2022 is a pivotal year for people seeking protection in Ireland

The pandemic has been a disaster for refugees around the world. Covid-19 was used as cover for human rights abuses. As borders closed, it became harder and more dangerous to flee. In countries of refuge, quarantine was abused, fear of the ‘other’ grew and decision making ground to a halt.

In Europe, progressive refugee policies are under attack. It is hard not to conclude that the highwater mark of the common European asylum system has been reached. Discussions on the Commission’s  Pact on Asylum and Migration, published in September 2020, are deadlocked. 2021 was the deadliest year for migration routes to and within Europe since 2018. Only on Tuesday, 19 people froze to death on the Turkish-Greek border. Refugee rights groups are digging in and trying to defend  the basic tenets of refugee protection. Amidst this backdrop, can Ireland be the exception?

26 February will mark one year since the Government’s commitment to end Direct Provision, outlined in the White Paper. After 20 long years of advocacy, led by people in the system and a wide spectrum of organisations, it is still remarkable to see the words End Direct Provision next to the seal of the Government of Ireland. Everyday we work with people in the protection process. Many feel that there has not yet been the tangible change expected. Delays are blighting the system. Our report, ‘Hanging on a Thread,’ published in July 2021, shows how they cause harm to families and mental health. Emergency centres - hotels in particular - continue to be used. Large numbers of people are still sharing bedrooms. Overstay in hotel quarantine results in a confusing start to life in Ireland. Legal aid provision, a key issue identified by Catherine Day in her October 2020 report, remains completely inadequate.

There have been changes in the last 12 months. Driver licenses, bank accounts and a vulnerability assessment now available to people. But in each case the push for change was either the Human Rights Commission, legal action or simply implementation of a legal obligation that has existed since 2018. Cumulatively there is no doubt that these changes can make a difference; but the realization of relatively basic human rights should not be a cause for huge celebration. To do so risks lowering the bar of how we define real progress.

There are however real chinks of light on the horizon. The forthcoming regularisation scheme, specific for people in the protection process and due to be announced soon, offers huge hope. By drastically reducing the large backlog it could trigger the complete reset that the  process needs. A large scale and coordinated effort will also be needed to help people transition out of the system. The decision making wheels are also beginning to turn which is essential as the number of people applying for protection increase. More generally, Ireland’s response to the Afghan crisis has been positive, albeit that the reality of the Afghan admissions programme does not meet the high expectations we had. 

Civil society is also speaking with one voice. In January a new coalition, ‘Stad’ comprising more than 35 organizations, was launched. Stad has four aims: end Direct Provision, reduce delays, mandate HIQA to inspect existing centres and implementation of the urgent actions identified by the Catherine Day report. It is important to emphasise that these are the this or the previous Government’s own goals, either stated directly in the White Paper or indirectly through reports that it commissioned. It is no longer a case of whether Direct Provision should end but what should replace it, how it is implemented and when. Stad will be there to monitor this process and speak as a collective about the system as we see it and the need for change.

The Government’s own framework for what should replace Direct Provision is also emerging. The Irish Refugee Council were nominated to be on the Programme Board which gives advice, monitors and provides for information exchange. A Transition Team has been created that will oversee the new system. The Team are doing serious thinking, on the right track and the foundations for a new system are beginning to be put in place. It will be crucial that all government departments, housing, finance and public expenditure in particular, roll in behind these recommendations and support the work of the Transition Team. The budget in particular remains unclear and at some point protection accommodation must be considered part of mainstream housing policy.

Our guiding star in this process continues to be our report on alternatives to Direct Provision published one year ago. It gives multiple recommendations on how to get to a new system. This includes the use of eight different accommodation models to replace Direct Provision. A variety of streams will be needed to meet the demand for accommodation. A Programme Management Office style body should be considered to manage the implementation accommodation. The Transition Team could take on this role.

We still believe that there is a desire to end Direct Provisoin. Ending a system so engrained was always going to be challenging. Political drive, from all Government parties – not just the Greens- essential. But the only real litmus test of change is what is happening on the ground and people’s direct experience of the system they live in. People in the protection process need to see change and 2022 will be a pivotal year. If the aims of the White Paper, and the many reports and recommendations that shaped it, can be realised, Ireland will stand out in a world that is increasingly hostile to refugees.

 Irish Examiner, 7 February 2022