On April 10th, the system of direct provision for asylum seekers will be 14 years old.
In 2000 a system was put in place offering asylum seekers bed and board accommodation, and a small allowance of €19.10 a week per adult, with an additional €9.60 a week per child. The system of direct provision also provides health care through the medical card scheme, education up to the age of 18 for children of asylum seekers or children seeking asylum themselves. Asylum seekers are not entitled to any other form of welfare payment.
By the end of April 2000, there were 394 people in direct provision centres. At the start of 2014, there were 4,360 people in direct provision. This compares to a prison population of 4,053 in Ireland in February 2014. There are more than 1,600 people who have spent five or more years in direct provision. Over 3,000 people have been in direct provision centres for two or more years.
When direct provision was first introduced, by the then minister for justice, John O’ Donoghue, it was heralded as a short-term solution, whereby an asylum applicant would remain in direct provision for a period of six months. Once her claim was decided, an asylum seeker would either be granted refugee or some other status, or be deported back to her country of origin. However, the system did not develop in the way foreseen, and for a variety of reasons, the numbers in direct provision ballooned. In strict monetary terms, the system of direct provision benefits private operators quite handsomely, with some €62 million paid to owners of direct provision accommodation centres in 2012. Simon Harris TD (Fine Gael) noted in the Public Accounts Committee on March 13th, that the company operating Mosney direct provision centre, received more than €101 million between 2002 and 2012.
Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter has recognised “the length of time that residents spend in direct provision is an issue to be addressed . . .” (March 12th, 2014). However, the system of direct provision has been justified on the basis that without such a system, Ireland could face an increase in numbers applying for asylum. The system of direct provision is viewed by some as armour against the potential hoards, waiting to come en masse into Ireland if dignity and respect are placed at the heart of the system for determining asylum claims.
The long-promised streamlining of our asylum system has yet to occur, and even if it does, will not deal with the significant number of people already in direct provision. As of last month, there are over 1,000 asylum cases before the High Court. The design of the Irish asylum system is purposefully elongated, with separate applications for three different forms of protection status.
That such a system has been allowed develop over time may be unfortunate, that there is no urgency in reforming direct provision is unforgivable.
Direct provision has survived a massive economic boom and an enormous economic bust. Direct provision has endured despite moments of significant and deep reflection by the Irish political establishment and Irish society as a whole.
Only recently, as a society we reflected on our treatment of men, women and children in industrial schools, Magdalenes laundries, mental hospitals and borstals. Society’s capacity to look the other way, to not question; or to show scant regard for the rights of others remains. There have been many protests about direct provision system; but there has been little public engagement on the issue. We have had reports from non-governmental organisations, the Irish Human Rights Commission, the Ombudsman for Children, and the Special Rapporteur for Children, on the significant damage direct provision is causing its residents. Each report is either ignored or swept aside by government. Individuals, such as former Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuiness and former ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, raised significant concerns regarding direct provision. The Council of Europe, the United Nations and most recently the High Court of Northern Ireland have also made adverse comments on the system of direct provision. Still, the political system refuses to engage with the significant damage caused by it.
Dr Liam Thornton is a lecturer in law in UCD Sutherland School of Law. On April 10th he will host a 14-hour “blogathon” on the system of direct provision, for the group academic blog, Human Rights in Ireland, humanrights.ie