- 03 Jul 20
The announcement that responsibility for providing accommodation for asylum seekers in Ireland had been shifted to the Department of Equality and Integration was a welcome one. While a ‘whole of Government’ approach is needed, ultimately the shift in how we treat asylum seekers in Ireland will have to be driven by the Minister for Equality and Integration, Roderick O’Connor of the Green Party.
What would be your Key Recommendation to improve the lot of asylum seekers who end up in Ireland? In fact we have ten recommendations in all, that we will set out here.
Last week, it was revealed that the influence of the Department of Justice over the accommodation and living conditions of people who are seeking asylum in Ireland will be reduced.
The leader of the Green Party and now Minister for Climate Action, Eamon Ryan, said that the new Department of Children, Disability, Equality and Integration – under the leadership of fellow party member Roderic O’Gorman TD – will be in charge of accommodating asylum seekers.
In a statement to Hot Press, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice also confirmed that “responsibilities related to the provision of services for Direct Provision are expected to be transferred to the new Department” in upcoming months and once the department is “formally established.”
“Until that time,” the statement added, “the Department of Justice and Equality retains responsibility for the accommodation of applicants for International Protection.”
The new Minister for Justice is the Fine Gael TD, Helen McEntee, who might have been expected to take a more facilitatory approach than her predecessor, Charles Flanagan, also of Fine Gael.
Standing Up for Justice
While the coronavirus was marauding inside the country’s Direct Provision Centres, the new Minister for Equality, Roderic O’Gorman, was among politicians who stood up on the floor of the Dáil to question and criticise the regime overseen by Charles Flanagan.
One particular incident drew withering criticism, even from Mr Flanagan’s fellow party members.
The transfer of over 100 asylum seekers from various hotels in Dublin to the Co Kerry town of Cahersiveen on March 18, led to a persistent coronavirus outbreak at Skellig Star Hotel, where some of those migrants still reside.
Later, it was revealed that the Department was not solely to blame, with the HSE acknowledging that it had green-lighted the transfer of asylum seekers while fully aware that one Dublin hotel from which some of the asylum seekers were transferred to Kerry, had reported an outbreak of coronavirus.
The Health Authority had failed to communicate this information to the Department.
Residents at other centres also experienced the slow burn of infection inside their communal buildings. The attempts made by asylum seekers to adhere to social-distancing guidelines in a world of narrow corridors and shared housings, often failed. It also sparked resentment and fury, among the asylum seekers, aimed primarily in the direction of the Department of Justice.
What is indisputable is that the pandemic shed a glaring light on the shabby living arrangements imposed on those who, in the vast majority of cases, had fled conflict and tyranny, in pursuit of happiness and peace.
A Whole of Government Initiative
Good news followed: as part of the Programme for Government signed-off on by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party, the Direct Provision System is set to be abolished by the end of the life of the new coalition Government.
This week, Minister O’Gorman said that he is already taking tentative steps towards reaching that goal, announcing that a White Paper on replacing Direct Provision is set to be drafted by the end of this year.
The specific details for what will replace the current system used to house asylum seekers are yet to be revealed, but one key aim will be to curb the dominance of private firms – whose raisin d’etre is to maximise profit – in a sector the essential purpose of which is humanitarian.
The Department of Justice also told us that the affairs of asylum seekers – who have too often been stuck in limbo within the country’s Direct Provision system – continue to fall under the ambit of the authority of a few Government Departments.
“The system of Direct Provision is a whole of Government initiative, and includes responsibilities for the Departments of Social Protection, Health, Education and Skills and Transport, Tourism and Sport,” a spokesperson for the Department said.
In a way, this is not surprising, and would be a good thing if it meant that asylum seekers were being treated as equal to citizens – whose lives are regulated across the full range of governmental departments.
With this in mind, Hot Press has spoken to asylum seekers in various centres to gauge what they feel are the most pressing issues of concern – and how those concerns might best be addressed by the new Government. While these issues cross into the arenas covered by a variety of Ministers, at the heart of them is the essential message that equality and integration are at the centre of the matter for asylum seekers. Which means that it will fall to Roderick O’Gorman to ensure that there really is a ‘Whole of Government’ approach to treating people who are essentially vulnerable and in need of being treated with fairness and dignity.
Here is a list of demands.
HOT PRESS'S TOP 10 DEMANDS FOR ASYLUM SEEKERS
1. Closure of Skellig Star Hotel
In many ways, the Direct Provision Centre at the Skellig Star Hotel has become a symbol of the ancien régime. Since early April, Hot Press has received numerous emails, messages and phone calls from residents – supported by friendly locals – demanding the closure of the Cahersiveen centre. Since then, some residents have been transferred to other centres. However, around 50 people still live in the controversial hotel. Ex-Minister Flanagan had said that the Kerry-based centre would remain open as the Government has a 12-months contractual agreement with the hotel.
“Please help us move to a better place. We know that there are empty buildings in Mosney and Rosslare Harbour for families and in Tullamore for singles,” one resident told Hot Press. Some at Skellig Star also argue that the HSE’s stringent policy aimed at containing the coronavirus outbreak, which confined the residents inside the hotel for a month, has harmed their mental health.
"The ex-Minister Flanagan’s apology cannot undo the damage we faced in Skellig Star Hotel during this pandemic,” another resident at the centre told Hot Press. “We still haven't mentally recovered, we urge the new minister to move us to another centre immediately."
Recommendation: As a statement of intent, enter immediately into good faith discussions with residents at the Skellig Star Hotel about the closure of the centre.
2: Access to Work Permits & Alternative Visas
Winning the right to work is a recent victory for asylum seekers in Ireland. It has proved, however, to be a precarious one. Legal immigrants on Stamp 1 visas receive a year-long work permit. The term increases to two years for those on Stamp 4 permissions.
Work permits issued to asylum seekers, however, are usually short-term, valid only for about six months. The Department of Justice justifies the short lifespan of these permits, by arguing that during the six months the person who has entered the labour market as an asylum seeker, may have received a final decision on his or her asylum-seeking application. An adverse, final decision strips people of the right to work in Ireland.
Asylums seekers, however, have told Hot Press, that it is extremely rare for someone to receive a final decision on their application within six months.
A resident at Moate Direct Provision centre pointed out that “employers are often suspicious of short-term work permits issued for asylum seekers.”
During the coronavirus crisis, medical professionals within the country’s Direct Provision system, were asked to join the race to stop the disease, by working alongside their Irish colleagues in hospitals and medical centres.
Some of them answered the call, even as the threat of deportation shadowed them. Many asylum seekers are doctors, nurses and engineers: experts that can contribute to the health and development of the country.
An argument has been made that the State should provide them with the opportunity to exit the Direct Provision system seamlessly, receive a "critical skill visa" and employment permit to become tax-paying, legal residents.
“The State should allow asylum seekers to switch to apply for alternative visa schemes if they could fulfil all the requirements for it," Syed who is a software engineer said. "It could help the asylum seekers to break free from this crippled system, and it would also help the country to recover from the financial difficulties of the Covid-19 pandemic."
Recommendation: Give asylum seekers work permits for 12 months from the get-go and explore the ways in which those seeking asylum might be allowed pursue a parallel approach of applying for visas based on “Critical Skills”.
3: Children’s Education
Children stuck in Direct Provision often don’t have access to laptops or other online, educational applications. As a result, some of them missed out on Zoom classes arranged by their schools. In many ways, the coronavirus crisis revealed how unequal their lives were and are.
Their parents are asking the new Government to make sure that every child in Ireland, regardless of their legal status, is treated equally and has access to education. Approximately, 1,672 Direct Provision kids live in Ireland.
Hot Press had covered this issue in detail, back in May, when one father told us that his children use his mobile phone to access school activities online.
Recommendation: The educational needs of children in direct provision must be treated as of singular importance and the necessary tools should be provided by Government.
4: An End to Imposed Transfers
They were uprooted – often in tragically difficult circumstances – before coming to Ireland. And yet, under direct provision, the system here insists on uprooting them over and over again.
Asylum seekers have consistently complained to Hot Press about what they deem to be ‘non-consensual transfers’. The reasons for moving people vary – from lack of space to contractual issues with the private firms who run the country’s Direct Provision centres.
These decisions often hit refugee children exceptionally hard. As Hot Press recently reported, many children of asylum seekers – who are themselves asylum seekers – lose their school friends and support system when the International Protection Accommodation Services (IPAS) decides to move them to a new centre. Their parents have told us that their kids have shown symptoms of depression and anxiety following those unwanted transfers.
As Hot Press recently revealed, one woman whose seven-year-old daughter contracted Covid-19 in the Skellig Star Hotel was moved to different centres three times in less than three months.
"They have to stop transferring people from one accommodation to another without prior acceptance of the residents or the community by the school and employers," one asylum seeker told us. "They always make the transfer for people according to the acceptance of the hotel owner only. That is not fair at all, for the parents, for the children for the school teachers or for the community."
Recommendation: In general, the less disruption to the lives of asylum seekers the better – unless there is a very clear improvement in the accommodation being offered. Either way, asylum seekers should be consulted about any proposed moves, with clear information being given to them about their options.
5: Reduction in Waiting Time
People we have spoken to are still hugely frustrated about the length of time they spend in the Direct Provision system before a determination is reached on their application for asylum. Some spend years stuck in the system. In some cases a whole decade has passed.
Ibrahim, an exceptionally polite father of two, who lives in Mosney Direct Provision in Co Meath, said that he'd been a refugee his entire life.
“I was originally a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon,” he said. “We are stateless people. I was actually born in Lebanon. I've been in Ireland for 11 months, asking for refugee status for me and my two boys. My main request from Mr Roderic O’Gorman is to introduce a new law to give asylum to stateless people like me in Ireland without any delay or unjustified procrastination.”
Recommendation: Particular recognition should be accorded to Stateless people in the asylum process. In addition, applications should be dealt with efficiently and sympathetically. Any application which extends beyond an agreed timescale should require an automatic positive result.
6: Right to Privacy
Almost all asylum seekers in the country are in unison when it comes to demanding the right to privacy. Hot Press has heard far too many accounts of hotel managers who enter the rooms of asylum seekers unannounced.
Thozama, a young mother who lives in Mosney Direct Provision Centre, where she has her own room, told Hot Press that “Where there are single people in Balseskin, or other centres, the situation is very bad.”
"People live three in a room that's including pregnant women, total strangers sharing one bathroom," she said. "People deserve some kind of privacy, I think they need to improve that."
Recommendation: The right to privacy to be recognised and instructions to be issued to all managers of accommodation for asylum seekers that entry to rooms should only be by appointment.
7: Objective Review of Complaints
Syed Irfan Rizvi, a father of two, in Moate Direct Provision Centre, said that managers who abuse their powers, should “be held accountable.”
He thinks the system is biased in favour of hotel managers. Too often, they exercise their powers in ways that are careless, unpleasant and arguably racist. That has been his experience.
“IPAS is ineffective when dealing with complaints,” he states. “The managers and staff must be trained, and they should be held accountable if they violate privacy rights of asylum seekers or abuse them in any way. Asylum seekers don't know their rights. They often don't even know the language when they arrive in Ireland, and I think a lot of managers take advantage of that. A lot of times they get away with it."
Recommendation: The provision of accommodation for asylum seekers requires a strict code for those providing that service. Regular, thorough assessments of how centres are run must be carried out, with careful consideration given to complaints from asylum seekers.
8: Food Quality
Providing food for people in direct provision has been a big business. To take one example, Aramark (*See end of article below), has been catering to just three out of a total of 47 centres, covering approximately 825 asylum seekers, located in facilities in counties Clare, Cork and Westmeath. This is just over 10% of the total number of people in Direct Provision, which currently stands at approximately 7,400. The services they provide include management, catering, housekeeping, general maintenance and security services, generating €5.89million in income from operating these three centres, and presumably making a significant profit in the process. Clearly, Aramark is a business and making a profit is intrinsic to its modus operandi. But other direct provision centres are also costing the State large amounts of money, with Millstreet Equestrian Services (€11.6million), East Coast Catering (€11million) and Mosney Holiday PLC (€10.8 million), all collecting large amounts of money for direct provision contracts in 2019. And, yet, according to the direct testimony of asylum seekers, the quality of the food provided in direct provision centres is generally regarded as poor.
Clearly, there is a real issue to be addressed in relation to the overall cost of the food provided in direct provision, versus the quality offered to residents in certain centres.
Recommendation: To the greatest extent possible, there should be a move to enabling asylum seekers to cook for themselves. If food is being provided, it should be at a level of quality that anyone in the cabinet would themselves happily eat at home.
9: Access to Driving Licences
Many asylum seekers end up living in centres in rural towns and villages, where jobs are scarce, and commute is expensive. The issue of driving licences for asylum seekers remains unsolved. In January, The Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) found that an instance of the State refusing to grant a learner driver permit to an asylum seeker was a form of ‘indirect discrimination.”
Jim Dolan of WRC argued that “Indirect discrimination happens where a person or group are treated less favourably as a result of requirements that they may find hard to satisfy; as occurs in this case wherein asylum seekers cannot apply for driver’s licenses because the identification documents required by the Respondent preclude asylum seekers from applying for a driver’s license.” It is a Catch 22, in other words.
The asylum seeker in question was a delivery cyclist who wanted to increase his income by using a car.
On a related note, Hot Press recently reported that on-demand food delivery companies like Deliveroo divide the 'gigs' among their workers unfairly, and in favour of car drivers.
Apparently, a narrow interpretation of the word ‘resident’, as it is used in The Road Traffic (Licencing of Drivers) Regulations of 2006, leads to many instances of refusal. Asylum seekers can live here for years before a decision is made on their application. As a result, when it comes to proving their residency, they almost invariably fall short of what the current bureaucracy requires.
Speaking to Hot Press, one asylum seeker suggested a solution.
“All they need to do is to issue us driving licences different from those given to Irish citizens. We need a driving licence that enables us to drive in the country, and it can indicate our nationality no problem. We don't need to have the Irish licences that allow people to drive all over Europe.”
Recommendation: Prioritise the provision of drivers licences for asylum seekers, subject to the normal standards that are required of others applying for a licence.
10: Increase the basic allowance given to asylum seekers
We have left the most obvious to last. Clearly, asylum seekers have a huge preference for being able to work. However, there is an inevitable period of transition when they arrive in Ireland, during which they are at the mercy of the State. At the moment adults are given €38.80 a week and €29.80 is provided for every child. These amounts are painfully miserly, offering little or no independence to individuals or families. They should be given more.
Recommendation: An immediate doubling of the amount being given to asylum seekers from the time they arrive in Ireland, along with the commitment to enable them to work – and to collect social welfare payments if they are out of work – at the earliest opportunity.
(* Aramark) Since this article was published, a spokesperson for Aramark has pointed out to Hot Press that they were first contractor to provide residential cooking facilities in an accommodation centre. Residents, they tell us, have direct input into the menus developed and the food served in restaurants; and "Aramark Chef Managers and Centre Manager set up Food Committees with the residents and hold regular meetings to discuss menus and variety."
• This article was updated on Tuesday, July 7th at 16.20