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Opinion: Happy 14th birthday, Direct Provision – just think of everything you haven't achieved!

Those of us who work with asylum seekers can speak to the dehumanising and demoralising effect that life in the direct provision system has on its inhabitants.

Image: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

THIS YEAR THE Direct Provision system turned 14 years old. Direct Provision is the name given to the system whereby asylum seekers are provided accommodation and food in designated hostels across the country. A bed, access to meals and a small weekly allowance (€19.10 for an adult and €9.60 for a child) is all the support that the State provides to asylum seekers. Under Irish legislation asylum seekers are prohibited from entering employment or accessing social welfare payments.

Asylum seekers remain in these centres for years waiting for their cases to be dealt with by legislative procedures that are clearly not fit for purpose.

For the past 14 years, NGOs working in this area (who are predominantly not State funded) have been outspoken in their criticism of the direct provision system – both of the conditions that people are housed in, and the length of time that they remain there, awaiting an outcome to their case. Those of us who work with asylum seekers can speak to the dehumanising and demoralising effect that life in the Direct Provision system has on its inhabitants.

It has been compared to imprisonment, to the Magdalene laundries and other institutions that we had hoped were in our past. While he was the opposition spokesperson for Justice, Alan Shatter TD likened the system to a prisoner of war camp. We have led marches, protested outside the gates of the Dáil, written innumerable letters to our elected representatives and campaigned to highlight to the public the grossly inadequate nature of the accommodation and services that are provided to asylum seekers under the Direct Provision system but the State proved intractable, at least until recently.

The eyes of Ireland fall on Direct Provision 

In the past twelve months, there has been a huge re-engagement across all sectors of society with Direct Provision. The issue of direct provision arises again and again in parliamentary questions; we see or hear interviews with asylum seekers and criticism of the direct provision system on the radio, in our newspapers and on TV. Perhaps most importantly, the issue has arisen in our courts.

At present the High Court case of CA & TA (a minor) v Minister for Justice is examining the legislative basis for the Direct Provision system and whether the constitutional rights of its inhabitants are being breached. By any standards this is a landmark case and we can only salute the bravery and selflessness of the asylum seekers, known only by their initials, who were willing to take the case and expose the true nature of the conditions in these centres. It cannot be easy to sue the State when you know that they hold your future and that of your family in the palm of their hand.

The reaction of the State to the increased coverage of the issue has been interesting. Despite the State vigorously defending the direct provision system in the High Court and before the United Nations in Geneva, recently appointed Junior Minister Aodhan O Riordain has stated publicly that, “None of us can stand over it, it’s just not acceptable” and that the reform of direct provision is a priority.

He has suggested that the right to work, granted by almost all other EU countries, might be given to asylum seekers however Minister for Justice Francis FitzGerald quickly shot down that suggestion. She has, however, agreed to an Independent Working Group to examine the issue and make recommendations to the Government. This position of openly criticising the system of direct provision and calling for its reform in the domestic media while defending it before the High Court and international human rights bodies is simply disingenuous.

Constant fire-fighting mode

The confusion is symptomatic of the State’s disjointed and piecemeal response when it comes to asylum reform. The State seems to just react to crises precipitated by Irish and EU court judgements. There have been three draft bills before the Oireachtas since 2007 which would have drastically reformed asylum law but none were passed. The Fine Gael-Labour Coalition included a commitment to reforming the legislation in their 2011 Programme for Government but no legislation has as of yet been put forward.

In 2007 the State amended the Social Welfare Consolidation Act, 2005 to specifically exclude asylum seekers from accessing social welfare payments with the result that the weekly allowances of €19.10 to asylum seekers do have any basis in legislation and are not included as an item of expenditure in the annual budget.

Nasc has welcomed the introduction of the Independent Working Group but, in light of the State’s previous form when it comes to Direct Provision, it is hard not to be sceptical of the proposals. We need to know that the Minister is open to acting on the recommendations of the Working Group and that the report won’t just sit gathering dust for years. We need to know that the Minister for Justice is open to real reform of the direct provision system so that any new proposal is not just a ‘direct provision lite’.

What does the Minister propose to do with the hundreds of asylum seekers who have been living in direct provision for years, but who will not be affected by new protection legislation – can she commit to dealing with such cases in an efficient and pragmatic fashion?

Fewer than 1,000 people sought asylum in Ireland last year. To put this figure in perspective, there were approximately 330,000 applications for asylum made in total in the EU. It should not be too much to ask that the State implement an efficient and humane system for dealing with asylum applicants when we receive only a tiny fraction of the asylum seekers coming to the Union. In the meantime, the only beneficiaries of the system are the 17 private companies making substantial profits from owning or running the hostels.

Fiona Hurley holds a Bachelor of Law degree (BCL) and a Master of Law (LLM) from UCC; she has a particular interest in international law and especially in the protection of minority rights. Fiona completed an internship in the Nasc Legal Information Clinics in 2010 and was subsequently appointed Legal Information and Capacity-Building Officer. Fiona also has special responsibility for capacity building, and provides training on immigration law to Citizens Information Centres, NGOs and other relevant bodies nationwide.

Direct Provision: ‘None of us can stand over it, it’s just not acceptable’

Opinion: Ireland warehouses asylum-seekers, institutionalises them and leaves them in limbo

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