Direct provision: broken system must be fixed

If past form is any guide, Government will offer minimum in abiding by Supreme Court ruling that asylum seekers be allowed work

Asylum seekers by definition live in limbo. In a new, unfamiliar country where they may lack the local language, social networks or an independent source of income, they live each day knowing that tomorrow could bring either the promise of long-term protection or the blow of a formal deportation letter. It’s a uniquely vulnerable position – one made all the more difficult for those who arrive after dangerous journeys, or bearing the trauma that caused them to flee home in the first place.

That vulnerability, and the voicelessness that goes with it, make it essential that the State pay special regard to the needs of those who come here seeking protection. Unfortunately, the centrepiece of the Republic’s asylum policy – direct provision – has been a stain on the State since its adoption in 2000. The system, under which refugee applicants are provided with accommodation, meals and a small weekly allowance but precluded from paid work, has been a boon to private accommodation providers – eight contractors were paid a total of €43.5 million last year alone – but it has left thousands of asylum seekers living in unacceptable conditions, at risk of mental health problems and in effect consigned to poverty. Chronic delays have meant that asylum seekers have spent years in these conditions.

Scandalously late though they were, some advances have been made in recent times. The International Protection Act 2015 allows asylum seekers apply for all forms of protection in one application. It has had a positive effect. In 2005, 36 per cent of applicants were in direct provision for three years or less; today it's 72 per cent. The trend is in the right direction, but waiting times must be shortened further. Of the recommendations contained in a 2015 report by retired judge Bryan McMahon, 98 per cent have been implemented fully or in part.

But major problems remain to be addressed. Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan spoke last week of the potential for new partnerships between the State and not-for-profit groups in providing services for asylum seekers. That would be welcome, but only if the State is serious about funding those services adequately rather than simply foisting its own responsibilities onto the charity sector.


More urgent still is the need to end the ban on asylum seekers joining the labour market. Governments have long been told that the blanket ban was harmful and wrong, but earlier this year the Supreme Court said it was also unconstitutional. That has focussed minds, and last week Flanagan said that at least some adult asylum seekers would soon have the right to work. If past form on asylum is any guide, the Government will offer the bare minimum. Instead, it should come up with a humane and generous response and show it is serious about fixing a broken system.