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Covid-19 crisis highlights how 'unsuitable' some Direct Provisions conditions are, Ombudsman says

The Ombudsman today published his annual commentary on Direct Provision complaints.

Ombudsman Peter Tyndall
Ombudsman Peter Tyndall
Image: Sam Boal via RollingNews.ie

THE HIGHLY CONTAGIOUS nature of the Covid-19 virus has highlighted the unsuitability of some accommodation in the Direct Provision system, Ombudsman Peter Tyndall has said. 

The Ombudsman’s annual commentary on his experience of dealing with complaints in 2019 from those in the system has been published today. 

Those in Direct Provision are asylum seekers, ie, they have applied for international protection. Those that are granted asylum are then classed as refugees.

People in Direct Provision are often in cramped living conditions with shared facilities such as kitchens.

In his commentary, Tyndall specifically addressed the issues faced by those in Direct Provision during the pandemic. 

“In my view, the crisis, and in particular the highly contagious nature of the virus, brings into sharp relief just how unsuitable and unsustainable it is to have three or more people in the same room as is the case in many Direct Provision centres, particularly those being used on an emergency basis,” Tyndall said.

On 31 March, the Justice Department announced that more than 650 new beds have been made available for those in Direct Provision during the Covid-19 emergency. 

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan said that the new beds “will provide valuable additional accommodation to support the measures required for vulnerable residents”.

In a joint statement today, the Department of Justice and the HSE said a range of measures have been put in place. 

“The established procedure across all centres where a person is suspected of having the virus or is confirmed as having the virus, is that where advice by public health, they are moved to a dedicated offsite self-isolation facility.

“Supports are available for the duration of their period of quarantine until such time as the HSE considers that they can return to their centre with no risk to other residents or staff. ”

Despite his criticism, Tyndall said he “acknowledges how quickly the International Protection Accommodation Service of the Department of Justice and Equality has moved to address the practical difficulties the onset of Covid-19 has presented”. 

The Department of Justice has confirmed that the vast majority of the rooms in the new accommodation being used to support social distancing are two rooms accommodating two people. 

Anyone being accommodated who is deemed as having a vulnerability is being provided with their own bedroom and their own bathroom to facilitate cocooning, the Department said. 

“We know that older people, especially those aged 70 or older, are particularly vulnerable to this virus. Residents in our centres are generally young, fit and healthy. We have already gone further than the HSE guidelines by implementing cocooning measures for those aged 65 years or older,” the Department of Justice said in a statement to TheJournal.ie. 

“We are guided by public health experts in managing all challenges associated with the virus in communal settings and we are continuing to work intensively on managing the challenges of the pandemic and expect to make further announcements in the coming days,” it said. 

Outbreak

It was reported this week that Covid-19 testing is being carried out at a Direct Provision centre in Co Kerry after an outbreak there. 

It comes after reports that 70 asylum seekers were moved to a different centre despite a case of Covid-19 being confirmed in a hotel guest in their previous centre, a Dublin hotel, weeks earlier. 

The Department has declined to confirm if the cohort moved from Dublin include residents now living at the Skellig Star Hotel in Cahersiveen. 

Speaking of accommodation situations in Direct Provision in general, Tyndall said it is his belief that “at the very least rooms housing more than two people should not be used, and that unrelated people should not be expected to share rooms for an extended time”. 

He added that the Department of Justice has confirmed that “it intends, post Covid-19, to move towards having no more than three persons sharing accommodation, when such persons are not family members”. 

Complaints

The number of people in the Direct Provision system increased by 30% during 2018, and by a further 16% by early 2020. 

Staff at the Ombudsman office visited 26 accommodation centres in 2019, including some unannounced visits. 

The Ombudsman saw a 10.5% increase in the number of complaints made to his office – from 152 in 2018 to 168 in 2019. 

Complaints ranged from the length of time spent in emergency accommodation, transfers to other accommodation, access to schools for children, food facilities and access to GP services and medical cards. 

The Ombudsman said the most significant change he saw in 2019 was the increase in the number of applicants for international protection temporarily living in emergency accommodation in hotels, guesthouses and B&B accommodation. 

At the start of 2020, there were 1,524 people in 37 different locations across the country. 

“Current Direct Provision accommodation is not appropriate for anything other than short-term stay,” Tyndall said. 

“Emergency accommodation is even more inappropriate. It is unacceptable that people who have sought refuge here can find themselves in accommodation that is entirely unsuitable for a prolonged period – up to 16 months and longer in some cases,” he said. 

Includes reporting by Cónal Thomas and Michelle Hennessy.

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