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Senator Katherine Zappone:
I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for being with us this evening. I welcome the motion, and especially the work of Senators van Turnhout and Conway and others, and I also welcome the eloquent remarks Senator Fiach Mac Conghail.
Having listened to the contributions so far, I believe we can all conclude that none of us, not least our colleagues in the Gallery, wants the system we have. It is true to say it is in our power to change it. It is not fit for purpose. Considering the system's extraordinary difficulties, several of the contributors have noted the importance of a human rights-compliant system. We need a system that enables and upholds the human dignity of the people who come to our country.
Let me make a couple of remarks on the direct provision system, primarily on Ireland's opting out of some EU directives, as this has a bearing on what we are speaking about. The EU directive on reception conditions lays down minimum standards for the reception of asylum seekers. That directive seeks to ensure that basic human rights are met in terms of accommodation, food, medical care and access to education. The directive also seeks to address delays in the system and the right to work. It provides that if a decision has not been taken within one year of an application for asylum, where the delay is not the applicant's fault, member states shall "decide the conditions for granting access to the labour market for the applicant." This is an attempt to encourage member states to ensure that their national processes are conducted in a timely manner and that applicants are given an element of certainty. As we are all aware, under the Treaty of Amsterdam Ireland can legitimately opt out of such directives.
In the other House, the Minister stated reasons for our opting out of the directive, citing concerns that granting asylum seekers access to the labour market would lead to an increase in the number of asylum applications. He referred specifically to an increase in applications in 1999. However, many of us are aware that organisations working in this area have taken issue with linking the right to work to an increase in application numbers. Those organisations instead attribute the spike in the figures in 1999 to Ireland's decision to accept 1,000 people from Kosovo in the wake of considerable civilian displacement in that region at the time. It is true to say that Ireland is now the only EU country that does not allow an asylum seeker to work after a designated period. It is in our power to change that. There is evidence that people become deskilled and demotivated after years of social exclusion and dependency on the direct provision system.
Disappointingly, Ireland has opted out of the new directive on common procedures for granting and withdrawing international protection. This recast directive would have given certain vulnerable applicants extra protections on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or experience of sexual violence. These protections will not be available to LGBT, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, people, the survivors of sexual violence or human trafficking. Perhaps incorporating similar provisions into the forthcoming immigration residence and protection Bill might be considered.
Senators Fiach Mac Conghail and Martin Conway have spoken about conditions in direct provision centres. There are significant problems with the accommodation centres, including a lack of privacy, shared and cramped living spaces and toilet facilities. I remember well when we drove back from one visit to one centre and how awful we felt, as Senator Fiach Mac Conghail mentioned.
LGBT people often face specific problems in these conditions. Some of them have fled from situations of extreme homophobia and transphobia only to find themselves living in a shared space which can be a microcosm of the society they experienced in their home countries. Conditions here were a factor in a refusal by a Belfast court to transfer an asylum seeker to the Republic. It found significant evidence of physical and mental health issues for people living in direct provision accommodation.
Direct provision accommodation has also been identified as inappropriate for victims of human trafficking. There is a difference in the treatment of asylum seeking victims of trafficking and other suspected victims of trafficking. The Garda National Immigration Bureau does not identify people in the asylum process as possible victims of trafficking, nor does it grant them a recovery and reflection period or temporary residence permit, despite their co-operation with the Garda. The State’s rationale for this is that residency permits are only given to potential victims of trafficking when they are required or regarded as needing permission to remain in the State. The State believes asylum seekers do not need residency permits because they already have temporary permission to stay in Ireland as asylum seekers while their asylum applications are being processed. This results in asylum seeking victims of trafficking having less access to safe and appropriate accommodation, education, training and work than other victims of trafficking, as well as to the possibility of acquiring long-term status in the State. This means that the State is operating a discriminatory system which may be in contravention of Article 3 of European Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings and the UN Palermo Protocol under Article 14.
I know the Minister agrees that we need a system that is human rights compliant and respectful of the people involved. I have tried to raise several issues relating to EU directives in that regard.