As calls to end a broken system continue to grow, the pressure of the Black Lives Matter protests could force the end of direct provision as we know it, writes Michael Clifford
Momentum is now building to urgently address the major problems in the system of direct provision (DP).
A protest taking place today in Caherciveen in County Kerry is concerned not with the system or the centre in the town that has been the source of major controversy, but the Department of Justice itself.
Jack Fitzpatrick, chairman of the community and business alliance in the town, explains: “It is specifically against the Department for the way they lied to the people here and deceived us. That has been shown by all that has come out in recent weeks."
A feature of the controversy at the centre in the Skellig Star hotel in Caherciveen is that both local people and asylum seekers believe they were repeatedly duped by the Department. This involves issues such as denial that a centre was planned, inadequate facilities and training at the centre, a failure to inform local people of an outbreak of the virus, a failure to properly inspect the hotel for suitability, and denial that anybody at the centre had been in isolation for a crucial period.
Minister for Justice, Charlie Flanagan, acknowledged some, but far from all, of the shortcomings in an unprecedented apology he issued through the local press in Kerry.
A serious problem exists when a Government department is perceived to be acting against the interests of whole communities and doing so in a duplicitous manner.
The issues around Caherciveen were just fading from front pages when another controversy flared in Milltown Malbay in County Clare.
The Central Hotel in the town has been a DP centre since last year. A local group, which was set up to welcome residents to the centre, has written a stinging letter to Mr Flanagan on behalf of the 12 men still in residence there.
It details the presence of rodents, leaks in bathrooms and substandard food among the problems which allegedly exist.
Hotel owner, Pat Kelly, has stated that the allegations are false and has directed all queries to the Department.
Spokeswoman for the local welcome group, Aine Rynne, confirmed that they are now calling for the centre to be shut down.
A third blow to the system came in the last week through the anti-racism protests and sentiment that has been spilling across the world in the wake of the violent death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Racism takes many forms and now links are being made with attitudes to people of colour and a system that increasingly appears to facilitate the abuse of human rights.
In response to these events, Minister Flanagan issued a statement last Friday evening. He said that the latest expert group examining direct provision will now report in September rather than the end of the year, as originally scheduled.
The last expert group, chaired by former high court judge Brian McMahon, reported in 2015. Last December, the Oireachtas justice committee issued a report recommending the ending of direct provision. It’s as if the Government keeps farming out the issue to be reported on, and then considers the report and recommends another one.
On Sunday, the minister was interviewed on RTÉ Radio’s This Week programme where he raised the elephant in the room on the subject: What is the alternative?
This has been the constant refrain from the Government any time the system has come up for discussion.
The starting point in any such discussion should be what elements of the current system should be immediately changed.
First off, take it away from the private sector. As things stand, there are little more than cursory checks on standards and possible abuses in the centres.
There is precious little transparency. The finances used by some DP operators are complicated. It is not obvious, for instance, what the levels of profit are made in the business of caring for asylum seekers.
The system presents a contract to the owner who then cuts his cloth accordingly. There is an incentive to shave costs at every turn. When does an efficient operation cross the line into exploitation? That depends on the integrity of the owner. Surely it is not appropriate that the care of some of the most vulnerable people in the world be left to the individual conscience of property owners turning a buck.
The Department of Justice should also be removed from the system. The Department must consider the worst of humanity through its oversight of law enforcement, the security of the State, the courts, the prisons. There are times when the corporate instinct of the Department is to 'circle the wagons'.
Housing and providing adequate services for asylum seekers would be better handled in another department or even a standalone agency.
The third foundation block of any new system would have to be the involvement of local communities. The current system consists of a contract between the owner and the Department. Communities are excluded from the whole process. It is up to individual property owners to determine the access that any community groups can have on site at the invitation of asylum seekers.
If the profit motive is eliminated, surely communities should have a direct involvement. This would allow for the proportionate dispersal of 7,000 or so asylum seekers across the State to communities where there would be a welcome and direct engagement.
If, as seems likely, the slow process of application continues then those awaiting to hear their fate could at least have continuity in one community.
The fortunes doled out to property owners — more than €1.1bn in the last 20 years — could be redirected to improving basic health, welfare and education services in these communities.
One example of what is possible was floated by Jack Fitzpatrick of the Community and Business Alliance in Caherciveen. He referenced a survey of vacant properties being conducted in south Kerry. This is an exercise as part of a task force set up to tackle depopulation but Fitzpatrick says it could have other uses.
“Why not put a presentation together, go to the direct provision centres and see does anybody want to come to a place like this?” he asks. “You could do that all the way up the western seaboard. There are houses and schools available. We would do everything possible to incorporate people into the community.” It may not be that simple, but the idea certainly signposts a way out of the current morass. What is required is a little imaginative thinking allied to a realignment of priorities. Fulfilling international obligations by shovelling people into cramped centres, out of sight, out of mind, has had its day. A better, more humane way is not an impossibility.