Short-term fixes drive direct provision system over long term

Housing crisis has worsened situation of asylum-seekers and creaking support system

In March 2000, at the dawn of Ireland’s direct provision system, the Department of Justice issued a detailed statement on how it saw the future.

In the preceding five months, 5,700 asylum applications had been filed.

The department estimated 8,000 new places would be required to accommodate those arriving in search of a new life in the future.

Accommodation for 4,000 should be delivered as quickly as possible, it said, but in the short to medium term other options would have to be considered.

“The ideal way to meet this requirement, obviously,” the then minister for justice John O’Donoghue said in a statement, “is by providing permanently-built accommodation and this is what the government plans to do”.

Fast forward two decades, and it seems the State is still stuck using short-term options. Applications approached a 10-year peak late last year and in January the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) – the organisation responsible for providing accommodation – urgently began looking to the private sector for additional capacity.

“RIA remains under severe pressure due to a rising number of applications for international protection with an average of 50 to 60 new applicants presenting weekly,” the department said. “RIA is working to increase capacity as a matter of urgency and has commenced a public procurement process.”

Housing crisis

Meanwhile, the housing crisis continues to bite in a country supposedly enjoying renewed economic fortune. This complication has dramatically worsened the situation for asylum-seekers and the creaking system supporting them.

In 2018, there were 3,673 applications for asylum, while figures for mid-February show 6,290 people living in direct provision centres scattered around the country. Last month, about 700 were still living in direct provision even though they had received permission to remain in Ireland.

Things have changed hugely since the 91 applications for asylum Ireland received in 1993, just as the country was emerging from a long economic winter. In 2000, as well as its plans for purpose-built accommodation, the then government said it would need to purchase hotels and other centres.

“Although the government is reluctant to contemplate options other than permanently-built accommodation, the reality is that given the shortage generally of accommodation, domestically, there is no choice but to look to other solutions,” it said, noting prefabs, hotels and hostels, and even mobile homes would be considered.

By the end of 2007 there were 62 centres, just seven of which were State owned, according to data from the RIA. In 2010, seven of 46 centres were State owned. In 2014, it was seven out of 34 centres, and by 2016, seven of 33.

Of the 5,230 total capacity in 2016, 1,160 was in State-owned facilities, including two prefabs, one mobile-home site, and four hotels and hostels. Meanwhile, 23 privately-contracted hotels and hostels offered 3,622 spaces, or 69 per cent of the total.

Long-term strategy

"Direct provision has been a system that has been wholly reliant on private operators," said Nick Henderson, chief executive of the Irish Refugee Council. "We haven't ever thought in a strategic long-term way about how we home people and we are feeling the effects of that now because the direct provision system is full."

Figures are constantly fluctuating but the number of those seeking asylum in Ireland at the beginning of 2018 began to spike, heading quickly towards record levels.

Last year, Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan said a notable increase had begun in 2017 and represented the first upsurge since a "steady decline" in numbers took hold in 2008.

Last January, it emerged the number of those filing asylum claims in Ireland was on course to reach its highest level in 10 years.

The volume of applicants has also led to oversubscription of some centres – five of 40 were identified as such last month. Much of this overcrowding is put down to difficulties experienced by those who have been given leave to remain in Ireland but who cannot access alternative accommodation.

"Today we know there are over 700 people who have been granted international protection but who don't have the means to get a foothold in the private rental sector and so who are forced to remain in the direct provision accommodation system," said Emily Logan chief commissioner at the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission.

“The commission has also heard from people who have faced discrimination while seeking accommodation.”

In the meantime, direct provision centres are located overwhelmingly outside Dublin, a factor that has drawn criticism.

Asked why, the department said no private accommodation owners in the capital had responded to its requests for additional capacity.

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times