- 01 Jul 20
The programme for Government agreed by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party includes a commitment to ending the discredited system of Direct Provision for asylum seekers. So what sort of new regime should be introduced, that might safeguard the human rights of those who land on Irish shores in the hope of starting a new life?
Direct provision is set to come to an end within the lifetime of the next government. This is the promise signed off on by all three parties that are involved in the new regime: Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party.
That is clearly a good thing. However, hard questions must still be asked about the nature of any future system for dealing with asylum seekers.
The ex-Taoiseach, and now Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar of Fine Gael, recently admitted that no one thinks that direct provision is a good system. But what will it be replaced with? Right now, the truth is that nobody knows for sure.
The aspirations of the new Government are considered. Under the commitment outlined in the deal agreed between Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Greens, a white paper for the international protection process will be drawn up by the end of the year. The paper will be informed by the current review of direct provision, being carried out by former Secretary-General of the European Commission, Catherine Day.
“We are committed to ending the direct provision system and will replace it with a new international protection accommodation policy centred on a not-for-profit approach,” the draft document says.
Can we trust the new FF/FG/Green Government to create a human rights-driven system? That remains to be seen. Five years is a long time in politics, and without any clear timeline – and with crises to be dealt with on a range of other fronts on an ongoing basis – this could be a recipe for yet another broken Irish political promise.
A few weeks back, a photo of a measly meal handed to a pregnant woman living in direct provision went viral, generating widespread social media-style anger at the treatment of people whose care is entrusted to the State.
As of June 30th, a total of 48,630 people had signed Abolish Direct Provision Ireland’s petition calling for an end to the current system. Allegations are circulating, meanwhile, that asylum seekers in The Commercial Inn in Laois were left without access to running water for seven days.
“A lot of direct provision accommodation is substandard and that needs to change,” the then-Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, said in the Dáil recently. “Direct provision, ultimately, is a service offered by the State. It’s not compulsory, it’s not detention, and involves people being provided with free accommodation, food, heat, lighting, health care, education and also some spending money.”
Pre-Tax Profits of €2.3m
While this may be true, it also misses the point badly. Without the right to work, to cook, to have privacy, many asylum seekers are stuck in a system in which they neglected, often for years at a time. This is no way to treat people with dignity – all the more so when you consider that many of those coming to Ireland to seek asylum are escaping from tyranny and trauma.
Direct provision began 20 years ago as a temporary measure – and yet it still breeds misery two decades on. For many of those seeking sanctuary here, it has been more akin to a prison situation. A combination of EU policies and international law sets the standards for international protection. Ireland signed up to these standards - yet our Government frequently seems to act as though offering asylum is an act of charity.
Despite residing in centres that are run for profit by both the State and private contractors, those in direct provision often have to rely on donations from the public to survive. One of the largest direct provision accommodation providers recorded pre-tax profits of €2.36m in 2018 alone. Over €1 billion has been spent enriching operators of direct provision centres, such as Aramark - owner of AVOCA and Chopped.
Hot Press spoke to representatives from the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI); Abolish Direct Provision Ireland (ADPI); Nasc; Amnesty Ireland; the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission; the Immigration Council of Ireland and members of the Green Party to discuss a possible replacement for our current, crumbling system of asylum.
This is what we found.
Fighting the Myth of ‘Choice’
There is a widespread myth which says in effect that people coming to Ireland seeking asylum have made their bed: now they must lie in it.
A spokesperson for Abolish Direct Provision Ireland counters this view by stressing that people who are fighting to escape trauma, persecution, sexual violence and war have no alternative but to look to another country for help.
“Asylum seekers don't have a choice when they are fleeing from danger,” he says. “They come to Ireland because they want safety, but this country has a system that takes their respect and dignity away daily. The struggle to abolish direct provision can be understood by any Irish person reflecting on the Famine. People fleeing for their lives need a haven, not a prison.
“The Republic of Ireland was created to help the oppressed, not to be the oppressor.”
This view is echoed by Bulelani Mfaco of the Movement of Asylum seekers in Ireland (MASI). The people who come here are generally fleeing from danger. What asylum seekers, refugees and migrants really want is to contribute socially and economically to the place they go to. T best, the idea that they want to live off the welfare system here – or indeed elsewhere – is a grotesque insult. More seriously still, too often it is an institutional attitude that fuels racism.
“When a person is fleeing for his or her life, they often go to wherever they get the cheapest flight or wherever the smuggler takes them,” Bulelani explains. “Some people often do not even know that they are in Ireland until they are told that this is where they are. There is no rational process of ranking asylum reception systems before fleeing. Where an asylum seeker ends up is often determined by forces beyond their control.”
The harsh truth is that, with a very small number of exceptions, Irish citizens have no understanding of what an asylum seeker goes through. It is completely outside their ken.
“Only people who have ever feared for their life,” Bulelani adds, “or suffered brutal violence can have some understanding of what it means to need safety
“As human beings, we are intelligent enough to know violence when we see it. What that requires is true compassion, which doesn’t draw distinction among human beings.”
"The simple and easy way to end Direct Provision is to stop treating us differently. We are human beings just like you." https://t.co/rJJeMGRwvC
— Bulelani Mfaco (@BulelaniMfaco) November 8, 2019
Housing and Privacy
Everyone I spoke to for this article agrees that a human rights-focussed system must offer three things: the right to reside in safe living conditions and housing; access to legal aid and support for mental and physical health based on vulnerability assessments; and the right to work.
There was general agreement too that the rights of children must be a priority. Also that we must never again leave asylum seekers waiting for years for their applications to be processed – an institutional failure that is seen by many as a tactic designed to frustrate asylum seekers, in the hope that the word will go out that Ireland is not an attractive place to go.
Protection from exploitation or abuse within the system, the right to bodily autonomy and the right to cook and privacy are also key focal points.
“Transparency and humanity are the cornerstones of a just system of asylum,” a spokesperson from Abolish Direct Provision Ireland (ADPI) says. “The process must not disenfranchise asylum seekers.”
A 90-day time limit for the length of an asylum seeker’s stay in a centre is imperative, according to MASI. Until now, they have argued that the Department of Housing and Local Authorities should house asylum seekers similarly to how it houses homeless people, rather than the Department of Justice and Equality. That view may change now that responsibility falls to the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Inclusion Roderick O'Gorman – who is opposed to the system of Direct Provision.
“From a human rights perspective,” Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty Ireland explains, “what the Government needs to do is ensure that an alternative system is developed that respects human rights, focusing on adequate standard of living, housing, physical and mental health and privacy. It should do so in consultation with stakeholders and protection agencies.
“Political leaders,” Colm adds, “should talk to those living in direct provision and work with them to come up with an alternative system that respects people’s rights, because the current one clearly doesn’t.
“There has to be effective access to the right to work and to the labour market; and the international protection system needs to be strengthened and resourced so that there is fair, prompt processing of claims. One of the biggest problems is the amount of time people are spending within the system.”
Access to the Jobseeker’s Allowance and child benefit payment is crucial to give asylum seekers the chance to build their lives back up – clearly, they cannot be expected to have a job after landing in the airport.
Private Property Owners
A view which emerges strongly from the people I spoke to is that the work permit should be extended to 12 months instead of the current six, and must be renewable until the asylum seeker has an alternative or is no longer in the State.
“There is no alternative to direct provision that does not include lifting barriers to accessing employment, education and training,” Bulelani Mfaco (MASI) insists.
“The Irish State has been warehousing asylum seekers in Direct Provision for the past 20 years because it was the most convenient thing to do. They’re ticking boxes to say that the State has provided bed and board, in order to enrich operators of these centres. This profiteering from cruelty needs to end.”
It seems that this is now a key goal for the new administration, who have made a loose commitment to a not-for-profit model. This commitment is absolutely crucial, according to MASI.
“Currently," Bulelani says, “an asylum seeker staying in Clayton Hotel or Ballsbridge Hotel for a year costs on average €3,000 per month for a bed and three meals a day. This excludes the €38.80 per week in ‘spending money’ that was cited by the Taoiseach recently.
“If the asylum seeker was given the right to work, and assistance to find housing on the same basis as an Irish citizen, and given the jobseekers allowance, you would be saving a lot of public money.”
The new policy cannot be designed to deter people from coming to Ireland, which is one of the biggest flaws in the current system. Prior to direct provision, asylum seekers were given the same material support as Irish people in housing and welfare payments. This changed when words such as "pull factors" and "asylum shopping" informed public policy, instead of the need to vindicate fundamental human rights, with certain political leaders, sections of the media and bureaucrats spreading unproven myths and prejudices about asylum seekers.
“Recently, Minister Charlie Flanagan reportedly warned against improvements to the system because it might make Ireland more attractive to economic migrants,” Bulelani says.
“Yet we know that no one in Nigeria, Congo, Sudan, Syria, Zimbabwe, Georgia or South Africa is looking at a brochure with all the welfare systems. No one uses a rational process of selecting a country in Europe that has the best welfare system. People move for protection, which is why Uganda – one of the poorest countries on the planet – has over 1 million refugees.”
The CEO of NASC, Fiona Finn, emphasises the need to think creatively about feasible alternatives to direct provision that will offer an end to warehousing people in overcrowded and substandard accommodation.
“NASC believes that a real alternative must ensure that people have access to ‘own door’ accommodation in the community,” Fiona adds. “We need to move away from for-profit private property owners making millions of euro while asylum seekers struggle to survive on €38.80 per week.
“However, to end direct provision, we also need wider reforms including the expansion of the right to work, the provision of meaningful early legal advice to asylum seekers and a significant reduction in the waiting times for processing international protection applications. Without these broader reforms, we’ll continue to fail asylum seekers.”
MASI on legal support
It is crucial for asylum seekers to be able to apply for legal assistance through the Legal Aid Board and have a solicitor present when filling out the application forms for international protection and any associated questionnaire. Receiving support in translating the legal jargon of each aspect of the application process should be a focal point of legal assistance.
“Without early legal support, people end up up in the appeals process or fighting deportation orders when all of that could have been avoided from the start,” Bulelani says.
“An application for a PPS card also has to be made within the first few days on arrival, so that people can access the petty weekly allowance of €38.80. They need the PPS number to apply for a medical card. Here a person may be experiencing severe physical and/or psychological trauma and they would need the cards to access supports.
“For instance, a survivor of torture would need a referral from a doctor or lawyer for SPIRASI supports in obtaining a Medico-Legal report, which would support their asylum claim, especially if the Department of Justice and Equality – or whoever is in charge – raises a question of credibility, as they often do.”
The Debate About Open Borders
A recent UN report titled 'Scaling Fences' studied populations on the move from Sub-Saharan Africa into the EU. It informs us that strict border regimes greatly contribute to exploitation by smugglers.
“We know from this report that women, men, and children will continue to move even at the risk of death,” says Bulelani.
With ‘Fortress Europe’ as strong as ever, there have been gut-wrenching stories of needless death in the Mediterranean and criticism surrounding the European Union and its members sending refugees back to Libya – to who knows what terrible fate – following their rescue from the sea.
In 2018 alone, around 2,297 migrants died or went missing in the Mediterranean.
“To maintain strict border regimes is to condemn people on the move to death or exploitation, including sexual exploitation,” Bulelani says.
“Open borders will only happen if there are leaders in power who were actually interested in protecting human life. Morally, and economically, safe passage makes more sense than having people drown at sea in order to deter others from coming to Europe.”
COVID-19 and Direct Provision
“What happened at the new direct provision centre in Kerry proves that direct provision is cruel,” a spokesperson from ADPI says.
He is referring to the centre in the Skellig Star Hotel, covered in great detail for Hot Press by Shamim Malekmian.
“A contractor locked over 100 asylum seekers in a building after the outbreak,” a spokesperson from ADPI adds, “because he was more concerned about his contract than the people themselves. He was employing one cleaner for a building occupied by over 100 people. For a two-star hotel to be getting at least €300 per night per room, depending on the number of occupants, to offer this treatment to humans is brutal.
“We have been monitoring the outbreak of Covid-19 since March in the first centre in Galway,” they continue.
“Some of the stories we heard were horrible. A group of asylum seekers in Leitrim asked for hand sanitiser and for social distancing to be put in place in dining areas. The next day they were transferred to Kerry, which had the main outbreak of Covid-19, purely because they asked for safety.”
“You cannot take responsibility,” Bulelani says. “when you are stripped of personal autonomy with simple everyday decisions made for you by a contractor that is appointed by the government. The contractor decides what you eat, when you eat it and where you eat it.”
Adequacy of housing has become a primary issue during the pandemic, not just for those seeking asylum.
“What the pandemic reveals, as the UN Rapporteur on Housing said, is that housing has become the frontline against the coronavirus,” Colm O’Gorman of Amnesty says. “The home has become a life or death situation. The instructions and advice given to people about how to protect themselves and public health in the face of the pandemic were very much based on the idea that people could protect themselves by self-isolating or by limiting their contact to other people.
“You cannot do that in a highly institutionalised setting, and that became very clear in this context.”
Deportations and Racism
The Black Lives Matter movement is turning the focus onto the treatment of black people in Irish institutions. Many are being served deportation orders here; meanwhile, appeals are made by the Government on behalf of white Irish migrants in the US, who are given the euphemistic description ‘undocumented’ when in fact they are no different from ‘illegal immigrants’ here.
“In Ireland, the authorities have gone as far as serving children with deportation orders when the law clearly allows the Minister to grant permission to remain,” Bulelani says.
“Even more ludicrous was rejecting an application for citizenship from a seven-year-old child because the father had a criminal history,” he adds. "That points to hostility in the department if they would punish a child for the parent's crimes.
“Deportations are only inevitable when you have a hostile immigration environment, where discretionary powers to grant permission to stay are not used. This is hypocritical when Irish politicians travel to the US every year to beg their authorities to regularise undocumented Irish migrants there.”
The institutionalisation of the vulnerable is a major part of Irish history, according to Colm O’Gorman. Ignoring the links between direct provision and the racist ‘othering’ of those stuck in the system is folly, Black Lives Matter protestors in Ireland argue.
“As well as issues surrounding race and general discrimination in Ireland,” Colm reflects, “we have a dreadful history of placing people in institutional settings and then ignoring them and pretending they don’t exist.”
“It’s not as if racism in Ireland is a modern phenomenon,” he adds, “or that it simply relates to a time when we’ve become a little bit more culturally diverse; anti-Traveller racism is probably the most systemic example of deep xenophobia and discrimination in the Irish landscape. Look at the experience of mixed race children who were born in Ireland and ended up in institutions here.
“In some ways, the State has always put in place systems of institutionalisation, putting marginalised communities behind walls as if they didn’t exist.”
Not that it is entirely the fault of Government.
“Society,” Colm O’Gorman says, "has shown a willingness in this country to go along with that and simply ignore what’s going on behind high walls. Our history of disappearing people, marginalised groups that were deemed inconvenient, or demanded greater care or attention than we were willing to give.”
Rights of the Child
The Ombudsman for Children in Ireland, Dr Niall Muldoon, has said that no child should grow up in direct provision, describing it as is wholly unsuitable for long-term stays. The UN Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, Dr Geoffrey Shannon, has also called for the system to be abolished, stating that asylum seekers must be given access to full welfare support to live independently in the community.
Dr Shannon previously compared the current situation of children in direct provision to the Tuam mother and baby story. “When we look back in 10 years’ time,” he said, "we may ask ourselves how we allowed the system to exist."
“That is barbarity and blatant racism,” Bulelani says, “to condemn asylum-seeking children to a life of poverty because of differences in nationality
“The most depressing thing is seeing parents struggle to provide for their children's material needs. During the pandemic, MASI was contacted by parents in Cahersiveen, who were concerned for the health of their children. The direct provision centre refused to provide appropriate and nutritious meals for toddlers and it later emerged that more than half of the staff were not vetted by the Gardaí as required by the law.
“The most disturbing of our visits was on July 4, 2019, when we went to the Maldron Hotel in Limerick,” Bulelani reveals. “We found a mother with an infant who was just 20 days old.
“The parents were not allowed to work, had no PPS card and as such were not getting the weekly allowance as they had recently been moved to the hotel. They ran out of nappies and baby formula. The father needed medical attention.”
The Abuses Must End
Criticism has been levelled at the Government for its lack of transparency around deaths in direct provision since 2013. While the Reception & Integration Agency (RIA) previously collected – and published – statistics on those who had died while living in direct provision, it no longer does, according to the Department of Justice.
In August 2018, Sylva Tukula died in an all-male Galway direct provision centre and was buried quietly by the State with no ceremony and without notification to her loved ones. A trans woman in her 30s, she had been sent to live in an all-male centre, and reportedly became ill suddenly.
The coroner authorised for her to be buried in private with no ceremony, leaving her friends in the dark.
While the coroner and the Minister for Justice later apologised, stories like Sylva’s offer an example of how little value asylum seekers are given in Irish society – especially those from the transgender and LGBTQ+ community. With a history of trauma, many asylum seekers are at a high risk of suicide, as well as physical and mental health illnesses, but they are offered no way of processing their trauma.
“LGBTQ+ asylum seekers who have sought protection," Bulelani says, “because they were persecuted due to their sexual orientation or gender identity – or no gender identity – have also experienced discrimination in direct provision. This is deeply traumatic, as it forces people to relive the horrible experiences they suffered in their home countries.
“There are people who have died by suicide in direct provision, hence we worry every time we meet an asylum seeker who is taking anti-depressants or sleeping pills because there is not much assistance to process trauma.”
Colm O’Gorman agrees.
“If you’re an asylum seeker who’s a survivor of torture, being held in an institutional environment of any kind will have a very detrimental impact on your mental health and your ability to recover,” he says.
“The critical piece is that supports and services have to be put in place that consider the particularly vulnerable people who might find themselves in the asylum system. This one-size-fits-all institutional model is flawed in a whole variety of ways. A more humane, and human rights-compliant system, is one where there are vulnerability assessments, and decisions about accommodation, and supports for asylum seekers, are informed by their individual needs.”
The International Protection Office in the Department of Justice recently rejected an asylum claim from a Nigerian woman because they found it implausible that a Chief would rape a woman in her thirties when she had a fiancée and children, asking for a justification for her trauma. The lack of empathy for cases such as these is stark, chilling and displays a desensitisation for the pain of those experiencing a world of emotional and physical pain. A Zimbabwean woman's asylum claim was also denied when the International Protection Office within the Department of Justice rejected her bisexuality "as a material fact" (during Pride month).
Bizarrely, Ireland remains the only EU country not to have ratified the UN Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, which would require regular independent and unannounced inspections of direct provision centres and nursing homes. But then getting rid of direct provision centres is an even more immediate goal.
The 27th Amendment and Citizenship
The Green Party General Election manifesto speaks of a vision of Ireland free of racism, hatred and marginalisation. To work towards that, the party hope to develop a new ‘Whole of Government Migrant Integration Strategy’ and to publish a National Action Plan Against Racism.
In relation to ending direct provision, the party plans to replace it with a not-for-profit system based on accommodation provided through appropriately constituted housing bodies. While it won’t happen overnight this is surely a major step in the right direction.
However, there remains the question of what to do about the 27th Amendment to the Constitution, passed in 2004, which deprives those born in Ireland, without Irish parents, of citizenship rights.
Is a referendum required to change this or can it be done by legislation? The Immigrant Council of Ireland argues for the latter.
“A referendum on this topic has the potential to be widely divisive, “ they say, “and potentially give undue or disproportionate voice to the minority with negative attitudes on diversity in general. As such, the Immigrant Council favours the pragmatic approach of seeing a government legislate in this area and return to a concept of a right to citizenship to children born in the State."
“There is a vulnerable minority of people,” says Joe O’Brien, Green Party TD for Dublin-Fingal, “who, depending on the citizenship laws of their country of origin, may have children who could be born in Ireland Stateless.
“In theory there is a mechanism for addressing the issue of Stateless people, but a review of our citizenship laws needs to be in the mix too – and I would be in favour of the previous framework, which stood for many decades prior to the citizenship referendum.”
O’Brien adds that State-built housing must take priority to address both the homeless crisis and the dire lack of suitable accommodation for asylum seekers.
“These issues need to be looked at in the round,” he says.
The Green Party, O’Brien says, will aim to implement all the recommendations of the McMahon Report to improve conditions for asylum seekers currently living in the system. The availability of legal advice; better supports for women and children in terms of wellbeing, allowance, protection against trafficking; and access to facilities are also mentioned. A path for the regularisation of undocumented migrants, broad access to family reunification, progress in education and easier access to the labour market are all on the agenda.
In their pre-election promises, the Greens also committed to establishing a new, independent National Expert Body for Minority Ethnic Communities, Integration and Inter-culturalism. Now that they are in charge of direct provision, the ball is squarely in their court to fulfil those commitments.
Direct Provision system to transfer to new Department of Children https://t.co/Q2vHK8nept
— Irish Legal News (@IrishLegalNews) June 30, 2020
Fundamental Human Rights
There are reasons to feel cautiously optimistic.
“Political leaders are now saying that direct provision needs to end: that’s a huge achievement,” Colm O’Gorman explains.
“However, saying that it needs to end, and making it happen are two different things. We have to remember that direct provision was introduced twenty years ago as a temporary measure. Twenty years later it’s still here. It was never meant to be a permanent system. That commitment needs to be doggedly clung to, in order to deliver the desired outcome.
“Comments have recently been made at the political level regarding what we give to asylum seekers – accommodation, food, light, ‘spending money’ – as if somehow that’s a gift,” O’Gorman adds. “In fact, these are legal obligations that Ireland has under international law. EU law sets standards that apply around the provision of asylum seekers, and Ireland as a EU member state has an obligation to put supports in place.
“These are responsibilities that we voluntarily signed up for and agreed to be bound by, so this is not an act of charity. If they are granted asylum, they should be given the means to rebuild their lives.”
Too often, that’s not the way it works.
“Asylum seekers watch Irish people go about their everyday lives and are reminded of the agency they are denied,” Bulelani comments.
“The truth is that it is pure racism that has kept this system in place for this long after numerous rights bodies condemned it. It is the belief that the ‘other’ is not worthy of having their fundamental human rights respected, purely because they are not Irish or EU nationals. That is wrong," he continues.
“It is shameful that the Irish State has been allowed to choose whose fundamental human rights it will vindicate – or not – over the past twenty years of direct provision. Governments in general do not tend to care about matters affecting migrants because there are no votes to be won there.
“We will see if this one is different.”