An Open Letter to Charlie Flanagan TD, Minister for Justice and Equality
Dear Minister Charlie Flanagan TD,
Since its launch the Direct Provision System has been a deeply controversial issue in Ireland. From human rights issues to mental health concerns to growing commercialisation of the system to debates on whether it is fit-for purpose or not, there have been numerous media and NGO reports, campaigns, Dáil debates and government reports on it.
Over the years, there has been a growing public concern for the well being of asylum seekers in the Direct Provision System but, as we saw last year, there have also been some very concerning local development such as in Rooskey and Oughterard.
In a statement last year, you had expressed your concerns about the events in Rooskey:
“I am deeply concerned and disappointed at the reports of the fire, which broke out in the Shannon Key West Hotel in Rooskey last night. This comes just five weeks after the previous fire at the hotel. This pattern of behaviour represents an unacceptable and worrying development and should be condemned by all.”
In some other areas protests condemned the ‘inhumane’ Direct Provision System but it was obvious there was a significant element of racism and xenophobia in these mobilisations.
As reported on RTE News, in response to the protests in Oughterard you said that you “believed there was a small group of people whipping up anti-immigrant sentiment which was not the view of the Irish people. Unfortunately there is an insidious alt-right engagement here.”
However small a minority, some opportunist election candidates such as Verona Murphy had also made racist comment about asylum seekers. You had disassociated yourself from her comments by saying: “On the Deputy’s remark regarding unacceptable commentary in the course of the by-elections which are under way, I wish to categorically dissociate myself from comments made by Ms Verona Murphy, a Fine Gael candidate in Wexford“
With the Coronavirus outbreak direct provision is back on the national agenda, this time as a public health and safety issue due to communal living arrangements in many of the centres that makes it very difficult for residents to self-isolate. I am aware that some 650 additional beds have been secured for asylum seekers in direct provision centres to enable socially distancing and self- isolation. Let’s hope there is no COVID-19 outbreak in any of these centres that will put lives at risk.
Regardless of Coronavirus, 20 years on, the issue of Direct Provision keeps coming back and no short-term action has eliminated the fundamental problems the system created.
No alternatives to Direct Provision System?
Dear Minister, the official government position is that there are no credible alternatives to the current system in place. You and your fellow government ministers have repeatedly expressed this position shared by all FF and FG led coalition governments of the past 20 years, including the Labour Party and the Greens as coalition partners.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, criticizing people protesting against Direct Provision ‘under the guise of humanitarianism’ ( I guess that’s people like me) said, “Direct Provision is imperfect but the alternative is camps and containers”.
Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney said, “People calling for an end to the direct provision system for asylum seekers are not living in the real world”
In a statement you said, “I am not aware of anyone who has proposed a workable alternative for service provision but I am very open to engaging with anyone who wishes to do so.”
I must say, it is very unfair for the government that has all the human-power, tools and knowledge to deal with such issues to blame human rights activists, volunteer groups – that see the conditions people live in – for not having workable alternatives to the Direct Provision System.
There have been numerous research reports, submissions from different organisations to government working groups in the past and Dáil committees, such as the ‘Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality on Direct Provision and the International Protection Application Process’ (2019). Some of these included a broad range of proposals including practical short-term solutions and long term actions to replace the whole system.
Dear Minister, are there really no alternatives to the Direct Provision System?
Are all options explored in full detail and the collective wisdom of all involved parties utilised in order to create a care focussed alternative system?
We have 20 years of Direct Provision experience to learn from. No system for that long can be described as ‘having no alternatives’.
No alternatives! Is this based on economic reasons or is it a political choice, or both?
Lack of housing and pressure on local services are listed among some of the reasons presented to justify the Direct Provision System. 20 years ago, and during the years of economic boom we didn’t have the same level of housing crisis as we have today. Six thousand people, families, spread across the country would not create any pressure on local services if the local-public services were not continuously reduced. The housing crisis is a serious problem. The government is tasked to solve it but it should not be used to justify the existence of another problem.
Right to Work: A right refused for nearly two decades
Up until recently, the right to work for asylum seekers was an absolute NO! Despite repeated calls from campaign groups and NGOs the governments of the past 20 years have seen the right to work as a threat to the firmness of the asylum process and ignored these calls. It took a court decision to give asylum seekers a limited opportunity to work and a chance to rebuild their lives. The country didn’t fall apart. No local person lost their jobs and wages didn’t go down because of asylum seekers having a job.
The real reasons behind insisting on the Direct Provision System
Dear Mr. Flanagan, I have been reading a Reception & Integration Agency report from 2010, titled “Value for Money & Policy Review Asylum Seeker Accommodation Programme”. It is a 78-page long report with lots of details and facts.
In the executive summary of this report it says, “This Value for Money (VFM) Review examines expenditure on the provision of full board (“Direct Provision”) accommodation services for asylum seekers by the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) – a functional unit of the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (INIS) of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
The Review had a number of purposes. It had to examine (with particular concentration on 2005 to 2008) the aims and objectives of the Programme and determine if these aims and objectives remain relevant and warrant the continued allocation of public funds; to determine whether the Programme is providing value for money; to make recommendations as to how the value for money of the Programme can be improved; to examine alternatives to the Programme and to determine whether these alternatives would provide better value for money.”
As stated above, clearly the main concern of this report was the value for money aspect.
No person could argue against value for money especially when it comes to public funds. But has the system in its current form and shape delivered real value for money while ensuring the well being of asylum seekers. I don’t anybody would argue against ensuring the well being of asylum seekers.
Value for money is not the only topic in this report. There are other very concerning conclusions in it that expose not just the economic thinking behind the Direct Provision System but also a systematic policy view on the Irish asylum process and the use of direct provision system as part of this policy.
I am aware that it was a different government in 2010 but sadly, all government shared a common view on Direct Provision System.
Alternative Options to Direct Provision System: On page-5 the report concludes that there are no alternatives:
“Alternative Options: The Review examined a number of alternatives to Direct Provision:
- Allow Asylum Seekers to claim Social Welfare and Rent Supplement
- Provide Self-Catering Accommodation
- Local Authority Housing
The Review found that these options would be significantly more expensive than Direct Provision and concluded that using Direct Provision has proven to be the correct choice in providing for the accommodation needs of asylum seekers.“
The reason for this conclusion is cost! Today, the cost of Direct Provision System is much higher than anticipated.
Chapter 5 of the reports looks at alternative options in more details.
“The previous chapter, in its examination of efficiency looked, for comparison purposes, at two Direct Provision alternatives. This chapter looks at four options that could be chosen to meet the objective, three of which would not involve Direct Provision:
- Allow Asylum Seekers to claim Social Welfare and Rent Supplement
- Provide Self-Catering Accommodation
- Local Authority Housing
- Outsource the RIA function
The first three options are considered to see if they offer a realistic alternative to Direct Provision. The fourth option looks at whether there is a possible better alternative to the administration of the accommodation portfolio.“
Arguing against option 1, the reports states that,
“Granting entitlement to Social Welfare and Rent Allowance could also be a ‘pull factor’ and the numbers of new asylum seekers could rise significantly…
Even if the potential ‘pull factor’ is ignored, this ‘welfare supports option’ is likely to more than double the cost of providing for the accommodation needs of asylum seekers. In addition, it would most likely result in a concentration of asylum seekers in the larger urban areas, particularly in the Dublin area and this would place severe pressure on the education and medical services in these areas.“
Arguing against option 2, the report concludes
“This option does not offer any significant advantages over Direct Provision. In a best case scenario, it would cost €18m more than Direct Provision and could exceed current costs by more than €120m“
Option 3 is dismissed based on a number of reasons but all about logistical and cost reasons.
In Chapter 6, Findings, Conclusions and Recommendations – the report concludes that,
From comparison with a number of options including social welfare and self-catering, the chosen policy of direct provision was found to be the best choice for a number of reasons.
- It is less costly,
- It is less likely to act as an incentive to new asylum seekers (asylum shopping)
- It allows the State to manage the challenge of asylum seekers in a way that reduces pressure on local services.
Direct Provision System: A cheap deterrent for asylum seekers?
This report is from May-2010; published during the coalition government of Fianna Fáil, the Green Party and the Progressive Democrats. It makes an economic case for the Direct Provision System but worryingly, it also very explicitly describes the Direct Provision System as a deterrent for future asylum seekers.
The language of ‘asylum shopping’ is extremely disturbing. This amounts to profiling and deeply biased opinion on asylum seekers. There is no data or evidence to prove this claim. This is a political judgement, not a scientific finding.
But this conclusion also contains a worrying confession: Only a system that hurts people will be a useful deterrent.
Dear Minister, seeking asylum is not a crime or a life choice. People seeking asylum have a right to put their case forward and seek refuge in the host country.
In your statement referring to the events in Rooskey you had said, “Asylum seekers come to Ireland seeking the protection of the State. An act of hatred against the most vulnerable in society is an attack on society itself.”
In 2014, then the Minister for Agriculture and Defence Simon Coveney was calling for a ‘conversation’ about asylum seeker rights.
In 2019, as a response to Verona Murphy, Mr. Coveney said, “Ireland needs to be a welcoming place for non-Irish people who come here. We need to have systems that work and protect vulnerable people such as asylum seekers while they are here.”
Asylum seekers are coming from some of the world’s most dangerous places. Wars, oppressive-dictatorial regimes, attacks on civil liberties and human rights force innocent people to flee.
On 4 March 2015, in your speech to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, you listed the horrors people of Middle-East are facing. You have also referred to ‘Freedom of Religion and Belief’, ‘Death Penalty’, ‘Freedom of Expression’, ‘Right to Education’, ‘Gender Equality’, ‘LGBTI’ and ‘Children’s Rights’. All of which are essential aspects of human rights. Asylum seekers flee because of human rights abuses or worse; to save their lives and the lives of their families.
You concluded your speech by saying “we should not be discouraged by the challenges we face; instead they should spur us to revive and strengthen our sense of a common humanity and our commitment to international law including international human rights and humanitarian law. I am reminded of the words of the Irish poet, playwright and Nobel laureate William Butler Yeats, on his 150th anniversary. In his work, ‘A Vision’, he lays before us the promise of our endeavour, namely ……to hold in a single thought reality and justice”.
Dear Minister, how can a system that is defined mainly in terms of Value for Money, and used as a ‘deterrent’ for new asylum seekers, who have the right to present their case and seek protection, be declared as a system with no alternatives?
How can we continue with this system because it stops “pull factors” while civilian people, children, women and men face harsh “push factors”?
The bombs are dropped on people of Syria, regardless of the Direct Provision System in Ireland. In some parts of the world, human rights and gender rights abuses happen whether we have Direct Provision or not.
Children suffer. Children die. They don’t know what Direct Provision is.
Given the choice between Direct Provision or death or oppression, fathers, mothers will have to choose Direct Provision.
You argue that the Direct Provision System has no alternatives.
Does human suffering have no alternatives?
Have numerous research findings, credible report, UN Refugee Agency stats and your own observations not provided enough evidence that it is the “push factors” that force people to flee, not some unknown “pull factors” in another country.
Dear Minister, did the Magdalene Laundries have no alternative. If we had the chance to go back in time, would we have allowed these monsters to exist? What will the future generations say about the Direct Provision System of today?
What will be the legacy of your government?
To me, it is not about “lack of options” to replace the Direct Provision System but about lack of political will. A lack of will, that in fact – however unintentional it may claim to be – gives the very same alt-right forces you criticised the reasons to spread the message of hate and fear in our communities.
Using Direct Provision System as a deterrent for new asylum seekers is a human rights issue in itself.
“It is less likely to act as an incentive to new asylum seekers” says the report.
It is evident that people with no choice will flee to wherever they can.
Coronavirus is about social solidarity. We are all proud of our communities coming together. Healthcare and other front-line workers are risking their own lives to keep our society functioning. We have seen the best of human nature. But, solidarity can’t be selective and exclusive.
Here is an act of solidarity for the Government to implement: Start considering options to replace the costly, inhumane, oppressive and not fit-for purpose Direct Provision System and give people a change for a dignified life.
Direct Provision is a deepening wound. The longer is stays the bigger the problems will get. There are alternatives to it. The report above has listed some of these alternatives; unfortunately all were dismissed too quickly. There are more proposals submitted by various organisations and asylum seekers.
We need the political will to look at all alternatives with care and human dignity in mind.
We must stop the false debate on ‘pull factors’ and act on humanitarian grounds.
And, we must stop putting a Euro sign in front of everything.
There are alternatives, so long there is the political will to consider them.
National Organiser, United Against Racism