The Irish Times view on direct provision: an end is now in sight
An overhaul of this indefensible system must be included in the programme for the next government
A small protest last month calling for the end of direct provision gathered outside the Dáil. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
It’s now 21 years since the State introduced its system of direct provision for asylum seekers. Its failings were apparent almost immediately. Conditions varied across the network of mostly privately-run accommodation centres. A policy of “dispersal” meant many newcomers found themselves in isolated areas with poor services and few social outlets. Inspection regimes were inadequate and the State’s reliance on private providers blurred the lines of accountability.
Deterrence was built into the system. Overseen by the Department of Justice, which was driven by fear of “pull factors”, direct provision offered asylum seekers meals and a meagre allowance but no access to paid work and little chance to integrate. These limitations were morally wrong, but they also rested on an assumption that was soon undermined: in theory people were to live in these centres for a short period but in practice, because the State’s byzantine system was incapable of processing cases speedily, many ended up staying for years. The cost in mental health of such institutionalisation has been well documented.
There have been some improvements. The application process is quicker, appeals are more transparent and conditions in many centres improved as a result of a 2014 working group led by former High Court judge Bryan MacMahon. In 2017, a landmark was reached when the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to impose a blanket ban on asylum seekers working.
Such an overhaul of this indefensible system must be included in the programme for the next government
Building on that reformist momentum, an expert group led by Catherine Day, a former secretary general of the European Commision (and a member of the Irish Times Trust), is due to make its own recommendations for change in September. A briefing note from the group identifies a list of steps that could immediately improve the situation, including extending the right to work, exploration of alternative housing models and ensuring binding standards for centres are applied and enforced by January 2021. It also suggests moving away from emergency accommodation and reducing the time taken to process decisions.
Some of these ideas have circulated before, but the imprimatur of a Government-established group will give them invaluable impetus within the system. Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan said at the weekend that “root and branch reform” of the system and the policy behind it was now required. That is welcome, though it’s a pity that such forthright comments are emerging from Government as it prepares to leave office.
Now that the expert group has helpfully signalled its areas of focus, Government can get to work on addressing some of the issues that could improve applicants’ lives in the short-term while beginning broader preparations for a new model for the long-term. Such an overhaul of this indefensible system must be included in the programme for the next government.