The system is not perfect, and greater consultation is desireable, but after 20 years, we know that asylum seekers integrate well in their localities, says Charlie Flanagan
There has been much debate about direct provision in recent weeks. There has been debate, too, about the location of centres and how local people should be consulted. I welcome that debate. However, I would appeal for it to be thoughtful,respectful, and factual.
Some people disapprove fundamentally of direct provision. They want it abolished. Others see some merit in it, but would like it improved, while a third cohort worry about the impact of a possible centre in their area. I understand the concerns of these groups.
But there is a fourth group, that I don’t understand and which I do not think any of us should tolerate. That is the group that would exploit the above concerns to whip up anti-immigrant, anti-asylum seeker sentiment. This is insidious and dangerous behaviour. I want to call it out.
We are a nation of immigrants. Far-flung, we Irish people are proud of our global footprint. There is hardly a family in the country that doesn’t have relatives abroad. My three sisters emigrated in the early 1980s and my daughter is living in Australia.
Similarly, those of us who have stayed at home are proud of our reputation as a friendly and hospitable people. That reputation is valuable. But it needs to be minded. So, yes, let’s discuss direct provision.
Let’s talk about what it might mean to expand on the 38 centres already dotted around the country, and have one open in our own area. But let’s do it respectfully. And as we do so, let’s stay true to what it means to be Irish. To me, that means to be caring, kind, and welcoming.
There are many myths about direct provision. Rather than attack the myths, however, let me outline the truths. First of all, the offer of direct provision services — accommodation, food, etc — is exactly that: An offer.
Someone arriving in this country, seeking protection, possibly traumatised, with little or no English, very likely needs to be directly provided for, to ensure their safety and well-being.
But it is not compulsory. Some applicants for international protection do not take up the offer, choosing, instead, to live with friends or family.
For those who do avail of it, however, direct provision refers to a suite of state services offered directly to applicants to support them while their claim for international protection (asylum) is being examined by the International Protection Office.
Secondly, while the weekly allowance offered to applicants is modest, all accommodation, food, utilities, medical care, exceptional needs payments, etc, are provided.
The third point is important: No-one is incarcerated in a direct provision centre. Doors are open. People are free to come and go. So we mustn’t allow residents to be stigmatised by suggesting that they are somehow imprisoned, against their will.
Fourthly, more and more residents in centres are able to work. Last year, the system changed to allow those without a first-instance decision within nine months to work. To date, 4,500 labour market access permissions have been granted, including 3,000 permissions to people living in direct provision centres.
And, finally, the vast majority of people who are in direct provision centres are not there long-term. They are there only while they await a determination on their application for asylum in Ireland.
We have been working hard to speed-up processing times, and the average period within which applicants receive a decision is now less than 16 months, and less than nine months in priority cases.
Some people live for many years indirect provision centres, but these are almost all applicants who have received a negative decision — or a series of negative decisions — and are exercising their right to appeal through the courts.
We are in a most difficult situation. I acknowledge that. Rising numbers of applicants have meant that we have to open new centres. Rumours start about where they might be.
As rumours take hold, people ask why we can’t consult with them, in advance of contracts being signed. But in any case involving a tender, consultation and engagement, prior to the awarding of a contract, are difficult. We are looking at what we might be able to do about that.
In the meantime, though, what is not difficult, and what we do do, is engage and reassure after a contract is signed. Some of this engagement and reassurance comes from my department; more comes from people in towns where direct provision centres were built and whose fears proved unfounded.
Take Lisdoonvarna. In early 2018, there were concerns about the designation of a new direct provision centre there.
Now, 18 months on, there are more people in the town, there is more business in the town, and there is a thriving and supportive ‘Friends of the Centre’ group, which, among other initiatives, produces a timetable of weekly activities for local asylum seekers, with many events facilitated by the local community.
And it is not just Lisdoonvarna. Irish communities that have had centres open in or near their town have turned out to be not just universally welcoming, but also enriched by the asylum seekers.
But in the last 10 years, there have been huge improvements. The story of these improvements is less exciting than recycling the stereotype of a cruel, inhumane system, but it is an important story, nonetheless, and one which should not be ignored, as people, sometimes for their own ends, pile in to excoriate something they have neither seen nor experienced.
Those who have seen and experienced it, however, have helped us improve it, and it is important to recognise the many people, applicants, NGOs, local communities — and especially Judge Bryan McMahon — who have contributed to making things better.
We are considering more improvements and alternatives and We would welcome all and any suggestions that anyone, including our critics, might put forward. However, in the absence of a better way, we will continue, through providing directly for them, to do what we can for those who arrive in our country.
We believe that when we Irish arrive in other countries, we enrich lives and cultures. And we do. What those who are coming here are asking is that we would offer them first, protection, then integration, and, finally, the chance to enrich ours. Let’s give them that chance: wholeheartedly.
Charlie Flanagan is Minister for Justice