- 26 Feb 21
There is a progressive tone throughout the White Paper issued yesterday evening by the Minister with responsibility for International Protection in Ireland. But there are still shortcomings in the plan, according to MASI.
The Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth has published its highly anticipated White Paper on bringing an end to the Direct Provision system.
Shortly after his appointment last year, Minister Roderic O’Gorman promised to devise the White Paper as a roadmap for ending the current system for housing asylum seekers.
A commitment to end the system of Direct Provision was contained in the Programme for Government.
During 2020, the coronavirus pandemic – and the resulting outbreaks of Covid-19 which occurred in Direct Provision centres – saw public support for ending the system gain momentum.
A redistribution of Ministerial responsibilities during the formation of the Government saw the creation of the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Intergration and Youth. Under Minister O’Gorman, that Department took on responsibility for overseeing the affairs of the International Protection Accommodation Service (IPAS), which is responsible for housing those who apply for international protection in Ireland.
The White paper sets an ambitious plan to replace the current Direct Provision system with a “new International Protection accommodation policy.” The deadline for the completion of the transition to the new policy is December 2024.
Under the existing system, individual developers and large property firms receive often-significant Government funding to run Direct Provision centres across the State. Over the next few years, that system will be phased out completely.
Discussing the contents of the White Paper, Minister O’Gorman said that a not-for- profit and humane approach is at the heart of the new policy.
“Under the new system,” Minister O’Gorman said, “people seeking International Protection in Ireland will be encouraged and supported to integrate from day one.”
Families will be given their “own-door” accommodations to offer some privacy and independence that was not afforded in the past.
Single people will get what is called own-room accommodation, thus “ending the shared dormitory-styled rooms associated with the current system,” the Minister said.
Single people will, in the future, have their own room “in a shared apartment or house, with living and cooking facilities shared with other applicants,” says the White Paper.
Own-door accommodation for families "will be either a self-contained house, apartment or unit which includes a kitchen and living space.”
The Department has emphasised the importance of unity among all Government agencies, not-for-profit organisations and communities, in working to achieve the White Paper's ambitions before the 2024 deadline.
As an example, the Department of Justice is said to be working closely with the Department of Children and Equality to shorten the time it takes to process applications for international protection; an also to ease access to driving licences and bank accounts for asylum seekers.
“International Protection applicants will be granted the right to apply for an Irish driving licence. Legislation giving effect to this will be introduced before summer 2021,” says the White Paper.
The Department of Justice is also said to be in talks with the “Banking Federation of Ireland and key stakeholders” to remove obstacles which prevent people seeking asylum from establishing bank accounts.
A TWO-PHRASE PROCESS
The introductory section of the White Paper employs several languages, including Arabic and Urdu.
According to the White Paper, the new system divides the time – between submitting an application for International Protection and getting a decision – into two phases.
During Phase One, the individuals or families will stay at a State-run Reception and Integration Centre for four months. During this time, they will go through a vulnerability assessment – including health examinations– to identify their needs and to link them with appropriate services.
Overall, the emphasis is now on integrating new applicants into society "from day one.” Among the measures promised are English language programmes and other mainstream services for asylum seekers who don't speak the language.
As before, applicants will receive a bespoke allowance during phase one. However, they will now be able to apply to open a bank account and get an Irish drivers’ licence.
The White Paper proposes that the Government will establish six Reception and Integration centres throughout the State.
During Phase Two, applicants will be offered accommodation, which will be located in any and every county.
“Houses and/or apartments will be built and/or acquired through approved housing bodies or equivalent organisations,” the document says. ‘This option will be used for families and single people, particularly vulnerable single people."
Some accommodation will be sourced by repurposing buildings, rent-a-room schemes and private tenancies.
In an interesting development, owners of vacant buildings – including commercial properties in areas designated for urban renewal – “will be incentivised to make their properties available as own-room accommodation for International Protection applicants.”
Those who end up renting within Local Authority Area Councils will see the council paying their landlords directly, through a scheme similar to the current Housing Assistance Payment (HAP).
“The applicant will, in turn, make a rent contribution to the State, based on their means,” says the White Paper.
Previously both Minister O’Gorman and Minister for Justice Helen McEntee had said that they were conscious that the new plan to house refugees might incite those with racist motivations to use it as an excuse to attack asylum seekers – including the possibility of attacking their homes. However, they said both departments had zero tolerance for racist attacks and were determined to punish them strongly.
In Phase Two, applicants who are yet to find employment will also get an income support payment – akin to the supplementary welfare allowance – from the Department.
All asylum seekers are eligible to access the labour market in Phase Two and “will be encouraged to do so.”
Their needs having been identified in Phase One, vulnerable people will receive support from NGOs, and non-for-profit organisations that will be contracted to, and funded by, the Department of Children and Equality.
Among the recommendations of the White Paper is that Tusla and Young People's Service Committee (CYPSC) will assist the Department in identifying children's needs, including health and education, in both phases.
Support for parents will be made available. "Childcare will be provided to enable parents to attend English language classes,” says the White Paper says.
Woman asylum seekers can access the healthcare support in the same way as Irish nationals, "including reproductive care, antenatal, birth and postnatal care, cervical checks.”
“Breast screening will be available for all applicants aged over 50. It is crucial that information relating to these services is conveyed in an accessible and culturally sensitive manner,” the document says.
Mental health is another key part of the Department’s vulnerability assessment scheme. The aim will be to identify applicants who may have undergone trauma. They will then get mental healthcare from community-based teams “in a culturally sensitive manner.”
It is not clear if the Department aims to use therapists of colour to fulfil its aim of delivering culturally appropriate mental healthcare. However, the document does say that the “HSE should maximise the delivery of diverse and culturally competent mental health supports throughout all services.” Counsellors are, however, on an ineligible list of jobs for work permits issued by the Department of Trade and Enterprise.
A unique accommodation within the system will also house those "who need to relocate away from an abusive of violent relationship."
“International Protection applicants who move away from abusive relationships will be assured that their application will not be affected,” says the document.
The document says that people practising different religions are set to be “sensitively accommodated”, but it is unclear what that exactly means.
Trans people seeking asylum here will also receive appropriate healthcare relating to their transition, "including hormone replacement therapy, access to psycho-social services and in some cases, treatment for complications relating to gender reassignment surgery.”
What are termed ‘caseworkers’ will be tasked with providing support for the wider LGBTIQ+ community within the system of asylum-seeking.
“The accessibility of established LGBTIQ+ communities and related resources will be a factor in the transition to Phase Two accommodation for LGBTIQ+ applicants.”
Supporting people to move out of the system quickly after receiving a favourable decision is another promise made in the White Paper.
“Irish people want to be proud of the support offered to people who come here seeking protection. In making a home here, they strengthen and enrich our communities,” says Minister O’Gorman.
TOO SOON TO CELEBRATE
Cautiously optimistic about the publication of the White Paper, members of the Movement of Asylum Seekers Ireland (MASI), have said they will be discussing it at their weekly meeting on Tuesday. The Irish Refugee Council and the Irish Human Rights Commission have also issued a statement welcoming White Paper.
MASI have especially welcomed the ending of “shared intimate spaces for families.” However the initial reaction from MASI is that the White Paper is “ambitious” in some areas and lacking in imagination in others.
In particular, MASI have criticised the decision not to let asylum seekers avail of support to live independently if they do no not opt for living in a Reception and Integration Centre for a period of four months during Phase One.
“MASI is appalled by the decision not to provide supports for asylum seekers to live independently in the community if they do not avail of 4 months of Direct Provision (whatever name the government calls it) after lodging their asylum claim,” MASI said in a media statement.
“This effectively maintains the current policy of not providing any support for an asylum seeker who is not in Direct Provision,” it said.
MASI said it was disappointing to see that some of the provisions outlined in the White Paper were not legally binding.
“The four months stay in a reception centre will not be a limit imposed through law, for instance,” MASI said, adding that “this is problematic as people might end up in the system longer with no way of holding the State to account if it happens, as it has been the case with Direct Provision.
“MASI calls on the Houses of the Oireachtas to insist on legislating for these changes in how asylum seekers are to be treated in the State.”
MASI believes that the International Protection Act “must also be amended to include a statutory limit on how long an asylum seeker is to await a decision on their asylum claim.
“Otherwise,” they added, “we’ll still be talking about backlogs and limbo in the asylum system in a few years time.”
MASI has also argued that the State must elaborate further on its housing plans for single people, as set out in the White Paper.
The White Paper, they observed, still maintains basic elements of living in congregated settings for single people, “by having a group of asylum seekers (up to 10) share living spaces like kitchen, lounge and so on.”
“Even if they have own bedroom,” the statement said, “the shared living space with 9 other strangers may well necessitate house rules and some sort of management which maintains institutional setting.”
The absence of permission to access the labour market during Phase One also undermines the claims the White Paper males to “integration from Day One”, MASI said.
“The 'integration from day one' phrase we have heard from government is illusory,” they stated, “if the State maintains restrictions on the right to work. The Catherine Day group recommended that all asylum seekers who have not had a final decision on their asylum claim after 3 months should be granted the right to work.”