On Wednesday 12th November, FLAC hosted a talk on the direct provision system, the subject of a High Court ruling on Friday. The High Court found direct provision not to be unlawful or in breach of the human rights of those in the system. Our speakers seem to have thought otherwise.
Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality and Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, spoke about the necessity for equality in society and said that equality should be at the centre of everything that we do. He expressed his desire for reform, something that led to further discussion later in the talk. Ó Ríordáin sees the system as one in which asylum seekers should not spend more than a few months and has set up a working group to make recommendations which should be published early next year. The reform he envisions would do away with the centres ‘basically run by catering companies’ with no expert knowledge of how to help these immigrants who may have been trafficked here or fled violence in their countries of origin. The institutionalisation of the migrants and their regimented daily regimes are not conducive to good mental health or indeed productivity of any form. The Minister, however, also emphasised the hugely varying standards of the direct provision centres scattered around the country ‘Some were decent and some you would not spend an hour in’. At the end of his speech the Minister reiterated his commitment to reform and his hope that subsequent governments would continue to push for improvements in immigrants’ rights.
Patricia Brazil, lecturer in law at Trinity, gave an enlightening speech on the legal basis for direct provision and the arduous process those in the system must endure to secure their right to reside in this country. Until the mid-1990s there was little migration to the country and so cases were dealt with mostly on an ad hoc basis because there was no real need for a legal framework. As a result, legislation was only brought in in 1996. Brazil says Ireland has always been playing catch up, with a crisis mentality that has led to a fragmented and incoherent decision making process. There are three different stages to the process, all must begin in the first and seek leave to remain in the country by a new submission to the Commissioner. The Commissioner is not permitted to look at all aspects or stages in a single hearing.
- Refugee status – grounds to remain on a well-founded fear of persecution for race, nationality, political opinion or membership of a political group.
- Subsidiary protection – when there are substantial grounds for real risk of serious harm. Mostly occurring in situations of international or internal armed conflict
- Humanitarian leave – e.g. illness, if the applicant has been here for a long time and has a family and children here.
Judicial review is permitted at each stage and there is a substantial amount because of flaws in many decisions. Direct provision itself was introduced in 1999 to prevent an Article 3 breach and has no statutory basis. The social welfare payment of €19.10 a week for an adult is an arbitrary amount chosen by civil servants because it was low enough not to incentivise people to come to Ireland. It is the only social welfare payment that has not been raised by subsequent governments. On a more personal side, Patricia Brazil spoke about the people in direct provision that she has encountered, and the severe damage the system has done to their overall wellbeing and mental health. She identified the lack of productivity due to the ban on employment as a key contributing factor and recommended that this barrier should be removed.
Sue Conlan, CEO of the Irish Refugee Council, also spoke emotively of the harm direct provision has done to the many migrants she has come into contact with since her appointment in 2010. She emphasised how bewildering and terrifying the experience can be for a migrant arriving at the reception centre in Balseskin, where all are sent before dispersal around the country to various centres. Some may not have even heard of Ireland before they arrive, many have no English. It is not uncommon, in fact it is a consistent problem, for the Gardaí to be called as a method of intimidation when a migrant protests at dispersal. Conlan deplores the ‘culture of disbelief’ that has sprung up around asylum claims and noted that with the intense interview process, applicants are likely to make some small omissions or mistakes which are then held against them in the process.
At its worst, the acceptance rate was 1.3% and the appeal success rate 10%. The European average is 25%. Conlan said decision makers can find it hard to imagine the dynamics of another country, and added that many migrants may come from countries where the authorities, especially the police may not be trusted. Now, after much scrutiny, acceptance rates are 10% first instance. She posits that we were probably getting it wrong the whole time.
Conflict between the staff and migrants in direct provision facilities were the subject of a piece by the Sunday World recently. The complaints procedure in centres was held by the High Court to be deficient and needing reform. Sue Conlan spoke about the tension and what she identifies as underlying racism of the staff in the particular centre identified in the piece. Staff staged a walk-out after an argument about heating up a baby’s bottle. They then said they were subject to intimidation and did not feel safe in their workplace. Conlan suggested this ‘intimidation’ was an exaggeration and pointed to another example where a prominent figure in the campaign against direct provision was threatened with eviction from her mobile home after her eldest child moved to university in Galway for five days a week. This tension in the system is an unhealthy environment for the children in these centres. Two thirds of the residents of the centre in the Sunday World article are children under 18.
In light of the grave problems of system that were presented by our speakers, it seems the equality the Minister spoke of as a hallmark of a developed society is severely lacking in Ireland. Following Friday’s High Court decision, it remains to be seen to what extent the direct provision system will be changed to better protect the rights of those seeking safety and security in our country.