Restorative garda clinics for refugee integration

An Garda Síochána and Riverview Direct Provision Centre

Restorative Garda Clinics for Refugee Integration

An external restorative practitioner supported local Gardaí with this work; this piece is written by that practitioner. 

To maintain its anonymity, the pseudonym ‘Riverview’ is used for the Direct Provision Centre.

A key aim of restorative practice (RP) is to build and maintain healthy relationships through participatory dialogue and decision-making (Wachtel, 2016). The sequential circle process is a type of restorative process that can be used proactively to structure a conversation on any subject, and with any group of people, the goals of which can include building relationships and understanding between different groups of people. Circles work in the following way:

  • the participants sit physically in a circle format;
  • the facilitator introduces the process and ground rules;
  • the facilitator asks questions designed to help build relationships and understanding between the parties, encourage reflection, or elicit discussion on a given topic;
  • after each question is asked, the right to speak moves around the circle sequentially, supported by a talking piece which is passed between the participants;
  • when holding the talking piece, each person has the right to speak uninterrupted;
  • participants are not required to speak and may pass the talking piece without comment; and,
  • once all participants have had an opportunity to speak, the facilitator may pass the talking piece around the group again for further responses, or ask another question.

Rule 61 of the 2018 Council of Europe Recommendation concerning restorative justice in criminal matters and its Commentary advocate for circle processes to be used to help ‘build and maintain relationships […] between police officers and members of the community’. Examples of this include the Police-Youth Forums in Northamptonshire and Gloucestershire (UK) and the Garda-Traveller Dialogue (Ireland) that is also featured as a case study on this website. Using RP among criminal justice practitioners and citizens is mentioned in Pillar 3 (pp. 7-8) of the national strategy published by Restorative Justice: Strategies for Change

In the asylum context, a recent project used circles to facilitate dialogue among local charity workers and the refugee community in Belgium, helping the former better to understand the needs of the latter (Rundell, et al., 2018). This illustrates the potential of circles to assist those who work to support refugees better to understand the problems those communities face and what practically they can do to meet their needs and provide support. 

This project used sequential circle processes to facilitate monthly Garda clinics in a medium-sized town in Ireland. At the Clinics, all those who worked or lived in a local Direct Provision Centre – Riverview – were invited to speak with members of An Garda Síochána. The project began when a Garda manager determined that they and their station needed to open a line of communication with the community at Riverview to help build a strong relationship with residents and management, and determine how best to meet residents’ complex needs. 

In collaboration with an external restorative practitioner, the Garda designed and delivered a monthly Restorative Garda Clinic with four key aims:

  • to enable Riverview residents to share concerns regarding conflicts and their safety, directly with local Gardaí. This gave Gardaí access to the information they needed to play an active role in conflict resolution and problem-solving;
  • to build a healthy relationship between Gardaí and residents, enhancing trust in local Gardaí within that community; 
  • to create a space where Riverview residents’ voices can be heard, giving Gardaí and other service providers information about how to meet their needs, and creating an opportunity for a marginalised group to express themselves; and,
  • to support the integration of residents by making them feel welcome in Ireland.

The partners held several monthly Clinics throughout 2019. At these Clinics, residents were given an opportunity to share their feelings on a range of topics, including what they missed from home and what they liked or found difficult about living in Ireland. In the circles, they also shared some of the challenges they experienced in Riverview and in the local town. This included issues around the shared spaces in the Centre, their ability to access to services in and near (or not so near) the town, and the difficulties they had in obtaining information to help them seek or maintain access to education, employment or private accommodation. 

In the first meeting, the focus was on building trust and relationships between Gardaí and residents, with Gardaí regularly emphasising that their door was open to residents if they needed any support. At a later Clinic, the group agreed that Riverview management, who also attended the Clinics, would work with Gardaí to seek specific pieces of information to help those who were soon to leave the Centre. On another occasion, the group discussed arts, cultural and educational grants to which they might apply. Moreover, following each Clinic, Gardaí and the external practitioner had multiple private conversations with residents to discuss the resolution of low-level conflict and other issues affecting their quality of life, and to support individuals with accessing specific services, such as higher education. Over time, the relationships and trust built between residents and Gardaí proved critical to the resolution of a number of very challenging situations that emerged outside of the Clinics.

It is necessary to find simple and efficient ways to identify and meet the needs of refugees, and to build trust, relationships and lines of communication between refugees and those in the public and charitable sectors tasked with supporting their integration. The work done at Riverview suggests that we should further explore how RP can be used to help Gardaí and other public service providers to execute their duty of care towards this vulnerable group.