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Column: Court challenge to Direct Provision could save millions in taxpayers’ money

Contrary to the alarmist claims, this High Court challenge to direct provision could finally mean the end of wasting taxpayers’ money on an inhumane system, writes Sharon Waters.

Sharon Waters

IN THE COMING months the High Court will be asked to consider the legality of the reception system for asylum seekers, known as Direct Provision.

The challenge has prompted scaremongering that, if successful, it will lead to spiralling reception costs. However, in its recent pre-budget submission the Irish Refugee Council (IRC) calculated that ending the profit driven scheme of Direct Provision could save an estimated €8 million annually.

Under the Direct Provision system, asylum seekers cannot work or receive social welfare. Instead they are accommodated in centres where their basic needs are ‘directly provided’, including three meals a day and a weekly cash allowance of €19.10 per adult and €9.60 per child. The centres include former hotels, former guesthouses, a former convent and a caravan park. They are run as businesses by private contractors, who have made a healthy profit from the State contracts over the last 13 years.

When Direct Provision was introduced in 2000, it was intended that asylum seekers would spend approximately six months in this form of accommodation. Today, the average length of stay is 45 months with some asylum seekers staying for more than seven years.

The Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) is the body responsible for the Direct Provision system.  It was established by Ministerial decision with the intention that it would later be placed on a statutory footing. Thirteen years on and despite awarding contracts of €877 million over 10 years, the agency still has no legislative basis.

The High Court Challenge

The family of six who are taking the High Court case, claim that the Direct Provision system was unlawfully established and continues to operate unlawfully on the basis of Ministerial Circulars. Essentially, that the Government departments responsible for Direct Provision are operating outside of their powers. The family is seeking an order to compel the relevant departments to bring forward proposals to put in place an appropriate statutory scheme for the reception for asylum seekers.

They also claim that the system is unconstitutional in that it infringes on their rights to private and family life and equality rights under the Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) due to their exclusion from social welfare and from the right to work.

It remains to be seen whether the High Court will grant the family leave to challenge the system of Direct Provision. Should the challenge be allowed, and be successful, what will this mean for Direct Provision?  Should the High Court find that operating the Direct Provision system without a legislative basis is an unlawful use of power, it may strike down the system and the Government will be compelled to bring forward legislative proposals.

What these look like may depend on what the courts find in relation to the challenges on the grounds of breaches to equality and the right to private and family life.  The Government will need to take these findings into account when drafting the new legislation if they want to avoid future challenges.

The Alternative

In its recent pre-budget submission, the IRC proposed granting rent allowance and a supplementary welfare allowance to asylum seekers, pending the successful outcome of their cases or their return to their countries of origin.  The proposal also grants asylum seekers the right to work after they have been in the asylum process for one year.  This would bring Ireland closer to, though still below, European minimum standards.

The IRC estimate that their proposal would save over €8 million annually, even if 100 per cent of asylum seekers are unable to find gainful employment.  Apart from the immediate cost savings, this proposal would allow asylum seekers to integrate, to improve their English and maintain their skills, so that in future they will be able to be independent either in Ireland or in their country of origin.  Crucially, it would allow asylum seekers to live in dignity and make basic decisions such as what to cook, when to eat and how to raise their children.  Decisions they are currently unable to make.

The Department of Justice considered a similar ‘social welfare’ option in its 2010 Value for Money Report.  Successive Ministers for Justice and proponents of Direct Provision have frequently quoted this report to support the notion that a ‘social welfare’ option would be just too expensive.

In fact the Value for Money Report found that the cost of the social welfare option was equivalent to that of Direct Provision.  However, the report went on to claim that if this option was introduced thousands of asylum seekers who are currently living outside of the Direct Provision system would come forward and costs would escalate unreasonably.

Means testing

The report offers no evidence that these additional thousands of asylum seekers are indeed still in the country.  Even if there are in fact an unknown number who could potentially be entitled, the IRC offers a simple solution: all asylum seekers claiming benefits must satisfy a means test.

Those who have been able to support themselves independently would therefore not be eligible for welfare.  Means testing is applied to most existing social welfare entitlements with the exception of the universal child benefit (which children of asylum seekers currently cannot claim).

Contrary to the alarmist claims, this High Court challenge could finally mean the end of wasting taxpayers’ money on an inhumane system.

Sharon is Communications and Public Affairs Officer at the Irish Refugee Council.  You can find out more about the campaign to end Direct Provision here.

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Sharon Waters

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