Asylum Policy and Practice and Gender Issues: Discussion

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Women's Rights Debate

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Chairman: Information on Brendan Kenneally Zoom on Brendan Kenneally The purpose of today’s meeting is a discussion with representatives of the Free Legal Advice Centres, FLAC, who will give a presentation on the operation of the direct provision and dispersal scheme, including complaints procedure, and AkiDwA, who will give a presentation on gender issues. On behalf of the committee I welcome Ms Salome Mbugua, director, and Ms Kerry O’Leary, policy co-ordinator at AkiDwA, and Ms Noeline Blackwell, director general, and Ms Saoirse Brady, policy and campaigns officer at FLAC. I thank all the delegates for their attendance at today’s meeting. The representatives of FLAC and AkiDwA will be invited to make brief opening statements, and this will be followed by a question and answer session.

Before we begin I draw the attention of witnesses to the issue of privilege. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009 they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they give to this committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that where possible they should not criticise or make charges against a Member of either House, a person outside the House or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. Members should be aware that under the salient rulings of the Chair they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I ask Ms Blackwell to make her opening statement.

Ms Noeline Blackwell: I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for hearing us on this subject. It is interesting that we are discussing direct provision in view of the fact that it is a topical issue. The invitation to come before the committee was made before the events in Mosney, but we will refer to that in the course of our presentation. A short, six-page document has been circulated to members. This relates to a six-page report on direct provision which was issued by FLAC last February. As members will be aware, FLAC is a voluntary organisation. We provide legal advice and information services to approximately 10,000 people through our telephone line and to a further 10,000 individuals through our network of centres throughout the country. At our centres, we provide information and first-stop legal advice. In addition, FLAC has been working for many years to try to affect the law as it affects marginalised and disadvantaged people.

We became involved in the area of direct provision through our work in respect of social welfare law. As members are aware, the scheme of direct provision was established ten years ago as a substitute for supplementary welfare allowance. The latter was paid to asylum seekers and those seeking protection in this State prior to the scheme of direct provision. It was supposed to be a cost-saving measure and as the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy O’Donoghue, stated, it was to last for up to six months to allow people to have their applications processed and their accommodation provided in a cost-effective way.

Ten years later, we decided there was a need to focus on three particular areas. The first of these relates to how the system is administered. I will deal with that matter. We then examined social welfare implications relating to the current system. We will not be troubling the committee by asking it to consider that aspect of our report. However, the latter is available to members if they require it. The third area we considered was the human rights obligations the State undertakes for everyone who is resident here. My colleague, Saoirse Brady, who is our policy and campaigns officer, will deal with that matter.

In the context of the administration of the system, it must be recognised that the people who are in direct provision are all waiting for one thing, namely, an answer to their request to the State to be permitted to remain in Ireland on the grounds that they have sought protection here. Asylum seekers are particularly vulnerable because they come to Ireland having been traumatised by events in their own countries. To prove a claim for asylum, they must show that they are at serious risk of persecution or that they will be at such risk if they return. Figures provided by EUROSTAT indicate in the third quarter of 2009 some 950 first-instance decisions were made by the Irish State. Of these, 745 were rejected. Out of the 950 who applied, 210 — 22% according to EUROSTAT — were permitted to remain and were granted either refugee status, subsidiary protection or humanitarian leave to remain.

Our report on the administration of the system is entitled One Size Doesn’t Fit All. The report states — this is a matter we wanted to bring to the attention of the committee — that the direct provision system operates as a system whereby units are dealt with. It does not operate in a way in which consideration is given to individuals. The recent incident in Mosney is proof of our point in this regard. People at the Mosney facility were selected for transfer on the basis that they were single and that money would be saved if they were moved. These individuals were informed, at short notice, that they would be obliged to transfer to other facilities from homes they had occupied for up to five years. This is symptomatic of the way the system is run; it is not run for individuals.

The State certainly performs the essential obligation of providing shelter and three meals per day. However, there are some unnecessary cruelties in the application of the system. I refer, for example, to not allowing people to keep food in their rooms when food is not provided to them past 5.30 p.m. each day. Ms Brady may deal with this matter in greater detail. The current system is fine if one likes to have one’s breakfast at 8 a.m., one’s dinner at 1 p.m. and one’s tea at 5.45 p.m. It is not so great if one is a small child.

FLAC is of the view that people’s needs are not taken into account before they are dispersed throughout the country. The system is one of dispersal and direct provision, it is not just one of direct provision. Dispersal is an important part of the system and no account is taken of the particular needs of individuals before they are dispersed. Factors which should be considered are a person’s medical needs, whether he or she is being moved to a location where others from his or her country who are from a different faction may be present, etc. None of these aspects is taken into account when the decision to move people is made.

FLAC examined whether the provision of services to asylum seekers would be better accomplished by being directly provided by the State or by private contractors. We reached the conclusions that this was not really for us to say. If the State could provide the service in a more cost-effective way by contracting it out, then that fact should be taken into account. We were concerned with regard to how the quality of the service would then be measured. When tenders in respect of a contract such as this are sought, those who tender are informed that they must comply with certain levels of care. In the ten years of direct provision, never once has the State carried out the number of inspections to which it has committed.

I will not go into great detail in respect of those inspections — we do so in our report — but I will state that they would remind one of the inspections carried out at other State institutions in the past. Those who carry them out are interested in whether the lights work, whether there are mattresses on the beds, whether the plumbing works, etc. Residents are not consulted during such inspections. Simultaneously, clinics are held by members of staff of the Reception and Integration Agency. These individuals visit the centres and ask the residents if they wish to make any complaints. FLAC could not discover any information relating to those complaints, with the exception of discovering that they were written down in a book. The issues of importance to residents are never matched against those relating to the inspection. The inspections relate to the physical infrastructure of the various centres. The problems encountered by residents are never taken into account.

There is a system of complaints which does not stand up to examination, particularly in the context of providing a fair hearing to those on either side of the case. If a resident in direct provision has a complaint, he or she must make it to the manager of the centre and then to the contractor to the manager, that is, the Reception and Integration Agency. The Reception and Integration Agency is the name given to a group of civil servants who are bunched together under the direction of the Minister for Justice and Law Reform. It is not a separate agency and does not possess an independent mandate.

In our report, we comment in some detail on the complaints system. We state that it is entirely unfair and cannot deal with complaints. We suggest that one of the recommendations the committee might consider is making the complaints system one which would match up to the model the Ombudsman has offered as an effective complaints system within the public service. Ms Saoirse Brady will now comment on some particular issues relating to the system.

Ms Saoirse Brady: I will deal with the human rights obligations of the State, both in a domestic and an international sense. The final chapter of our report deals with Ireland’s obligations in respect of direct provision. The Constitution contains a number of natural or human rights. These apply to non-citizens as well as citizens. There may be legitimate policy aims which can be applied but these must be proportionate and must take account of certain basic human rights. The European Convention on Human Rights Act 2003 incorporated the convention into domestic law, so it can be applied in domestic courts. The Act to which I refer compels any organ of the State, including the Department of Justice and Law Reform, responsible for direct provision to act in a manner compatible with the State’s obligations under the convention.

Ireland is also party to a number of UN international agreements, which are listed in our presentation document. They include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. We draw attention to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, UN CERD, because Ireland is due to be examined under that convention very soon. The last time Ireland was examined under the UN CERD the committee found that because people were housed apart from the general population in the direct provision system that it might amount to segregation under that convention. I believe that issue will be raised on the next occasion when Ireland is examined under that convention.

As demonstrated in our report, direct provision and dispersal might have a negative impact on a number of specific rights. For example, the right to health is one about which there is much talk. The HSE’s national intercultural health strategy, which applies from 2007 to 2012, refers to the negative health impacts on people within the direct provision system and the kinds of effects direct provision have on people’s physical and mental health. The right to health is not only the right to live a healthy life but it is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being. We do not believe that the direct provision system allows people to exercise this right.

The majority of people living in direct provision are of working age. Approximately 4,200 people living in direct provision fall within that category. Ireland and Denmark are the only two EU members states which have a complete prohibition on working. Ireland has opted out of the EU reception directive, which lays down minimum standards for the reception of asylum seekers and allows people to work after a certain period of time, which may be six months or a year. One of the main reasons the State has refused to sign up to that directive is because it believes the right to work would act as a pull factor for people to come to this country. This seems to be based on an intuition of the State. Research in Britain shows that people come here for other reasons such as family connections, a community of their people are living here and sometimes people do not even know where the destination is when they are fleeing from persecution. We have listed a few research projects and papers in the presentation if people would like to follow up on this point further.

Ms Noeline Blackwell spoke about the social welfare entitlements. I will not discuss those in great detail, other than point out that in terms of people living in direct provision, an adult gets a weekly allowance of only €19.10 and a child gets a weekly allowance of only €9.60. It is the only social welfare payment, which has not been increased in ten years since it was first introduced. People in direct provision may also receive a number of limited payments; we have listed a few of those but they are discretionary. They are made at the discretion of the community welfare officer, and are not made automatically. Therefore people might well be refused them.

Ms Noeline Blackwell touched on the right to food. This right is about more than being given three meals a day at set times. General comment No. 12 of the UN committee on economic, social and cultural rights states it is about having physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement. One could not say that people living in direct provision who only get a weekly allowance of €19.10 and do not have access to a kitchen are fulfilling that right in the spirit that it was intended by the international instruments.

I also draw attention to the fact that the number of self-catering centres has decreased from last year. There are only four self-catering centres remaining and this is despite the fact that most people apply to go to a self-catering centre if they have a medical issue, for example, and people living in direct provision would prefer if there was definite preference for self-catering provision. In effect, direct provision residents cannot provide for themselves and this adds to the myth that they are work-shy and spongers on the State, which they are not. They are not afforded the right to work and they do not get many of the benefits other poor people in this State get.

Another right not enjoyed by people in direct provision is the right to privacy and family live. Often family members as they are growing up have to share a room; entire families, which may include parents and children, may have to share one bedroom. Single people often have to share with four or five others in dormitory-style rooms. This lack of autonomy, coupled with the lack of privacy, adds to the despondency felt by many direct provision residents. It was never intended that anyone would spend more than six months in the system when it was first set up. More than one third of people within the direct provision system have been there for more than three years. More than half of people have been there for more than two years and within that group we do not have a breakdown of how many people have been there for well over the three, four, five or six years. We know people who have been in the system that long.

We have made a number of recommendations in our report. We have concluded that the current Administration does not fulfil all the basic needs or rights of people within the system. We call on the Government to respect and promote the fundamental human rights of people regardless of their immigration status. Following on from this, the State should carry out an audit of its policy of direct provision to ensure it meets human rights obligations both within domestic law and international human rights law. We believe that a greater level of care needs to be taken to guarantee the rights of those in direct provision and those who are particularly vulnerable, whether by reason of their age, gender, disability, health, sexual orientation or other attribute. The Department of Justice and Law Reform needs to operate the direct provision and dispersal system in a fair and transparent way. Residents must be given a voice in decisions. That is particularly apt at present, given the situation in Mosney. In making any decision to relocate a person, account should be taken of his or her physical and mental health and other factors, and he or she should be consulted. We also draw the attention of members to——

Chairman: Information on Brendan Kenneally Zoom on Brendan Kenneally I must ask Ms Brady to conclude as we will have a question and answer session following the presentations.

Ms Saoirse Brady: My final point refers to the renewed programme for Government, which states: “In these straitened times we must avoid the temptation to retreat to self interest as a method of survival. We are obliged to protect those who cannot protect themselves”. We believe that is particularly apt in this scenario. We hope that the Government will keep to its word to do that.

Chairman: Information on Brendan Kenneally Zoom on Brendan Kenneally I invite Ms Mbugua to make her opening statement.

Ms Salome Mbugua: I thank the committee for the opportunity to make this presentation. We have always wanted to be attend a meeting of this committee to talk to its members about gender guidelines. We acknowledge the committee offering us this opportunity to do so.

AkiDwA, which is Akina Dada wa Africa, is a network of migrant women living in Ireland. It is a charitable organisation. We work with the migrant women of different status and asylum seekers are one of the groups with whom we work. This presentation goes very much into what we have been talking about in the past few months since we launched our report, which details the experiences of women seeking asylum in Ireland. That is the reason we had emphasised previously, even before we launched the report, the need to have gender guidelines.

The system that operates does not take into account of the multiple identities of women, that women are migrating but they also carry multiple identities with them. They could be women who have been trafficked, women who have been raped during the process of migrating and they could also have children with them. To take that into account is important especially when women end up here seeking asylum.

The representatives from FLAC mentioned the number of people seeking asylum in Ireland but currently approximately 3,000 women are seeking asylum in Ireland who are living in direct provision. I also want to highlight and acknowledge some of the achievements that have been made since 1995, one of which was made this month in July. I refer to the single unit that has been established by the UN, which is an entity to promote women’s equality. That is a good development. I want to avail of the opportunity to mention that.

On the issue of gender consideration, there is a high level of denial about this, especially within the reception and asylum policy and practice. The 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees does not take the ground of gender into account, that women can claim asylum based on other gender specific grounds they may experience. I assume the members know that women do not benefit equally in terms of men when they seek asylum. Their experiences in their country of origin before they arrive here differ very much from those of men. They may not be involved in political protest while men might have been very much involved in it and their names may have appeared in newspaper articles while women’s names would not have appeared in them, and such newspaper articles could assist in terms of evidence to support their case. The definition does not actually take gender into account as a ground of persecution. This makes matters very difficult and it means that the current interpretation is favouring the man’s experience and does not recognise what women go through.

What it terms a “well founded fear of persecution” depends on the particular circumstances of each individual. It could be a form of persecution specific to the person’s sex. We are sure that here in Ireland there are over 2,500 women who have gone through the procedure of female genital mutilation. AkiDwA has worked with many women from Rwanda who have been involved in the genocide; we have worked with women who have experienced multiple difficulties before ending up here. If this is not taken into account, it leaves them in a very vulnerable situation in which they continue to suffer what they went through before living here.

We need to have gender guidelines to ensure that all grounds, such as religion, race, nationality or membership of a particular group, are interpreted in a way that is gender sensitive. Another point is the need to ensure, within the whole process to implement the guidelines, that women are given equal and fair assessment before even going through the procedure. We have given much information to the committee, including the briefing paper and a PowerPoint presentation that we will not use as our time is limited.

Women are required to make their application shortly after they arrive. If a woman has experienced rape or female genital mutilation, it would be very difficult for her to disclose such experiences to people she does not know. We ask that such women would be given time to recover and get used to the environment before they do that.

AkiDwA and the Immigrant Council of Ireland have been talking about the independent status of women. Many women who have ended up here have been in very violent relationships but their status is always dependent on their male partner, who might be a husband or fiance. We have asked from the beginning that they could be helped to get independent status or to apply for asylum in their own capacity as women and as individuals.

When we talk to the women about these problems, they tell us it is difficult for them to present their cases because once the interviewer is told what is happening, they are already disbelieved. In the briefing note, committee members can read quotes from the women we have been working with regarding the attitude of interviewers. They have also given us accounts of how they are treated at the point of entry by immigration officers. What we ask for is training to be given to everybody who is dealing with such people, particularly vulnerable people, when they are entering the country.

There are issues of isolation. Many of these women are very isolated, particularly as they are taken to very remote places. We have heard of Mosney but there are other places very far away from the reality. As most of these women have experienced gender based violence, some of the places they are located and even the housing they are put in reminds them of what they have gone through before. It is important to have culturally sensitive interpretation and translation. We have had women using their children to translate for them because they do not have translators. Also, people have had to translate for others over the telephone in regard to health conditions. We need to have gender sensitivity and culturally appropriate services.

FLAC referred to ongoing consultation. People are not consulted within the process, for example, in regard to what is happening at Mosney at present. Previously, however, women were not consulted about matters relating to their children and themselves. We still have a problem in that women do not have a choice with regard to interviews. Some may want to be interviewed by a woman but most do not have that choice. This applies even when making a decision about a doctor. If a woman has gone through female genital mutilation or has been raped during the war and then finds her GP is a man, the woman should have the opportunity to make a choice to have a female GP.

There is a major problem with regard to counselling. We are talking about people who are traumatised before even getting here, about women who have been abused while they are migrating but who have no access to counselling. We ask for culturally appropriate or sensitive training. The only organisation we have to deal with trauma is SPIRASI but it is normally booked up throughout the year. My organisation has been trying to send such women to the women’s refuges in order to support them with counselling support, but this is not appropriate as their staff would not be trained in the cultural issues of gender based violence or gender specific needs.

There has been a problem in having women present for their hearings due to the need to organise child care. They must do it themselves without the support of the Department. We ask that this be considered as a matter of gender.

We have also spoken to women who have had problems with detention and the way they are arrested if they are to deported. Most of them are told the detention is for deportation but they are not told for how long it will be. If most of them have experienced gender specific harm such as rape or female genital mutilation, this is very difficult for their mental and psychological well-being.

Many women have referred to how they are treated by their legal advisers. During the preparation stage, most do not receive information and it is very important they get information from their countries of origin from the beginning and that this is checked.

We have also had issues with how women are treated during deportation, and we list much information on our website documenting their experiences. We ask for continuous training where vulnerable people are being dealt with. It is as if we are putting them into a more vulnerable position than before.

The issue of gender guidelines is very important. We had suggested them before the immigration Bill was presented to the Dáil this month. We would ask the committee to help in any way it can in regard to the issue of gender, which is mentioned in the Bill but not specifically with regard to gender specific harm. AkiDwA requests that gender guidelines would be considered. Apart from that, there are issues of protection and vulnerability in seeking asylum in Ireland today. If women could be facilitated and protected better, so they do not fall into more vulnerable situations, it would be very helpful.

We are advocating for gender guidelines. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties drew up a draft in 2002 of which we have copies. Other countries, such as Australia, Canada and the UK, have already put forward these guidelines and are using them. They are very important not alone if we are to protect women but also if women are to benefit equally with men within the asylum process. This is all we ask for, namely, that we protect women more and facilitate them more so they can benefit equally with men.

Chairman: Information on Brendan Kenneally Zoom on Brendan Kenneally Thank you. Before I call Deputy Shatter to speak, I would like to welcome him to the committee. I know he is not yet formally a member of the committee but he will be shortly, and he is very welcome.

Deputy Alan Shatter: Information on Alan Shatter Zoom on Alan Shatter Thank you. I should make a vague declaration of interest in that many years ago, in a younger life, I was very much involved with the Free Legal Advice Centre, so it is particularly appropriate, in my first meeting of this committee in my new position, to have this presentation from Ms Noeline Blackwell and Ms Saoirse Brady. I am glad they are here with us today.

As I am sure those present are aware, a huge amount of work has been done in this area by my colleague, Deputy Denis Naughten, who, I am sure, will have much to say this afternoon. In my former position as Fine Gael spokesperson on children, I was very conscious of some of the difficulties in this area. In my former position as Fine Gael’s spokesperson on children I was conscious of the difficulties in this area on children’s issues. Deputy Naughten and I worked on co-ordinatation and co-operation. What I find depressing is that I was Fine Gael justice spokesperson between 1999 and 2002 and many of the problems in this area as Ms Blackwell and Ms Brady are describing them, existed then, although we have new issues now in direct provision, which was just about being introduced at that time. I cannot remember the exact date it commenced.

I refer only to issues they have raised. On the immediate issue of what happened in Mosney, I am familiar as to where things stood yesterday evening. I have been at a series of meetings today and, therefore, I have not heard of what developments may have taken place during the day but, on behalf of Fine Gael, I went on the record yesterday to say I thought what happened was an utter disgrace. There is a terrible risk — Ms Blackwell mirrored this in her comments — that one loses sight of people’s individuality and their humanity, sees them as numbers and does not address their personal circumstances.

What occurred was an announcement of numbers to be moved from Mosney to other provision without consultation with individuals or consideration of their personal circumstances, the length they have been in Mosney or their own involvements within Mosney in so far as they were of assistance to other people there and I find that approach beyond comprehension. There is something deeply wrong at the heart of the way we deal with asylum issues and that classically and starkly illustrated what is seriously wrong. If there is an issue about moving people, there has to be a process in which their individual circumstances are considered and in which there is some degree of consultation and not a media announcement, the issuing of a letter and a bus arriving within a few days to simply ship people out as if they are cattle. That was an utter and complete disgrace and should not have occurred.

I am familiar with Mosney and the way it has operated, and some of the difficulties inherent in the system. There is a problem with the numbers there. It is now catering for more people than it properly has the capacity to cater for. That is something that should not have occurred in the first place and quite clearly needs to be addressed but it needs to be addressed in a considered way taking account of individual circumstances.

In the context of dealing with individuals who are essentially seeking leave to remain, there is a broad range of people in those circumstances from those whose asylum application is awaiting determination to those who have been denied asylum and who have, on humanitarian and other grounds, sought at the Minister’s discretion that they be allowed remain. I cannot think of any reason people in accommodation should not be allowed to retain food within that accommodation but one is cut off from having access to food from 5.30 p.m. or 6 p.m. when the final meal is complete. That smacks of the type of operation one might apply in prisoner of war camps during a war, not the type of approach that a civilised democratic western European country should apply in any situation. That applies, if I could take away even Ms Blackwell’s qualification, whether one is dealing with adults living on their own or adults with children. There are few in this room who if they finish their evening meal at 6 p.m. might not want something small to eat later in the evening and one cannot predict these things with young children. I cannot understand why a system such as that would be regarded as appropriate.

In the context of inspections, what the representatives are describing is the mirror image of the difficulties we had with children’s residential homes until the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, was given a remit in that area. It is still a difficulty in the context of people suffering from disability and proper inspections in the area of fosterage. It is part of the incapacity of government over the past ten years to put in place appropriate transparent systems. It applies to asylum seekers and across the board. It is important to have a complaints system where if people have genuine issues, they can raise them and they do not feel they will be arbitrarily detrimentally impacted upon for raising a legitimate complaint and where there are complaints raised, those who may be the subject of the complaints have an appropriate system as well because all complaints made are not always genuine. On occasion, complaints may be made in circumstances where they are not warranted because of people’s backgrounds and the trouble they have experienced in their lives. There is a need for an appropriate system in that regard.

Ms Brady mentioned health impacts. Health is much broader than simply when one has access to a general practitioner. The direct provision system was introduced as a cost saving for the State in the context of the amount spent on social welfare. The manner in which it operates should be subject to a fundamental review. I hope within the next two years, or preferably in the next six months, we will see Fine Gael in government. That review should take place and we need to see if there is a better way to deal with people.

I am interested in the information concerning asylum applicants and their capacity to work. At a time when we effectively had full employment here, a number of people, including me, made the case that once asylum seekers were in the country for in excess of a year and their case had not been processed, they should have had access to the jobs market. That would be in the interest of the State because it would save money. It would be in the interest of their intellectual and physical well-being and many talented people might contribute to the economic well-being of the State and create jobs if they were allowed to work. In circumstances where we have 450,000 unemployed, that becomes an additionally difficult issue but I do not believe people should essentially be condemned not to work for four to five years and be subject to public criticism for allegedly being reliant on the State in circumstances in which the State does not allow them to do something productive to become self-supporting. That is another issue we need to seriously examine. We need to recalibrate our thinking in these areas to look at what is in the public interest, and the State’s interest and this can be done in a way that is appropriate in the current economic climate. I hope we get an opportunity to do that. I regret it is an issue the Government had not addressed.

It is of huge importance that women who come here and who are allegedly the victims of abuse or who have been trafficked, first, are interviewed by women and, second, have access to properly trained officers from the relevant section of the Department of Justice and Law Reform and the Garda who understand the nature of the difficulties they may have experienced and who can interact with them. We have dealt with this issue over the years in confronting the issue of rape here. It is of extreme importance that they have access to female GPs and consultants, where required, not only because of the difficulties they may have experienced in their country but because of cultural issues which can give rise to concerns when they are dealing with male medical practitioners. That is not an issue we have always been sufficiently sensitive to which needs to be addressed. I am interested in a response on the representatives’ perception of how to now best resolve the Mosney issue.

In recent days, the latest version of legislation to deal with immigration and asylum was published. I can remember a promise being made in 2000, when I was justice spokesperson for Fine Gael, that well in advance of the 2002 general election there would be substantial legislation published by Government which would reform this whole area. We are now on the third Bill that has been published. I am assuming that, having had an opportunity to digest what is in it, the witnesses will be making submissions to all of the parties with regard to the content of that Bill, which I expect to come before the Dáil very early after the summer recess. I look forward to receiving those.

Chairman: Information on Brendan Kenneally Zoom on Brendan Kenneally Thank you, Deputy. Perhaps you will keep a note of what Deputy Shatter has asked.

Deputy Pat Rabbitte: Information on Pat Rabbitte Zoom on Pat Rabbitte I welcome both organisations to the committee. It is not an occasion for us on this side of the House to make speeches. Some of us have been obliged to familiarise ourselves with these issues in any event, as Deputy Shatter has said. I will restrict myself to asking a couple of questions.

The reports we have from the two organisations are very comprehensive and accessible. Many of the recommendations in the AkiDwA document, for example, ought to be capable of implementation without too much difficulty. Can I raise the question of the immigration Bill and the extent to which the witnesses consider that the Bill might resolve a number of those issues in respect of direct provision? I think this is the third Bill. It was published last week and is a huge landmark piece of legislation. Deputy Naughten and I created something of a legislation record when we spent 18 days here in committee on its predecessor. Separate from those 18 days in committee we took submissions from, pretty much, every interested group in the country that had views to present to us on it. We sponsored a good deal of their recommendations by way of amendment. We did not sponsor them all and we learned that a good number of the organisations mistook us for Government. They were so familiar with us they thought we were actually bringing in the Bill, which we found a very unproductive conclusion from our point of view. We did have extensive exchanges and so on.

The Minister’s position is that direct provision and the specific matters you raise can only be addressed in the context of that Bill being enacted, or words to that effect. If I misrepresent him I am sure he will correct me. That, of course, in particular applies to the issue of how long people are spending in direct provision. The new Bill is just published and I do not know whether you have had an opportunity to consider it. I would certainly appreciate knowing your considered view of the circumstances that will be created by the new Bill when enacted, in terms of the issue of direct provision that we are discussing.

I do not think there is anybody on this committee who would question the submission that particular regard ought to be had and provision made in the asylum and reception process for women and for the particular issues raised in respect of women. I find it difficult to understand why we cannot, without legislation, go a very long way to meeting some of the recommendations you make. It is something we have raised directly with the Minister.

With regard to Mosney, like everybody else I was completely taken by surprise. The minimum required in that situation, after people have found themselves for very long periods accommodated at Mosney, is that there would have been proper consultation and discussion with the people concerned. That seems to be a very basic civilised requirement of the situation. As I understand it from talking to one or two of the people directly, it is not that they have taken up a hard and fast position that under no circumstances would they be prepared to transfer to Hatch Hall, but rather that this was sprung on them. There was no rational discussion and explanation of what would be involved in the new arrangement and so on. That has to be a lesson for us, in terms of how to handle these situations.

We are in very different circumstances now than when Deputy John O’Donoghue made the remark a decade ago to which Ms Blackwell referred. Clearly, the number of people who are required to be accommodated now has dramatically changed since those days. If both organisations are not familiar with the new Bill they will have been familiar with the one which has been withdrawn and any guidance they can offer, in terms of whether the new Bill will put us in a better position to respond to their issues, is something I would appreciate.

If they cannot do that in detail today they might do it by way of written submission to us at a later date because as they know, the official position is that we need to enact the Bill. We on this side of the House agree. Deputy Naughten and I did everything we could to expedite this Bill without surrendering our right to make arguments about specific issues that had to be addressed along the way. It is a matter of regret that we have reached the end of this Dáil session and the matter is still not on the Statute Book.

Chairman: Information on Brendan Kenneally Zoom on Brendan Kenneally The delegates might deal with the points raised by Deputies Shatter and Rabbitte.

Ms Noeline Blackwell: I will lead off and then pass over to Ms Brady. I can tell Deputy Shatter we are still boasting about him in FLAC as he was a director some years ago. We still maintain our FLAC connection to him. We have managed to survive 40 years at this stage.

Deputy Alan Shatter: Information on Alan Shatter Zoom on Alan Shatter Do not make me sound even older than I feel.

Ms Noeline Blackwell: FLAC has been in place for 40 years. Deputy Shatter is a recent success.

On complaints, I may not have clarified one thing which is difficult about a complaint being made by somebody in direct provision. Apart from the very poor system that is in place, the person who makes a complaint is making the complaint to the same person whom he or she is depending on to make the decision about his or her status in the State. Even when one is complaining to the manager of a hostel, he or she is an agent of the Department of Justice and Law Reform and it not only handles one’s accommodation and food but also whether one gets to stay in Ireland. That makes the complaints system even more problematic. We have made suggestions about the need to have separate complaints units and clear understanding that no information passes between one section of the Department and the next. These things could be put into effect quite quickly. It is like the Mosney situation, in the sense that one asks why it had to happen. Deputies Shatter and Rabbitte have made clear that it is impossible to believe it could have been done without any consultation. At various times, all of the refugee rights organisations have recognised the lack of consultation with people in the system and the lack of a needs assessment. I should mention that the chief executive of the Irish Refugee Council, Sue Conlon, is here today as well.

I cannot offer a solution to those who asked what should be done now. We cannot implement a solution. With great humility, however, we submit that the order to remove these people should be withdrawn. They should have confidence that they will be able to stay where they are. This is not the first time this has happened, although it is the first time it has received this level of publicity. There is a need to make sure they can stay in their existing accommodation for the time being. Only then can the authorities start to do what should have been done in advance of recent developments. They should look at each person as an individual and identify whether it is necessary that the numbers be reduced. Deputy Shatter is right to say the numbers in Mosney had crept up. It was not satisfactory at the time. If the numbers need to be reduced, the authorities should identify who should be moved. It may be the case that people are anxious to go to Dublin because of the services, etc., that are available there. The question of who has to go should not be assessed until real consultation, as opposed to an opportunity for people to make complaints about whether or not they should go, has taken place.

I was asked for my opinions on the third version of the immigration, residence and protection legislation. We do not know the new proposals as well as the members of the committee do because we have not examined them as closely as they have. It seems to us that the new version of the Bill is not terribly different from the previous version. We think it is unlikely to have an enormous impact on the direct provision system of accommodation for asylum seekers. As Deputy Rabbitte was saying, if it is handled well, the Bill could provide a means of reducing the length of time people are held in direct provision. I suggest that sufficient care should be given to the way decisions are made on people’s applications, so that proper decisions are made in the first instance. Appeals systems should be simpler and more reliable. People should get adequate legal assistance at the outset, when they need it. As the representatives of AkiDwA said, if proper gender guidelines were in place, the first instance decision would be better and less likely to be challenged down the line. The entire system would be quicker. Many of the problems with direct provision arise because of the length of time people spend in it. Food becomes the key thing for people in an institution who have nothing else to do. We suggest there is capacity in the new Bill to deal with all of these important matters. Proper mechanisms should be put in place to ensure better decisions are made. Sufficient resources should be invested in the system used to decide on applications for permission to remain in the State.

Ms Saoirse Brady: The situation in Mosney, which has been the subject of a great deal of media attention, is an example of what usually happens with transfers. People only ever get a few days’ notice. Perhaps more attention was drawn to Mosney because it was happening on a bigger scale — it was proposed that 150 people would move. People do not usually find out what is proposed until a few days before it is due to happen. The news sometimes breaks over the weekend, when the office to which they are entitled to complain is closed. They often do not have a chance to make representations. The non-governmental organisations that are supposed to help them to make such representations need to be on board, but often they are not told what is happening. Many service providers in Mosney, including general practitioners, were not informed in this case. The centre itself is generally informed of the date of the transfer at the same time as those affected. The people who need to know are not given an opportunity to make proper representations, as Ms Blackwell said. While it is not expected in these circumstances that everybody will be allowed to stay — that nobody will be transferred — those involved should have an opportunity to outline their needs and requirements. Ms Blackwell has answered most of the other questions that were asked.

Ms Salome Mbugua: I would like to add to what Ms Blackwell has said, especially on the complaints procedure. I am talking from the perspective of the women at the centre, most of whom care for their children who are with them. Their difficulties are exacerbated because of their caring role. AkiDwA has called for the establishment of a complaints procedure which is completely independent. Cases involving the abuse of refugees in this country have been reported to us. We would like to avail of an independent procedure in such circumstances. It is difficult for one to have to report issues of this nature to the same person who is intimidating and threatening one. We are keen for an independent complaints procedure to be put in place to protect vulnerable women.

The second point I wish to make relates to access to general practitioners. Cases of that nature continue to arise at Mosney, for example, where there is no female general practitioner. Such realities cannot be rectified unless they are taken seriously. Those living in Mosney would definitely like to have a female GP. We need to take into account what is happening now. The theme of this year’s World Refugee Day was “home”. Many of those living in Mosney consider it to be their home. They were neither consulted nor contacted when this decision was being made, even though they have been there for over five years in some cases. It is important to take all such matters into account.

Deputy Denis Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten Zoom on Denis Naughten I thank both groups for their presentations. I know they waited a while to get in. They eventually got an opportunity to make their presentations. In light of what is happening in Mosney at present, and given the publication last week of the third version of the immigration, residence and protection legislation, this issue could not be more topical. I would like to congratulate my colleague, Deputy Shatter, on his appointment as Fine Gael’s new spokesman on justice. He will also take over the immigration brief. I thank the Chairman and the members of the committee for their assistance over the last three years. I do not know whether I will attend this forum again after this week’s meeting. I will keep an eye on the immigration, residence and protection Bill because I have a close affinity with it.

Chairman: Information on Brendan Kenneally Zoom on Brendan Kenneally It will not be the same to have to deal with it in the Deputy’s absence.

Deputy Denis Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten Zoom on Denis Naughten It is important to put today’s debate in context. Ms Blackwell said that food is an issue because people have been in the system for so long. It is hard for one to understand or relate to today’s discussion unless one has visited some of these direct provision centres, met those involved and tried to relate to people who, for many years, have had nothing to do and all day to it. The huge scandal within the asylum system is that we are not talking about people who have been in the system for six months, 12 months, 18 months or two years — we are talking about people who have been in the system for between six and eight years. We have to be sensitive to the economic circumstances and issues we face at present. Given that we are spending over €300 million on a failed system, it should be noted that many of the proposals that have been made would be cost-neutral or would save the taxpayer money. That is why it is so frustrating that the Government is arguing it cannot touch the direct provision system in the current economic circumstances. I emphasise that it is possible to make significant savings while amending the inhumane system that currently exists.

The Minister has been giving the impression that he is determined to try to deal with the backlog in the system. When I asked a question earlier this week about the delays in the system, the reply I received made it clear that one in five of those who have made initial applications for refugee status in this country has been waiting more than six months for an initial decision. In addition, two thirds of those who have moved from the initial stage of the system to the appeal stage have been waiting in excess of six months for a decision. Approximately 2,000 people have been waiting for more than six months in those two parts of the system. One has to wait more than six months for a decision in the first stage and a further six months for a decision in the second stage. A further 600 people who have gone down the judicial review avenue are stuck in that part of the system. A further 4,000 people, who are called “failed asylum seekers” by the Minister, have gone through the direct provision system. However, based on the figures presented to me by the Minister, 2,000 applications for leave to remain are currently being processed every year. There are 11,700 within the system. It will take six years for the Minister to process those to finality. The Immigration (Residence and Protection) Bill “Mark 3” will not deal with any of this. The Minister is trying to hoodwink people that the Bill will solve the problem. It will solve the problem for new applicants, but there is only a small trickle of new applicants coming into the country. It will do nothing to deal with the cohort of nearly 16,000 people that are wasting within the system at the moment, running up a huge bill.

The first thing that one comes across when one meets people within the asylum system is that they want a definitive answer from the Department of Justice and Law Reform. They do not want to be waiting for six or eight years to get a final decision on it. I would hope that the Minister, while he is still sitting on the Bill, will deal with the real issues within the system. There is a criminality to the squandering of public money when the problems could be addressed if some of the proposals being put forward by the groups before us today and other groups were implemented on the ground.

We in the Opposition have said to the Minister that we are prepared to facilitate the expeditious treatment of the Immigration (Residence and Protection) Bill. We were prepared to sit late this week and sit on Friday to ensure that Second Stage could be completed and Committee Stage could be dealt with during the summer. Instead, the Minister wanted to shut down the debate after two hours. We felt that was unfair. There are many issues that need to be addressed within it. I would hope that the Minister, even at this late stage, would consider allowing us to sit on Friday to deal with this and expedite it.

I want to speak about women in the immigration and asylum system, especially trafficked women and the victims of trafficking. It is an issue that I have raised on numerous occasions. It is crucially important that this country sends out a clear message that we will not tolerate the trafficking of human beings, mainly women and children, into this jurisdiction or through it. Taking women who have been picked up in brothels and placing them back into the asylum system and asylum accommodation again is only handing them back to the traffickers. We have had numerous cases of women and children who were been picked up in brothels, placed back into the RIA system and who disappeared subsequently from that system. We will never get convictions unless we can ensure that these women and children are protected to secure those convictions against the people that are involved in this system. I would hope that we see real progress and real movement on these issues. It is in everyone’s interest. It is in the interest of the people who are within the direct provision system, the people who are outside it waiting for decisions, and also the Irish taxpayer. We can deal with it if the commitment is there to do it. I hope that will happen.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik I apologise for being late. We are dealing with the Civil Partnership Bill in the Seanad today and I am leading for the Labour Party on that, so I apologise that I cannot be here for the whole of the meeting. I have read the presentations and I am familiar with the work both FLAC and AkiDwA have done and are doing. The AkiDwA publication on the experiences of women seeking asylum in Ireland is really important, because it gives us a unique insight into the experiences of the women. As Deputy Naughten said, it is very difficult to get a sense of it unless one has visited or spoken to people who are living in direct provision. Similarly, the FLAC analysis of direct provision and dispersal has been hugely important and certainly informed much of the work that I have been doing, because it has highlighted the many flaws in the direct provision system.

This has been highlighted this week by the forced transfer of so many people from Mosney without notice. These people have been living in one place — not an ideal place — for years, bringing up children in some cases, yet they are being moved without even notice to the GPs or to the NGOs supporting them.

There are major issues in respect of direct provision that I would like to see us address. I am not as familiar as the Deputies with the IRP Bill, because I did not have to sit through Committee Stage on it. When it comes to us in the Seanad, these are issues I will be raising. We want to deal with the absence of an independent appeals mechanism, the issue of regular inspections of hostels, and the review generally of the system of direct provision. It is a shock when we look at the figures. There are still 6,500 people living in direct provision, over 2,000 of whom have been there for three years or more. For some of the children, that represents their entire lives. We are not getting information from the Department as to how much each individual centre is costing the State. We are clearly not getting good value, because from the experiences of the women interviewed by AkiDwA, there are major inadequacies in the provision system. The idea that food and hygiene are being used as weapons and people are afraid to complain about inadequate food for their children or inadequate hygiene standards in bathrooms is really shocking.

This indicates the need to build gender awareness into the IRP Bill. It also means that we need to look at greater gender awareness in the reception procedures generally. As Deputy Rabbitte said, that clearly does not need legislative change. We need to create greater awareness at interview stage and try to break down these barriers to disclosure of sexual violence. These are all matters that could be addressed without legislation through training and non-statutory guidelines. Perhaps we need to call for that.

Disclosures of experience of sexual violence are difficult for women seeking asylum, particularly in the current process. We also have to be conscious that it is very difficult for women to disclose an experience of FGM. That is an area where I hope we will see movement as a result of a Bill re-introduced in the Seanad seeking to prohibit FGM. We will see greater awareness of that, and I am glad to say that I understand the heads of that Bill have gone to the Cabinet and we should see the heads of the Bill before the end of this month. I would like to hear the witnesses’ view on how we can make the interview processes more conducive for women who have experienced FGM or who may be fearful that if they are returned to their country of origin, their daughters or they themselves would be forced to undergo FGM.

The issue of child benefit for children in the asylum process is not just a matter for the children, but for their parents who are currently being deprived of the allowance that parents of all other children in the State are receiving. I have been involved with the FLAC campaign for some years on that. Has there been any movement on that from the Department of Social Protection? It seems to be an extraordinary anomaly that we are treating the children of asylum seekers in such a discriminatory way, when compared to other children resident in Ireland.

Ms Kerry O’Leary: Deputy Rabbitte asked a question about the Immigration (Residence and Protection) Bill. We have suggested an amendment that would introduce gender guidelines for all the reasons that we have mentioned today. That would also answer some of Senator Bacik’s questions about improving the situation for interviewing in respect of the disclosure of sexual violence.

Women have the right to have a female immigration officer or case workers, but they do not know they have the right. We would ask that the legislation specify that women would be informed of that right. This is especially important for women who may come from patriarchal societies and who may have some problems in dealing with male authorities. I do not know if this will be addressed in the Bill but out of 53 accommodation centres there is not one separate women’s only centre for women who have experienced gender-based violence. Women are put into the general populations of other accommodations centres. We ask for a separate women only centre for women who have experienced gender-based violence to be created out of one of the existing centres.

I understand there is movement afoot to try to change the legal aid system and to front-load more of the legal aid but having so much of the legal aid come at appeal stage disadvantage women in particular. More work should be done on front-loading the legal aid system for asylum seekers. It would save money for the Government and save a lot of additional time people might need to spend on direct provision.

Ms Saoirse Brady: On the child benefit issue, there has been movement but, unfortunately, not in the way we would have liked. Last year FLAC was involved in nine appeals to the chief appeals officer, four of which resulted in a positive decision in favour of direct provision residents who were found to be habitually resident. The then Department of Social and Family Affairs asked the chief appeals officer to review those decisions because it felt they were wrong. We then received five negative decisions on exactly the same issue. We asked the child appeals officer to examine all of them together.

The chief appeals officer upheld all of the appeals and said that direct provision residents could be found to be habitually resident if they satisfied the five factors in the same way that anyone did. The legislation did not specifically exclude people in the direct provision or asylum system. The Department relied on certain cases but they were not relevant to the point. The chief appeals officer took a very sensible approach. He did not say everyone in the direct provision system would quality, rather, he considered their particular circumstances and the individual cases. A week after the final decisions were issued the Social Welfare and Pensions (No. 2) Bill was published which specifically excluded all persons who were in the asylum, leave to remain or subsidiary protection process from being able to satisfy the habitual residency clause. There has been movement on that.

Reference was made to Irish children being able to avail of child benefit. Irish citizen children are in the direct provision system. Their mothers happen to be asylum seekers but they are not in receipt of child benefit. There are people who have been in the system since before 2004 who received child benefit then and have continued to receive it for any children they subsequently had because they did not want to create inequality between siblings, yet other children within the direct provision system are not able to access that payment.

We are told it is a universal payment but there are some 2,000 children in the direct provision system, some of whom are in receipt of it but the majority of whom are not. They do have any chance to get with the new legislation that is being put in place. It is still an issue which needs to be addressed.

Ms Noeline Blackwell: I want to say something I should have said earlier. From the work we did on the examination of the direct provision system we can definitely see the value of taking on board the AkiDwA recommendations as it would make life much easier for all those vulnerable female asylum seekers in the system. I compliment AkiDwA, which did outstanding work.

On child benefit, when we put to an official that, in the system, an Irish citizen who is a child and whose father was an Irish citizen living outside the system should receive child benefit through his or her father, if he was involved in the upbringing, the suggestion was that the father should go into direct provision or the small child come out of it and not stay with his or her mother if he or she wanted child benefit. It was a moving of furniture approach to people. It illustrates the bigger point.

I thank Senator Bacik for the question on independent appeals and inspections. We agree that there seems to be a terrible waste of money doing things that are unnecessary in the first place, to pick up on a point that Deputy Naughten and Senator Bacik made.

On waiting within the system, we always hear about the length of time people are in the system. The answer is always that it would not take so long if people did not make so many challenges to the system. We have to make the point again and again that the asylum seekers did not make the system, the system is there to be used. If this is a country where the rule of law prevails and which is a democracy, then it is a country where people are entitled to use the systems that are there for them. People want a decision and to get on with their lives. In the meantime, they are people and it is most useful.

I thank the Chairman for his courtesy and that of all the Deputies and Senators for giving us the opportunity to come before the committee and listening to our contribution.

Chairman: Information on Brendan Kenneally Zoom on Brendan Kenneally I thank Ms Blackwell.

Deputy Alan Shatter: Information on Alan Shatter Zoom on Alan Shatter I would like to also, yet again, thank the two organisations who are here. It has been a very valuable discussion and I think we would very much appreciate their submissions on the new Bill when they are available. I do not want to introduce a controversial or discordant note, Chairman, on my first meeting in this committee, but in the context of the importance of the issue, the number of individuals affected and the Minister’s expressed concern about the cost of the system we are presently operating, I personally — I do not know whether it is par for the course — find it extraordinary that other than your good self, there is not a single member of the Fianna Fáil Party present for this discussion. I notice that Deputy Trevor Sargent wandered through and disappeared after a couple of minutes.

Chairman: Information on Brendan Kenneally Zoom on Brendan Kenneally Sorry, Deputy Shatter.

Deputy Alan Shatter: Information on Alan Shatter Zoom on Alan Shatter I would have thought that members from the Government side would have participated in this.

Chairman: Information on Brendan Kenneally Zoom on Brendan Kenneally Deputy Sargent apologised to me for having to leave the meeting. He has another meeting on at the same time. I ask Deputy Shatter to continue.

Deputy Alan Shatter: Information on Alan Shatter Zoom on Alan Shatter No, I am finished.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik I thank the delegations for their presentations which will inform the debate on the immigration Bill, and more generally, because some of the issues are outside the Bill. We also need to address them.

Chairman: Information on Brendan Kenneally Zoom on Brendan Kenneally I thank all who attended today for their very interesting and valuable contributions which will be of great help to the committee in its work.

The joint committee adjourned at 4.10 p.m. sine die.


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