A debate has persisted for many years among those working with asylum seekers as to whether the direct provision system should be reformed or entirely abolished. For some this is primarily a question of semantics; for others it is about ideology.
But what is clear is that, for the first time since the system’s inception in 2000, the next government may seriously consider its abolition. The manner in which the Covid-19 pandemic affected residents in direct provision centres and increased apprehensions of locals in the communities where centres are based, highlighted the urgency of the issue.
A picture paints a thousand words, and for many the one that will linger longest in the memory is that of residents and locals in Cahersiveen in Co Kerry protesting with masks and gloves on, united in their view that the centre there should be closed and the residents moved elsewhere.
But is it really as simple as abolishing direct provision, and what should we put in its place?
This is currently the subject of discussion in government formation talks between Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party. The Greens, prior to agreeing to enter into talks, had identified the ending of direct provision as one of its 17 demands of the two larger parties.
What reform means to each party is not yet clear, but there is a willingness to concede ground and to work towards an acceptable compromise as evidenced by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s response to Green Party TD Joe O’Brien in the Dáil.
“I do not believe that any member of this house is of the view that direct provision is a good system,” the Taoiseach said. “I absolutely believe it should be one of the objectives of the next government to put an end to it. However, that is easier said than done.”
It is indeed easier said than done, but it can be done, and we are not starting from scratch.
Since the 2015 McMahon Report on improvements to direct provision, a number of reforms have already been introduced, such as access to the labour market, recourse to the office of the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for Children, and the establishment of new standards. More are planned, including the establishment of an independent inspectorate to ensure those standards are met in practice.
Using this as a starting point, now is the perfect opportunity to reflect on what ending direct provision actually means in practice.
Firstly, in simple terms, it cannot mean that we stop providing accommodation for asylum seekers, as this moral and legal obligation is thankfully accepted by all political parties in Ireland.
What remains, therefore, is the direct nature of the services provided. Can we instead imagine a new reception system in Ireland which maximises the autonomy and independence of asylum seekers and empowers them to look after themselves and their families, promoting positive integration and strong local communities in the process?
This is eminently achievable in a country like Ireland. We receive modest levels of asylum applicants each year, and boast many advantages such as vibrant community networks and predominantly favourable attitudes among the general public towards asylum seekers and refugees.
There is a long tradition of welcoming newcomers embedded in our culture and history of migration, as well as a strong voluntary and community sector.
Such approaches have been adopted in far more challenging environments, in developing countries and in situations of mass displacement. For many people, the mention of refugees conjures up images of long rows of tents or other shelters in camps where most of the inhabitants rely on aid distributions.
But at UNHCR, the UN‘s refugee agency, we have long believed that camps should be the exception and only a temporary measure in response to forced displacement.
Instead, alternatives to camps are pursued whenever possible, while ensuring that refugees are protected and assisted effectively. This enables refugees to live with greater dignity, independence and normality as members of the community, either from the beginning of displacement or as soon as possible thereafter.
Similarly, in providing accommodation to asylum seekers in Ireland, reception centres may offer an acceptable solution for a limited period of time. At later stages however, smaller-scale or individual accommodation is often more suitable, as prolonged stays in reception centres can lead to marginalisation and dependency.
When reception centres are used, they should be as small as economically feasible and, where practicable, the delivery of basic services should not be self-contained but rather integrated into existing community services and supplemented, as required, by targeted support structures that address the specific needs of asylum-seekers.
If we are honest in our assessment, we have to acknowledge that the heavy reliance in Ireland on the repurposing of former hotels does not easily lend itself to such an approach. To address this, the procurement model used for new centres would need to be adapted to meet these new aims.
Although residents of direct provision receive a weekly allowance, food, sanitary and other non-food items are provided directly to them or via an on-site shop that uses a points-based credit system rather than money.
Long-standing plans to roll out self-catering facilities in every centre have been progressing slowly, but a number of centres remain unable to provide access to such facilities.
Again, there is much we can learn from good practice internationally in providing for the humanitarian needs of refugees. For example, UNHCR has used cash-based intervention programmes since the 1980s to meet the needs of refugees, and these are increasingly used by other organisations such as the World Food Programme.
These programmes adopt a rights and community-based approach which promotes participation and self-reliance. Such programmes can also lead to secondary benefits by improving community relations and contributing to the local economy.
Equally in the Irish context, providing catering facilities to all and moving to a simpler system of a single allowance sufficient to cover all of these needs would not only increase the autonomy and dignity of residents, it would also provide a well-needed boost to local businesses.
From a policy perspective, it would signal an important shift from a hospitality-influenced, room-and-board type arrangement, to a more suitable model of own-door accommodation with wraparound psychosocial and integration support.
As the Oireachtas joint committee on justice and equality observed in its report last December, current delays in several aspects of the asylum process result in the state providing services for longer than is necessary, at a very high cost, especially for those who remain in emergency accommodation.
If we improve waiting times in the asylum system, we can improve the accommodation system for asylum seekers while also offering better value overall for the taxpayer.
Finally, one of the best pathways to integration is meaningful employment. Employment enables self-sufficiency and provides refugees and asylum seekers with social connections, as they are able to use their skills and experience in a new context.
Early access to the labour market can facilitate the integration process and an asylum seeker’s positive contribution to society. Many asylum seekers can attain a degree of self-reliance if provided with the opportunity to do so, thus reducing the need for financial assistance from the state.
Any package of measures which aims to replace or reform the direct provision system should reduce the current nine-month waiting time for access to the labour market to no later than six months, and preferably go further to three months.
Many of us who were involved in the working group that ultimately led to the publication of the McMahon Report in 2015 feel that an opportunity was missed in the period that followed its publication to fully implement its recommendations and to change people’s perceptions of the system.
Although many reforms were subsequently introduced, the right to work being one of the most significant, they were done in piecemeal fashion and were often delayed. Ultimately, the opportunity for a cathartic moment that restored the trust of both residents and the general public was lost.
Once more, a moment of opportunity is at hand. The number of new asylum applications is substantially reduced in recent months, as one would expect, due to the lockdown.
An independent advisor group is once more reviewing the operation of the asylum system and is tasked with making recommendations for its reform. Chaired by Catherine Day, former secretary general of the European Commission, and including representatives of the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland, the Irish Refugee Council and Nasc, the group is due to report later this year.
If we are to meaningfully transform the system and restore public confidence, what’s needed is a clear political commitment, set out in detail in the programme for government, to accelerate the implementation of reforms already underway and to implement the recommendations of this advisory group in full.
Even then, a considerable process of implementation will have to follow during which that political commitment will need to be sustained.
Enda O’Neill is head of the Irish office of the UNHCR