The freedom that the 1916 rebels fought for is not being extended to asylum seekers, writes Eugene Quinn
The centenary celebrations of 1916 have prompted a reflection on where Ireland is one hundred years on, challenging us to reimagine what it means to be Irish and what we value as a society. April 10 marks the 16th anniversary of direct provision. For the nearly 5,000 people, one quarter of them children, living in direct provision centres throughout the country, what does reimagining Ireland mean?
Direct provision is the system by which the State provides accommodation and meets the material needs of people seeking asylum in Ireland.
The State essentially provides accommodation on a full board basis in 35 centres throughout Ireland until an applicant is granted status, leaves voluntarily or is removed.
In many cases, the parent or parents of young children will be allocated just one room in a direct provision centre for their entire family; single people usually have to share their living space with one or more residents of the same gender.
In addition, meals are provided at set times in a common dining room and residents, in the majority of centres, are not allowed to cook their own food.
A weekly allowance of €19.10 per adult and €16.60 per child is payable to asylum seekers living in direct provision. Asylum applicants receive medical cards and their children have access to primary and secondary education. However, adults have no right to work and have limited access to education.
Direct provision was originally envisaged as a system that would accommodate individuals on a short-term basis (not more than six months), but the reality has been far different.
Over the past 16 years numerous local and international bodies have criticised the human costs of the system. Direct provision does not provide a normal family environment for raising children. Children and their parents have to share accommodation and common facilities with a large number of strangers and often, children will grow up without the memory of their parents cooking a family meal.
For adults seeking asylum, the prohibition from taking up any form of employment is one of the most severe elements of direct provision and one that denies asylum seekers the opportunity to support themselves or their families in any meaningful way. Combined with limited access to education and the absence of any prospect of employing their qualifications or skills, adults living in the system long term endure extreme boredom and isolation.
In October 2015 the Government appointed a Working Group, of which JRS Ireland was a member, to undertake the first comprehensive review of the protection process, including the direct provision system since it was introduced in 2000.
This was at a time when in excess of 40% of asylum seekers had been waiting at least five years since they first applied for asylum in Ireland.
The Working Group undertook an extensive consultation process which involved direct input from 416 asylum seekers in addition to written submissions from individuals and groups.
Many issues were highlighted including: the detrimental impact of the system on mental health; the adverse effects on family life; inadequacies in relation to the food available to residents in centres; including lack of choice and of access to ethnic preferences.
However, the clearest and most emphatic message emerging from the consultation was the length of time people had to spend in the system. As one resident said “What could be said to be wrong with the system is, in one way or another, directly linked to the length of time spent in it”. Another said: “Ten years later I still live in the same bed, in the same shared room, of the same direct provision centre – a full decade spent in limbo.”
In June 2015 the Working Group published a report recommending 173 improvements to the asylum process and to conditions and supports to enable people in direct provision to live with greater dignity.
The key recommendations included:
- Implementation of the proposed ‘long stayer’ solution for people in the system for five years or more, which would benefit an estimated 3,350 people.
- The immediate enactment of the International Protection Bill and the implementation of the single application procedure as a matter of urgency.
- The inclusion in the International Protection Bill of a right to work after nine months for asylum seekers.
- Increase in the weekly direct provision payments to €38.74 for an adult and €29.80 for a child, the first since 2000.
- Providing all families with access to communal cooking facilities and their own private living space in so far as practicable.
- Extension of the mandate of the Ombudsman, and of the Ombudsman for Children, to cover direct provision.
In the nine months since the Working Group reported, there has been some progress with regard to resolving the situation of those longest in the system although considerable work remains to be done.
Long-awaited legislation introducing a single application procedure was enacted in the International Protection Act 2015, however, it did not include an enabling provision for a right to work as recommended. Also there has been a commitment in principle to extend the remit of the Ombudsman, and the Ombudsman for Children, to include complaints from direct provision residents.
However, increased delays and backlogs at earlier stages of the process have emerged. This reflects a significant increase in new applications but it also reflects a failure to allocate the significant additional resources identified by the Working Group as necessary to expedite case processing.
Regrettably, key recommendations of the Working Group regarding conditions in direct provision centres – namely, providing communal kitchens and additional living space for families – remain unimplemented. Although there was a paltry increase to the direct provision allowance for children.
The Working Group report provides a detailed, evidence-based and fully costed road map for fundamental reform to eliminate excessive delays that have characterised the asylum system and to enable those residing in direct provision to do so with greater dignity.
The full and immediate implementation of key recommendations would honour the memory and aspirations of those who fought and died in 1916 to “pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts; cherishing all the children of the nation equally”.
*Eugene Quinn is National Director with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Ireland.