Direct Provision: The Beginning of the End?

Frances_Fitzgerald_2014Over the last number of weeks, there have been potentially significant developments in relation to the system of direct provision for asylum seekers in Ireland. Last week, the High Court case challenging the system of direct provision concluded. A decision is expected over the next number of weeks (see here for background). Speaking on 24 June 2014, the Government indicated the continuance of the system of direct provision in its current form. The Minister for Justice, Frances Fitzgerald noted:

Direct provision is a system which facilitates the State providing a roof over the head of those seeking protection or on other grounds to be allowed to stay in the State. The Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) of my Department is responsible for the accommodation of protection applicants in accordance with the Government policy. I acknowledge that the length of time that residents spend in Direct Provision is an issue to be addressed. My immediate priority is that the factors which lead to delays in the processing of cases are dealt with so that protection seekers spend as little time as necessary in direct provision.

Changes to the system of direct provision were indicated in mid July in the Statement of Government Priorities 2014-2016, where the following commitment was provided:

While ensuring continued rigorous control of our borders and immigration procedures, we will treat asylum seekers with the humanity and respect they deserve. We are committed to addressing the current system of Direct Provision for asylum seekers to make it more respectful to the applicant and less costly to the taxpayer.

In late July,  the new Junior Minister for Justice, Aodhán O’ Ríordáin stated:

Direct provision needs radical reform. It is unacceptable that a child could spend half their life in a direct provision centre – in poverty, marginalised, stigmatised. I  will be working closely with the Minister [for Justice, Frances Fitzgerald] and officials on this. A lot of work has in fact already been done, and there is an awareness within the department it has to change.

Within the space of one month, the system of direct provision, continuously defended by the current government heretofore (see, for example, here)  is now in need of serious reform. The UN Human Rights Committee of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rightsexpressed “concerns” with the system of direct provision, in particular recommending that an independent complaints mechanism needs to be established for those currently in direct provision centres and stated that stays in direct provision accommodation centres need to be for the shortest duration possible.

So what next?

An important stage has now commenced as regards discussions on what may replace direct provision. Any such discussions must include consultation with asylum seekers currently in direct provision, former asylum seekers who spent a period of time in direct provision and civil society organisations representing those in the protection status determination process. Away from the important questions on eliciting views of those most affected by direct provision, there are several other issues that I believe are important for the government to keep in mind:

  1. The centrality of the rights of asylum seekers as human beings needs to be the fore of any reform of a system for permitting those seeking protection to have their claims heard;
  2. Warehousing of a particular group  should no longer occur, whether the person is an individual, an adult or a child, a single person or part of a family.
  3.  While granting of forms of protection status are for the status determination bodies (ORAC and RAT), consideration should be given to examining the feasibility of the Department of Social Protection having responsibility for meeting the needs of asylum seekers who do not have access to their own resources.
  4. Introducing a direct provision ‘lite’ system is not the answer to ensuring a rights compliant reception system that fully respects the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of those seeking asylum.  Regardless of who is running direct provision centres (be it the government, business or non-governmental organisations), such a system is anathema to dignity and respect of the individual.
  5. Any new system needs to have parliamentary approval and so must be put on a legislative basis. In the interests of avoiding duplication, the Department of Social Protection already has machinery in place for determining entitlement, so social rights for asylum seekers fit more easily within this Department than in the current Department of Justice and Equality.
  6. The role of the Reception and Integration Agency needs to be fundamentally re-evaluated and placed on a statutory footing (if continued in its present form or at all).
  7. The government is already committed to significantly reducing the time that those seeking protection have to await the determination of their asylum/protection/leave to remain claims. Legislation that deals with protection issues can be acted relatively speedily and it would be better to separate asylum issues from general issues relating to immigration law.

For the first time in over 14 years, there seems to be serious momentum as regards the need to bring some closure to the whole issue of direct provision. It remains to be seen what precise reforms will be proposed, but (finally!) having this discussion is in itself a victory for the many asylum seekers campaigning on this issue, and for groups who have for many years challenged the system of direct provision (even when it was not popular to do so).