Ireland can and must do much better for asylum seekers

Catherine Day: We need a system that makes us proud of how we treat vulnerable people

In June this year the incoming Government took an important decision to end the direct provision system for asylum seekers. This was not because of voter pressure but because of the conviction that the system is not fit for purpose and should be changed.

The problems of the direct provision system in Ireland are well known and have been the subject of many reports and much criticism. Living for extended periods in unsuitable accommodation prevents people from living a normal family life, affects their mental health and saps their motivation. It also frustrates the ambition of many asylum seekers to contribute to Irish society.

Today there are almost 2,000 children living in direct provision in Ireland. They have reported feeling stigmatised because of living in direct provision centres, and suffering from a lack of privacy and space for doing everyday things, such as homework.

In October 2019 the then minister for justice and equality, Charlie Flanagan, asked me to chair a group to advise on a long-term approach to providing support to people seeking international protection in Ireland. The advisory group, whose report was published on October 21st, concluded that a new system was required to meet Ireland’s EU and international obligations.


Such a system should provide dignity and respect for the rights of people who are often at the lowest and most vulnerable points in their lives, fleeing persecution in their home countries. This new permanent system for receiving asylum seekers must have three key elements.


First, we need to speed up the time it takes to decide to grant or not to grant asylum seekers the right to stay in Ireland. Today it takes 11-19 months to reach a first decision. If that decision is negative and the applicant appeals, it can take a further eight months before a decision is taken. Some cases take much longer – 2,298 people have been waiting more than three years. We propose that first decisions be taken within six months and that appeals be decided within a further six months.

Second, we need to end direct provision and move people out of their current accommodation in former hotels, convents and guesthouses which are not designed for long-term stays. The outbreak of Covid-19 has starkly underlined the unsuitability of this accommodation. While in the reception process, people need to be able to live in own-door accommodation that respects their rights to privacy and family life. We propose that, after an initial period in a State-owned reception centre, they be moved into temporary housing provided across the country by local authorities.

As a country we are capable of great compassion for the plight of people less fortunate than ourselves

Third, we need to work to integrate people who get permission to remain in Ireland into local communities as soon as possible. We should welcome them and factor their presence, needs and potential contribution to society into future planning for housing, health, education and transport.

We hope to see these issues addressed and our recommendations incorporated in the White Paper scheduled by Government for the end of 2020.

Cost-effective proposals

The advisory group consisted of very experienced former senior public servants and representatives of three NGOs which work with asylum seekers. Our report sets out realistic and cost-effective proposals to improve the experience of people seeking protection in Ireland.

If implemented, the proposed new system would be less costly for the State and more humane than the present system. We are all well aware that the current situation cannot change overnight, particularly when there is such pressure on the housing market. That is why we propose a 2½-year transition to the new system which should be in place by mid-2023 and a number of transitional steps for the intervening years.

We need to eradicate backlogs, speed up decision-making and provide decent accommodation for asylum seekers. We need a “whole-of-government” approach with a clear implementation plan and transparent monitoring at both political and administrative levels. It should incorporate an early warning system so action can be taken quickly if delays start to build up.

A number of Government departments and agencies need to work together with local authorities and civil society organisations to meet the objectives and deadlines we have proposed.

Our report comes five years after the McMahon Report set out the many problems with the current direct provision system. Despite clear, workable recommendations, accepted by government at that time, many of the core problems were not addressed. This is largely because sufficient resources were not invested in implementing the recommendations and there was no cross-government commitment to change.

As a country we pride ourselves on being Ireland of the welcomes and we are capable of great compassion for the plight of people less fortunate than ourselves. We can and must do much better in terms of how we take care of asylum seekers. Our report shows how we can deliver a well-functioning system that makes us proud of how we treat vulnerable people and help them to build new lives here in peace and security.

Catherine Day is a former secretary general of the European Commission and is a governor of The Irish Times Trust.