State policy drives asylum seekers into real poverty
OPINION:Poverty is not just about income or needs, it is about being part of society
Since 2000 the State has provided accommodation and food for people claiming asylum in centres across the State while their claims for international protection are processed.
The system is described by the Reception and Integration Agency of the Department of Justice as “full board and accommodation free of utility or other cost” intended “to ensure material needs [of asylum seekers] are met”. It is known as direct provision.
At the end of last year, there were 38 centres across 17 counties with capacity for just over 6,000 residents. The average number of residents accommodated was 5,000. Of those living in these centres, 38 per cent were children.
Among the properties were three pre-fabricated structures, a mobile home site, a former holiday camp and 28 former hostels or hotels. They cost €63.5 million to run, paid almost exclusively to private commercial enterprises on contract to the State. That is over €12,500 a resident, none of which was paid to asylum seekers themselves.
Compare that with the weekly allowance which asylum seekers receive for their own or their children’s support, which has remained the same for more than 12 years – €19.10 a week for adults and €9.60 a week for a child. This is less than €3,000 for a family of four for 12 months.
In 2012, more than 60 per cent of residents had lived in such centres for over three years. While children under 18 have access to State education, adults are limited to classes in English and IT and have no right to seek work (in contrast to every other EU country).
Asylum seekers are living in poverty over a sustained period of time as a matter of State policy.
The following is a definition of poverty first adopted by the government in 1997 and which is in the National Action Plan for Social Inclusion 2007-2016: “People are living in poverty if their income and resources (material, cultural and social) are so inadequate as to preclude them from having a standard of living which is regarded as acceptable by Irish society generally.
“As a result of inadequate income and resources, people may be excluded and marginalised from participating in activities which are considered the norm for other people in society.”
Poverty is not simply about a particular level of income or the provision that is made to provide for the basic needs of people. It is also about participation in society.
That is denied to asylum seekers in Ireland by the State providing for their basic needs while also denying them the opportunity to provide for themselves or their family, access to education for adults and restrictions placed on them in their daily activities.
The nature of the direct provision system means that asylum seekers are unable to participate in society – centres are sometimes at a distance from local communities; rooms are shared (families including parents and teenage children of different sexes sometimes sharing the same room); meals are in a collective canteen – there is no opportunity for most asylum seekers to make their own meals; the accommodation is not suitable (even if allowed) for visitors and the small weekly allowance severely limits the ability to participate in wider society.
Children experience poverty differently from their parents because they understand that they are different from their classmates who do not live in direct provision.
The impact of the system on children was raised in November by the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner in a letter to Minister for Justice Alan Shatter.
The commissioner said asylum seekers were being kept in facilities which had “negative consequences on their mental health, family ties and integration prospects . . . asylum seekers, in particular children, are spending a long time in facilities designed for short-term accommodation”.
The system of direct provision was developed as an urgent response to an immediate need. There were almost 11,000 new asylum seekers in 2000; in 2012, there were just 950. Whatever the rationale for the system more than 12 years ago, it has not only outlived its necessity but, more importantly, it is damaging those within the system and Ireland’s reputation for human rights in the international community.
Sue Conlan is chief executive of the Irish Refugee Council. This article is based on a presentation to a conference organised by the European Migration Network (Ireland) in Dublin last month.