Ireland’s Asylum System – New Direction for Asylum Centres

Lorna Lawless, Cait Caden, Roise McGaigh, Mary Ryan, Marianne Foody and Aoife Horan.

JR3 Public Affairs Journalism

Are Irish prisons working? Is Ireland’s asylum system fit for purpose? Final-year DCU journalism students conducted in-depth investigations into these two major questions in Irish public life. Working with School of Communications Journalist-in-Residence, Ursula Halligan, and Chair of the BA in Journalism, Declan Fahy, students worked in teams to produce a set of original multi-media articles on these pressing, but under-reported, public affairs topics.

The Department of Justice is in talks with a number of Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) to overhaul the current asylum system of Direct Provision.

The Direct Provision system, established in 2000, houses and meets the basic needs of food and shelter for asylum seekers who enter Ireland seeking international protection.

The system is overseen by the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA), part of the Department of Justice, but the majority of centres are privately owned and run, a fact that has drawn criticism from some advocacy organisations.  

A spokesperson from the Irish Refugee Council said they were in the “exploratory stages” of examining proposals for an “entirely different approach to the accommodation of people seeking asylum” outside of the Direct Provision system.

 “The Department of Justice do seem open to hearing alternative approaches to the current system. Obviously this type of shift to a new approach to reception would take time.’’

“The argument or reason the Government tend to put forward for standing over the current system is that it offers ‘value for money’ and no other alternative has ever been put forward” the spokesperson said.

 Direct Provision centres are currently being run on a for profit basis, as the government continues to renew their ownership contracts with private companies.

A large amount of these contract holders have re-registered themselves as private unlimited companies, which relieves them of any legal obligation publicly file accounts.

Eugene Banks, former Principal Officer at RIA, said bidding contractors work on a “supply and demand” basis when making a bid.

He said: “We don’t have enough beds for people seeking protection in Ireland at the moment, so contractors could in theory charge us whatever price they like, they could charge more because the supply of accommodation is so limited.”.

Bids are open to anyone who fulfils the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) criteria, but unlike other European countries, such as France, Ireland does not have an organisation such an NGO, involved in the running of accommodation services for people seeking asylum.

RIA policy states: “It is not in the interests of the taxpayer that current details of individual contracts are made known both to the public and to other parties who are, or may be in the future, engaged in negotiations with the RIA. To compile or release such current detailed financial information could negatively affect the competitive position of the State”.

The Irish Immigrant Support Centre, an advocacy organisation, said on its website: “The majority of the centres around the country are privately owned and operated, and the standards of accommodation and living conditions vary widely.”

A total of 28 private companies including Aramark, which provides catering services to Croke Park and Avoca, are contracted out to run direct provision centres.

“It would be positive to see charities run centres as is the case in other countries,” said Head of Media and Public Affairs for the UN Refugee Agency, Jody Clarke.

Figures released by the RIA show €72 million was paid out last year to private companies to run Direct Provision centres. Approximately €5 million paid out to each of six different firms last year.

Former Programme Director for the Irish Refugee Protection program John Roycroft said he would support a system with greater involvement by NGOs and high interest organisations.

“There’s a lot of areas where we could actually agree common approaches, common types of practice, information presentations, train people” he said, “NGOs are going to bring their expertise on where the system needs to change to improve the lives of the people they represent”

“A lot of groups out there, with minimal funding, would be prepared to do some of this work”.

To Eugene Banks, the “ideal system” of Direct Provision would be the self catering model used at the accommodation centre in Mosney, county Meath, “the only model which meets all the requirements of the McMahon report”.

“The front door is so crucially important to the person’s dignity, to the persons self- worth, the idea of children or child or people in the family preparing their own meals, seeing their parents prepare their own meal for them and nurture them.”

Banks said such a system would include NGO’s in “the delivery of service, providing support and assistance for people who have gone through a traumatic time”.

“I don’t think the Department would be opposed an NGO joining a conglomerate, to come in and run and operate an accommodation centre as part of that bidding process”, he added.

Tim Hanley, Campaigns Officer for Amnesty International Ireland, said the “institutionalised” system of Direct Provision was unsuitable for long term residents.

 “Tweaking around the edges of the current system might result in some minor improvements for people seeking asylum, but it does nothing to fix the broken system of Direct Provision” he said.

 “Amnesty International is not a service provision organisation, and it wouldn’t be within our remit to get involved in such a manner. It’s important to be clear that an alternative to Direct Provision needs to be found – one that is human rights compliant. The system itself is not acceptable.”

Carol Wilson, a former volunteer with Cliffview, Globe House and Mosney Direct Provision centres, said commercially run direct provision centres are solely interested in “wringing as much money out of it as they can.”

“It is all about power and control and politics, and fundamentally about making money, saving money on anything they can cut corners on”, she said.

As this article was being written, a representative from Mosney, a private company providing accommodation for people seeking asylum in Meath, asked for the retraction of a Freedom of Information (FOI) request shortly after it was submitted.

The FOI in question was seeking information about how many centres Mosney PLC own, among other financial aspects connected with their involvement with direct provision.

The same FOI, with the exception of a slight wording difference, was also submitted for Aramark. This request was granted and no direct contact from Aramark was made with our reporter.

Lorna Lawless, Cait Caden, Roise McGagh, Mary Ryan, Marianne Foody and Aoife Horan.