Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan announced at the weekend that Government policy is now to move towards the abolition of the system of direct provision. Taken at face value it is the most significant step in that direction in 20 years but should be treated with scepticism. One could be forgiven for believing that this was just another pretence of Government concern to quell growing societal objections to direct provision.
Flanagan’s comments followed the circulation to members of the Oireachtas on Friday of a note from an advisory group, headed by Catherine Day, former secretary-general of the European Commission. The group, containing activist and civil society representatives, was established last year along side an interdepartmental review of the direct provision system.
Day’s briefing note makes a number of recommendations for immediate implementation, pending the abolition of direct provision. Some of these recommendations are based on the unpublished interdepartmental review of direct provision that has been with Flanagan for the last number of weeks.
The most significant is a reduction in the time before people in direct provision can access the labour market, which I understand the interdepartmental group recommends be reduced to three months.
Other immediate recommendations simply ask the Government to implement what are already legal obligations on the State; vulnerability assessments are a legal obligation but have never been implemented. Asylum seekers in direct provision should have access to driving licences and bank accounts, but the State cannot be bothered to ensure this, and is still appealing the Workplace Relations Commission determination on the denial of driving licenses.
Surprisingly, no immediate recommendations have been made by the Day group to increase the meagre weekly allowances, or to respect the rights of children in direct provision by granting their parents access to child benefit.
More than 60,000 people have spent time in this system, surviving on a meagre weekly allowance
Similarly, a recognition of the Department of Justice’s abysmal failure and inhumanity in dealing with the direct provision system should have resulted in at least an attempt to remove the department from any involvement in what emerges.
However, hope should remain that this is turning point, even if past behaviours might indicate a high degree of scepticism is warranted.
The system of direct provision for persons seeking protection in Ireland has been in existence for more than 20 years. More than 60,000 people have spent time in this system, surviving on a meagre weekly allowance, often with canteen dining, sharing rooms with strangers for years, and families forced to live in tiny spaces.
Only in 2014, post The Irish Times Lives in Limbo series and protests by persons condemned to direct provision, did any real political reflection occur on the institutionalisation of persons seeking protection in Ireland.
The tepid recommendations in 2015 of the McMahon group responsible for suggested improvements of the direct provision system proved too much for a political and bureaucratic establishment who seemed to only want to debase and dehumanise persons seeking protection.
Recommendations on increasing weekly allowances took almost four years to come into effect after the McMahon report. The right to work was only achieved due to the Supreme Court case ruling against the absolute prohibition on the freedom to work for asylum seekers.
Other improvements, in particular the freedom to cook for about half of people in direct provision, did eventually emerge. Standards and independent inspections of direct provision accommodation centres recommended in the McMahon Report, that were to be implemented by 2017, resulted in further advisory groups. These standards are due to come into effect in January 2021, six years after being deemed urgent by the McMahon Report.
A stain on Ireland
Advisory groups can make recommendations but questions remain over the State’s commitment to implement them. The release may be an attempt to influence the Green Party during the government formation talks. The fact that activist and civil society members of the Day group were never informed that this briefing note was to be made public, should raise some eyebrows.
For the first 15 years of direct provision, and beyond, government commentary spoke in glowing terms of how wonderful such a system was. Incoherent comparisons, to the effect that protection seekers would fare much worse in other EU member states or their own countries of origin, abound.
Institutionalisation of disliked people in Irish society is nothing new. Direct provision should never have been established
Those of us who objected and marched against direct provision were told that we were being naive, unrealistic and that the system was as good as it possibly could be.
Now, the Minister for Justice has acknowledged that direct provision has to be “transformed” and the system as we know it will not exist, at least in time.
In recent days we have seen the Taoiseach admit that direct provision is “sub-standard”, even if he continued with the most offensive of comments that at least people in direct provision were not being murdered by the State.
Walking past direct provision centres in towns, villages and cities, these are often only identifiable by the fact that it is, in the main, black people and other people of colour in these centres.
Institutionalisation of disliked people in Irish society is nothing new. Direct provision should never have been established. It remains a stain on Ireland. The time cannot come quickly enough for the abolition of direct provision.