Asylum seekers who spend long periods of time in the controversial direct provision system should be extended the right to work, Minister of State Aodhán Ó Riordáin has said.
His position clashes with that of Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald, who has ruled out any such move.
Both Ministers are due to host the first meeting of a Government working group this week, which is reviewing the controversial accommodation system for those people seeking refugee status.
“I can’t stand over a system which belittles people, which forces people to live in intolerable conditions,” Mr Ó Riordáin told The Irish Times.
“Work after a certain period of time should be an option. If people spend long periods of time here and aren’t allowed to work, they either retreat into themselves or find a parallel economy . . . We should be using the skills of people living here, just like the vast majority of other EU member states do.”
Ireland is one of two EU member states – the other is Lithuania – which bars asylum seekers from working under all circumstances.
Many countries offer a limited or qualified right to work, either after a period of time or for work in certain sections of the economy.
Mr Ó Riordáin, who is Minister of State at the Department of Justice with special responsibility for equality, said all issues should be up for review as part of the working group’s remit.
Tensions in a number of direct provision centres have been rising in recent weeks, with three separate protests at which residents have refused food.
Overall, more than 4,000 asylum seekers, including 1,600 children, live in 34 reception centres – mostly former hostels or hotels – under the the direct provision system. The average length of stay is almost four years, although some have been living in the system for anything up to 14 years.
Mr Ó Riordáin said he hoped the working group’s deliberations would be completed within a three-month period, with firm proposals on how to improve the system ready in the new year.
Services for children
The group is likely to examine issues such as the length of time residents spend in direct provision centres; services for children; welfare supports for asylum seekers; and restrictions on higher education and work.
Ms Fitzgerald, however, has agreed that some changes may be needed to the direct provision system, but has ruled out lifting work restrictions on the basis of unemployment levels here or providing an amnesty for those resident in the direct provision system for long periods of time.
Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan publicly expressed her support for Mr Ó Riordáin and said changes were needed to improve educational opportunities for children living in direct provision.
“This is an issue we need to address as quickly as possible it is not a good system particularly for children.”