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I live in direct provision. It’s a devastating system – and it has thrown away millions

As the new Government commits to ending Ireland’s inhumane system of accommodating asylum seekers, it has a chance to create a far better, far cheaper replacement

In September 1996, as Ireland closed the doors of its final Magdalene laundry, another problematic institution was being conceived. It would be called direct provision – a system where the Irish State would outsource accommodation for men and women seeking asylum in Ireland to private contractors.

In his project Exploring Direct Provision, UCD academic Dr Liam Thornton traces the formative stages of direct provision to 1997, when Dermot Ahern, then-minister with responsibility for social welfare, said this new accommodation scheme would dispel the “perception that the social welfare system was in some way attracting asylum seekers to this State”.

In 1991, a total of nine people sought asylum in Ireland, a number which jumped to 3,883 in 1997. This sudden increase caused some ministers to express concern that asylum seekers were entitled to the same welfare supports as the general Irish population. They argued the increase in asylum seekers arriving was directly connected to Ireland’s welfare support. In their view, this needed to be stopped.

What John O’Donoghue did not disclose was that the real goal was to curb ‘welfare fraud’. To ensure buy-in from rights groups, the rhetoric was that the accommodation system would be a temporary anti-homelessness measure

There was talk of asylum shopping, welfare tourists, or in more bureaucratic terms “pull factors”, while then-minister for justice John O’Donoghue claimed his EU counterparts were saying Ireland’s welfare system was “serving as a magnet” for asylum seekers.

The implication was that asylum seekers were evaluating welfare systems around the world before concluding that Ireland offered the best reception conditions. It is unimaginable that people fleeing the Republic of Zaire (Congo), Angola, Nigeria, Russia, Somalia, Algeria, and Russia – the countries where most asylum seekers in Ireland came from in 1997 – were leafing through a brochure of European countries before choosing Ireland. In reality, most of these new arrivals barely knew Ireland existed.

In 1998, Philip Watt, director of the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism, pointed out that many of the countries where the bulk of asylum seekers came from were experiencing either political and social upheaval, or were conflict zones.

For some, however, it did not matter where asylum seekers came from. It only mattered that they were receiving Irish welfare payments. In their 1998 report, the interdepartmental committee on asylum and immigration proposed that one of the principles underpinning direct provision must be to ensure that “those motivated solely or mainly by economic factors should have no strong incentive to journey to Ireland”.

In September 1998, the minister for justice announced the establishment of a system of direct provision, following in the footsteps of the UK, which had stopped providing cash supports to asylum seekers. What O’Donoghue did not disclose to the public was laid out in a letter to his cabinet colleagues – that the real goal of the policy change was, besides controlling “illegal migration”, to curb what they called “large scale welfare fraud”. To ensure buy-in from rights groups, the rhetoric was that the accommodation system would be a temporary measure to address homelessness.

Direct provision was established in March 2000 to house asylum seekers entering the Irish State in search of international protection. It was initially described as an “interim” system which would provide accommodation for six months while people awaited a decision on their asylum application.

Many direct provision residents have no access to cooking facilities, must share rooms with non-family members and have limited access to the labour market. This is State-sponsored poverty and it must end

As of April 2020, there were approximately 7,400 asylum seekers living in 38 direct provision and emergency accommodation centres around the country. Of those, at least 2,250 are children. Each adult receives a weekly allowance of €38.80 (€29.80 for children) and an annual clothing allowance of €200. As of November 2019, a third of direct provision residents had been in the system for more than two years. Many have no access to cooking facilities, must share rooms with non-family members and have limited access to the labour market. This is State-sponsored poverty and it must end.

In 2003, the Free Legal Advice Centres – which criticised the curtailment of welfare payments to asylum seekers, leaving them in poverty – released a report that highlighted the harm caused by overcrowding in centres and the enforced idleness on a person’s mental health, issues that prevail in direct provision today.

Two decades on, and following numerous reports by human rights bodies and advocacy groups condemning the system for breaches of fundamental human rights, the coalition partners of the newly formed Government have agreed to end direct provision.

The questions now are: what happens to the asylum seeker who turns up at an Irish port of entry once direct provision is gone? What support will be there once direct provision is consigned to history? What will become of those already in the system – what support will be there once direct provision is consigned to the history of Ireland’s shameful institutions?

Last week, the newly formed Government announced that responsibility for the direct provision system would be transferred from the Department of Justice to the recast Department of Children, Disability, Equality and Integration which will be led by the Green Party’s Roderic O’Gorman.

Fiona Finn, chief executive of Nasc, Migrant and Refugee Rights, welcomed the news, saying that the Department of Justice’s recent dealing of the Covid-19 situation at the Skellig Star direct provision system in Cahersiveen, Co Kerry had undermined people’s “trust and confidence” in justice officials.

Ending direct provision must mean an end to segregated settings in old hotels where strangers share a room for years on end, and a commitment that people will be “given back their independence and provided with own-door accommodation in the community, Finn says.

The new minister must also lead an “open and frank discussion” about where people will be accommodated to ensure large numbers of people are not sent to small towns or villages without the necessary infrastructure supports, she added.

There is a commitment within the negotiated Programme for Government to move to a not-for-profit housing system (Direct provision centres are currently operated by private companies who have earned over €1.3 billion since the system was created, according to figures released by the Department of Justice.)

Asylum seekers in direct provision have been stripped of their human rights to privacy and dignity, as well as their personal autonomy, and face enormous barriers in accessing the labour market

In May 2019, the Irish Refugee Council (IRC) and the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI) both criticised the profit-driven model before the joint Oireachtas Committee on justice and equality. MASI co-founder Lucky Khambule told the committee that operators of these centres would prioritise making a profit at all cost, even if it meant putting seven asylum seekers into one small bedroom.

MASI also emphasised that hoteliers lacked the expertise needed to support people who had survived deeply traumatic experiences and as such should not be given the responsibility of caring for vulnerable people. IRC chief executive Nick Henderson proposed that own-door accommodation be provided to asylum seekers by approved housing bodies who are not profit driven.

Another problem was that asylum seekers in direct provision have been stripped of their human rights to privacy and dignity, as well as their personal autonomy, and face enormous barriers in accessing the labour market. The EU directive on reception conditions for asylum seekers, which Ireland opted into in 2018, requires that accommodation for asylum seekers uphold a person’s fundamental human rights and “provide an adequate standard of living for applicants (asylum seekers), which guarantees their subsistence and protects their physical and mental health”.

However, MASI argues that putting seven asylum-seeking men into one bedroom, as documented in its report to the Dáil’s Special Committee on Covid-19, does not comply with the EU directive’s requirement of an adequate standard of living.

In 2019, the Royal College of Physicians’ paediatrics faculty called on the Government to end direct provision because of the negative impact it was having on children. Doctors warned that “94 per cent of international protection applicants have experienced traumatic events prior to arriving in Ireland” and that direct provision was not an appropriate environment for a child to grow up in. Thus, whatever alternative is chosen to replace the current system, the best interest of the child must prevail.

MASI stated this week that when it called for the accommodation of asylum seekers to be transferred from the Department of Justice, the expectation was that it would be moved to the Department of Housing, with local authorities providing housing as they do for homeless people. It is unclear how this will work in the new Department of Children, Disability, Equality and Integration.

Housing support and jobseeker’s allowance for an asylum seeker living in Dublin would cost €21,000 a year – almost €15,000 less than the estimated €36,000 spent annually per person staying in a commercial hotel

We would call on the new minister to include the following steps within the new immigration system for asylum seekers:

  • Imposition of a statutory time limit of no more than 90 days for stays in asylum reception centres that uphold the right to privacy and dignity, with local authorities assuming responsibility thereafter;
  • Immediate access to the labour market, and vocational education and training;
  • A statutory timeframe for processing asylum claims with long-term residency if an asylum seeker has waited 18 months for a final decision;
  • Greater provision of legal, medical, and processing supports in the early stages of the asylum process to avoid delays that have both a human and financial cost;
  • Provide housing and welfare supports on the same basis as Irish nationals as was the case before Direct Provision was created.

In May 2020, MASI told the Dáil’s Covid-19 committee that the alternative to direct provision was equality; that anyone who depends on the State for basic needs such as shelter and food should be provided with them on an equal basis.

Assuming asylum seekers could access welfare supports on the same basis as Irish nationals, if Dublin City Council gave a single asylum seeker €900 per month in housing support, that would be an annual housing bill of €10,800. If the person was unemployed, they could claim the weekly €203 jobseekers’ allowance, amounting to €10,556 per annum.

In total, housing support (€10,800) and jobseekers’ allowance (€10,556) for an asylum seeker living in Dublin, the most expensive county in the State, would cost €21,356 each year – almost €15,000 less than the estimated €36,000 spent annually per person staying in a commercial hotel. This €36,000 does not include the €38.80 weekly, nor the annual €200 clothing allowance.

If the State lifted the current restrictions which prevent some asylum seekers from accessing the labour market, and helped people find work, it could also eliminate some or all of these jobseekers’ payments.

So it would be considerably cheaper – both in terms of human and financial cost – to help asylum seekers live independently in the community. If the State wishes to vindicate the fundamental human rights of asylum seekers, it should end the institutionalisation of vulnerable people as it denies them personal autonomy.

The direct provision system has had a devastating impact on many of the 64,594 people who had gone through the system by the end of 2019. What is clear from Thornton’s research is that over the past 20 years, the purpose of direct provision has been to deter people from coming to Ireland to claim asylum.

When an asylum seeker is called a welfare scrounger, it is racist. The policy of direct provision also frames asylum seekers in this light. Today, it is accepted as normal that once I’ve finished writing this article, I must turn to the contractor appointed by the Government to run the direct provision centre where I live, paid for with Irish people’s tax money, and ask them for sugar so I can make myself a cup of tea. This must end.

Bulelani Mfaco is a spokesperson for Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland