The Government should build more direct provision centres on State-owned land rather than using private contractors and relying on unsuitable and costly emergency accommodation as a short-term fix, former High Court judge Dr Bryan McMahon has said.
Dr McMahon told the Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality he was "totally against" the use of emergency accommodation for asylum seekers and called on the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) to expand its stock by building on State-owned sites.
More than 600 asylum seekers, including 88 children, are currently residing in hotels and B&Bs being used as emergency accommodation around the State at a cost of €99 per person per night.
Meanwhile, an estimated 700-800 people in direct provision centres who have received refugee status are unable to move out because of the lack of housing across the State.
Dr McMahon, who chaired the 2015 working group report into the direct provision system, warned that properties previously used as direct provision centres were becoming commercially viable and private contractors were losing the incentive to use them as accommodation centres.
Some €3.4 million was spent on providing emergency accommodation to 517 people between January and March of this year, according to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. An average of 319 people have applied for asylum each month in the past year, with each applicant costing the State €10,950 per year. The average waiting time for an interview with an International Protection Office official is between 8 and 10 months, falling from 19 months last year.
Enda O'Neill, head of Ireland's UN Refugee Agency, said despite a recent "moderate rise" in applications, the number of asylum seekers in Ireland was still far below the peak in 2002 when 11,634 applications were made. A total of 3,673 applications for asylum were made last year.
Vulnerability assessments should also play a role in where asylum seekers are housed while awaiting a decision on their application, said Mr O’Neill, adding that the asylum process was “bigger than just the Department of Justice” and that support was needed from all Government departments.
Dr McMahon said the often-remote location of direct provision centres means many asylum seekers are unable to access the labour market, despite the introduction of the right to work directive last year. He said asylum seekers faced additional challenges when they try to open bank accounts or get driving licences.
A total of 1,600 applications for access to work have been approved by the Department of Justice since the directive was introduced last year. Of these, 632 people have secured employment, Dr McMahon said.
There have been a lot of improvements. It's not perfect but this is a changing space
Asked if a completely new model should replace the current direct provision system, Dr McMahon said the accommodation crisis would place “serious limitations” on any new scheme.
Noting that the system was “not as bad as it was four years ago”, Dr McMahon said, “there have been a lot of improvements. It’s not perfect but this is a changing space,”and added that the situation should be monitored annually.
Brian Killoran, head of the Immigrant Council of Ireland, warned of additional challenges faced by trafficked women who are housed in direct provision. He said increased awareness among managers of the vulnerability of some residents is urgently needed, as is training in understanding human trafficking.
Despite some improvements within direct provision, the situation for victims of trafficking has not changed in any significant way, with some women experiencing sexual harassment in mixed-gender hostels, said Mr Killoran.
Ireland must move away from reactionary policies for asylum seekers and plan for the future of migration, he said.
“We have to plan and invest in it. We need to not be surprised by these issues when they come up. We need to be able to plan appropriately and be prepared rather than reacting all the time.”