Yesterday in the Dáil, the Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter TD responded to Carl O’ Brien’s series of articles on the system of direct provision in Ireland. Minister Shatter’s contribution does not differ significantly from his or the Department of Justice’s comments on the direct provision system since he was appointed Minister for Justice in 2011 (the issue is raised constantly, and responses almost always the same). However, Minister Shatter has now given a firm commitment that the Reception and Integration Agency will publish inspection reports of direct provision accommodation centres. This commitment is welcome, however, we should await the publication of these reports. It is hoped that this commitment will apply to all such reports since inspections started a number of years ago and not merely future inspection reports. However, Minister Shatter’s comment on this current controversy should leave those of us campaigning for the current system to end in no doubt, that he continues to wash his hands of the impact that direct provision is having on men, women and children in direct provision (see here, here and here). For now, it appears that the Department of Justice and Minister Shatter are not for turning. Direct provision is here to stay. Only significant public pressure (of which I do not think exists) will result in any fundamental reform or scrapping of this horrific system.
Minister Shatter began his response by stating that the Irish Times had focused on the worse elements and not the fact that most inspection reports were ‘positive’. These inspections were carried out by QTS Ltd., a Galway based safety consultants (one per year) and two unannounced visits by RIA officials. In 2010, before the last election, Minister Shatter stated, in response to the Free Legal Advice Centre’s report, One Size Doesn’t Fit All:
In the context of inspections, what the representatives are describing is the mirror image of the difficulties we had with children’s residential homes until the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, was given a remit in that area. It is still a difficulty in the context of people suffering from disability and proper inspections in the area of fosterage. It is part of the incapacity of government over the past ten years to put in place appropriate transparent systems.
Living in Direct Provision
Regarding children protection, the Minister stated yesterday that the Reception and Integration Agency “has a robust child protection system”. He continued:
The instances of children being left alone were dealt with immediately and education of parents and guardians with reference to their responsibilities is a key feature of any follow up. In all cases, the primary carers for children are their parents.
This neatly sidesteps any questions about the communal nature of direct provision, whereby any concerns about child protection or any issues regarding child protection is the sole responsibility of the parent(s). There is no considered examination of the difficulties that parents may be facing, living in a communal setting, where parental autonomy is constantly undermined, by this culture of control. All intimate aspects of live that families usually decide themselves is controlled and contained by the direct provision accommodation system: set meal times; children never seeing their parents prepare meals, school lunches, parents reporting to accommodation centre staff.
Minister Shatter’s response to the issues raised yesterday, are full circle to the concerns he raised in 2010 on the direct provision system (emphasis added):
I cannot think of any reason people in accommodation should not be allowed to retain food within that accommodation but one is cut off from having access to food from 5.30 p.m. or 6 p.m. when the final meal is complete. That smacks of the type of operation one might apply in prisoner of war camps during a war, not the type of approach that a civilised democratic western European country should apply in any situation. That applies, if I could take away even Ms Blackwell’s qualification, whether one is dealing with adults living on their own or adults with children. There are few in this room who if they finish their evening meal at 6 p.m. might not want something small to eat later in the evening and one cannot predict these things with young children. I cannot understand why a system such as that would be regarded as appropriate.
No obligation to live in accommodation centres
Minister Shatter correctly notes that there is no obligation on asylum seekers to remain in direct provision centres (except in exceptional circumstances). Once asylum seekers inform ORAC of their new address, there generally no problem. Once an asylum seeker leaves direct provision while their claim is ongoing, the direct provision allowance (€19.10 per adult, €9.60 per child) is no longer paid. The 2010 Value for Money report noted that of the 16,000 or so persons whose claims for asylum/subsidiary protection/leave to remain were outstanding, 7,000 were in the direct provision system. This is fine for asylum seekers who can rely on their own resources or on the charity of friends or family and leave the direct provision system.
Reforming Direct Provision
There was no serious consideration, either in the 2010 Value for Money report, or by Minister Shatter yesterday, of whether Ireland’s legal obligations go beyond merely ensuring that somebody is not destitute. The Minister is correct that, in general, no asylum seeker has been left homeless or on the streets, (there have been some isolated cases that I am aware of where an asylum seeker was made homeless, see pp 16-17 here). Minister Shatter, like so many Ministers with responsibility before him, use the trump card of how systems for determining an individuals asylum claim will speed up, so as to ensure that, in general, the system of direct provision becomes time limited to 6 months (where possible). Given that fact that the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill continues to be put on the back burner by the Department of Justice, such a unified decision making system will not be in place for some time. Unlike the former Secretary General of the Department of Justice, Mr Sean Aylward, Minister Shatter did not accuse lawyers of operating a “legal racket” and recognised that sometimes, asylum claims can and will take longer than 6 months to decide.
What about the Department of Social Protection?
In all the focus on the Department of Justice, there is a need to also ensure that Minister Joan Burton responds to the fact that the Department of Social Protection is responsible for the direct provision allowance payment of €19.10 per week per adult asylum seeker and €9.60 per week per child. (I am ignoring the fact that the Department are acting outside their powers by even making this payment to asylum seekers, yet another sign that the rule of law does not seem to operate in our social protection system). Minister Burton’s, Labour Party, had continuously criticised the direct provision system and direct provision allowance while in opposition (see here and here ) . Some Labour Party TDs continue to vocally oppose direct provision. Pressure needs to be applied to Minister Burton to raise the direct provision allowance payments, which have remained the same since April 2000. Asylum seekers are not entitled to any other regular social welfare payment. While Justice may be responsible for the Reception and Integration Agency and accommodation centres, Social Protection needs to be challenged more vigorously on their condemnation of asylum seekers to survive on meager allowances. Social Protection, and the current minister, Joan Burton, are every bit as responsible for the poverty and social exclusion faced by asylum seekers in Irish society. Minister Burton sanctions this state enforced poverty by failing to address the paltry direct provision allowance payment.