Closing Our Eyes: Irish Society & Direct Provision

Irish TimesDirect provision is front page news in Ireland today (08 October 2013) Carl O’Brien has a number of pieces (hereherehere and here) in today’s Irish Times on inspection reports that have found that asylum seekers live in dismal conditions in direct provision centres. This of course will be of no surprise to the Department of Justice (and Equality……) or the current Minister for Justice, Mr Alan Shatter TD. In fact, it is of no surprise to the political system as a whole, given the extensive reports from non-governmental organisations and the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for Children. Institutions of the state know and have known for quite a bit of time about significant systemic problems with the system of direct provision. Nothing is being done about this.

What many in human rights organisations suspect (or are afraid to admit openly) is that Irish society knows full well about the system of direct provision, the vast majority of the population could not care less. In fact, the vast majority may even want a harsher system (at least if commentators had their way). Politicians in the Dáil have said to me, over the years, that their work on direct provision is costing them support. Not just a few votes here and there, but very noticeable support.  Nevertheless, some TDs ( from the government parties and opposition parties) continue to highlight the major problems with the system of direct provision. In the Seanad, Senator Jillian van Turnhout raises the issue of direct provision continuously.

Concerns raised about direct provision since 2001 have included:  the lack of any legal basis for the system of direct provision, the reports of poor food quality,  infestations, cramped living conditions, individuals institutionalised in direct provision for several years. It might be helpful to put in place a timeline, so we can see just how much the legal and political systems and Irish society as a whole know of these problems with direct provision. Depressingly, as before, Irish society ignores, punishes and demonizes‘problematic’ populations. So as to prevent societal amnesia being claimed, this timeline provides a resource to show what Irish society has known since the introduction of direct provision.


Direct Provision: A Select Timeline

1996 Asylum seekers legislatively prohibited from working throughout the duration of their asylum claim, on pain of criminal conviction. No penalties are imposed on employers. 

1997 Newspaper headlines include: “Asylum Seekers and Homeless vie for Shelter, agency” Irish Times 9 May 1997; “Refugees get £20 million payments” Evening Herald, 6 June 1997

1998 The then Minister for Justice, John O’Donoghue states:

It is a source of puzzlement to many people that at a time when there are no conflicts taking place near our borders … when we have no colonial links with countries in which political turmoil is taking place and when the number of claims for refugee status is declining in other European states, the Irish state shows a major increase.

The then Minister for Social Protection, Dermot Ahern TD , writes to John O’Donoghue accusing (without evidence) asylum seekers of engaging in organised welfare fraud. On 6 September 2008, John O’Donoghue announces that a system of direct provision will be introduced.  Prior to the introduction of direct provision, asylum seekers were accommodated by the Directorate of Asylum Seeker Support (DASS) under the aegis of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Asylum seekers (and dependents) were initially accommodated in an induction centre. The stay in this induction centre would usually last for one week. After this period, the asylum seeker and any dependents would move into the private rented sector. The Health Service Executive (HSE) would provide asylum seekers with supplementary (rent) allowance. This would substantially cover the cost of renting the property from a private landlord.

1999 The structure of the system of direct provision were communicated to relevant administrative bodies, in the Departments of Justice, Social Protection and Health, on 10th December 1999 (International Human Rights Day).

2000 In April 2000, the system of direct provision commences in Ireland. Ministerial circulars from the Department of Social Protection are issued to health boards.

2001 The Reception and Integration Agency is formed, taking over the functions of DASS. The Reception and Integration Agency is never placed on a statutory footing. By the end of 2001, there are almost 5,000 individuals in the direct provision system. The first report on the system of direct provision by Bryan Fanning and Angela Veale, Beyond the Pale: Asylum Seeking Children and Social Inclusion in Ireland raises serious concerns about this system. The then Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern TD  dismisses the findings of this report in the Dáil.

2002 The Irish Mirror in 2002 has a headline, “Free cars for refugees; Cash grants buy BMW’s’” Irish Daily Mirror, December 16 2002.  A Cork North Central TD, Noel O’Flynn,refers to asylum seekers as ‘spongers’ and ‘criminals’ during the 2002 General Election campaign. Noel O’Flynn’s 2002 first preference vote dramatically increases from his 1997 first preference vote.

2003 Community welfare officers (now Department of Social Protection representatives) were legislatively prohibited from providing rent supplement to asylum seekers. Since this time, no asylum seeker had access to supplementary rent allowance.  The Free Legal Advice Centres report, Direct Discrimination?, questions the legality of the direct provision system.

2004 The habitual residence condition is introduced, and asylum seekers who cannot prove habitual residence are not entitled to any form of social welfare/social assistance, except for the direct provision system. Decision makers operate a blanket exclusion on asylum seekers receiving social assistance payments, despite no such exclusion in the legislation. There are almost 7,ooo asylum seekers resident in direct provision.

2005 The  National Action Plan on Racism 2005-2008 comes into effect. The direct provision system is not considered in any meaningful way.

2006 Correspondence between the Department of Social Protection and Department of Justice (see p. 16-18 here) raised legal concerns as regards the direct provision system. The Ombudsman for Children‘s, Report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (2006) raises concerns about the treatment of separated children in Ireland. The Irish Refugee Council report, Making Separated Children Visible is published.

2007 There was an attempt by the Department of Social Protection to place the direct provision payment on a legislative footing, however the Department of Justice objected to this (€19.10 per adult per week; €9.60 per child per week)  (see pp. 17 here). The reasons for the objections of the Department of Justice are not clear.

2008 The first attempted legal challenge to the direct provision system in Ireland occurs in  A.N v Minister for Justice and Equality, however the case is settled prior to going to full hearing. See, Mary Carolan, ‘Refugee who sleeps in factory seeks subsistence aid’, Irish Times, Friday, October 24, 2008, Mary Carolan, ‘State undertakes to house destitute asylum seeker’, Irish Times, Saturday, October 25 2008 and Mary Carolan, ‘Afghan man wins case on housing provision’, Irish Times, Friday, October 31 2008.  NASC report, Hidden Cork provides an overview and challenges perceptions on life in direct provision.

2009 The Free Legal Advice Centres (FLAC) successfully challenged the blanket exclusion that appeared to operate as regards denying asylum seekers any social assistance payments due to the habitual residence condition. In response to this success, the then Government introduced legislation prohibiting asylum seekers from being regarded as habitually resident for the purposes of obtaining social assistance payments. FLAC also releases a substantial report on direct provision, One Size Doesn’t Fit All, calling forfundamental reform of the direct provision system.

2010 In the 2010 report, Value for Money and Policy Report on Asylum Seeker Accommodation, published by the Reception and Integration Agency, it was argued that maintaining a system of direct provision is the most cost effective means of maintaining reception conditions for asylum seekers. I have challenged the findings of this report here and here.

2011 The European Court of Human Rights finds that the lack of any state provision for asylum seekers in Greece, in breach of Greece’s obligations under EU law, constituted inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of Article 3 ECHR. As a result of the Court of Justice of the European Union decision in M.E. v Minister for Justice, Ireland could no longer return asylum seekers to Greece. 

2012 The Irish Refugee Council publishes its report: State Sanctioned Child Poverty and Exclusion regarding the significant human rights concerns (both legal and moral) relating to the direct provision system.

2013 The Taoiseach apologies to those detained in Magdalene laundries and says ‘never again’, however politicians are unable to see any parallels with the system of direct provision (see, hereherehere and here). The Irish Refugee Council, along with other organisations, call for an end to institutional living and the direct provision system. The Minister for Health, James O’Reilly TD does not answer Senator Jillian van Turnhout’s questions on the legislative basis for the system of direct provision. A High Court challenge to the system of direct provision commences (see Christine Bohane’s update from September 2013 here). The Northern Ireland High Court refuses to return children to the direct provision system. The former Ombudsman (now European Ombudsman) intervened in the debate on direct provision and is trying to tell the government (and the people!) to stop. We have tread this path before, and how many lives did it ruin.

Thanks to Saoirse Brady who provided me with some reminders on legal changes. If there are significant reports I have not mentioned, please leave the organisation, report title and hyperlink in the comments section. I will update this post with your links sometime tonight.