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Doras View: The Department of Justice and Equality Response to Covid-19 in Direct Provision

29/4/2020

Department of Justice Response

While the government is working to limit the spread of Covid-19, people living in Direct Provision are being left in very precarious and anxious situations. This is due to overcrowding in many centres, compounded by a lack of transparency and basic information for international protection applicants living in the centres. The extent of Covid-19 infection in the Skellig Star Hotel in Caherciveen highlights that very starkly.

The Department needs to respond to this crisis within a crisis with more haste and to act now to limit further threats to health and wellbeing of people in direct provision centres across the country. These threats can become a reality in any Department of Justice International Protection Accommodation Service (IPAS) centre at any time, as long as Covid-19 is with us.

It’s hard to see why the Department is not acting with urgency in their response to these threats, and why it’s not working in a more proactive manner to ensure that what happened in Caherciveen doesn’t happen in other centres. Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the Department appears to have been operating as if Covid-19 outbreaks in centres are inevitable, rather than preventable. Their strategy has not gone beyond ‘thinning’ numbers and isolating those who are infected. Inadequate responses like this practically ensure that outbreaks in centres are inevitable.

Own Door Accommodation

At the Department of Health Covid-19 press briefing on April 27th, Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Tony Holohan, stated that sharing a bedroom with non-family members does not allow for social distancing. He continued to say that social distancing is something that the Department of Health wants people to do, “regardless of the circumstances or institutions they are in”.

We call for more effective action from the Department of Justice in response to Covid-19, and for an immediate effort to meet the Department of Health requirement for people to socially distance. This can be done by introducing at least one element of what a viable alternative to Direct Provision may be – the contracting of more own door, self-contained accommodation for individuals and families – so that occupancy in direct provision centres is reduced to one person per room.

Since March, IPAS have started using an apartment building in Limerick city centre to accommodate a number of International Protection Applicants. This is a welcome initiative whereby people are able to live in a more dignified way while being able to practice social distancing or self-isolation, if needs be. We know that this crisis is making former short-term lettings available, which means more suitable accommodation can be procured, at the very least on an emergency basis. Recent reports indicate how much the Department spends on the failed system of Direct Provision – we call for that money to be spent more appropriately, with human rights, dignity and now public health the key outcomes of that expenditure. It should not be providing high levels of profit for the owners of overcrowded direct provision centres. 

The Department of Justice and Equality needs to work to reduce the risk of new clusters of Covid-19 developing in their accommodation centres, and to reduce the overall spread of the virus. Furthermore the steps being taken need to be communicated in a timely and open manner. Transparency on contingency planning is essential. We have listened to numerous accounts of how people in Direct Provision feel a complete lack of control around their health outcomes at this time. The provision of short-notice, mandatory measures only adds to that.

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