. Residents also now have access to the services of the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for Children. I was pleased to hear the comments of the Ombudsman, Peter Tyndall, speaking at the Justice Committee on 25 Sept. Referring to other centres that had opened recently in places like Lisdoonvarna and Wicklow, he said that “…it was important to note in the current context that a lot of the supposed outcomes – in terms of opening a centre, in terms of integrating communities – have not transpired”. He also said that people should treat others as they would wish to be treated. That’s a simple but powerful message that we should all try to live by.
In line with the EU Directive I’ve referenced, access to the labour market is provided for applicants who are waiting nine months or more on a first instance decision on their protection application. This means that applicants can become economically independent giving them more options regarding their accommodation and living arrangements. To date, I have granted more than 3,400 labour market access permissions to eligible applicants including over 2,500 to residents in accommodation centres and further applications are being approved every day.
In addition to the improvements that are being made to living standards and conditions, we are also speeding up the processing of protection applications. I accept that this needs to be quicker and we continue to strive to improve matters. My Department is taking all reasonable measures to achieve this while acknowledging that the processing of applications is complex and that each application deserves and receives an individual assessment. Earlier this month, the International Protection Office commenced interviews by video conference with applicants based in Cork. This gives us greater flexibility to meet the needs of international protection applicants nationwide and it is planned to roll out this service in other locations shortly. I sought and achieved an additional €1m under the Justice and Equality vote in the Budget, which will allow for extra staffing resources to further improve processing times.
The International Protection Act 2015, steered through the Oireachtas by my predecessor, Frances Fitzgerald, introduced a single application procedure for the first time. This involves all elements of a person's protection claim (refugee status, subsidiary protection status and permission to remain) being considered together rather than sequentially as before. The aim of the single procedure is to help to reduce waiting times significantly and to ensure that we are identifying at the earliest stage possible those who need our protection and those who can safely return to their home country.
From time to time, cases where applicants have lived in an accommodation centre for many years crop up in the media and are understood to be the norm. This is very far from an accurate picture. Where an applicant is in a centre for many years, there is generally a complex set of reasons – for example where an applicant has received a negative decision on their application – or a series of negative decisions – and is exercising their right to appeal, often through the courts, this can take some time. Also, an applicant with a negative decision may be a family member of another person or persons with a live application and we do not split up families.
Furthermore, while it is our wish that those granted permission to remain would move on from our centres so that new applicants would have access to services provision, there are currently almost 850 people with status or permission to remain continuing to live in our centres. My Department is assisting these people to access mainstream housing with the support of organisations like DePaul Ireland and the Peter McVerry Trust and we are making some progress.
Continuing to accommodate people who are no longer in the protection process combined with a 60% increase in applicants this year, is placing considerable strain on our reception system. As a result, a considerable number of people are now being accommodated outside of our centres in commercial hotels and guest houses on an emergency basis. This is not a satisfactory situation and is one that I want to see phased out as soon as possible. Accordingly, it is essential that new accommodation centres are opened so that the full range of services can be delivered in a structured manner to persons seeking our protection.
My Department is running procurement competitions on a regional basis throughout the country to find and secure accommodation. It goes without saying that it would be my preference to locate any new accommodation centres in bigger urban centres but that option is not always open to my Department. Indeed, in the current climate, it is rarely open to us. Rapidly increasing numbers of applicants means we need to identify and open centres quickly. We tender and a commercially sensitive procurement process is undertaken. The negotiation is with the proposed provider who is generally required to complete mobilisation works in line with our standards.
I am keenly aware of the dissatisfaction expressed by communities who hear through a rumour mill that a centre might be opening in their area. And, if the contractual arrangements are not finalised, feel frustrated when the Department is unable to publicly comment. I, and in particular my colleague Minister Stanton, have spoken to many people in this situation. It was also raised by a number of Deputies during the Dáil debate and I expect that Senators will have similar views. The common concerns expressed relate to service provision – education, health, transport and so on. I want to say clearly that where a centre is opening, it is the responsibility of the Government to ensure that provision is made for any additional services required. And it is clear that we need to communicate clearly and promptly with communities on these issues to provide them with the reassurances they need. I would point out that we do not spontaneously create hotel rooms or apartments or other accommodation in a location when we propose to open a centre – these accommodation facilities already exist and could be fully occupied by anyone at any time – it should not create an issue that the occupants happen to be international protection applicants.
I want to also remind communities that accommodation centres are not new – they are located all over the country – and community relations are harmonious in all of these locations. Indeed, I am very familiar with the centres located in my own constituency.
I was very disappointed to see demonstrations outside premises due to house asylum seekers – I understand that those demonstrating may feel they are “sending a message to the Government” but I would ask them to be conscious that it is not only the Government who is listening. The people that were to be given shelter on a temporary basis are also listening. Every person from a minority background in the country is listening. Far right anti-immigrant activists are also listening and looking for opportunities to incite fear and hatred – as far right groups have done throughout history. I am appealing directly to all of our people but also to people who have the opportunity to speak up to show support for asylum seekers and refugees and for the local communities that are being asked to welcome them. I must commend the community in Borrisokane and their public representatives for their positive approach to the new centre recently opened in their town. Their constructive engagement with my Department has ensured that 16 families will spend this Christmas in their new homes surrounded by a supportive and welcoming community.
As part of our continued commitment to improving the lives of asylum seekers in the State, Minister Stanton and I have recently published new National Standards for accommodation centres. We have also established two groups to review the reception system in the context of the State’s commitment under the EU Directive and to examine how we can continue to improve conditions and communications.
An Interdepartmental Group chaired by a Deputy Secretary General of my Department has been established to ensure that all Departments are proactively delivering on their responsibilities. The Group is also reviewing the management of applicants for international protection, considering the short-to-medium term options which could be implemented in addition to, or in replacement of, the existing system and is reviewing the implementation by all parties of the State’s obligations under the Directive.
The new head of the International Organisation for Migration just this week stated that the housing of asylum seekers seeking international protection in Ireland is not a bad system and compares favourably to other European countries.
The second group is a consultative group chaired by Dr. Catherine Day, the former Secretary General of the European Commission. This group, which is currently being established, will advise on the implementation of the new National Standards. It will also identify good practice in other European countries, examine international protection and migration trends and advise on developing positive relationships between local communities and the systems for supporting asylum seekers.
I look forward to the outcomes of their important work and to hearing the contributions from Senators in today’s debate.