- 23 Apr 20
In a shocking report, the Ombudsman Peter Tyndall has heavily criticised Ireland's system of Direct Provision for asylum seekers – emphasising that the Covid-19 crisis has highlighted failings that already existed in what is a dysfunctional process.
The Ombudsman Peter Tyndal (pictured) has come to some damning conclusions about Ireland’s system of Direct Provision for asylum seekers. The system is putting lives at risk, the Ombudsman has indicated – a stark conclusion which is unavoidable from his trenchant criticism of the dreadfully 'unsuitable' system of accommodation for refugees and asylum seekers, which has been in operation here for many years.
In a statement issued tonight, Peter Tyndall has expressed grave concern about the undue spread of coronavirus inside Direct Provision centres. As the pandemic rages on, the Ombudsman said that putting three or more people, who are not family members, into one room during the pandemic, is both unsustainable and unjust.
Peter Tyndall's remarks, which have been very deliberately highlighted by the office of the Ombudsman, should be seen as additional and complementary to the office's latest report on the condition of Direct Provision centres. The report is the fruit of the office’s investigation into a range of complaints made by asylum seekers over the past year.
"While this commentary is about the work of my office during 2019," Peter Tyndall said, “given the circumstances, I think it is appropriate that I should refer to the Covid-19 crisis.
"The highly contagious nature of the virus brings into sharp relief just how unsuitable and unsustainable it is to have three or more people in the same room, as is the case in many Direct Provision centres, particularly those being used on an emergency basis," he continued.
The Ombudsman has stated that he is very concerned about the increasing number of migrants who are being held in makeshift emergency accommodation centres.
The Ombudsman commended the work of International Protection Accommodation Service (IPAS formerly RIA). However, Peter Tyndall also urged the organisation to stop housing refugees "on an emergency basis in hotels, guesthouses and bed & breakfast accommodations.”
"It is those physical constraints of the current accommodation centres, rather than how IPAS acts towards residents, that cause me most concern," he said.
It has been estimated that, at the beginning of 2020, about 1,524 migrants were housed in emergency accommodation, in 37 different locations across the country.
"Having people in hotels or smaller facilities, which by definition are not designed to meet the needs of international protection applicants, is even more unsuitable and is just not a sustainable way to accommodate people seeking protection from often dangerous situations in their countries of origin," Peter Tyndall continued.
In a radical departure from bureaucratic orthodoxy, the Ombudsman also urged IPAS to move towards a capital investment approach to acquiring accommodation "rather than continued exclusive reliance on sourcing privately-owned premises for additional accommodation spaces.”
Large Numbers, Tiny Rooms
According to the latest report from the Ombudsman's office, there has been a significant surge in the number of people in the Direct Provision system, with growth of 30% during 2018 and a further 16% by early 2020.
The number of complaints made to the office of the Ombudsman also accordingly rose from 152 to 168 in 2019 – an increase of 12%. Most grievances concerned the length of stay in emergency accommodation, transfers to other accommodation, access to schools for children, food facilities, and access to GP services and medical cards.
Sadly, however, all of this may represent just the tip of the iceberg. As Hot Press has experienced reporting on grievances among those within the Direct Provision system, some asylum seekers and refugees are afraid to report mistreatment and poor living conditions because they fear it may adversely impact their refuge-seeking applications.
Highlighting the significance of the McMahon Report – the recognised benchmark for Direct Provision centres – the Ombudsman has also castigated the Department of Justice's reliance on an outdated definition, lifted from the 1996 Housing Act, of the minimum space required for a bedroom.
"The measurement was little more than the space required for a double bed,” the Ombudsman says. “However, the Department continued to use the definition.”
In response to the Ombudsman, the Department said that, after the Covid-19 pandemic, it intends to move towards having no more than three people who are not family members sharing accommodation.
According to Section 63 of the Housing Act of 1996, one condition for a house to be deemed legally overcrowded is fulfilled when "free air space in any room used as a sleeping apartment, for any person, is less than four hundred cubic feet.”
Earlier this month Hot Press reported on the difficulties experienced by asylum seekers who had contracted the coronavirus, highlighting the story of one migrant in Wicklow Grand Hotel Direct Provision centre, who was refused entry to the accommodation following hospital release.
Living In Limbo
Speaking to Hot Press, Bulelani Mfaco, asylum seeker and spokesperson for Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI), said that he is hoping that the recent temporary social curbs will highlight the almost permanent nature of restrictions forced on the lives of refugees.
"We hope that the restrictions imposed on the general population during the Covid-19 have given the general population a glimpse into the lives of asylum seekers in Direct Provision, who face restriction for years, not a few weeks or months," he said.
Bulelani Mfaco stated that the new health emergency has shone a light on the "inhumanity" of the Direct Provision system. He also expressed the hope that it would lead to the abolition of the draconian system, once the pandemic passes.
"The Irish State must learn to treat asylum seekers with a bit of decency," he said.
Mike Fitzgibbon, a member of immigration rights group, Cork City of Sanctuary, and a lecturer in Food Business and Development at University College Cork (UCC), also called for the elimination of the Direct Provision system.
"The system should be abolished,” he said. “Putting people in direct provision centres for years has a significant impact on their physical and mental health.”
Speaking to Hot Press, Mike Fitzgibbon said he knows of one individual, who has been living in limbo in a Direct Provision centre for 17 years.
Speaking on the impact of coronavirus emergency on asylum seekers, Mr Fitzgibbon called on the Government to remove vulnerable groups from Direct Provision centres for the duration of the Cover-19 pandemic.