During the establishment of direct provision accommodation centres, the question of weekly cash payments for asylum seekers were also discussed. In November 1999, the Department of Social and Family Affairs (now Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection) suggested that a ‘comfort payment’ of €19.10 per adult and €9.60 per child per week in direct provision accommodation be made. This rate was suggested because it was a rate paid to persons in long term institutional care as a comfort payment. This covered persons with very significant needs, who may have been unable to walk, talk, or fully lead an independent life.
It was initially envisaged that this payment would be provided for in legislation. However, this did not occur until 2018. On 10 December 1999, International Human Rights Day, community welfare officers were informed that asylum seekers in direct provision accommodation centres should be paid these rates. It was however acknowledged that some asylum seekers could also qualify for certain social welfare contingency payments e.g. child benefit, one parent family payment, non-contributory pension, disability allowance. Entitlement to such payments could continue until 2005.
Within weeks of the setting of this rate, concerns were expressed that refusing to provide welfare payments asylum seekers was unlawful. The Department of Social Affairs, however stated that supplementary welfare allowance did not have to be paid at its full monetary rate, coupled with rent allowance, but it could be paid in kind, and to asylum seekers as a group. Various health boards and community welfare officers raised concerns with the legality of doing so, given that supplementary welfare allowance was a discretionary payment, and should not be subject to governmental/ministerial interference as to whether individuals meet the legislative criteria (see further, Thornton, 2013). Inbuilt into the system of direct provision at the time, was an ability for people who were pregnant, suffering ill-health, or where accommodation centres were inadequate, would receive welfare payments. The Department of Justice was deeply concerned by this, stating that community welfare officers attached to Social Affairs/Health Boards were frustrating the government policy on direct provision. These concerns were also discussed in Government papers at this time. However, it appeared to be the case that Government was happy to allow certain people exit direct provision relatively quickly, while others would only be supported through the direct provision system.
The issue of granting full social welfare and rent allowance payments continued in 2001 and 2002, with trade union representatives of community welfare officers accusing the Social Affairs and Justice of ‘manipulating’ social welfare law, and arguing that if they wanted asylum seekers to be paid lower weekly rates, then legislation should be introduced. As noted in a previous blog post, with the legislative prohibition of asylum seekers accessing rent supplement, this meant that many asylum seekers would simply not be able to exit direct provision, even if they had entitlement to child benefit or a contingency weekly welfare payment. In 2005, asylum seekers were purportedly removed prospectively from accessing either child benefit, or contingency social welfare allowances. Officials within the Reception and Integration Agency drafted a never implemented Circular seeking to strengthen the legal basis of weekly direct provision allowances for asylum seekers.
Throughout 1999 to 2005, given the inadequacy of the weekly direct provision allowance, many community welfare officers granted Exceptional Needs Payments to cover the cost of nappies, school books and other essentials. Given that the weekly direct provision allowance was valued at between 10% and 20% of a core social assistance payment (justified on the basis that food and accommodation was provided to asylum seekers), officials within Social Affairs and Justice were content to allow Exceptional Needs Payments be utilised for provision of essentials. In setting the rate of direct provision allowance (which did not increase for children until 2016, and for adults until 2017), officials utilised persons in institutions who received ‘comfort payments’ as the baseline for weekly payments to asylum seekers.
The introduction of the rate did not occur post evaluation of needs of asylum seekers, so that even if shelter and food costs were accounted for, what precisely should a weekly payment also cover. Comparing the full rate of the payment Supplementary Welfare Allowance (a social assistance payment available where entitlement to other social assistance contingency payments is not established), the cash payment to single adult asylum seekers has ranged from just under 20% of the full SWA rates in 2000 to 14.1% in 2004. This significant differential can be explained by the Government seeking to quell ‘pull factors’ and make Ireland a deeply unattractive country to claim protection. What better way to do that, than to insist that the needs of asylum seekers were similar to persons who Ireland placed in institutions and may have needed significant personal and social care. Direct provision simply continues Ireland’s long drawn out love affair with institutionalisation of ‘people that civil servants, politicians, government and Irish society brand ‘problematic’.
Liam is a socio-legal human rights academic in UCD School of Law.