On 12 October, the 17th Annual Human Rights Conference examined the challenges in the international protection process, as well as exploring opportunities for change and future reform.
It brought together lawyers, academics, policymakers, and civil society bodies to hear how the current system works, what progress has been made, and how it might be improved.
Former High Court judge Bryan McMahon, who chaired the working group on direct provision in 2015, said that, while direct provision “may not be perfect … it’s much better than it was”.
While there were calls to abolish the system, this was problematic, as it would have to be replaced with an alternative, and the current housing crisis meant that there was a serious shortage of accommodation.
Dr McMahon noted that what was required was “a proper, realisable alternative system”.
He outlined the major changes that had improved direct provision, which included a reduction in the length of time people had to wait for decisions, the introduction of the right to work, an increase in the weekly allowance, a complaints mechanism through the Ombudsman, and cooking facilities on an ad hoc basis for residents in non-State-owned centres.
In referring to backlashes in rural Ireland, such as the recent protests in Oughterard, he emphasised the vital need for consultation with the local community.
He also indicated that the size of the accommodation centre should be proportionate to the size of village/town where it would be located, and a proper review of the local social infrastructure should be undertaken before deciding where to locate centres.
One of the central negotiators in two significant international agreements (the Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2015; and the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, adopted in 2016), Ambassador David Donoghue, former permanent representative of Ireland to the United Nations, gave a unique account of these processes.
The New York Declaration was adopted by all 193 UN member states and became the basis for a future agreement, the Global Compact on Refugees, affirmed in 2018.
An issue that he described as “the single most contentious issue” during negotiations was the detention of unaccompanied minors.
In acknowledging that such agreements are not legally binding, he emphasised that they were “politically binding, and would go so far as to say morally binding”, and that governments had to determine policy within the framework of these global documents.
Leaving no one behind
Even more important than the number of people forcibly displaced in the world, is where they are located. Grainne O’Hara (director, Division of International Protection, UNHCR) spoke of the “disconnect between media representation and the reality” of where asylum seekers and refugees are hosted, noting that, of the top five refugee-hosting countries, only one is an EU country – Germany.
Further, she revealed that 80% of the world’s displaced people are hosted in countries close to their country of origin, with 57% of UNCHR refugees coming from three countries – Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan.
In the situation where 37,000 people each day were forced to flee their homes due to conflict and persecution – a figure that will likely continue to increase – she said that “fewer and fewer countries are offering resettlement”.
In this regard, she noted the success of community sponsorship programmes, particularly Ireland’s recent international award for its pilot model, proposing that this might be a preferable alternative to large-scale accommodation centres.
Activist Ellie Kisyombe – founder of Our Table, a non-profit organisation that helps refugees and asylum seekers to gain skills and employment through the celebration of food and culture – shared the difficult experience of being a single mother and raising two children in direct provision.
Granted her residency last summer, she echoed the remarks made by Dr McMahon, acknowledging that while a solution needed to be found, the current system could not simply be abolished, as it would leave thousands of asylum seekers homeless.
She emphasised the importance of parents being able to cook for their children, and how so many grew up without the experience of sitting down at a table as a family.
She told of how single mothers were forced to turn to sex work to try to provide for their families, and she had seen previously strong men driven to depression and even attempted suicide.
She likened direct provision to “living in an open prison, but you are not sure of the length of your sentence”.
Policymakers must see people as individuals, hear their stories, and respond with morals and empathy, she urged.
While there had been many changes, communities had to be part of future solutions and, at the moment, she stated that it was “private companies controlling human lives”.
Ultimately, asylum seekers wanted to be “treated like any other human being”.