White Paper a big step towards ending direct provision

Catherine Day: Political will and regular monitoring needed to deliver on paper’s ambitions

The recent publication of a White Paper on ending the 20-year-old direct provision system marks a welcome commitment to end a system that has long been criticised by Irish and international human rights organisations.

Most importantly, the White Paper puts the asylum seeker at the centre of future asylum policy, taking a human rights approach built on mutual respect and trust. It recognises that people seeking safety and a new life in Ireland have often been through deeply traumatic experiences and can suffer very high levels of post-traumatic disorder.

The new approach would accommodate asylum seekers in six, regionally located, State-owned own door/own room reception centres for an initial four months, and help them begin to prepare for life in Ireland, through intensive supports ranging from health and vulnerability screening, English language classes and practical help with applications for medical cards, driving licences and education and training.

After four months, applicants would move to own door/own room accommodation in local communities across Ireland. This emphasis on early integration into local communities will transform the lives of asylum seekers. Instead of spending years languishing in unsuitable institutional housing, those whose applications are successful will be able put down roots in their new locations, begin to build new lives for themselves and their families and make their own valuable contribution to Irish society. There is also a welcome focus on the needs of children, young people and their families.

Implemented quickly

The White Paper proposes to resolve several long-standing issues that can be implemented quickly. These include allowing asylum seekers to apply for driving licences, open bank accounts and apply for work permits. Drawing conclusions from recent experience, it also proposes a new consultation process with relevant communities, to involve them in decisions to locate new reception centres and/or to build, acquire or lease accommodation. This should help to foster a more welcoming atmosphere for newcomers, and create positive foundations for future integration.

I would argue that there is a strong case for taking action now to resolve the cases of asylum seekers who are already living in Ireland

The White Paper is honest about the risks attached to the proposed new approach. It is complex and will require continuous, effective co-ordination of many public and private organisations. Getting the right strategy down on paper is a necessary first step, but political will and regular, transparent monitoring will be needed to deliver on its ambitions.

There are a number of areas which, in my view, will require particular attention to turn the vision of the White Paper into reality on the ground.

Processing applications

First, one of the chronic problems of the current direct provision system is that processing applications takes too long. The White Paper takes up many of the recommendations made in September 2020 by the Advisory Group on Direct Provision to speed up and improve the process, but it does not deal with the current backlog of cases. This is an issue that severely hampered the implementation of key recommendations of the 2015 McMahon report. Unless it is resolved relatively quickly, the current sizable backlog will again lead to asylum seekers spending years waiting for a decision, effectively putting their lives on hold, and causing capacity problems in the system. I would argue that there is a strong case for taking action now to resolve the cases of asylum seekers who are already living in Ireland, while phasing in the new system, which is scheduled to be in place by the end of 2024.

The humane and human rights-based approach of the White Paper should be given every support

Secondly, a major plank of the new approach is the priority to be given to building or acquiring new accommodation through approved housing bodies or repurposing buildings to accommodate asylum seekers. This can only be a longer-term approach as the approved housing bodies have limited capacity to expand quickly, and it will take time to agree the new funding and delivery models needed before any new tenants can move in. Although it is clear from the White Paper that there is a strong preference for a not-for-profit sector approach to accommodation, it will inevitably be necessary to source private sector accommodation for several years. There is already a need to help house those who have permission to remain but cannot leave direct provision, as well as those who have been waiting several years for a decision on their applications.

Shorter deadlines

Thirdly, given the number of reviews and critiques of the direct provision system, including the three most recently commissioned by the State, it ought to be possible to deliver meaningful results within shorter deadlines than those set out in the White Paper. While it will take several years to build the accommodation proposed, early decisions on increased staffing and resource budgets for the International Protection Office, the International Protection Appeals Tribunal and the Legal Aid Board as well as the Department of Justice would significantly reduce the time currently taken to deliver decisions. Asylum seekers who have already waited several years for a decision should not have to wait for several more years to know their fate.

The humane and human rights-based approach of the White Paper should be given every support. As a country that has known the pain of forced emigration, we should want to have an international protection system that makes us proud of the way we treat very vulnerable people fleeing from persecution in search of safety. The White Paper sets out a high standard which will only be met if there is continuous monitoring of its implementation and early intervention to adapt and change in the light of experience. We should bear in mind the fate of past reports and efforts to reform the system and ensure that this time the outcome will be different.

Catherine Day was chair of the Advisory Group on Direct Provision and is former secretary general of the European Commission