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Department asks Direct Provision centre owners to prove living conditions allegations are 'clearly false'

“IPAS is more concerned about protecting their reputation and the reputations of private contractors,” said Nasc CEO Fiona Finn.

Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan
Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan
Image: RollingNews.ie

THE DEPARTMENT OF Justice & Equality last month made an “urgent request” to Direct Provision centre owners to help them challenge what it called “clearly false” allegations made online about conditions in Ireland’s asylum accommodation system. 

In a letter sent to centre managers on 15 May, the International Protection Application Service (IPAS) asked for assistance to challenge allegations made online “that are clearly false” regarding Direct Provision centre conditions by requesting photos of food served at centres and descriptions of measures implemented during Ramadan. 

IPAS is responsible for administering the Direct Provision system of accommodation in Ireland, as well as sourcing new centres. 

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Department of Justice & Equality told centre managers it had been dealing with a “significant increase” in queries regarding individual accommodation centres and the services provided.

“The queries often stem from posts on social media, containing anonymous testimonies from persons claiming to be centre residents and photos,” IPAS wrote to centre managers. 

According to IPAS, these photos show poor standard of food hygiene and food preparation, a lack of Halal meats for residents observing Ramadan, a general lack of meal choices, poor quality cleaning in bedrooms and common areas and overcrowded rooms.  

“We need your assistance to challenge these allegations where they are clearly false, both at source on social media and when raised in media queries,” IPAS said. 

IPAS requested that centre managers forward photographs of food served at breakfast, lunch and dinner on any one day, as well as a photo or description of menus available to asylum seekers living in Direct Provision. 

In addition, IPAS asked centres to forward photos of social distancing measures which have been implemented, on-site isolation rooms and photos of residents’ rooms as well any “enhanced” cleaning measures implemented during Covid-19. The Department has said it could not carry out inspections at centres at the time. 

The Department said it understood the request amounted to a significant amount of additional information and material to provide, but added, “It will assist us in responding to issues raised with the Department quickly and will challenge some of the misinformation being spread on social media sites about [Direct Provision] centres.”

‘Appalling’

In recent weeks, the Department and IPAS have come under fire after an outbreak of Covid-19 at the Skellig Star Hotel in Caherciveen, Co Kerry as well the conditions highlighted within the centre. 

Last week, the Department said “no major issues” arose from a surprise inspection of the Central Hotel in Miltown Malbay, Co Clare after local residents called for the centre’s closure following allegations of rodent issues, a lack of space and issues with shared accommodation at the centre. 

For several years, NGOs and human rights organisations have called for greater scrutiny of the management and conditions at Direct Provision centres through an independent inspectorate as well as more regular surprise inspections. 

The Department has not published any Direct Provision centre inspections since January 2019. 

Conditions at certain Direct Provision centres have been a source of controversy since the system was set up in 1999. 

Last year, it was announced that Mount Trenchard Direct Provision centre in Co Limerick, widely reported as the worst centre in Ireland, would close after conditions there were described by one resident as being like “guantanamo bay”. 

Across the country, private contractors have been paid over €1 billion since 2000 to operate centres on behalf of the State. Several have moved to off-shore accounts in recent years. 

Fiona Finn, CEO of Nasc, has described the email sent by IPAS to centre managers as “appalling”. 

“It goes right to the heart of a culture of disbelief when it comes to residents’ complaints about their living conditions,” said Finn.

It appears that instead of taking residents’ claims seriously and investigating them properly, the IPAS is more concerned about protecting their reputation.

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“IPAS are continually telling centre residents to come to them and tell them when there is a problem and IPAS will investigate. This will do nothing to inspire confidence that any real investigations take place,” she added. 

“Instead, it reinforces the belief that the IPAS is incapable of being an impartial arbiter when it comes to conditions in direct provision centres,” said Finn. 

“The fact that photogenic meals were served to centre residents one day does nothing to prove that this is the norm for that centre. Direct provision must end but until it does, we need an independent inspector to protect centre residents.”

In response to the letter, a spokesperson for the Department said the request to owners “is in no way a replacement for a proper inspection regime”.

“Accommodation centre inspections look at a wide range of issues such as fire safety, food hygiene, food quality, information provision, general security and emergency details, child protection issues, provision of TV and Wi-Fi services, staff rosters and the upkeep of all communal areas and bedrooms,” they added.

“Any issues identified are communicated in writing to the service provider and they are required to address any issue identified immediately. Staff from IPAS follow up to ensure that all notified issues have been addressed and remedied.”

“We take complaints from residents very seriously and all residents are made fully aware of their ability to contact the Department at any time in confidence to raise any queries or concerns,” the spokesperson said. 

During Covid-19 there is “daily contact with the Centres on a wide range of matters, including following up on any complaints from residents,” they added. 

The Department has also funded a health line through SafetyNet so that the Centre can raise any matter of concern by residents, they said, and  a risk assessment framework has been developed with the HSE, which has been applied to all centres in recent weeks.

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