- 21 Oct 20
A new report, authored by Dr. Catherine Day, was unveiled by the Minister for Justice Helen McEntee and the junior Minister in charge of direct provision, Roderic O'Gorman (pictured). It contains a commitment from the Government to vastly improve a system which has clearly failed on almost every level.
The Government has committed itself to implementing a series of new recommendations in relation to Direct Provision, and to improve the living conditions of asylum seekers in Ireland.
Among those promises made today is that the Government will end the communal way of life for asylum seekers by providing own-door accommodation – sourced through local authorities – within three months of filing an asylum-seeking application.
The announcement follows the publication of the Government's Advisory Group report on the Direct Provision system.
The plan was officially unveiled during a virtual press conference, held this morning by the Minister for Justice Helen McEntee TD and the Minister for Children and Equality Roderic O’Gorman TD.
The writing of the report was led by Dr. Catherine Day, Chair of the Government's Advisory Group on Direct Provision and the former Secretary-General of the European Commission.
Catherine Day later briefed reporters on the technical aspects of the direct provision roadmap set to be implemented by mid-2023. The transition period, for implementing the recommendations of the report, however, is set to “as soon as feasible.”
The plan paves the way for the development of a White Paper on a possible not-for-profit model of support for asylum seekers that will supplant the current Direct Provision system before the end of the life-time of the current Government.
It is estimated that the alternative model will cost €35.9 million per annum less than the Government's expenditure on Direct Provision centres in 2019.
Refugee advocacy groups, including Movement of Asylum Seekers (MASI) and the Irish Refugee Council, have worked with Dr. Catherine Day in preparing the landmark report.
The most controversial aspect of the new report is how funding for own-door accommodation for asylum seekers will be funded.
The report says that covering the cost of own-door accommodation for asylum seekers would fall under the Homeless Housing Assistance Payment (HHAP) scheme that is provided by local authorities.
Under the new system, newly-arrived asylum seekers will spend up to three months in a State-owned centre, before being transferred to an own-door accommodation.
During their time under Government supervision, they would also go through a vulnerability assessment, which would determine their possible need for special support. The vulnerability assessment scheme is set to begin by December this year.
Catherine Day explained that to ensure that there is no discrimination, local authorities would be engaging directly with landlords who are renting properties to asylum seekers.
It was put to the Minister that some far-right groups might take advantage of strong sentiments around the current housing crisis by accusing refugees of worsening the issue through availing of HAP.
Minister Roderic O’Gorman made the point that communication is key in battling misinformation. He explained that it is about “letting people know what is being proposed and countering myths.”
“If you can get the local communities to buy in,” he added, “I think you can, for the most part, move away from giving space to the far-right."
Minister O'Gorman – who has himself been the victim of attacks from far-right groups and internet trolls – said that the Government is wholeheartedly committed to battling the housing crisis and that providing own-door accommodation for asylum seekers will not hinder those plans.
The Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee, also said that any abusive or criminal behaviour aimed at asylum seekers in any community will not be tolerated by the State, regardless of the motivation.
She made the point, also, that far-right groups often target migrants and other marginalised groups in general.
“It’s not always necessarily connected with asylum seekers,” she observed. “I think, in general, we need to become a more tolerant society.”
For his part, Bulelani Mfaco of the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland was optimistic.
“We are not expecting any backlash on the recommendations,” he said, “because even the hard right will see the savings that will be made by the State if recommendations are implemented. The only backlash we're expecting is from operators of Direct Provision centres, who have made millions over the years through the system of Direct Provision.”
“While the HAP scheme has been the main way out of Direct Provision for thousands of asylum seekers who have permission to live in Ireland, HAP users in general experience discrimination when approaching letting agents/landlords,” a MASI statement added. “What we need as a point of departure is equality in the way material supports are provided to homeless people and asylum seekers are homeless. Therefore we'd caution against the creation of a separate scheme and argue that asylum seekers be integrated into existing housing policies and programmes for homeless people, with the necessary legislative changes to achieve this. Of course there is no ending Direct Provision without investing in public housing stock.”
Responding to a question from Hot Press at today’s press briefing, Minister O’Gorman agreed that asylum seekers have grown increasingly distrustful of the State’s motives over the years.
He said he was hoping that the planned improvements will help establish a deeper sense of trust.
"I have met MASI already,” he said, “and I will continue to visit as many direct provision centres as possible and engage with residents and hear directly from them."
He praised Minister McEntee for her decisive action in closing the centre at Skellig Star Hotel in Co Kerry and Miltown Malbay emergency Direct Provision Centre in Co Clare. He expressed the hope that asylum seekers would view those acts as a sign of good will.
He acknowledged, however, that “there is more work to be done on the Government side.”
Minister McEntee also told Hot Press that she was hoping today's announcements would signal the fact that the State is serious about addressing issues relating to asylum seekers.
She said that engaging with local communities is another way to ensure that “people won’t feel that they’re not welcome in the community.”
Hot Press asked Dr Catherine Day about the core purpose of the new report.
“We need to be aware of the long-term implications of living in an unsuitable accommodation,” she said, “and to be determined to find alternatives.”
REDUCING WAITING TIMES
On an interesting human note, Dr. Day’s report recommends facilitating access to driving licences for asylum seekers.
“Applicants for international protection should be allowed to apply for driving licences and tests from the moment their application for protection is lodged,” the report states.
Under the new system, children in Direct Provision between the ages of 5 to 18 should be allowed to attend mainstream schools.
“Special arrangements will be required for children with special educational and other needs,” it says.
Under the planned new regime, the timeframe for receiving an initial decision on an asylum-seeking application would be reduced to six months. If a decision is appealed, the unsuccessful applicant would have to wait for up to a further six months to hear back from the Appeals Tribunal for a final decision. This is far more efficient than the current system, which has been heavily criticised for keeping asylum seekers in a state of ‘limbo’ often for years.
As part of the new plan, the State will also cut the waiting time before asylum seekers can get a work permit. The time between first lodging an international protection application and being allowed to enter the Irish workforce will be reduced from nine months to six. The Government has also agreed that work permits issued for asylum seekers will be for 12 months rather than the current six.
The implementation of the recommendations contained in Dr. Day’s report will require an all-of-Government plan, as the cooperation of various Departments and local authorities will be necessary.
Speaking to Hot Press, a spokesperson for refugee advocacy group Abolish Direct Provision said the State must ramp up work on the new plan. "Waiting until 2023 is not acceptable," a spokesperson said.
Other groups including The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) have welcomed the new roadmap.
Sinéad Gibney, Chief Commissioner of IHREC, especially welcomed plans for facilitating access to driving licence for asylum seekers.
“The Commission hopes," she said, "that today’s commitment from Government to bring forward new legislation on access to driving licences recognises this and marks a change of approach, which seeks to facilitate those (asylum seekers) seeking employment.”
Gibney said that it was time for the State to commit to serious reforms within the system of accommodating asylum seekers.
“The Commission has, for too long,” Sinéad Gibney added, “had to highlight the damaging impact of Direct Provision on the right to family life, private life, and health in particular, as well as its impact on the rights of specific groups such as women and children.”
Dr. Day's report was commissioned following increasingly intense public scrutiny of the State’s handling of the coronavirus crisis in Direct Provision Centres across the State.
Earlier this year, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar also conceded that Irish Direct Provision Centres were "often sub-standard."