Direct provision: lives in limbo

Ombudsman’s report underlines need for systemic change

The social and psychological costs of the State’s asylum system have been clear for some time. Those who apply for refugee status are left waiting an indefensibly long time for a decision on their application. While they wait they live in a limbo called direct provision, under which they are banned from taking paid work and in effect forced to live on a meagre allowance in designated accommodation centres at a remove from the rest of society.

Countless studies have set out the damaging effects of that system on vulnerable asylum seekers, but a report from the Ombudsman this week provides fresh vindication for those who have long argued that the Department of Justice should allow far greater scrutiny of the system. Since April 2017, both the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for Children have been empowered to examine complaints from residents in direct provision centres. Complaints to date have covered food, staff attitudes, lack of cooking facilities and childcare, poor communication with residents and inadequate access to healthcare. The report outlines how the Ombudsman has succeeded, in small and often quiet ways, in mediating in disputes to the satisfaction of complainants and with cooperation from the authorities. As a result, daily life has improved for many residents.

Vitally important as such work is, however, the complaints merely underline the importance of systemic changes. Some advances are in train: for example, a new single application procedure will cut waiting times.

The biggest change of all is being forced on the Government. The Supreme Court ruled last year that the absolute ban on asylum seekers working was unconstitutional. The Government's response has been to announce it will finally opt into the EU's Reception Conditions Directive, which commits states to allowing asylum seekers work, but beyond a restrictive – and, it maintains – short-term regime, it has yet to set out how widely that right to work will be provided. The answer to that question will be the true test of the Government's concern for asylum seekers' welfare.