The introduction of direct provision accommodation for asylum seekers was planned throughout 1998 to 2000. Prior to its introduction, asylum seekers were entitled to rent supplement, and could source their own accommodation in the private sector. The Direct Provision Files provide a clear narrative as to why the Government at the time sought to introduce a system of direct provision accommodation centres. In 1998 difficulties in securing private accommodation for asylum seekers in the Greater Dublin area were noted. By August 1998, the then Minister for Justice recommended to Government that asylum seekers be accommodated in “communal settings”, with a “high level of private sector/non-governmental organisation involvement.”
The Interdepartmental Committee on Immigration, Asylum and Related Issues in its Proposals for Implementation had considered the advantages and disadvantages of such a system. Concerns were expressed by the Interdepartmental Committee relating to segregation of asylum seekers in purpose build or purpose sought accommodation, and opposition from communities. However, the consensus was that the creation of such an accommodation system would potentially disincentivise persons claiming asylum in Ireland, while ‘supervision’ of asylum seekers throughout the duration of their protection claim could be enhanced to ensure speedier deportation. Changes that were proposed in the United Kingdom, and protection of the Common Travel Area also dominated discourse at this time. (It should be noted the United Kingdom (eventually) abandoned plans for large-scale direct provision type accommodation centres).
The Irish Government adopted direct provision accommodation as their preferred model on the following basis, Justice would process asylum claims in a relatively short time frame, with the Interdepartmental Committee stating,
Based on the current level of applications, the processing time for most applications, including appeals, should reduce towards 6 months from the date of application. It is therefore unlikely that individuals will need to be provided for through direct means for more than that length of time, unless of course they frustrate processing or seek to extend their stay through judicial review.
The Minister for Justice in a Memorandum for Government in March 2000 stated,
It is considered however, that asylum seekers should not be accommodated on a full board basis beyond the 6 month period. The options thereafter would be to provide vouchers or accommodate in centres on a self-catering basis where the State would still have control of where they reside and where they would be readily contactable, in the event of finalising their asylum applications or enforcing deportation orders as they case may be.
So the whole premise of direct provision accommodation centres were that they would be used for a maximum period of six months, unless there were judicial reviews of protection decisions. Even throughout 1998-2001, time periods for determining protection claims could be counted in years, not months. The claims by Justice that claims could be determined within six months, was never (and is not now) realistic. Yet it is a core foundational basis for the operation of the system of direct provision accommodation. There were some discussions on using tents (or rather ‘pavilions’), flotels, and army barracks as possible sites to accommodate asylum seekers in 2000. Yet these proposals came to nothing, due to objections from harbourmasters and army officials. So too, did the Government envisage protests from local communities regarding the location of direct provision centres.
Upon the formal commencement of direct provision, it was envisaged that there would be certain categories of persons seeking asylum who should be permitted to move out of direct provision accommodation centres after six months. However, concerns were expressed from 2000 to 2003, that community welfare officers, who made that decision at a local level, were over extending their discretion to permit asylum seekers move out of direct provision. Some community welfare officers noted the very poor quality of direct provision centres. Ultimately, legislative change, brought about, at least in part, due to letters from the Masters of Dublin Maternity Hospitals, meant that post May 2003, there were no exceptions, and asylum seekers seeking shelter would only be accommodated in direct provision centres.
The discussion, discourse and justifications for direct provision accommodation centres today, have changed little from when it was introduced. People still spend many years within the system, and not just persons seeking to review decisions made on protection claims. Policy making in this area seems stuck in a repetitive loop, with the same arguments, justifications over and over again. The immiseration of the lives of asylum seekers continues to be the core outcome of (successive) government decisions on direct provision accommodation centres.
Liam is an associate professor in UCD School of Law.