Asylum seekers living in State-funded emergency accommodation in a Co Monaghan hotel were "shipped like cattle" to Co Wexford to make way for a wedding, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality has heard.
The incident – which saw more than 100 asylum seekers in Treacy's Hotel in Carrickmacross moved late last year – was described as unacceptable by Oonagh Buckley, deputy secretary general of the Department of Justice.
Ms Buckley said that once the department learned of the incident, it contacted the provider of the direct provision accommodation, which was told that if such an incident happened again, the hotel would no longer be used for emergency accommodation for asylum seekers.
“The fact that it happened at all was unacceptable and we addressed it with the provider,” said Ms Buckley.
The committee met on Wednesday for the fourth and final time to discuss direct provision for asylum seekers seeking international protection before it publishes a report on the topic in the autumn.
The committeee visited two direct provision centres – Mosney in Co Meath and St Patrick's outside Monaghan town – last week as part of its review.
Fine Gael Senator Martin Conway said bussing people in emergency accommodation for hours to facilitate a wedding was "an appalling way" to treat people. He claimed that it "was not an isolated incident".
Fianna Fáil TD Jack Chambers asked the department officials what arrangements were being made to ensure standards in emergency accommodation matched those in direct provision centres "so we don't have this scenario about people being shipped like cattle around the country to facilitate the private provider". He described the episode as a "terrible disgrace".
Ms Buckley said the department wanted “to get out of the business of putting people into emergency accommodation” – a move that began in September due to a shortage of housing and increased demand for asylum – but it was working on child protection, educational needs and health screening standards.
There are 6,108 people being accommodated in 39 direct provision centres and a further 760 in emergency accommodation in hotels and guesthouses, the committee heard.
Ms Buckley described the use of emergency accommodation as “sub-optimal” as it prevented the department from providing the full range of services to applicants that the “traditional” centres provide.
“However, we must ensure that each person arriving today to claim protection, with no advance warning, has shelter, food and any urgent medical care required,” she said.
She conceded that people had been refused beds for the first time last August.
The committee was told that the department had intended emergency accommodation to be only a short-term measure and aimed to add 1,200 beds to direct provision centres by the end of the year.
Recent arson attacks on hotels in Moville, Co Donegal and Rooskey, Co Roscommon – both earmarked to become direct provision centres – had led to longer-than-intended use of emergency accommodation.
She said direct provision costs €78 million a year and could be “substantially” more than €100 million this year because of the use of emergency accommodation. Costs have topped €1.25 billion since 2001.
Ms Buckley said reducing the use of emergency accommodation was “extremely challenging” given the crisis in the housing sector.
Sinn Féin TD Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire said he believed direct provision had “lost the confidence of certainly the residents and I think it has lost the confidence of the Irish people”.