The Irish Times view on direct provision: dismantle a broken system
The centrepiece of the State’s asylum policy rested on assumptions that were wrong from day one
A demonstration in Dublin calling for anend to the direct provision system. Photograph: Tom Honan
In 1999, the then minister of state Liz O’Donnell caused a political storm when she described her own government’s asylum policy as “a shambles”. Direct provision – a system under which asylum seekers were provided with basic housing, meals and a small allowance but banned from taking up paid work – was the official response to the pressures that Fianna Fáil-led coalition faced on the issue.
Twenty years on, criticism of the State’s asylum policy is if anything even more intense than it was in 1999. Direct provision rested on an assumption that was wrong from the beginning: that asylum seekers would have their claims processed in a timely and fair manner and would only have to live in this punitive limbo-status for about six months. As the years passed, and as the numbers of applicants rose, the context changed dramatically, but the system remained the same. A byzantine, drawn-out process left people in remote hostels with no means of integrating into their community for years on end. Decisions were inconsistent. The appeals process was worse. The only people who did well out of the system were the owners of a lucrative accommodation business.
As the years passed, report after report highlighted the failings of a creaking system, detailing its damaging effects on mental health, on the wellbeing of children, on the integration prospects of newcomers. The Department of Justice seemed willing to tolerate the network’s shortcomings because it was driven above all by the need to avoid creating “pull factors” for others. Along the way, there were terrible policy decisions, not least a 2004 referendum to remove the automatic right to Irish citizenship of those born here.
More recently, some advances have been made. A 2014 working group led by former High Court judge Bryan MacMahon resulted in better conditions in many centres, and three years later the Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to impose a blanket ban on asylum seekers working – forcing Government into a shift it had always resisted. A new law compressed the drawn-out application process, and last year the Government finally transposed the EU’s Reception Conditions Directive into law, bringing the State into line with its continental counterparts.
Yet, today, direct provision is at breaking point. Some 6,000 people live in its centres. Almost 800 of these already have permission to remain here, but they cannot find anywhere to live in the midst of the housing crisis. Direct provision is full; another 1,500 people are in emergency accommodation. The time for tweaking at the edges of the system has passed. Direct provision has been a failure. It needs to be dismantled. In its place should go a fair, transparent publicly-run system that draws on the best international practices while ensuring that the dignity of the individual is its primary concern.