No easy task as Government plans to end decades of direct provision

Department admits replacing system for asylum seekers more complex than foreseen

More than two decades ago, in March 2000, the Irish Government announced the launch of new accommodation system for asylum seekers called direct provision, laying out plans to build thousands of permanent spaces to house people seeking international protection. Most of this accommodation never materialised and the State went on to spend more than €1.4 billion on the system, the majority of this money going to private providers.

Twenty-one years later, in the midst of a global pandemic, the Government has today announced its plan to end this for-profit housing model with proposals to build six State-run reception centres as an initial stop-off point for asylum seekers before they move into independent housing in the community.

The complete overhaul of a system repeatedly criticised by NGOs, advocacy groups, legal experts and political figures is no easy task and the details laid out by the Department of Children and Equality to build a model focused on "integration into Ireland from day one" is extremely ambitious. In today's White Paper the department admits the development of a multi-strand accommodation approach will be "inherently more complex" than what was foreseen.

The plan for ending direct provision within the Coalition Government's lifetime includes many of the recommendations made by the advisory group led by former secretary general of the European Commission Dr Catherine Day along with the findings from the inter-departmental group on direct provision.

In October, Dr Day said the State’s “dysfunctional” and “reactive” asylum model, which condemned thousands of vulnerable people to a life in limbo, had been allowed to evolve over two decades “without proper design” and called for the introduction of a “more humane” protection system.

If the Government can successfully house Syrians through its Refugee Protection Programme (set up in 2015 in response to the migrant crisis), then it should extend the same generosity to asylum seekers from other countries, said Dr Day. “I was very surprised when I started this work to discover that we have different kinds of refugees in Ireland – some get much better support and treatment than others.”

However, Dr Day warned she was “absolutely convinced” a new system would fail unless the large backlog of people awaiting a decision on their claims was substantially reduced and urged the State to give five years leave to remain to any person who had been in the system longer than two years.

The expert group estimated a new system would cost €142.6 million per year, far below the €672 million cited in today’s report for the overall cost of building new reception centres, hiring staff and acquiring accommodation in the community.

In its response to the Day report, the Department of Housing described the group’s accommodation proposals as “unrealistic”, saying they threatened the State’s ability to house homeless people. It warned local authorities would not be able to find enough accommodation for asylum seekers and that additional pressure on the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) would have “a very serious impact” across the entire housing budget and “would inevitably lead to rental inflation”.

Shortly before Christmas 2020, the IHREC recommended in its White Paper submission that direct provision should be replaced by a “two-stage accommodation system addressing people’s needs as they arrive” with longer-term accommodation made available within three months.

In January, the Irish Refugee Council (IRC) advised that responsibility for asylum accommodation should remain with the Department of Children for now but be transferred to the housing department in the longer term. A "blend" of housing models should replace direct provision including a combination of large and small "approved housing body" accommodation, State-built housing and community renewal and social enterprise style provision, it said. While the IRC supported the Day recommendation that local councils be involved in housing for asylum seekers, it suggested new regional "accommodation committees" be set up to manage the delivery of accommodation.

It advised that all emergency accommodation centres be closed by the end of 2021 and urged the Government not to renew any direct provision contracts.

Application times

The council also echoed the expert group’s recommendation that applicants who have been in the system for two years or more be given leave to remain under a “one-off, simplified, case-processing approach”. The Department of Justice has not yet indicated whether it is seriously considering this option.

If agreed upon, this amnesty for those languishing in the system would be the Government's second attempt at clearing the backlog of applications through a fast-tracking system – the first came after the 2015 report by former High Court judge Bryan McMahon. However, unless processing times for asylum claims speed up straight away, future backlogs will inevitably emerge and threaten the rollout of the new system.

The Day report states first-time applications should be processed in six months and Government has committed to doing this within nine months but the latest figures show people are waiting more than 20 months for that first decision. A justice official said on Thursday his department had introduced a range of measures to speed up the process including ICT improvements and virtual interviews.

The Department of Justice has blamed the pandemic for the latest delays but Covid-19 should not be used as an excuse for putting the livelihoods of asylum seekers on hold. If the Government is serious about ending direct provision and overhauling the asylum process by the end of 2024, waiting until the economy fully reopens is not an option. After more than two decades of deterrence, the time to end direct provision is now.