Niamh Osborne, Legal Intern

The highly anticipated White Paper on abolishing Direct Provision was published by the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth on Friday 26th February 2021. The White Paper proposes a number of new approaches to the reception of applicants for International Protection which the Department hopes to have implemented by 2024. This comes following 21 years since the introduction of the Direct Provision system as an emergency mechanism for the housing asylum seekers.

Direct Provision has been the subject of intense scrutiny in recent years. Cramped dormitory style rooms, low standards of living, loss of independence and inconsistent care of unaccompanied minors are a few of the many criticisms the system has received from the UN Human Rights Committee, the Council of Europe, public representatives, numerous NGO’s and the public. This came to a head in March 2020 when Covid-19 ran rampant throughout a number of centres, leading to public outcry for the abolishment of Direct Provision.

Responsibility for the International Protection Accommodation Services (IPAS) was transferred to the newly formed Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth in mid-2020. Minister Roderic O’Gorman pledged to end Direct Provision and directed the formation of the Advisory Group on the Provision of Support (commonly known as the ‘Day Group’) chaired by former Secretary of the European Commission, Dr. Catherine Day. The Day Group published a report of recommendations for consideration by the Department.

This leads us to the publishing of the White Paper, which proposes extensive reforms in areas such as accommodation, healthcare, integration and labour market access to name a few.

The Two-Phase Approach

Applicants making an initial application for international protection will be subject to a two-phase approach.

During Phase One, applicants making an initial application for protection will stay at a State-run Reception and Integration Centre for four months. The White Paper proposes the establishment of six new Reception and Integration Centres throughout the State.

Phase Two will commence when an applicant has completed their four month stay in a Reception and Integration Centre. Applicants will then be offered accommodation which may be located in any county throughout the country.

Accommodation

The White Paper proposes that families be provided with ‘own-door’ accommodation. This style of accommodation should be a self-contained house, apartment or unit which includes a kitchen and living area. Single people will be given ‘own room’ accommodation. This means that single applicants will live in a shared apartment or house with shared cooking and living facilities with other applicants living in the same unit.

It is proposed that new houses and apartments should be built and/or acquired through approved housing bodies. Some accommodation may be acquired through the repurposing of unoccupied buildings, rent-a-room schemes and private tenancies. Asylum seekers who are placed in accommodation within Local Authority Area Councils will have their rent subsidised by the Department through a scheme similar to the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP).

The proposal of this new style of accommodation marks a move away from the cramped dormitory style of accommodation that is typically associated with the current model of reception. This new system of community based housing will likely encourage integration into Irish society.

Access to the Labour Market

Under the proposed new reception mechanism, applicants will be eligible for access to the labour market at the end of Phase One which is four months into their application for protection. This is in contrast with the current 6 month wait between making an initial application and eligibility for labour market access. The White Paper asserts that all applicants eligible to access the labour market will be encouraged to do so by the Department.

It is proposed that applicants engaged in employment will make a rent contribution to the State based on their means. Applicants who are not engaged in employment will receive a support payment which will be similar to the supplementary welfare allowance.

Vulnerability Supports

During Phase One, it is proposed that applicants will receive a vulnerability assessment. This will include an examination of physical and mental health. Any particular needs an applicant has should be identified at this stage and supports put in place to assist this individual. It has been recommended that Tusla and the Young People’s Service Committee (CYPSC) play a role in assessing the healthcare and educational needs of children. Individuals identified in Phase One as having particular vulnerabilities will receive supports from NGO’s and non-profit organisations that the Department proposes to contract and fund.

The White Paper recommends that female applicants receive the same access to healthcare supports as Irish nationals. This is set to include reproductive care, antenatal, birth and postnatal care, cervical checks and breast screening for those aged 50 and over. Individuals who experience trauma will receive mental healthcare from community-based teams.

Transgender applicants will receive appropriate healthcare as is required relating to their transition. LGBTQ applicants will received supports from caseworkers and accessibility to LGBTQ communities will play an important role in the transition from Phase One to Phase Two for LGBTQ applicants.

Supporting Integration

The White Paper proposes a number of new policy changes aimed at reducing barriers to integration and employment. It has been proposed that new legislation granting the right to apply for a driving licence to come into effect before Summer 2021. The Department is also in talks with the Banking Federation of Ireland in order to remove obstacles preventing applicants from opening bank accounts. The White Paper also promises the establishment of English language programmes to assist applicants who do not speak that language. The provision of childcare to allow parents to attend English language classes has also been proposed.

Legal Supports

It has been recommended by the White Paper that the Department liaise with the Legal Aid Board to ascertain what supports may be required in order to ensure the Board is in a position to continue supporting the approximate 3,500 new applicants for International Protection each year. The White Paper makes no reference to private practitioners representing applicants under the Legal Aid Board’s Private Practitioners Scheme.

Fees for private practitioners were substantially cut in December 2020. This may deter private firms from accepting referrals from the Board and increase pressure on the Board. Access to meaningful legal aid is fundamental to providing practitioners with the means to provide their clients with the legal assistance they deserve.

Clarification or Confusion?

After 21 years of a system that has continually served as a blight on the lives of those it directly effects and on wider society as a whole, the proposal of a new system of reception is welcomed with open arms. Regardless, there remains a number of issues in the White Paper that our team at KOD Lyons believe require clarification and further examination from the Department in order to avoid repeating issues that the current system experiences.

One of these issues is the standard of accommodation. A major issue that is faced by the current model is inconsistency in the standard of accommodation, with some accommodation centres currently considered much more desirable to reside in than others. The White Paper makes no commitment to ensuring a consistent standard of accommodation for all applicants in the new proposed model.

A major concern that has been highlighted by activist groups and is shared by our team here at KOD Lyons is the proposal to house applicants in Reception and Integration Centres for the initial four months following their initial application. There is no suggestion that this four-month period will be regulated by statute. This could potentially result in applicants spending periods of times in these centres significantly longer than what is proposed in the White Paper.

Vulnerability assessments are currently required to take place within a month after an applicant makes their initial application. We have seen vast number of applicants spend years in the current system without ever receiving a vulnerability assessment. Our Immigration Team has made representations to the Minister for Justice and successfully Judicially Reviewed the failure to conduct assessments in the past. We hope that the new model will be committed to conducting vulnerability assessments in a timely fashion and intend to monitor this as it progresses.

The housing of single people remains a concern for our Team. The proposal for ‘own-room’ accommodation needs further clarification from the Department. We would like to see a commitment from the Department to placing limits on how many applicants can be placed in one accommodation unit to avoid overcrowding. This is an issue that the current system faces and it is essential that commitments are made to ensure the mistakes of the current model are not transferred into the new one.

Conclusion

Despite a number of welcome new reforms regarding the reception of asylum seekers, there remains a number of issues that have essentially been glossed over by the Department. It is essential that comprehensive and well thought out commitments are made by the Government to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated.

Our Team at KOD Lyons remains committed to ensuring the needs of our clients residing in State sponsored accommodation are met in a timely and appropriate manner. We will monitor the transition from Direct Provision into the new model of reception and address any further issues as they arise.

If you are affected or concerned by the content above, you can speak to a member of our Team by calling (01) 679 0780 or emailing stephen.kirwan@kodlyons.ie.