Direct Provision: Statements (Continued)

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 945 No. 1

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy David Stanton: Information on David Stanton Zoom on David Stanton] That is a different system completely and one should not mix those two up. EROCs are totally different to the direct provision system.

I hope colleagues will agree that we are working hard to improve the direct provision system, as I said, to have more speedy decisions than we had up to now so that applicants will not have to wait as long for a decision to be made and to continue to improve the conditions where people are living. As I say, I have visited lots of these centres and will continue to do so. I meet the people there and listen to them. I met one lady the other day and she said, "I feel safe. I have no complaints. I am safe. I am happy. I am looked after. I have friends who look after me."

Deputy Bríd Smith: Information on Bríd Smith Zoom on Bríd Smith On a point of order, tá brón orm. I was here a bit late and I did not hear the Minister of State state at the outset that he would not be here to respond.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Pat the Cope Gallagher Zoom on Pat the Cope Gallagher To clarify the position, these are statements, not a motion, and there is no opportunity to respond.

Deputy Bríd Smith: Information on Bríd Smith Zoom on Bríd Smith I thought the Government would respond to the statements we would make.

Deputy David Stanton: Information on David Stanton Zoom on David Stanton I thought so too but that is not provided for.

Deputy Bríd Smith: Information on Bríd Smith Zoom on Bríd Smith Is that not what happens normally?

Deputy David Stanton: Information on David Stanton Zoom on David Stanton Sometimes. This is just statements.

Deputy Bríd Smith: Information on Bríd Smith Zoom on Bríd Smith Not always, but not in this case.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Pat the Cope Gallagher Zoom on Pat the Cope Gallagher It only happens in the event of a motion. It is long-standing practice.

Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin: Information on Fiona O'Loughlin Zoom on Fiona O'Loughlin I wish to share my speaking time with my two colleagues, Deputies Rabbitte and Eugene Murphy.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Pat the Cope Gallagher Zoom on Pat the Cope Gallagher Is that agreed? Agreed.

Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin: Information on Fiona O'Loughlin Zoom on Fiona O'Loughlin I thank the Minister of State for giving us the opportunity to speak on this debate. I acknowledge the good work he has done. I am in no doubt that the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, in everything he is doing in this area, is incredibly well intentioned and is working hard to improve the lot of those in direct provision. That, essentially, is what we all are aiming and hoping for.

I also acknowledge that while the Minister of State cannot respond to what we are saying, I appreciate that he has committed to taking on board our comments, views, observations and opinions and that he will take them in the well-intentioned way they are made, not as a criticism of himself but certainly as a criticism of the service that we want to continue to improve.

There are almost 5,000 people currently in direct provision. In my view, they exist in a dehumanising environment. They are unable to work. They are unable to attend third level education. Most of them, while acknowledging the work that has gone on in Mosney, cannot cook for their own families. They receive a paltry amount of money - €19.10 per adult and €15.60 per child per week. In many cases, that money has to go towards food, schoolbooks, school trips and outings for the children. It is a very small amount of money.

My figures on those who are in direct provision are slightly different to those of the Minister of State. My figures show that 40% of asylum seekers have been in direct provision for five years and approximately 20% for more than seven years. The position has improved in the recent past.

No matter what, the damage done in any long-term stay in these centres is incalculable. The key issues facing these people in direct provision are the duration of the stay, the impact of the environment on family life and the right to work.

I read with great sadness a recent newspaper article about a 16 year old girl, who was a victim of violence in her home country, was chronically traumatised and was suffering greatly in a direct provision centre in Ireland. Diagnosed with psychosis, this teenager's mental health deteriorated to the extent that she has had to be made a ward of court as her health was in serious danger. This girl and the 1,600 or more children who have grown up in the direct provision system have endured overcrowded conditions, social exclusion and psychological damage associated with living in institutionalised accommodation. We, as a country, can do better. We must do better by these young people. The current system is not fit for purpose and it needs to be replaced to enable asylum seekers to live with a greater degree of respect and dignity.

I realise that direct provision cannot be dismantled overnight and it will take some time to get there. I believe the end of direct provision must be the ultimate goal and will offer thoughts on changes that could be made in the short and long term. In the short term, we need to create and build a humane system by fully implementing the McMahon report. At present, the Department claims that more than 90% of this has been carried out but in speaking to residents, I do not discern that much has changed for them. Certainly, there have been some improvements but it is happening at far too slow a pace. I acknowledge that in some centres, in Mosney in particular, proper functioning cooking facilities have been introduced. It is good that residents can purchase foods via a points system. This needs to be rolled out.

An amendment to the International Protection Act 2015 permitting asylum seekers the right to work is hugely important. This could be in line with the provisions in the EU reception directive, which permits asylum seekers to work if no decision on their application for asylum has issued after nine months. During the consultation process for the working group, together with the long length of stay in the system, the right to work was one of residents' biggest issues and I have come across that on a personal level. These two factors combined mean that by the time people leave direct provision at present, they have become completely deskilled and demotivated and find it really difficult to enter the labour market. In fact, the direct provision creates huge dependency.

It is important also to increase the weekly allowance to the amounts recommended by the McMahon report. Such an increase would have a real and tangible impact on the quality of life of those living in direct provision by allowing them a greater degree of choice and improving their ability to participate in the community within which they live. It is hugely important that we begin to create a system that allows families and the vulnerable to have access to independent, not communal, living following a short stay in centre-type accommodation. Direct provision is no place for families and has been consistently criticised.

In the longer term, we must design a more humane system. One of the key differences of our system when compared with those of other EU countries is that it is operated for profit. I appreciate the Minister of State's observation that calls for expressions of interest are under way at present. While it remains a profitable system for some, it will not be humane. As a result, the Government has been keeping its responsibility at arm's length to a certain extent. While we have been contracting out the care of the vulnerable to private entities for profit, basically, creating modern-day Magdalen laundries, we need to move to a system the Minister of State suggested in his speech, which I appreciate. Putting out calls specifically for not-for-profit entities with experience is hugely important. The ultimate aim must be to create a blended system, such as that in Portugal, where asylum seekers, following a short initial stay in a reception centre in which their needs are assessed by an assigned case worker who deals with all aspects of their claims, can move out into community self-contained units.

I welcome the Minister of State's announcement that legal issues regarding the extension of the remit of the offices of the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for Children to include access for residents in direct provision centres have now been clarified. That is hugely important. As the Ombudsman for Children pointed out, "1,400 children are ... spending formative years of their lives in direct provision, in circumstances that inhibit their potential to thrive and curtail their full enjoyment of basic rights".

I acknowledge that while the current housing shortage clearly creates a huge challenge in being able to access accommodation, there are also many other hurdles, particularly around education and the right to work. I will mention briefly the 2016 report, "Transition: from Direct Provision to life in the community". This report highlighted the multiple challenges faced by former asylum seekers in attempting to make that transition. As the Minister of State pointed out, many are not able to make that transition. They are still in the direct provision centre.

Having endured years of living in the system - it is known to negatively affect mental health, child well-being and family life - people are largely left to fend for themselves once they receive their status. People have to navigate a complex array of systems as they attempt to move out of institutions that have systematically disempowered them for many years.

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