Justice Minister Helen McEntee says the Direct Provision system for asylum seekers will not be replaced overnight.
It comes as dozens of residents staying in a Direct Provision centre at the former Skellig Star hotel in Cahersiveen, Co Kerry, hold a protest over living conditions.
The 30 men and women began a fast on Tuesday in the centre and have alleged their water and food was rationed.
Speaking in the Seanad on Thursday, the minister said she “regrets” the situation that has arisen at the centre.
She said: “It is a matter of deep regret for me as Minister for Justice and I’m very sorry that the residents of the Skellig Star felt their concerns required this type of action.
“When a group of people feel that they need to put their own health at risk by refusing food to have their concerns listened to, then it is a very serious situation.
“I want to acknowledge how difficult this has been for residents and the challenges they have faced during the pandemic. I accept that the outbreak of Covid-19 in the centre was distressing for staff and residents, and the wider community.”
Ms McEntee said her officials visited the centre and that residents have access to clean drinking water and meals.
“However, I am conscious that because they can’t cook their own meals it is a difficult situation for residents to be in.”
Justice Minister Helen McEntee tells the Seanad, the replacement of the Direct Provision system for asylum seekers "will not happen overnight."— Ãine McMahon (@AineMcMahon) July 30, 2020
"The existing centres will continue to operate in the short to medium term but changes will be made."
She said a number of residents have asked for a transfer from the centre and, as travel restrictions have eased, they will get to move out soon.
Ms McEntee said, however, that the overall system of Direct Provision will not change overnight.
“The replacement of the Direct Provision system will not happen overnight unfortunately. The existing centres will continue to operate in the short to medium term but changes will be made.
“While it ensures that the basic needs of people are met, people claiming international protection need more than just that. They need a holistic system that is responsive to their needs and respects their dignity, right to privacy and a family life.”
A white paper on replacing Direct Provision will be drafted by the end of the year, said Ms McEntee.
It comes after a report prepared by Dr Catherine Day suggested major changes to the existing Direct Provision system.
She said the report published by the Day Commission will feed into that and will influence the white paper.
“This Government has committed to ending the current system of Direct Provision within the lifetime of this Government and replacing it with a new system of international protection accommodation policy – one that is centred on a not-for-profit approach.”
Senator Eileen Flynn, a Traveller rights activist, said the Direct Provision system is “dangerous” for asylum seekers.
“Asylum seekers are living in hell under this State,” she said.
“We have a long history in Ireland of putting unwanted people behind high walls and hiding us away from wider society – and I know as a member of a group of unwanted people what that feels like.”
Ms Flynn said there have been numerous Government reports into Direct Provision since it was introduced 20 years ago, and called on the minister to set a date for when it will end.