Throughout Irish history, there has been a tendency by successive Irish governments to cover up shameful events and ignore many of the corruptions and injustices in this country. Over the course of the years, many of the wrong-doings in the country have been exposed to and scrutinised by the Irish people: the Magdalene laundries, the clerical abuse in the Catholic Church, and the case of the Tuam babies are all prime examples. When brought to the fore of Irish discourse, these were all major incidents in our history but remain only a select few of the injustices which so frequently occur on this island.
As a country which prides itself on inclusivity and acceptance, the story of history can recount tales where what occurred within the chamber of Dáil Éireann did not echo the public mood. Members of the Dáil who campaigned for a ‘No’ vote during the marriage equality referendum and a ‘No’ vote during the referendum on the right to abortion speak about the change brought about by the respective referenda despite campaigning against them at the time. The people of Ireland have a voice, and although a small country, when we rally in droves, as regular citizens, we ensure our demands are heard. In the recent past, when the population has fought against outdated rulings in our Constitution, we often resolve them. Yet for those in the nation who have fallen prey to governmental wrongdoings, the courses of remedy are more frequently than not, many years too late. We hear of settlements occurring for victims of the mother and baby homes, and of clerical abuse scandals settled decades later in attempts to remedy traumas of the past. However, more frequently than not, these settlements are minuscule compared to original damages and only go so far in providing victims with relief.
These events still raise questions: How did consecutive Irish governments ever let such affairs happen?
The last few decades have seen immense change in the systematic functioning of Ireland, and we are now one of the most rapidly progressing countries in the world. We have shaken off the chains of the Catholic Church and many of the marginalised communities in Ireland are finding a voice: social ostracisation for being “different” is no longer as common as it once was. Yet, seeing the country progress to focus solely on what’s been done right does not mean there are many things today which are not being done wrong.
It is easy to believe that the Irish government could never let cruelties of the same extent as those in the past occur in this modern day. Unfortunately, this is a futile belief. Let me remind you of Ireland’s cruel answer to those seeking asylum from abroad: Direct Provision.
Direct Provision was formed by the Irish government in 1999 in response to an increase in the number of asylum seekers arriving on the island of Ireland. Originally supposed to be a temporary model to deal with unprecedented numbers fleeing their home-countries for safety abroad. Direct Provision, twenty years later, has seen no major reform in its structuring since its formation. When taken at face value, Direct Provision is what it says on the tin: immediate protection for those in need of safety and protection.
Article 33 under the Geneva Convention states: “No contracting state shall expel or return a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” As such, those arriving onto our shores who fall under any of these categories must be accommodated by the Irish government.
Direct Provision, under the same model has expanded exponentially since its formation: “as of the end of 2019, there are 5,963 people living in 47 Direct Provision centres, and a further 1,633 people living in 33 emergency overflow accommodation locations.” Interestingly, only seven of the Direct Provision centres are government-run, the remaining forty are run on a for-profit basis by private companies who are quick to hide their identities. Many of these companies also filter their profits to offshore bank accounts to avoid having their financial reports scrutinised by the Irish public. Again, this raises many questions: Why are companies making profit from catering to asylum seekers? Why are many of these companies adamant to remain anonymous?
Let’s explore the technicalities of the system of Direct Provision.
For a country with citizens so well known for migrating – over thirty-three million Americans claim Irish descent – it comes as a surprise to know that asylum seekers seeking protection in Ireland are treated so poorly on the Island. Direct Provision sees those in its system caught in many vicious cycles: of waiting, of uncertainty, of anxiety.
Direct Provision is a harsh and lonely experience for those in it – primarily rejected from wider society and without much opportunity to merge into their communities, isolation is one of their primary struggles. In the majority of European countries, those seeking international protection are given the means to join a country’s population as their applications for citizenship are processed. Ireland drastically differs from this: all asylum seekers are lumped into confined locations which can often be away from cities and towns and are forced to live in a physically detached limbo awaiting updates on citizen applications.
Human isolation is one of the many factors that leads to the malfunctioning of a system such as Direct Provision. People longing for social status in Ireland have to wait until their status can be reviewed by the system. An Irish Government Economic and Evaluation Service Review found that “60% of all occupants were in accommodation centres between 18 and 45 months”, meaning uncertainty is the only certainty for those waiting. After 45 months it is not uncommon for a person in Direct Provision to be deported, after almost four years waiting on an updated review of their status.
Every Direct Provision Centre in Ireland is different: some are male or female only while others are mixed and can host whole families. Living conditions are also different in each centre: inspections of centres currently only focus on health and safety issues but pay no heed to the social and emotional needs of residents. Many in these centres are caught in the waiting game of acceptance or rejection for Irish citizenship. In 2011, the United Nations when investigating the process of Direct Provision, focused on the uncertainty of the situations and endless waiting of those within the system. In their report on the process of Direct Provision they cited that “due to the inordinate delay of the processing of their applications, and the final outcome of their appeals and reviews, as well as poor living conditions, [those in Direct Provision] can suffer health and psychological problems that in certain cases lead to serious mental illness.”
To further emphasise the cruelty of the system, the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance claimed that nine out of ten of those in Direct Provision fall prey to depression after as little as 6 months in the system.
One of the many things Direct Provision fails to accommodate for within its system is the clash between cultural and social backgrounds. Irish standards are often different to mainland Europe’s and again are vastly different from countries further afield. Those from four or five different countries may have all to co-inhabit the same cramped living space and often live in shared bedrooms. If all of these asylum-seekers are from different countries, differing standards of privacy and social etiquette are bound to pose barriers to individual comfortable living.
Problems with centre owners are often rife among those in Direct Provision: there are many reports of workers barging into rooms without warning and there have been reports of workers threatening those in the system when complaints about standards of living are raised.
Residents in Direct Provision are given €38.80 per week to survive, and although meals are provided, they are not adequate for a fulfilling and healthy lifestyle. You may have seen images circulating online of those inside Direct Provision posting their dinner: two pieces of starchy white-slice-pan and a single slice of tomato. Or maybe you saw the image of plain spaghetti sloshed around with an unidentifiable meat. Neither are appetising or nutritionally substantial. Cultural struggles are also at the fore: imagine coming from a country where eating times are different, or things like sandwiches are not commonplace, and having these things forced upon you with little choice: eat or don’t survive is a common theme. This impact alone on personal development and personal perception can be immense: there have been reports in recent weeks of attempted suicides in St. Patrick’s Direct Provision Centre in Co. Monaghan. Primary factors for these attempts are people being met with deportation letters after months or years of waiting in limbo.
Covid-19 had also caused major crises throughout the system: it is reported that 50% of those in Direct Provision cannot socially distance within the centres and 85% feel they have not been adequately informed about the deadly virus. This combined with other problems leads to feelings of frustration and hopelessness: a person inside Direct Provision stated, “We are powerless, just sitting ducks waiting to die.”
Those in Direct Provision are often singled out in communities. In 2018, an arson attack occurred on a Direct Provision centre a week before it was due to open in the coastal town of Moville, Co. Donegal. The one-hundred asylum seekers who were due to be allocated there could not move in and the idea of having a Direct Provision centre in the town has since been scrapped. There have been reports of those in Direct Provision being too terrified to leave the centres to enter local towns for fear of hate crimes. On top of this, the weekly budget of €38.80 – as well as the lack of organised public transport in Ireland – means that the same people cannot afford, or manage to go to bigger cities nearby, confining them even more to their centres.
In the lead up to Christmas and the New Year, and with Covid-19 still lingering on our doorsteps, we as a nation must demand more for those seeking international protection on our shores. The inclination by some to treat these human beings as some ‘other’ problem is a cause for disparagement. With promises from the current government to change the system of Direct Provision but no action taken yet, we as a nation must demand better. Ireland needs to treat these human beings with the dignity and respect they desperately need. Donate to the Irish Refugee Council and visit websites such as https://doras.org to learn more information about what you can do on a local level. Demand dismantlement. Demand restructure. Act now so we won’t have to look back with shame on this period in our nation’s history.