Coronavirus has highlighted the “unsustainability” of having three or more people living in the same room in Direct Provision, a report has found.
Ombudsman Peter Tyndall raised concerns over accommodation in the Direct Provision system in his annual report.
Mr Tyndall said the contagious nature of Covid-19 has highlighted how unsustainable it is to have three or more people, who are not from the same family, living in the same room for a significant amount of time.
Many people in Direct Provision centres share bedrooms with multiple people, particularly among the increasing numbers in emergency accommodation.
In his report, Mr Tyndall said the number of people in the Direct Provision system increased by 30% during 2018, and by 16% by early 2020.
He said the McMahon report – the recognised benchmark for Direct Provision services – had criticised the Department of Justice and Equality’s use of a definition from the 1966 Housing Act as the minimum space required for a bedroom.
The measurement was little more than the space required for a double bed, which the department continued to use.
The department told the Ombudsman that after the Covid-19 pandemic it intends to move towards having no more than three people who are not family members sharing accommodation.
As part of the investigation, Ombudsman’s office staff visited 26 accommodation centres last year including some unannounced visits.
The Ombudsman saw a 10.5% increase in complaints, from 152 in 2018 to 168 in 2019.
Complaints concerned the length of time in emergency accommodation, transfers to other accommodation, access to schools for children, food facilities, and access to GP services and medical cards.
The Ombudsman said the most significant change in 2019 was the increase in the number of applicants for international protection temporarily living in emergency accommodation in hotels, guesthouses and bed and breakfasts.
At the start of 2020 there were 1,524 people in 37 locations across the country.
The Ombudsman said: “Current Direct Provision accommodation is not appropriate for anything other than short-term stay.
“Emergency accommodation is even more inappropriate. It is unacceptable that people who have sought refuge here can find themselves in accommodation that is entirely unsuitable for a prolonged period – up to 16 months and longer in some cases.”
The Ombudsman welcomed confirmation by the International Protection Accommodation Service (IPAS) that it is examining the feasibility of moving towards a capital investment approach rather than the current practice of adapting existing buildings.
This approach has the potential to significantly reduce the costs of running centres.
The Ombudsman commended the work of IPAS and other agencies in responding to threats from Covid-19, including moving more than 300 people out of emergency accommodation.
However, he said the most concerns surrounded the physical constraints of current accommodation centres, and how applicants for international protection in the sector were being treated.
Nick Henderson, chief executive of the Irish Refugee Council, said the Covid-19 crisis has exposed the faults and problems of the Direct Provision system.
Mr Henderson added: “As a congregating setting, Direct Provision is particularly unsuitable for people during a crisis when we are required to distance ourselves from others.
“We know that the Government has taken steps to what they described as ‘thin the population’, but we remain very concerned about people who are still having to share accommodation and that situation continues for people.
“It means they cannot distance themselves as required by HSE guidance.
“If a person is diagnosed with Covid-19 in Direct Provision, I understand that person, depending on their age, could be cocooned in a centre or they could be taken to a self-isolation space or indeed hospital.”