In the wake of the murder of unarmed George Floyd by a police officer from the Minneapolis Police Department and the ensuing protests in the United States, there have been shows of solidarity all around the world. Last Monday in Dublin we saw similar protests of solidarity in a show of unity marking our society’s rejection of the systemic institutionalized racism that still exists in America today. This was not the only aim of the protest in Dublin, however. It was also highlighting our own form of systemic racism in Ireland against African asylum seekers, Middle Eastern asylum seekers as well as many other asylum seekers from other parts of the world. This system of racism and oppression of asylum seekers in this country operates under the name Direct Provision. For those who are unaware, Direct Provision began on the 10th of April 2000 and is a system of accommodation provided by the government of Ireland to asylum seekers who are seeking refuge in Ireland. This accommodation is usually provided in the form of privately owned and built hotels, hostels, and prefabricated sheds that are used to house immigrants until the Irish government approves their application to seek asylum or denies it and sends them home instead.
Each asylum seeker over the age of 18 is now given a weekly allowance of €38.80 and children are given an allowance of €29.60 per week. According to Citizens Information, this has increased since the 25th of March 2019 when prior to this both adults and children were allocated just €21.60 per week. Direct provision residents are provided with three meals per day, but the food is often processed and of poor quality depending on where they are staying. They are not provided with basic kitchen facilities for cooking so most people are forced to eat what they are given regardless of the quality. According to the Ombudsman, a total of 168 complaints were made to them 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. And this only represents a fraction of the complaints made, since the Ombudsman is actually the final step in a lengthy 3-tier complaints process and is the only complaint authority independent of the Direct Provision centres in this process.
Up until just recently asylum seekers were also not allowed to work while in Direct Provision so even if they had wanted to cook, they would not have been able to afford it. However, due to mounting public pressure and scrutiny the Irish government has been forced to allow asylum seekers to work for the sake of basic human rights. The catch with this however is that asylum seekers are faced with penalties if they do decide to work. They have to contribute a percentage of their weekly wages toward rent for staying in the Direct Provision centre and their weekly welfare allowance is also reduced if they gain employment. This would put an end to any hopes of trying to save some money for when they are finally granted asylum. On top of this if you are in the process of seeking asylum you are not granted the free or the subsidised third level education rate that Irish citizens are granted but instead are charged the full international student rate. This essentially makes accessing third level education for asylum seekers completely unaffordable. As a result, asylum seekers are left in a state of limbo, unable to access third level education while the time passes by, and unable to experience any kind of normality for the years of their lives spent in Direct Provision. And for the unlucky ones who are in the end not granted asylum, they are finally returned to their home countries with nothing, having wasted the past several years in a state of incarceration.
Figures from the Department of Justice showed that as of 2019, of the 6,093 people living in Direct Provision 24% had been there for 1-2 years, 13% for 2-3 years and 13% 3-4 years, and 2% for over 5 years. Furthermore, alternative figures from the public accounts committee showed that 142 of those residents had been there for over 7 years waiting on the Irish Government’s decision on their asylum. In a 2015 report conducted by Judge McMahon, one resident is quoted as saying, “I would prefer to be in jail because I would have a definite sentence, and I would know when I was getting out”. In a 2018 report, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon called for Direct Provision to be ended saying that it was detrimental to child development. This was in response to the fact that many children are spending much of their developmental years in these institutions, and during this time are essentially being raised in Direct Provision. They are then attending primary and secondary school and are expected to deal with the many social and cultural challenges of growing up in an alien country under such difficult circumstances. In many cases, children cannot afford the bare necessities and can be excluded and bullied by their peers as a result. Emily Hogan of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission described Direct Provision as a “severe violation of human rights”. Living under such conditions also puts a great degree of pressure on marriages and family relationships. As well as this, many women and single mothers have come seeking asylum alone and these women are very susceptible to exploitation as a result. According to the Rape Crisis Network Ireland, the Irish Direct Provision system “poses a risk of sexual violence to individuals living in the system”.
In a study conducted by Lenus (The Irish Health Repository) titled; ‘The mental health promotion needs of asylum seekers and refugees: a qualitative study in Direct Provision centres and private accommodation in Galway City / Regine Stewart’, mental health is a major concern for many asylum seekers who are dealing with a range of complicated issues. Many asylum seekers have come from conflict and war-torn countries and are dealing with the trauma of that on top of the conditions in Direct Provision. Many report having family back in their home countries that they have not heard from in many months and even years and don’t know if they are alive or dead ‘…sometimes I wake up and I am just thinking about my mother, my child. And I don’t want to do anything…just staying there…and sometimes I do nothing…’. Such cases cause deep distress to asylum seekers who feel there is inadequate emotional and psychological support in Direct Provision centres and nobody to turn to for help‘…if I have problems, I keep them in my heart…yes, because who am I going to tell here? And even if I tell someone, who is going to listen to me?…’. Many also report that boredom and lack of meaning is the most difficult thing to deal with, “there is this void and that means the fear of the unknown, although it’s there, I try to pretend I don’t feel that there…”. This lack of autonomy begins to create frustration, emotional distress, and alienation for those affected and in turn can lead to depression and poor mental health, suicidal ideation and in some cases, people have taken their own lives.
As it stands Direct Provision is a privatised, for-profit system which has been created and perpetuated by a series of successive right-wing Fianna Fail and Fine Gael governments since its inception 20 years ago. Millstreet Equestrian Services Unlimited Company, one of Ireland’s largest Direct Provision providers had shareholder funds of over €12 million at the end of 2018, with accumulated profits of over €11 million. But Direct Provision centres are not independent of the state, according to figures by the Department of Justice, between €70-€80 million euro is spent on private Direct Provision centres every year. So we the taxpayers are funding this private, for-profit entity and these companies are making millions every year, meanwhile thousands of asylum seekers are spending years of their lives stuck in Direct Provision with no way to voice their frustrations and no way to escape. Many of these companies have also re-registered as unlimited companies, meaning that they currently fall outside the requirement to publicly file their annual audited financial statements at the CRO (Companies Registration Office) as a result. Direct Provision is an example of the neo-liberal agenda in action. The belief that privatisation of otherwise public services creates a better system, but the evidence does not refute this belief. As soon as profit motivation comes into the equation, any prospect of adequate living standards goes out the window if it’s not profitable, the same can be seen in private nursing homes all around the country, care over profit is simply not incentivised. If Direct Provision is for profit, then that means that private companies are incentivised to have as many people in their centres as is legally possible. This creates a massive conflict of interest as the company’s financial motivations are at odds with the care and standards necessary for Direct Provision resident’s well-being and living standards. So as far as private companies like the aforementioned are concerned, having asylum seekers stay in their facilities for 7 years or longer is simply a non-issue. If it doesn’t affect their profits then it doesn’t cross their desk.
Imagine for a moment if you had grown up in Direct Provision in another country, how this would have affected your life and self-identity as you tried to make sense of the world you lived in, growing up in a foreign land. Watching your parents struggling financially and emotionally and not knowing what the future held, always afraid of ultimately being refused asylum. Imagine what your family would look like now as a result, and how you would feel about yourself in relation to the society in which you now live and how you would feel about the society itself. Would you feel accepted by that society? Believing that they knowingly allowed Direct Provision to continue despite the damage that it does. The effects of living in Direct Provision can be life-long and far-reaching for many people and families, and it’s time we started treating it as such.
If we want to develop a greater understanding of the asylum seeker’s situation in this country and see it from their point of view, all we need do is reflect upon our own people’s history of fleeing conflict, starvation, and oppression and seeking asylum throughout the centuries. To this day from the days of the famine, Irish people have been emigrating all over the world, to every corner of the globe in the name of survival and in search of a better life. So what right do we have then, to turn our back on those who want to do the same and emigrate to this country today? We have none. If we can empathise with this, then we can empathise with the everyday lived reality of the thousands of people trapped inside Direct Provision right now at this very moment. Institutionalised racism exists in many forms around the world, in the United States it comes in the form of police brutality and racist legislation. In Ireland it exists in the form of Direct Provision.