Michael Clifford: Time for a new direction for direct provision

Housing vulnerable refugees together in direct provision has no future in a pandemic, but what, asks Michael Clifford, will be the best system to take its place to satisfy everyone?
Michael Clifford: Time for a new direction for direct provision

A resident at Skellig Star direct provision centre in Caherciveen joins with residents to highlight the Covid situation. Picture: Alan Landers

The last months of direct provision as official policy had all the hallmarks of the dying days of a corrupt regime. 

Just as a rigged election is often the spark to light a revolution against a dictator, so the pandemic highlighted the abuse of human rights inherent in the direct provision system.

Infection was higher in the centres than the general population due to the cramped conditions. Residents were moved around the country in an effort to paper over the cracks. 

Most notoriously, nearly 100 asylum seekers were bussed from the greater Dublin area to a distant outpost of the State — Cahirciveen in Co Kerry. 

The manner in which these vulnerable people were summarily shifted resulted in, most likely, one of them bringing the virus to the south Kerry town.

While the country attempted to social-distance or self-isolate, such measures were not possible in direct provision centres that were never designed to cater for families, not to mind anybody more susceptible to the worst ravages of the virus.

Then came the virus attacks on nursing homes and meat factories. 

In both cases, it emerged that the presence of asylum seekers living in direct provision in the respective workforces was an exacerbating feature of the outbreaks.

The plight of residents was highlighted in a report from the Irish Refugee Council on conditions during the pandemic, published on August 10.

It found:

  • half of all respondents were unable to social-distance from other residents;
  • 55% felt unsafe during the pandemic;
  • 42% were sharing a room with non-family-members;
  • 5% shared with as many as four people;
  • In one case, a resident said he was sharing a room with 11 others.

Despite changes that allowed residents to work, the pandemic unemployment payment was not available to asylum seekers for over four months until social protection minister Heather Humphries announced a reversal of this policy on August 8.

Meanwhile, the guardians of the policy were busy tracking dissent online, as if to single out those who dared to question the regime. 

The exercise, which resembled something that a group of students might be detailed to perform, involved recording and contextualising hundreds of newspaper articles and social media posts over a three-month period up until June. 

One element of the coverage highlighted in the exercise was to record how much take-up there was in response to tweets and articles.

Celebrities such as Christy Moore, Hozier, and the author Marian Keyes found themselves in this little black book for critical tweets they posted about direct provision. 

It was difficult to fathom whether the whole thing was childish or sinister, but it deserves further exploration, preferably in public at an Oireachtas committee.

And so it came to pass that the old regime was finally given the boot. 

The programme for government included a commitment to end the system in the lifetime of this administration. This commitment was insisted upon by the Green party.

The commitment was welcomed far and wide. Out of that, however, emerges the big question — what will replace it?

Some answers may be forthcoming next month when the expert group set up last December to examine direct provision reports. 

The mandate of this group, which is chaired by a former secretary-general of the European Commission, is to develop “long-term approaches to responding to the needs of asylum seekers in the protection process”.

Direct provision was introduced in 2000 as a solution to what was a new and growing issue of accepting those seeking international protection in our country. 

It took asylum seekers out of the general population and provided them with food and board in a congregated setting, and included a meagre allowance.

One of the big factors in doing so was to eliminate any perception that Ireland was a favoured destination in which to seek asylum. 

Yet inherent in the policy was a complete lack of consideration for the basic human rights and dignity of those affected.

The first move of the new Government in relation to direct provision was to transfer responsibility from the Department of Justice to the Department of Children, Disability, Equality and Integration, where the Green TD Roderic O’Gorman is the minister. 

This was broadly welcomed, as the approach of the Department of Justice had at times come in for criticism.

Minister Roderic O’Gorman is responsible for reimagining how refugees are treated in Ireland. Picture: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie
Minister Roderic O’Gorman is responsible for reimagining how refugees are treated in Ireland. Picture: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

The man who had responsibility in the last government for the portfolio, junior minister David Stanton, says he wishes the new man well with what will be a big challenge.

“I’m hoping that there will be innovative solutions with a good new minister in there who has energy and a fresh set of eyes,” he says. 

“I spent four years at this and it’s emotive and challenging and extremely complex and now with Covid even more challenging. I don’t envy him his role, but I wish him well. I was always open to new suggestions, and hopefully we will see that now.” 

The major element of any new system will be providing housing or shelter for those seeking protection. 

Should it be a congregated setting, as under the current system? Or should asylum seekers be given the freedom — and responsibility – of finding their own accommodation?

The Movement for Asylum Seekers in Ireland (Masi) believes that those seeking protection should be given the same rights as any resident of the country in this respect.

Masi’s Bulelani Mfaco says that asylum seekers should be treated the same as any Irish resident when it comes to housing.

“If I woke up tomorrow in possession of a letter from the Department of Justice saying I am entitled to stay in Ireland, the local authority would be obliged to provide me with housing,” he says. 

“An asylum seeker is still waiting for that (right).

The simple alternative is to treat an asylum seeker as you would any Irish person who needs a home. It actually costs less than keeping asylum seekers in emergency housing.

The reality is that the housing crisis has ensured many residents and citizens are already in emergency housing, but Mr Mfaco says that this shows that major investment is required in public housing.

Mr Stanton is sceptical that effectively moving asylum seekers into the general population could work in that respect.

“I tried to improve the system by having own door self-accommodation,” he says. 

“There is an advantage in having people together, a lot of services can be provided for them in that environment, like education and health information, and they have the support of each other.

"The suggestion that they be given an allowance equivalent to HAP (Housing Assistance Payment) is there as well, but many of these people have come from countries where they have experienced trauma and they don’t know the language or culture, and could be at risk from certain elements who would take advantage.” 

Mr Stanton points out that in any event there would be a likelihood in such a system that a lot of asylum seekers might simply end up in B&B accommodation.

If those seeking protection were thus integrated into the housing system, an issue may arise over perceptions of fairness. 

We have seen in other countries how racism can sprout up among those who perceive themselves as being in competition for resources with people coming into a country.

“We have to be careful not to do anything that might lead to that,” says Stanton. 

“If you were to do it that way, though, the suggestion is that asylum seekers go to the top of the housing list, the middle, or the bottom. If it is the bottom, they could be there for a long time, as we know.

“So you’re back where you started — and in the meantime, you still have people arriving in all the time.” 

Mr Mfaco, however, believes that independent living is the only way forward in this respect.

“There is no advantage in a congregated setting,” he says. “It is not suitable for any group, because you strip them of their agency. You expose different vulnerable groups to different harms.” 

One possible solution might be to maintain the congregated setting, but do so with a maximum capacity for independent living within. 

Among the current direct provision centres, Mosney in Co Meath offers a possible pathway in this respect.

Residents have own-door accommodation and cooking facilities in the larger campus setting. They also operate a credit system in which they can purchase food from a shop on site.

Fiona Hurley, policy manager of the Cork-based migrant rights agency NASC, says that such a system could be explored, but the element of credits to purchase food would not be acceptable.

“Having a shop on site is an improvement on canteen-style meals, but we would generally not be in favour of credits for shops,” she says. 

“It works in Mosney because it’s not necessarily close to other areas, but people need access to choice. They might buy much cheaper at Lidl, for example, or they many have personal issues like sensitive skin, so credits just take away choice. 

"It’s a fundamental skill to be able to budget and shop, so take that away and you infantilise people.” 

Ms Hurley points out that investment will be required to replace direct provision, “but we are spending hundreds of millions on the system at the moment, so there is no reason why that couldn’t be used to provide humane accommodation".

For us, any alternative accommodation has to be in the community, and be own-door. The current system where people have to share with non-family members can’t continue, particularly now in a time of Covid. 

Housing and accommodation is likely to be the major issue that Mr O’Gorman will face in doing away with direct provision.

There are different ideas about the right to work, but nothing that is insurmountable. 

Currently, asylum seekers can work if they have not had a first-instance decision on their status within nine months. Masi wants work to be available from the time any person claims asylum. 

Most other groups are suggesting a timeline within three months of arrival in the country for the right to work.

 Residents of the Skellig Star DP Centre in Cahersiveen join Locals in Calling for an end to Direct Provision Centres. Picture Alan Landers.
Residents of the Skellig Star DP Centre in Cahersiveen join Locals in Calling for an end to Direct Provision Centres. Picture Alan Landers.

The other issue that has dogged the current system is the use of private interests to house asylum seekers. This has resulted in nearly €2bn being paid out to property owners in the last 20 years.

Fiona Hurley from NASC says any future involvement by the private sector must be treated with caution.

“We have to be careful about including a role for the private sector,” she says. “We have always advocated for a not-for-profit system, and that would be our preference.

“One reason why the for-profit sector has been so poor is because of lack of inspections. 

“There has been an independent inspectorate and national standards are only now being brought in, and don’t come into force until 2021 — a full 21 years after the system was established.

David Stanton says the private sector involvement in the existing system had some advantages.

“It was done on a competitive basis,” he says. 

“And when you break it down per person per week, it was actually not huge money.

“The alternative be either totally public-sector system which would mean a whole new structure and acquiring properties and all that that would involve.

"Then you have the not-for-profit sector. We invited NGOs in to see if they wanted to get involved and none did. In other countries NGOs do have a role, but here they said they were too small, so what are you going to do?” 

Whatever it will be, the Government has four-plus years to come up with a new system if it runs its full term. 

Practically everybody is agreed that the current system has had its day and is simply not fit for purpose. It will be replaced, but doing so most definitely will be no easy task.

Different standard for asylum seekers around Europe

Sweden

In Sweden, the main source of housing for asylum seekers is apartments, but some are also accommodated in houses and more in reception centres. 

If any asylum seeker wishes to stay in a reception centre, he or she may have to move to another town or city from the one in which they are based.

There are two categories of asylum seeker in Sweden. Those who in what is known as the “accelerated procedure” are located close to airports to better facilitate their deportation if and when their application fails.

Every municipal district in the country is expected to accommodate applicants, and this is usually facilitated on a proportionate basis.

The Swedish system also includes the stipulation that if asylum seekers have money of their own, they must pay for the accommodation themselves. Otherwise, it is free.

Single people are obliged to share a room. Families can have their own room, but must share an apartment with other people. There is also provision to move asylum seekers if that is deemed necessary while they are going through the process.

Social welfare payments to asylum seekers are similar to rates in this country for the general population, but are just over half what Swedish residents who require assistance would receive.

A single person is entitled to €204, a couple €351, while two adults and two children receive €591.

Britain

Initially, asylum seekers are housed in reception centres, but in recent years many have also been sent to B&Bs and other forms of emergency accommodation.

After they undergo a rigorous interview process initially, they can qualify to be housed and receive an allowance. 

This period is meant to take less than three weeks, but is often longer. Following that, asylum seekers receive full housing support plus £36.95 per person per week.

Asylum seekers have no choice in where they are located. In Britain, the vast majority of applicants are sent to live in the north of England, Wales, Scotland, and south west England. 

London and the South East are rarely used — a policy which most likely is political in nature, and attached to property prices.

Asylum seekers are usually only allowed to work in restricted circumstances after they have been in the country for a year.

Spain

Applicants are supposed to receive a decision on asylum within six months in Spain, but in recent years this has stretched out to years in some cases.

While awaiting the decision, applications are housed in reception centres, some permanent, while others are put together in emergency circumstances in response to various spikes in the number of applications.

For the last two years, Spain has also been using hotels and B&Bs to house asylum seekers, again in response to increased numbers.

Work is permitted after an applicant has been waiting for at least six months for a decision. There are very few restrictions on entry to the labour market for asylum seekers, once they receive the initial go-ahead.

Key recommendations made in 2015 McMahon Report ignored by government

In 2015, an expert group chaired by former High Court judge Brian McMahon to examine direct provision produced its report. 

The McMahon Report focused on reform of the existing system rather than looking at an alternative way of doing things.

Among its recommendations was the right to work, which was ultimately agreed to by government. 

Asylum seekers can now work once they have resided in the State for nine months and have not received a first-instance decision. 

The right-to-work issue was under pressure in any event following a legal challenge, and the Supreme Court ultimately ruled that asylum seekers could no longer be denied the right.

The report included 173 recommendations which it said would improve conditions for asylum seekers. 

Yet despite being broadly welcomed, including by the government of the day, many of its recommendations have not been acted on, five years it was published.

Last December, the Oireachtas justice committee published a report into its findings on the direct provision system. 

The report was compiled after a series of public hearings involving all stakeholders and 140 written submissions.

The committee found that the system was not “fit for purpose” and called for fundamental reforms. 

The system of “shared, institutionalised living fails to fully respect the rights to privacy and human dignity of those placed in these centres”.

Among the issues identified were:

  • Inadequate supports and services that do not cater to the needs of vulnerable people arriving in Ireland;
  • Long delays in the application process;
  • Issues with accessing the labour market;
  • Issues relating to children.

The committee made 43 recommendations, most prominently that there be a shift to “own-door” accommodation units for individuals and families, the involvement of approved housing bodies in sourcing accommodation, and support services.

The committee also reported that any changes should involve moving away from the for-profit running of the direct provision service.

The following are snapshots of submissions presented to the committee:

Irish Refugee Council

“The Government has built only three accommodation centres in 18 years. 

"The majority of existing centres were originally designed for other purposes. The State should procure fit-for-purpose accommodation to meet particular needs.

“This will be a cost-saver in the long term: In 18 years, over €1.2bn has been paid to private providers of accommodation.

“Spending money on providing people with asylum is a good thing, but it should be done strategically to the benefit of people and the public.”

St Vincent de Paul

“Alternatives to direct provision: Sweden provides self-catering apartments and on-site transport within its reception facilities.

"Access to services and appropriate supports must be included in any future provision for asylum seekers.

“The department needs to be cognizant of the low level of personal allowance of €38.80 for adults and €29.80 for children when assessing whether leisure and other activities are accessible to residents, as supports other than transport may be required for residents to participate.

“SVP Recommendation: SVP recommends that a cost-benefit analysis be undertaken on the feasibility of providing a similar service in Ireland.”

Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland

“People seeking asylum in Ireland should have access to the same housing supports via their local authorities as is the case for homeless people. Direct provision centres and a reception centre are not homes. 

"People seeking asylum in Ireland should have access to the same housing supports via their local authorities as is the case for others. 

"The housing needs of people seeking asylum must be an integral, if distinct, part of any recommendations and/or solutions to the housing and homelessness crisis.

“We regard people in direct provision as ‘homeless’ in that they are without a home and exist in a similar way to people forced to live in and try to raise their children in hubs.

“We are in similar situations of destitution and marginalisation as others at the sharp end of the State’s housing policy; we are like those placed in B&Bs and hubs being used as human meat to generate private profit; we must fight together against these institutionalised, bureaucratic, dehumanising ways of diminishing our lives and destroying us in body and spirit.”

More in this section

Lunchtime
News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up
Revoiced
Newsletter

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from irishexaminer.com, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up