There has never been any real whole-of-government evaluation of the degree to which direct provision accommodation centres should continue to be utilised. At least on a simple monetary evaluation, the Department of Justice found in 2010 and 2019, that the entirety of the system of direct provision is more expensive per head than it would be permitting individuals and families accessing mainstream social assistance payments, including housing assistance payment. It is not clear the degree to which the newly formed Day Advisory Group on Direct Provision and International Protection will be permitted to explore and recommend wholescale alternatives to the system of direct provision.
The Direct Provision Files show government responses to concerns surrounding the system of direct provision accommodation were solely limited to reforms. The first iteration of House Rules in direct provision accommodation centres were publicly issued in 2005. A 2008 review of the House Rules did not result in any significant changes. In establishing the McMahon Group on direct provision and international protection, government officials in 2014 appeared to have three key aims: (1) any changes to the entirety of the system of direct provision should be as close to cost neutral as possible; (2) there would be no ability for the McMahon Group to examine alternatives to direct provision; and, (3) Non-governmental organisations invited to be representatives on the McMahon Group would be ‘brought into the tent’.
For the first time, drafts of the McMahon Report, and the work of its sub-groups have been made available via The Direct Provision Files. From the (limited) documentation currently available, the McMahon Group expressed significant concern surrounding the institutionalisation that was occuring for persons subject to the system of direct provision accommodation. The stated terms of reference of the McMahon Group were however limited, only permitted to make the system of direct provision ‘more respectful’, without being able to consider alternatives. I do not yet have access to drafts of the Theme One McMahon Sub-Group responsible for considering the system of direct provision accommodation centres. The May 2015 Full Draft Report (from p.125 here) broadly reflects the published McMahon Report of June 2016. Significant concerns were expressed in the Draft and Full Reports on the length of time persons had to spend in direct provision accommodation centres. The McMahon Report therefore made a number of highly limited recommendations as regards physical living conditions for persons living in direct provision centres. Many of the recommendations were ‘subject to contractual obligations’, to be delivered ‘in so far as practicable’, and included the following:
- Adequate storage provided for persons in direct provision;
- Play, recreation and study facilities be provided;
- Alleviation of cramped conditions for asylum seekers;
- ‘In so far as reasonably practicable’, single asylum seekers should be permitted to apply for a single room after nine months in a communal room, and ‘in so far as reasonably practicable’ be granted a single room after 15 months in direct provision accommodation centres.
- Within six months of the Reports publication, the McMahon Group recommended that all families have access to cooking facilities (this should have occurred by November 2016).
- By December 2016, families should have private living space, not solely being family bedrooms.
Various other requests for nutritional audits, standard settings of services within direct provision accommodation centres, ability for residents of centres to have guests, and the establishment of an independent inspectorate to examine quality of direct provision accommodation centres, were made.
An official within the Department of Justice declared in 2018 (in voicing his objections to an increase in direct provision allowance) that all recommendations made in the McMahon Report had been implemented. They clearly had not.
Only in 2019, were the National Standards on the system of direct provision accommodation centres published. The National Standards will not be enforceable until 2021 (some six years after the McMahon Report). The National Standards implement many of the recommendations that were contained in the McMahon Report and highlighted above, as regards living space for families who should be provided with ‘own-door’ accommodation, and the right for a single person to be provided with their own room within 15 months, however the obligation to provide this is only ‘in so far as is possible’. Where a Centre does not have the capacity to provide cooking facilities, this is to be provided “within a reasonable timeframe”, and may be individual or communal cooking facilities. In addition, an Independent Inspectorate for direct provision accommodation centres will finally be operational.
These National Standards are welcome. Yet, are in themselves problematic. As I stated to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Equality and Justice:
In the context of standards within institutionalised settings, I would exercise a note of caution. When one begins by stating that there could be standards to watch over settings which, per se, grossly violate human rights, it gives some form of comfort that the system is fine. While they may be appropriate now, when we are not moving away from direct provision, we should proceed with a note of caution about the standardisation of everything. We do not have standardisation in our lives, but due to [our] failure to realise properly the rights of those in the international protection system, we suddenly need such standards. Where possible and appropriate, human beings need to live free to make decisions such as where and what to cook, and where and with whom to sleep. When we start outlining standards, such as requiring that a room be a certain size, it begins to decide intimate aspects of people’s lives, something I find uncomfortable.
Yet, the current realities are that almost 1 in 7 persons in the international protection process are currently not offered direct provision accommodation (as it is currently operated). Proposed ‘Emergency’ accommodation centres and direct provision centres over the last number of months have resulted in significant protests from communities. One proposed direct provision centre was set on fire down. Other communities have planned for the arrival of direct provision centres.
Liam is an associate professor in UCD School of Law.