Published on 25 September 2019
I welcome this opportunity to talk to you about the work of my Office in the Direct Provision sector.
As you will be aware, my remit over the Direct Provision system was confirmed in April 2017. Since then, my Office has proactively engaged with the stakeholders involved in the sector. A core part of our engagement has been through our Outreach programme where we visit the Direct Provision centres to talk directly to the residents about the issues that affect them. I published commentaries which set out what we saw in the sector, and what we did in response, for the years 2017 called “The Ombudsman and Direct Provision: The Story so Far” and for 2018 titled “The Ombudsman and Direct Provision: Update for 2018”. I should say that I have experienced excellent co-operation from the Department in undertaking my role and in responding to the issues my Office has raised.
My team has noticed significant improvements in the sector since we started the Outreach programme in the summer of 2017. Residents consistently reported that the rollout of shops and self-cooking facilities in the centres, though not yet complete, has greatly improved the quality of day-to-day living. Despite these significant improvements to the system, significant issues remain. These include the length of time people have to wait for a substantive decision on their asylum application and the use of emergency accommodation due to a lack of capacity in the customised Direct Provision centres. I set out my views on both of these issues below.
The fundamental issue faced by residents is that the Direct Provision accommodation was only ever intended for short stays, while their applications for asylum were processed. They were not designed for long-term or semi-permanent residence. Despite the welcome improvements, the majority of centres are quasi-institutional settings where in many cases access to kitchen, bathroom and living room facilities are shared amenities which cannot be enjoyed in private.
People are sharing rooms as a family, or as unrelated adults. Whereas this might be acceptable in the very short term, the length of stay makes it entirely unsuitable. The problem currently is being exacerbated by the shortage of affordable rented housing, which of course is also affecting other people in housing need in our communities. This means that even those with leave to remain are unable to find accommodation, thus reducing supply for new entrants.
The streamlining of the asylum assessment process introduced on 1 January 2018 has reduced the time taken to make substantive decisions on applications, which are now taking a median of 16 months to complete, with more recent applications completed in an average of 11 months. However, it remains the case that many asylum seekers whose cases are being assessed under the previous process have been waiting three years or more for a substantive decision.
While my remit over the administration of the Direct Provision system was confirmed in April 2017, it remains the case that I am precluded from examining complaints about the asylum process itself. The core decisions on asylum applications are made by or on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality and are properly outside of my jurisdiction. However, I do not see the same case for the exclusion of the administrative process through which asylum applications are assessed. I believe that my remit should be extended to include that process, and I respectfully ask for the Committee’s support for this extension.
Due to an upsurge in applicants, which increased by 25% for 2018 over 2017 and a further 26% pro rata for the first eight months of 2019, the capacity of the current Direct Provision centres to accommodate asylum seekers was exceeded, including the initial reception facility at Balseskin in north Co. Dublin operated by the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) of the Department. This upsurge in numbers has resulted in many people being placed directly in emergency accommodation in hotels, guesthouses and bed & breakfast accommodation without first going through the normal screening process. This meant that, among other issues, they were not provided with Personal Public Service Numbers or medical cards.
My Outreach team has engaged directly with residents in emergency accommodation through a programme of visits to their places of residence. As a response to the issues raised by residents through that programme, the team facilitated arrangements with the relevant units within the HSE and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection through which the residents were linked into the services they are entitled to. I am pleased with the progress that is being made in ensuring that people in emergency accommodation get access to such services. I also understand that it is simply impossible to accurately predict the demand for asylum.
However, while I do have sympathy for the position RIA finds itself in, it is simply unacceptable that people who have sought refuge in this country can find themselves in accommodation that is entirely unsuitable for their needs for a prolonged length of time, beyond eight months and counting in a small number of cases. The obligations of EU Member States in the sector are set out in the EU Recast Receptions Conditions Directive, which requires Member States to provide asylum seekers with a specified standard of care and living conditions. In line with those obligations, I would call on the Minister for Justice and Equality to ensure that RIA is adequately resourced to fulfil its obligations under the Directive, so that the current practice of accommodating people in entirely unsuitable emergency settings quickly becomes a thing of the past. Again, I would welcome the Committee’s support on this issue.
Thank you for your attention,