Averil Discusses Direct Provision in the Seanad

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I welcome the opportunity to hear what Senator Conway had to say before rising to my feet. I thank Senators van Turnhout, Mac Conghail and Zappone for taking the initiative to table the motion during their Private Members’ time. I also commend Senators van Turnhout and Ó Clochartaigh for their work on the issue for some time. The two Senators approached me and other Members a long time ago to ask us to take part in an ad hoc group with a view to working on the issue in terms of research, consultation and visits before bringing it before the House. That is a great example of how this House should do its work. It is testament to that approach that we do not have a Government amendment because Senators of all parties and none have been working on the issue for a considerable time. I welcome also the comments from Senator Conway. I have no doubt the fact we do not have an amendment has much to do with the work he has done in terms of getting Government support.

This is an incredibly important issue. We have more than 4,500 people in direct provision, including, as has already been mentioned, more than 1,700 children. As has been said by other Senators, whatever about people living in such conditions in one room for three or six months, the extended period, which is the reality faced by asylum seekers, is frightening. More than 3,138 asylum seekers have been living in direct provision accommodation for more than three years and 600 for more than seven years. That is seven years of living in conditions that often involve up to five or six people in one room, including children and teenagers of different genders. It can be difficult enough to have them all in the one house let alone in one room. Communal bathrooms are also a feature. In some cases there are single parents. They cannot leave some children unattended so they must all go to the bathroom together if a small child needs to go, even in the middle of the night. Parents have no freedom over cooking or other arrangements, which undermines their authority in respect of building a parental relationship with their children. The fact that they cannot work is of concern. We heard personal accounts put forward by the Refugee Council of Ireland and others about the impact that has. Parents are not able to act as a role model for their children as they cannot go out to work and provide for the families. Instead, the role is filled by the State. Children see food and shelter as things that are provided by a State agency rather than by their parents. We are the only EU country that has an absolute ban on work. In other countries, parents are entitled to work after a year.

Much of the problem surrounds the time period that is involved because whatever about not being allowed to work for a short period, the fact that someone would be in a country for up to seven years and not have any ability to provide for themselves or any independence or opportunity to work leads to institutionalisation in the long term. In such circumstances, how could one expect someone whose application is successful to have any real chance of integration into society and an opportunity to participate in what is essentially their new home? We can do better.

It is timely to have the system reviewed. It was set up in 2000 as a panicked short-term response because the application numbers for asylum seekers at that stage were in excess of 10,000 and there were 11,634 in 2003. The numbers had reduced to 940 in 2012. If ever there was an opportunity to get it right and to change the system it is now while there are fewer people applying for asylum. I am aware the Minister is examining the broader issue in the context of the reform of the overall asylum application process. He intends to introduce a single application system. I hope that will address in particular the issues around speed because if people are fleeing persecution they are entitled to have their applications decided on as quickly as possible. It is one thing if their applications do not stand up but the decisions should be made much more quickly. Those who are successful should be given every opportunity to have a new, independent life as soon as possible rather than being stuck in an institution of the State.

Other speakers have referred to the concerns expressed about the system by a host of persuasive and independent people. The special rapporteur on child protection, Geoffrey Shannon, has spoken about the child protection risk, as has the former Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly. Catherine McGuinness wrote a very moving article about how a future Government will have to apologise for what is going on because, as has been said today and previously in the House in the debate on the Magdalen laundries and other such issues in the past two years, child protection risks increase in such a system. The institutionalisation in many respects has parallels with what happened in the past. We have spoken about those issues and recent Governments have apologised for them, yet we know what is going on under our noses in the direct provision system. We cannot say we do not know. We have a responsibility to address it. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has pointed out the mental health consequences of people living for extended periods in what is essentially institutionalised care.

I welcome the debate. The motion is simple. The Senators responsible for it went to great lengths to leave it as unpolitical as possible. All it calls for is a review of the system, independent inspections and a complaints mechanism, and that child protection issues would be examined. I also welcome the fact that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, has agreed to meet with the ad hoc group. I hope the Minister, Deputy Shatter, will take on board the genuine concerns of Members on all sides and that it is something he will address.

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