Publication of the Report to Government on the Protection Process including Direct Provision and supports to asylum seekers
Ceramics Room, First Floor, National Museum of Ireland, Kildare Street
Tuesday, June 30th 2015
Remarks by the Chair, Dr Bryan McMahon
Minister Fitzgerald and Minister Ó Ríordáin, Members of the Working Group, Members of the Oireachtas, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am very pleased to present to you this evening the Final Report of the Working Group on the Protection Process.
I emphasise, at the outset, that it is a report on the entire protection process and not just on part of the process. Specifically, it is not just a report on Direct Provision as some people seem to think. The terms of reference set by the Government were much broader than that. The terms obliged us to make recommendations first in relation to, the existing determination process, second, the living conditions in the Direct Provision accommodation centres around the country and third, the range of supports available to those in the system – financial, educational, medical and the like.
The Report makes some 40 sets of proposals, a total of 173 recommendations in all, for improvements across these three areas. As required by our terms of reference, they are aimed at showing greater respect for the dignity of those in the system and at improving the quality of their lives. In making our recommendations we were also required to be mindful of the budgetary situation and the existing immigration procedures and border controls.
The Report runs to almost 390 pages. It is the result of a very thorough review of the system undertaken by the Working Group, the first comprehensive review since the introduction of Direct Provision 15 years ago. The report is a testament to the range and depth of experience and expertise among the Members appointed by you, Ministers – a selection which, I might say, showed the sincerity of your intervention from the very beginning.
Since we began our work last November we have met on well over 40 occasions at Plenary and Subgroup level. I was hugely impressed by the commitment that the Members brought to the task and also by their readiness to engage with the many different viewpoints and perspectives around the table. That all of the recommendations were agreed by consensus is testament to that willingness, on all sides, to respectfully engage.
In undertaking our work with such urgency we were mindful not only of your expressed wish Ministers, to receive our report as quickly as possible, but also of the expectations of those who are most directly concerned with our recommendations – namely, the protection applicants themselves, including those living in the 34 accommodation centres around the country.
We met and heard from many of the residents in the course of the consultation process that we undertook and in our visits to the centres. Their eloquent testimony influenced our deliberations, as did our first-hand observations of their living conditions. We have included a record of this evidence, the anguished voices of the residents, in our Report, and I recommend Appendix 3 of the Report to any of you who are interested in hearing the direct testimony of those most affected by the subject of our concern. There you will hear vividly of the pain of dislocation and dispossession, in words and language which resonate deeply with Irish people everywhere. I would like to pay tribute to the residents for engaging with us despite initial doubts as to the potential of the Working Group to be a force for positive change in their lives. For my own part, I would not have accepted the invitation to chair the Working Group, if I had not believed that it was a genuine bona fide exercise by you Ministers, aimed at bringing about real improvements. After seven months of deliberations we are confident that this Report fulfils our terms of reference and that the recommendations, if adopted, will make a real difference to the lives of those in the system. That said, the Working Group can only make recommendations, it is for you Ministers, and your Government colleagues, to take up the challenge of implementation. I hope you will do so without any undue delay.
I would also like to take this opportunity to thank all those who made oral and written submissions to the Group and those experts who met and engaged with us. A Full list of these are to be found at Appendices four and five of the Report.
Turning now to the substance of our report, I will confine myself to highlighting a couple of key recommendations under each of the three areas around which we structured our work namely –
the determination process, the living conditions and lastly the supports for those in the system. I would, however, urge all those with an interest in this area, commentators, advocates and policy-makers alike, to take the time to read the Report in its entirety in order to fully understand the complexity of the context and the breadth of our recommendations. Many of these may not seem to be headline issues. For example, those relating to improving the quality of decision-making or improving the management of the accommodation centres both of which are practical and do not involve great cost. Their implementation however, would, bring tangible benefits to those in the system.
“The length of time issue”
From the very outset it was clear to us that the single most important issue that had to be resolved was the length of time that many of those in the system have to wait before their cases are finally determined. In the words of one resident:
“What could be said to be wrong with the system is, in one way or another, directly linked to the length of time spent in it.”
This sentiment was echoed by many other residents who engaged with us.
At the heart of “the length of time issue” is the inability of the State’s determination process to deliver final decisions in a timely manner. At present, the process is a multi-phased one with possibilities to appeal and take judicial review proceedings at each stage. If an unsuccessful applicant avails of all legal opportunities, as he/she is entitled to do, it may take many years before a final determination issues. As a result many protection applicants live for lengthy periods in a state of uncertainty, not knowing whether they will be allowed stay and build a life in Ireland, or be required to return to their country of origin. It also results in people living for long periods in Direct Provision accommodation centres, originally intended for stays of no more than six months, and having to submit to all the associated challenges involved in that including:
- a lack of personal autonomy over basic aspects of their lives;
- a lack of personal and marital privacy;
- boredom and isolation, sometimes bordering on despair;
- the inability to support themselves and their family and to contribute to society; and
- a loss of skills and the creation of a dependency mindset.
Some inconveniences are inevitable, of course, while the State takes time to make its assessment. Some inconveniences may even be acceptable for short periods. But when the process goes on, not for 12 months, but for five, seven, and even more years, these difficulties change from temporary and tolerable to situations which can only be described as intolerable and unacceptable in any humanitarian code.
The Report contains a detailed statistical analysis of the length of time that people are in the system, and the stage that they are at. I draw your attention to the headline figures – of the almost 8,000 people in the system on 16 February 2015, approximately 4,400 were in the system for five years or more. Of the almost 8,000, some 3,600 were residing in Direct Provision accommodation centres of whom approximately 1,500 were in the system for five years or more. I should mention at this point that less than half of all protection applicants live in Direct Provision. Little is known about those who do not - they may live with family or friends or may indeed no longer be in the State.
It is clear, therefore, that reforms which improve the legal processing and which result in speedier determinations are essential to address the problems that beset this whole area. Earlier determinations will result in shorter stays in Direct Provision which will, in turn, alleviate many of the personal difficulties referred to earlier in my remarks.
The key to resolving the length of time issue for the future is the early enactment of the promised International Protection Bill. The Bill provides for a single application procedure for all forms of protection which is intended to deliver final decisions within 12 months. Ministers, the importance of the early enactment and implementation of the single procedure bill cannot be overstated.
On its own, however, it will not be enough. As you will be aware the trend in application numbers here is upwards as it is all across the European Union and is likely to continue. In the absence of additional resources it will not matter how speedily applications are processed, because new applications will outnumber current processing capacities. Our examination shows that investing in decision-making will not only reduce processing times and the associated human cost involved in delays, but it will also make financial sense for the tax payer, because the cost of decision-making is a fraction of the cost of accommodating a person in Direct Provision.
For these reasons, I urge you Ministers, to progress the International Protection Bill as quickly as possible and to commit to resourcing its implementation immediately.
The Legacy Issue
Solutions for the future are not enough, however. The Working Group considered that the situation of those currently in the system for lengthy periods must also be resolved. Our proposed solutions are based on the principle that no one should spend more than five years in the system awaiting a final decision. There was consensus that anything beyond five years is simply too long. The solutions recommended provide for these cases to be fast tracked, with the persons concerned, subject to certain conditions, being granted some form of status as soon as possible and within a maximum of six months. Some 3,350 people would potentially benefit from the recommendations with some 1,500 of these being residents in Direct Provision. In order to assist this group in exiting Direct Provision we are recommending the convening of a taskforce of relevant stakeholders as a matter of high priority.
Living conditions in Direct Provision
Moving on to some of our recommendations aimed at improving the daily lives of those in the system, our recommendations are designed to ensure that parents would have the opportunity to cook for their children and that families would have their own private living space. These recommendations are central to ensuring that families can have as normal a family life as possible in the circumstances in which they find themselves. The report recognises that these recommendations would require some centres to be reconfigured and identifies the end of next year for full implementation.
We are also recommending an increase to the weekly allowance paid to those in Direct Provision which has remained unchanged since 2000, and access to the labour market, subject to certain conditions as is the norm across the European Union. In the course of our consultation process residents told us again and again of the profoundly negative effects of not being allowed to work on their sense of self-worth, their health and their future prospects and those of their children. The Working Group was conscious of long standing Government policy on this issue and the sensitivities around it and sought to take account of those sensitivities in framing its recommendations. We recommend, Ministers, that you take the opportunity provided by the forthcoming International Protection Bill to provide the necessary legislative provision to allow access to the labour market but with the requirement that it be commenced only when the single procedure is operating efficiently. A right to work in this context refers to those who have not received a first instance decision within nine months.
We are firmly of the view that these recommendations and the many others in the report, respect our terms of reference and, if implemented, would substantially improve conditions and would allow those in the system to live with greater dignity while they await their determinations.
Ministers, the Working Group has concluded its work. We are confident that we have fulfilled the task that you set for us. I pass the matter now over to you and your Government colleagues. I sincerely hope that you will seize this opportunity to make the changes necessary so that we can have a protection system that meets our international and, indeed, our moral obligations - a system that we can be proud of.