The Government will not introduce an improved alternative to the controversial direct provision system for asylum seekers because it fears it could end up being abused by refugees in the UK seeking better conditions over here.
A confidential 12-page briefing document circulated to Government members over recent days sets out a number of key reasons why the system should not be changed.
The material acknowledges the direct provision system here is “not ideal”, but says it allows the State to provide accommodation in an affordable manner at a time when it faces financial difficulties.
Recently disclosed inspection reports into State-funded asylum accommodation centres show evidence of overcrowding, poor fire safety practices and lapses in hygiene across several centres.
In total, there are 34 asylum accommodation centres run by private companies that accommodate 4,600 people. About a third of residents, some 1,700, are children.
The Government briefing document states that an alternative – such as providing housing and welfare payments for all asylum seekers – would cost the taxpayer twice the current amount.
"Leaving aside the considerable difficulty in putting in place alternative reception conditions for those asylum seekers already here . . . the biggest concern would be the 'pull factor' involved," the material states.
It states that the numbers arriving here have been falling – from 11,600 in 2002 to 1,000 in 2012 – bucking a generally upward trend across the EU.
"It has to be borne in mind that the Common Travel Area between Ireland and the UK – which for many decades has delivered immeasurable economic, social and cultural benefits – would possibly be abused by those using the asylum system simply to avail of the better State provision here," it adds.
Legal sources in Nothern Ireland say there is some evidence to suggest asylum seekers in the State are crossing the Border into the UK in greater numbers.
Earlier this year, the High Court in Northern Ireland quashed an order by UK authorities to remove a Sudanese asylum seeker and her three children back to the Republic, where they initially sought asylum, as it was not in the best interests of the children.
Given the conditions associated with the Republic’s direct provision system the judge said removing the family would amount to a failure to promote the children’s welfare.
In a Seanad debate on the system last week, Minister for Justice Alan Shatter again defended it on the basis that it provided a roof over the head of all asylum seekers.
He also said a new Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill would be published next year which would introduce a faster system of processing applications for asylum.
This would significantly reduce the length of time people spent in the direct provision system, he said.
The State body responsible for accommodation provision, the Reception and Integration Agency, has pointed out that asylum centres are contractually required to comply with legal requirements in relation to health and safety.
But conditions in the system – where asylum seekers spend an average of three years and eight months – have been heavily criticised by human rights groups, politicians and other campaigners.
Sinn Fein Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh yesterday called on the Minister to establish a taskforce to explore alternertives to the direct provision system which, he said, would better protect the welfare of residents.
"Anyone who has witnessed the misery and hopelessness of the system first-hand knows the system needs to change," he said. "There are alternatives in jurisdictions such as Portugal, which manage to meet the needs of asylum seekers in a cost-effective way which also respects people's rights."
Such a taskforce, he said, could include members of the Oireachtas, officials from the Reception and Integration Agency and non-governmental groups involved promoting the welfare of asylum seekers.