I move the amendment
To delete all words after “Dail Eireann” and substitute the following :
“ recognising that –
- the current system of ‘ Direct Provision’ has existed for 14 years
- that the Minister and the Minister of State in the Department of Justice and Equality having visited several centres both agree on the need to review the current system; and
- that a key concern identified by those working in the sector is the length of time people spend in the system with over half of the residents being in the system for over four years;
welcomes the commitments in the Statement of Government Priorities 2014 - 2016 to:
a) establish an independent Working Group to report to Government on improvements with the protection process, including Direct Provision and supports for asylum seekers and
b) to reduce the length of time the applicant spends in the system through the establishment of a single applications procedure, to be introduced by way of a Protection Bill as a matter of priority.”
I genuinely welcome this motion and the opportunity to speak about Direct Provision because, as made clear in the new Statement of Government Priorities 2014-2016, this Government is committed to addressing not only the issues arising in relation to Direct Provision but the issues which need to be addressed in the context of the wider protection process.
The Statement of Government priorities contains a number of interconnected commitments in the area of international protection for this purpose. These include:
· the commitment to legislate to reduce the length of time an applicant spends in the system through the establishment of a single application procedure by way of a dedicated Protection Bill; and
· the commitment to establish an independent Working Group to report to Government on improvements to the protection process, including Direct Provision and supports for asylum seekers.
The single protection procedure we will put in place will ensure that Ireland continues to meet our international obligations and do so in a way which is both efficient and fair. This reform will simplify and streamline existing arrangements and provide applicants with a final decision on their protection application in a more straight forward and timely fashion and will also, as a consequence, reduce the length of time that applicants spend in the direct provision system and the costs to the taxpayer. That will equally allow us to address issues which now arise in the context of the system of dispersal and direct provision.
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.
I am particularly mindful of the position of families and children. We need to ensure that the facilities we have in place are capable of meeting the needs of families in circumstances where their cases are ongoing for protracted periods. We need to ensure in particular that the length of time that people are spending in the system does not mean that children’s only experience of life is of life in direct provision. The needs of children will be a key issue to be addressed in the reform of the system.
So I want change. I want in particular to see changes made to the system in the short term which will have a direct benefit for those residing in centres as quickly as possible. That is why I very much look forward to working with Minister Fitzgerald and my other colleagues in Government in taking forward these commitments in my capacity as Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality.
The motion in the names of the Deputies does appear to acknowledge that change cannot occur overnight and I welcome that. We need to be sure that the changes we make are ones we are capable of delivering and sustaining into the future. We also need to take account of the fact that the system of Direct Provision does not exist in isolation from the overall protection process and it is important that we address all relevant issues in the context of that process as a whole.
There are lessons to be learned from the circumstances in which Direct Provision and dispersal were introduced and it is important that we do not lose sight of that. Direct provision was the public policy response to a major accommodation crisis that existed at that time. We must be careful not to create a new one in circumstances where there are already considerable pressures in the housing market. The Government introduced the system in 1999 in response to an increase in the number of persons applying for asylum which rose to 7,724 in that year from a figure of 424 only four years previously. That upward trend and the concentration of asylum seekers in the Dublin area, meant that the accommodation services there were understandably unable to cope. The Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) was consequently established to put in place arrangements which would enable the accommodation needs of protection seekers arriving in the State to be met.
The Direct Provision system – imperfect as it may be - has nonetheless succeeded in the period since then in meeting the housing and other immediate needs of over 51,000 asylum seekers. No one has ever been turned away and no one has been left homeless. The difficulty is that a short term emergency measure has become long-term policy. Direct Provision and dispersal has also enabled the housing, education and health needs of asylum seekers to be met in a manner which has avoided overburdening services in Dublin and other urban areas. It has in that way facilitated the mainstreaming of those services for asylum seekers and ensured that they access the same services, and that their children attend the same schools, as their peers in the communities in which they live. We need to ensure that these beneficial aspects of the system are preserved.
Direct Provision has also shown itself capable of responding in a flexible way as the numbers of asylum seekers arriving in the State has ebbed and flowed. The number of persons residing in direct provision peaked at 8,080 in 2005. The decline since then has meant that the number of direct provision centres has fallen from over 70 to the 34 now in operation. The most recent closure took place in July 2013. The annual budget for Direct Provision accommodation at its highest in 2008 exceeded €91m. This year the cost will be approximately €51m. - a reduction of 40%. The numbers now in Direct Provision is approximately 4,300 which represents a reduction of 3,780 persons or 46% compared to the high point.
The numbers residing in Direct Provision reflect in part the number of asylum applications that are being made. The number of applications had increased from low hundreds in the early 1990s to 7,724 in 1999 when the decision to introduce Direct Provision was made and were later to peak at 11, 634 in 2002. The numbers of asylum applications has declined in the period since then reaching 946 last year. The numbers of asylum seekers presenting themselves can clearly have implications for processing times as well as the nature of the accommodation that can be provided. That is why it is important that we consolidate the improvements that have been made in recent times in processing times. The reducing numbers being accommodated in the system also offer the possibility of improving conditions for everyone.
The average length of time persons spend in the Direct Provision system has been increasing year on year for some time and is a particular issue of concern to the Government as well as to me. There are, however, very many reasons why this is so. An analysis undertaken earlier this year revealed that approximately 50% of persons in the Direct Provision system had either Judicial Review applications pending, are the subject of deportation orders, or are seeking leave to remain in the State for non-protection reasons. A recent examination of cases in the Direct Provision system suggested that, in the overwhelming majority of cases in that system longer than 4 years, the applicants or their family members have legal proceedings pending, having exhausted all the processes in the protection system.
I mention those facts for the purpose of setting out the context for the work we now have to do, not in any way to apologise for the system as it currently constituted. That also explains why we have decided to proceed by way of the establishment of 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.
The necessary work for the purpose of establishing that Working Group is well underway. Both the Minister and myself hosted a Roundtable Consultation on 18 September. The Roundtable brought together a wide range of organisations who have been working in the field of refugees and asylum seekers or having a particular perspective to bring to their needs. I want to take this opportunity to thank the Irish Refugee Council for its assistance in organising the Roundtable. The groups represented were the Irish Refugee Council itself, as well a representative of its core group of asylum seekers and refugees, AKiDwa, Cultúr, Doras Luimni, the Jesuit Refugee Service, Mayo Intercultursal Action, NASC, SPIRASI, Tralee International Resource Centre, the Crosscare Migrant and Refugee Project, Dublin Aids Alliance, BeLonG To Youth, Children’s Rights Alliance, FLAC, Barnardos and the Integration Centre. UNHCR and Amnesty also attended. Both Minister Fitzgerald and myself benefitted greatly from their insights into the operation of the Direct Provision system.
The main purpose of the Roundtable was to enable those groups outline the key issues for them in relation to the State's current arrangements for asylum seekers and the Direct Provision system. I believe that the outcome of the Roundtable has helped clarify the issues which the working group will need to address. The results of the Roundtable will inform in more detail the terms of reference of the Working Group which the Minister will announce shortly along with the membership of the Working Group. I can say at this point that the Working Group is to be chaired by former High Court Judge and presiding officer of our citizenship ceremonies, Bryan McMahon. I expect that the membership will include representation from a wide range of interests in this area to include NGOs, advocacy groups working with children and other vulnerable people, refugees and representatives from all relevant Government Departments which have a role to play in relation to dealing with protection applicants in terms of the supports and services provided to them. The Minister’s intention is that the Working Group will be asked to submit a first report to Government by the end of the year.
We had in advance of the Roundtable already identified a number of indicative themes with a view to guiding the discussion without limiting those contributing to those themes.
- the material needs of applicants in direct provision, including the direct provision allowance and exceptional needs payments.
- the needs of families and persons with special needs in direct provision with reference to the accommodation portfolio.
- the arrangements for handling complaints and inspections.
- how linkages with local communities can be improved.
- support for residents when transitioning to life in the community.
- whether limitations should be placed on the length of time persons spend in direct provision.
· Supports for Protection Applicants including issues in relation to education, training, healthcare, social welfare entitlements and access to employment.
· Issues relating to the international protection determination process.
The final remit of the Working Group will now be determined in the light of the outcome of the Roundtable. This will ensure that all relevant issues are considered in a structured and considered way.
There is a sovereign requirement for us as a country to maintain balanced and appropriate immigration controls while of course at the same time ensuring that those who come to our shores to seek the protection of our State are dealt with fairly, humanely, expeditiously and in accordance with both domestic and EU law and rules. As a country and a people we can justifiably say we are playing our part in this respect; over the past 14 years or so, close to 40,000 immigrants who came here and utilised our protection and related processes have been allowed to remain in the State on a permanent basis. Indeed very many of these have gone on to become Irish citizens.
We will, of course, continue to honour our solemn international duty in the area of protection. However, we do not have limitless resources and we simply cannot operate an immigration policy which leaves us open to being targeted by those who trade in human misery no more than we are in a position to provide for the vast number of economic migrants who seek a better life. It would be wrong for us to pretend otherwise or to offer simplistic solutions to what are truly complex and difficult issues of public policy which governments all over Europe are struggling to grapple with.
The Statement of Government priorities also includes a second key commitment which is to legislate to reduce the length of time an applicant spends in the system through the establishment of a single application procedure by way of a dedicated Protection Bill. This is a key Government priority as it will be essential to removing
structural delays, which are a feature of the existing protection system.
Work on the Bill has already commenced. We are aiming to publish it in January 2015 with a view to its enactment by Easter next year. The key purpose of the Bill is to establish a single applications procedure and, as I indicated earlier, simplify and streamline existing arrangements and provide applicants with a final decision on their protection application in a more straight forward and timely fashion. It will mean that all aspects of protection – asylum and subsidiary protection - as well as any non-protection grounds which may prevent the Minister from deporting the person in the event of protection being refused – will be investigated and decided upon at the same time. It will also, as a consequence, reduce the length of time that applicants spend in the Direct Provision system.
There has been some comment in relation to the single procedure being of no benefit to persons already in the system. I might just say that the benefit of a single procedure would not necessarily be limited to new applicants. The introduction of a single procedure for new applicants would raise the question as to what extent the new procedure could be applied to cases already in the system. The details in that regard are currently being examined in my Department.
I would like in closing to refer to some recent events.
There have, as Deputies, will be aware a number of protests in direct provision centres around the country. I want first to stress that I fully respect the right of residents to protest and to express their concerns about the living conditions or the protection process. I would, at the same time, be concerned about the impact that the protests can have on children and other vulnerable persons living in the centres.
There have also been some other aspects of the protests which are disquieting. These have included the targeting of individuals working in certain direct provision centres and the stopping of people going about their work. I know from my own visits to the centres that the persons working there, as well as in the Reception and Integration Agency, are working on a day to day basis in the interests of the residents and bring real commitment to their work often goes far beyond what is required of them. I would not like to see the good relationships which exist in most centres undermined.
Centre management and RIA have been meeting with residents in centres where protests have taken place to find solutions to issues of concern insofar as these relate to service delivery in the centres themselves. This is as it should be and I would urge residents of centres who have concerns in relation to conditions in any particular centre to work with local management and RIA to resolve those issues.
Issues outside the control of RIA and local centre management such as the length of time spent in centres and the right to employment are issues that will be addressed by the Working Group which is being established. Direct Provision as the motion makes clear has existed for fourteen years now. It is not something that can be simply be wished away or ended immediately. The Government has also to take account of the broader context of the challenging picture in relation to the public finances and the competing demands on them.
The Government is nevertheless committed to change and to bringing about real improvements to the protection process and the arrangements we have in place for accommodating asylum seekers. That is why we will be tasking the Working Group to report back to Government within a very tight timeframe.
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.
I would ask the House to allow the Working Group the time to undertake that work and to support the Government counter motion.