Ms O’Reilly, who last week secured the role of European ombudsman, said there were real fears for the safety of children living in direct provision (DP) centres and warned conditions were not suitable.
Many families, she said, typically stay at least three years in the system despite previous pledges to cut the time people spend in DP.
She was speaking in Dublin at the launch of the Jesuit quarterly Studies journal, in which she wrote a lengthy piece on the asylum system.
“There is a growing, if belated, recognition that how we treat our asylum seekers is a cause of very real concern,” she wrote.
“Retired Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness recently predicted that, at some future point, the Government will find it necessary to apologise publicly for the damage done, in particular, to the children of asylum seekers — just as it has had to apologise to former residents of industrial schools and the Magdalene laundries, who were the victims of abuse as well as of State indifference.
“We have become quite adept at apologising for the sins of earlier generations,” said Ms O’Reilly, adding “there may also be significant blind spots in our self-appraisal... I suggest that our treatment of asylum seekers over the past decade or so represents one such blind spot.”
In the article, Ms O’Reilly said her office does not have jurisdiction in the case of actions of the Department of Justice “taken in the administration of the law relating to immigration or naturalisation”. In other words, she said: “Ireland is almost unique amongst countries with a public service Ombudsman in having the State’s key interactions with asylum seekers excluded from jurisdiction. Other than by way of judicial review, this important area of public administration is effectively free of any external oversight.”
Yesterday, Ms O’Reilly echoed many of those views, referring to a recent investigation by her office into the case of an African woman in a centre in Co Mayo.
The woman occupant left DP after 15 months because of serious concerns about the mental health of one of her children, who had attempted suicide. The woman moved to Dublin, where she lived with a friend in rented accommodation.
Her child made a second suicide attempt and was hospitalised. As she had no income, the woman applied for supplementary welfare allowance, which was unsuccessful.
Her appeal was also rejected but she finally won an appeal lodged with the Social Welfare Appeals Office following a delay of more than eight months.
However, the HSE had not implemented the appeal decision, with Ms O’Reilly claiming the family was then left “in a very vulnerable position”.
Claiming there would have been a scandal if an Irish family had endured such treatment, Ms O’Reilly wrote: “I found myself facing the difficult question of how we, as a society, have allowed these very unacceptable arrangements to develop and continue in place for more than a decade.”
She said urgent changes were need to speed up and streamline the asylum system.
*The full article by Ms O’Reilly can be read at www.studiesirishreview.ie