The Minister of State is welcome to the House. I avail of the opportunity to welcome to the Visitors Gallery Dr. Bryan McMahon, chairman of the working group which is to report to the Government on improvements to the protection process, including direct provision accommodation and support for asylum seekers.
I am pleased that the last motion to be debated during Private Members’ business in the 24th Seanad looks at the living conditions of children and young people in the direct provision system. Our group has used its time to consider this issue and I have spoken about it at every available opportunity, including in numerous Adjournment debates and debates on legislation, in an effort to bring the plight of children to the fore. This is the critical issue of our time. In fact, Dietrich Bonhoeffer has said the test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children. I fear our failures and the treatment of children in the direct provision system will be the subject of a Ryan report in the future, but we have an opportunity to make changes now. All too often we look back in shock at what happened in the past and say how desperate it was, but what we do now with that knowledge is on what we should be judged.
My entry point to the issue of direct provision is from a children’s rights perspective. My perspective has been informed by my previous work in the Children’s Rights Alliance, the recommendations of the Government appointed special rapporteur on child protection, Professor Geoffrey Shannon, the concerns raised consistently by advocacy groups, my visits to two direct provision asylum centres as an independent Member of the Seanad and the recommendations of the working group. It has taken me a long time to wade through the mire that is the political discourse on the direct provision system. I have struggled to understand the distinction drawn – I still do not agree with it – between children cared for by the State, as children in the direct provision system are described, and children in the care of the State as those in foster care and other care systems are described. I have argued strenuously that children are children, irrespective of their status, and that it is stretching credulity to claim that children in the direct provision system are in the care of their parents in circumstances where their autonomy to make even basic decisions about their children’s care, for example, on what and when to eat, is so limited as to render it absent.
The direct provision system is detrimental to the welfare and development of asylum seekers and, in particular, the 1,225 children residing in direct provision accommodation throughout Ireland. There is a plethora of difficulties, including the dubious legality of the direct provision system, the lack of an independent complaints mechanism for residents, the absence of independent inspection of centres in which children reside, the decision by Ireland to opt out of the EU directive to allow asylum seekers to enter the workforce if their applications have not been processed after one year and the fact that there are no prospects post-secondary education for young asylum seekers. It is like hitting the pause button for an uncertain and, doubtless, lengthy period.
I appreciate that we have made some moves, but for most of the children, there is this cliff, the fettering and erosion of normal family dynamics and functioning, the lack of autonomous decision-making and the negative impact on the mental health of adults and children in the direct provision system. The ultimate failure lies in the length of time people remain in the system waiting to have their claims processed. I note the efforts the Government has made to reduce the length of time involved through the International Protection Act 2015 by introducing a single procedure to deal with international protection applications, but the reality is that the average length of stay is four years. However, a significant number have remained within the system for five to ten years. Some 55% have been on the waiting list for more than five years. I ask the Minister of State to think of all the things we have achieved in the past five years when he is on the election trail. There are people who have been in the direct provision system for that period of time. What a substantial loss of time it has been for the individuals, families and, particularly, children who have spent their entire childhood in direct provision centres. They are waiting for their lives to resume.
I was saddened to read in the final report on the child care law reporting project by Dr. Carol Coulter and her team, presented in November 2015, that children born in 2007 were still in the direct provision system. The only time they spent outside it was when they were placed in foster care while their mother received treatment for a mental illness.
There are more than 17 recommendations in the report of the working group which are specific to children and young people. I take the opportunity to thank the Children’s Rights Alliance and its member organisations for ensuring the unique vulnerability of children in the direct provision system was not lost in the process. I will cover briefly the first of those recommendations that we have cited in the motion. My colleague, Senator Fiach Mac Conghail, will speak to the others.
There is a need for child-friendly materials containing relevant legal information. The reality for all of us in full health is that the system is very legalistic; as it can be intimidating, people need support, particularly children who are unaccompanied and seeking guidance on how to pass through the system and for what they need to apply. We need to ensure the material is in a language they can understand in order that they can appreciate the ramifications of the decisions they will take.
The remit of the Office of the Ombudsman for Children should be extended to include complaints about services provided, transfer decisions and so on. Ireland ratified the third optional protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which involves a communication procedure. It allows individual children, groups of children and their representatives, including those in the direct provision system, to submit a complaint to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child about specific violations of their rights under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. I had the privilege of attending the hearing on Ireland before the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. The question was rightly asked how Ireland had in place a system that allowed children in the direct provision system to make a complaint to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child but yet they had no right to make it to the Ombudsman for Children. How can this be the case? Technically, the recommendation that the remit of the Ombudsman for Children be extended is supported in the Child and Family Agency Act 2013 which in section 69 includes a provision on the referral of complaints to the Office of the Ombudsman for Children. Technically, it requires nothing more than a ministerial order or a statutory instrument similar to the one made in 2012 when the decision was made to extend the remit of the Ombudsman for Children to receive complaints from children in prison. It is a question of political will. It is absurd that one can report to a UN body based in Geneva but not to the Ombudsman for Children. I know that the Ombudsman for Children is ready and willing to receive these complaints and wants to be there for all children in Ireland.
The lack of an independent complaints mechanism is completely out of step with the jurisdiction conferred on the office of ombudsman across the Continent. In November 2014, in CA and TA – a minor – v.the Minister for Justice and Equality, the Minister for Social Protection, the Attorney General and Ireland, Mr. Justice Colm Mac Eochaigh found that the RIA’s complaint procedure was deficient, not sufficiently independent, owing to the fact that it was the final arbiter in the process and that some elements of its house rules were unlawful. I do not care what anybody says, I trust the system, yet I would not be comfortable in making a complaint to those who I perceive as being part of the asylum system. We need to develop a welfare strategy and ensure all children have a named social worker based within the Child and Family Agency, not within the system in which a decision will be made on an application. I have argued for the application of the HIQA national standard for the protection and welfare of children, for the involvement of the Health Service Executive’s child and family services, particularly where a referral is made by the child and family services unit in the RIA to the HSE of a child. It is shocking that there is still no independent inspection regime or national standards for direct provision centres, given that we know that there is a significantly higher referral rate for child protection and welfare cases from direct provision centre than among the general population. In one in four cases at least one parent is from an ethnic minority or an asylum seeker or Traveller. I implore the Minister of State to be cognisant of the consistent findings in child care law reporting projects that social exclusion, poverty, isolation, mental health issues and disability are common features of mothers and fathers facing court proceedings and the acknowledgement that minority groups, including asylum seekers, are particularly vulnerable.
My colleague, Senator Fiach Mac Conghail, will speak in greater detail about the issues related to the weekly allowance. There is also the issue of those seeking jobs.Ireland and Lithuania are the only two EU member states that apply a blanket prohibition on asylum seekers entering employment or setting up a business in the state. In conclusion, I wish to quote the words of Bill Frelick, the refugee programme director at Human Rights Watch. He said: “Ireland should recognise work not only as a source of dignity, but as providing a livelihood that is integral to sustaining asylum seekers in the pursuit of their right to seek asylum.”
I thank, in particular, Senator Fiach Mac Conghail who worked with me on this issue, on which we have been at one. I also thank Senators Brian Ó Domhnaill, Martin Conway, David Norris, Marie Moloney, Trevor Ó Clochartaigh and Ivana Bacik. It is great that the House is united on the issue.
Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh is correct to ask what we have achieved. For me, what is most depressing is that we can unite on an issue, but the question is whether we can really bring things forward. Senator Fiach Mac Conghail is correct – as we have the working group’s report, we do not need to have long discussions; we need to move to its implementation. I would like to see the progress reports of high level groups published in order that the process is transparent.
I have listened to the debate on the importance of cooking facilities for families. There is the issue of costs because people need materials in order to be able to cook. We can have that debate, but I will go home tonight and decide the time at which I want to eat and what I will eat. I do not have to depend on a service that provides for me to eat at a specific time. How many of us eat at the same time every day? That alone is institutionalisation. Friends have told me how difficult they find it when they are in hospital for one week. I cannot imagine what it is like to be in a direct provision system.
On the issue of tenders, why are we allowing people to profit from the misery of others? I have a fundamental problem with this. Why is the State not providing the service? Why do we not ask an NGO to do it? There are some really excellent NGOs working in this area. I am thinking of Crosscare, but I am sure there are others. I have seen first-hand the work they do.
On the remit of the Ombudsman for Children, I believe it could be done by statutory instrument or ministerial order. It is, therefore, an issue of political will. If one goes back to the debate in the Houses of the Oireachtas on the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002, this issue was raised. Would we leave an especially vulnerable group of children and young people outside the scope of the Ombudsman for Children’s investigatory remit? In response the former Minister Mary Hanafin said, “The children of asylum seekers and refugees will have access to the Ombudsman for Children in the same way as every other child in Ireland.” That is what the Houses were told. The only thing excluded is the administration of the law, that is, the procedures for defining and determining whether a person is entitled to a particular status. She also explained:
If, however, there are problems in relation to delays, the provision of accommodation, nutrition, housing, etc, those issues are covered. This provision is only to ensure there is not a duplication of the actual process of the administration of the law.
Why does the Ombudsman for Children not have a remit to look at the application? We live on an island, but we really are an island as far as the rest of Europe is concerned because children in other countries can go to their ombudsman for children. It is enshrined in the Constitution that all children are equal, yet now we say we will interpret it slightly differently and that children in direct provision centres do not have the same rights. The Ombudsman for Children and Mr. Peter Tyndall made a joint submission to the working group which clearly explained the benefits, from their involvement in the direct provision system, that their experience could bring and the ease with which they could move into that space if allowed to do so.
The Minister of State has talked about the additional resources that would be needed. It makes me more fearful because it means that he believes there would be lots of complaints and resources needed. What is happening if we know that we will need all of these additional resources? We would need some resources. He goes on to say it is also important to recall that the working group looked specifically at the possibility of setting up a separate complaints procedure but rejected the idea in favour of extending the remit in order that the established offices could take on this role. It is welcome that the Minister for Justice and Equality will meet the Ombudsman for Children next Wednesday. I hope we will move on this issue because it is about giving people hope.
I explain that my job is about nudging. When one is in a direct provision system, it is difficult to understand the nuances in things moving forward and progressing. People need hope and we need to see some big changes. We need to see an increase in the amount of money given to those in direct provision centres in line with the working group’s report. Although a figure of 60% makes for a good news day, it has not risen in 15 years. The people concerned cannot afford to do the normal things children do. I want to be happy that we are moving forward and have a great report, but we are not doing enough. I hope that when the House comes back, Senators will again unite and push firmly for change.
I thank the cross-party group and all Senators who have united on this issue. In particular, I thank the working group’s members, the secretariat, the different Departments that have come together on the issue and, in particular, Dr. Bryan McMahon. We now need to stop the discussion and begin implementation. We need to ensure hope for all citizens and that children are children first and foremost.