Liam Thornton: 'Direct provision Just like in the past, the Irish solution is to hide away the problem'
Placing asylum seekers apart from communities has been State's approach to direct provision
There are some deeply worrying parallels between Ireland's approach to institutionalising asylum seekers in direct provision accommodation centres and our past histories of institutionalising those groups within Irish society we deemed problematic.
The system for accommodating asylum seekers in Ireland, along with social assistance supports, educational entitlements for children and access to the public health system, is known as 'direct provision'.
For people in direct provision, access to a weekly allowance of €38.60 for an adult per week and €29.60 for a child per week, has been described as "paltry" by Mr Justice Max Barrett in the High Court. Only about half of residents in direct provision have access to cooking facilities, so the rest rely on 'canteen dining'. Many residents have to share cramped bedrooms with family or total strangers for prolonged periods of time.
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The institutional impulse within Government, politics and society, is one of 'out of sight' and 'out of mind' for asylum seekers. That other European countries, like France, Italy and Greece, treat asylum seekers even worse than Ireland is nothing more than an attempt to draw false equivalences, and is no response to how we in Ireland, need to address the issue of direct provision.
Spanning across the country, there are 39 direct provision accommodation centres in Ireland with just over 6,000 people in these centres. In addition, over 1,500 people seeking asylum are in what is termed 'emergency accommodation' in hotels and guesthouses throughout the State.
As of October 2019, 35pc of all people in direct provision accommodation have been there for over two years. Over the last few months, protests in Achill, Oughterard, Moville and Rooskey have resulted in planned accommodation centres for asylum seekers being shelved. Supposedly, a lack of consultation, concerns about pressure on schools, GPs and other local amenities, were reasons for opposing direct provision within these communities. This type of organised protest has not been seen since the early 2000s, when such local anger prevented, at least for a time, direct provision accommodation centres in Rosslare and Wicklow.
These protests towards direct provision centres all go back, in my view, to the foundation of the system of direct provision accommodation centres for asylum seekers.
As part of a UCD funded project, Exploring Direct Provision (www.exploringdirectprovision.ie) I have made available over 2,000 pages of documentation, government cabinet decisions, policy papers, inter-departmental wrangling, on the foundation and development of direct provision accommodation centres since 1998.
The discussion and justification for direct provision accommodation centres today, has changed little from when it was introduced.
The Dublin housing crisis of the late 1990s, an attempt to copy-cat a failed UK pilot scheme for communal accommodation, protection of the Common Travel Area, as well as pleas from other justice ministries throughout Europe, resulted in the Irish Government deciding to establish communal direct provision accommodation centres.
Placing asylum seekers away and apart from communities has been the hallmark of Government approaches to direct provision - segregating people claiming asylum into old convents, old hotels and old Army barracks, all living under one roof, with no choice as to where they will be sent.
That was how direct provision was planned and how it has developed up to this point. Only since last year has the system had any legislative basis, as the Government freely accepted minimum European norms on reception for asylum seekers.
During the formation of the direct provision system, advice provided to Government from civil servants noted that it had the potential to isolate people claiming asylum. And institutional accommodation has the potential to draw opposition from communities. Government consensus was that the creation of such a system - placing all people claiming asylum in highly visible communal accommodation - would potentially disincentivise persons claiming asylum in Ireland.
An added benefit, at least according to the Government, was that 'supervision' of asylum seekers throughout the duration of their protection claim could be enhanced. Yet, the whole premise of direct provision accommodation centres was that they would be used for a maximum period of six months, unless there were judicial reviews of protection decisions.
There were some discussions on using tents, flotels (floating hotels), and, like now, Department of Defence properties, as possible sites to accommodate asylum seekers in 2000. Only in 2015, was there any attempt to make the system of direct provision more 'humane' and respectful for protection applicants.
Some of the recommendations of the McMahon Group (a working group on the protection process and direct provision) were implemented, many other recommendations were not, or have been delayed for implementation until 2021.
One series of documents within the Exploring Direct Provision project stands out as deeply troubling. In 2008 there was a case involving a man who had his asylum claim pending for over four years. Based in a direct provision centre in Donegal for a period of time, he had had a child, who was Irish. He was to be transferred to Dublin, and was not given a choice about this. If he did not transfer, then his weekly allowance and all other supports would be withdrawn.
At that time, it was a criminal offence for an asylum seeker to seek or enter employment. The man had asked to be permitted to remain in Donegal so he could continue to support his child. Officials within the Department of Social and Family Affairs were concerned that the man was referring to 'basic human rights' and the 'rights of his child'. The response is so deeply troubling, it should shame us as a society:
"The fact that the direct provision arrangements available to him do not suit his personal circumstances does not give him any entitlement to a social welfare… payment."
Another worrying example of the civil service approach to asylum seekers is when asylum seekers band together and protest against removals from centres that many have spent many years in. In 2010, 50 asylum seekers were to be removed from Mosney. Officials in the Department of Justice wanted to withdraw their weekly allowances, then €19.10 per week, so as to force this group to leave and be placed in a different direct provision centre. The Department of Social and Family Affairs, however, refused to do so, saying that it felt deeply uncomfortable that this request was even made by Justice.
There has never been any real whole-of-Government evaluation of the degree to which direct provision accommodation centres should continue to be utilised. On a simple monetary level, the Department of Justice found in 2010 and 2019 that the entirety of the system of direct provision accommodation is more expensive per head than permitting individuals seeking asylum and their families to access mainstream social assistance payments, including housing assistance payments.
However, the reality of the housing crisis means that if there was a Government decision today to end direct provision, it would simply transfer people living in direct provision to hotels and guesthouses or family homeless hubs.
It is not clear the degree to which the newly formed Day Advisory Group on Direct Provision and International Protection will be permitted to explore and recommend wholescale alternatives to the system of direct provision accommodation. Yet, I would urge the Day Group to reflect deeply on whether Ireland can continue to hide away asylum seekers in institutional settings, potentially for many years.
This week, the system of direct provision, along with other equally important racial justice issues in Ireland, will be discussed by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The civil society delegation, led by the Irish Network Against Racism, will highlight the racial segregation that is inherent within direct provision.
Civil society will highlight the limitations on the right to work, the mean-spirited weekly allowances, and the poor quality of some direct provision centres.
I do not have all the answers as to what must replace direct provision, but as a society, we can do better than condemning men, women and children to years of institutional living.
Direct provision, fiche bliain ag fas, it is now time for Government to start planning for the end of this system.
Dr Liam Thornton is an assistant professor in law in UCD School of Law. You can access his new project at www.exploringdirectprovision.ie