Direct provision: The controversial system turns 20

The origins and current realities of Ireland’s method of housing asylum seekers

Shortly after lunchtime on Friday, April 14th, 2000, the Cherbourg ferry docked in Rosslare Harbour following its overnight crossing. The southeast coast was cool but sunny, a welcome change from the rain and hail that had plagued the country the previous day.

Pierrot Ngadi and his wife disembarked on foot and were greeted by immigration officials. When asked for identification, Ngadi recounted the long tale that had brought him to Irish shores from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

I said I was an activist and a journalist, and told them I knew about the human-rights convention, that my life was in danger so I had the right to seek asylum

“I said I was an activist and a journalist, and told them I knew about the human-rights convention, that my life was in danger so I had the right to seek asylum. The police didn’t ask me many questions; they could see I knew what I was doing. They told us the next day we would go to Dublin and put us in a hotel for the night.”

The following morning the couple took a bus to the capital, where they stayed temporarily in a hotel in Clondalkin before being transferred to a recently opened direct-provision centre – then a new concept – in Rathdrum, Co Wicklow.


Ngadi had fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he had been part of a revolutionary group dedicated to ousting the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko from power. When the leader of his group was killed in an ambush, Ngadi decided to get out.

He considered moving to France, where there was already a strong Congolese presence, but then remembered the Irish UN peacekeeping troops in the Congo. When a friend suggested he seek asylum in Ireland, he took his advice.

After two months in Wicklow the couple were interviewed by immigration officials. A short time later they moved into an apartment in Cabinteely in Dublin, which they paid for using savings while they awaited a decision on their case. In January 2001, nine months after arriving in Ireland, they were accepted as refugees.

Ngadi enrolled for a master’s degree in peace studies at Trinity College. In the years that followed he would watch as the system that processed his application in less than a year began to seize up, leaving people waiting far longer than he and his wife had for an answer.

Ngadi and his wife were among the very first people to use the government’s fledgling asylum-accommodation system. Launched just weeks before their arrival, it would soon be formalised as direct provision.

Twenty years ago, in November 1999, as minister for justice, John O’Donoghue announced the government’s intention to introduce a system of “direct provision” for asylum-seeker accommodation. It became a formal policy in March 2000. In the two decades since then, 64,594 people have passed through the system.

Today about 6,000 live in its centres, including 1,672 children. Of these 6,000 people, 778 have received refugee status or “leave to remain” but are struggling to find somewhere to live in the midst of a housing crisis.

An additional 1,531 people, including 290 children, are in 36 emergency-accommodation centres that have opened in the past year.

Between 1,200 and 2,000 applicants who do not need State support or accommodation are living outside direct provision.In all, about 8,700 people are awaiting a decision on an asylum claim.

PUBLIC SENTIMENT TOWARDS these asylum seekers has always varied. In recent times, refugees and asylum seekers have been warmly welcomed in Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon, and in Lisdoonvarna, Co Clare. On the other hand, arson attacks have been carried out on hotels earmarked for direct provision in Moville, Co Donegal, and Roosky, Co Roscommon.

As direct provision approaches its 20th birthday, criticism of the system has entered a new phase. Communities have opposed proposed centres for asylum seekers in Oughterard, Co Galway, in September and more recently in Ballinamore, Co Leitrim, and temporary emergency accommodation on Achill Island, in Co Mayo.

This public opposition to Government strategies in housing asylum seekers has sometimes been driven by the lack of official consultation or by dissatisfaction with local services, but in some cases it has been bolstered by external political groups.

These protests and recent debates suggest a growth in anti-immigrant sentiment, in a country that generally enjoys a reputation for warm welcomes.

Some of the protesters say they are opposed not to the arrival of asylum seekers in their localities but to the “inhumane” direct-provision system.

The system's refusal to allow people to work, their conditions and isolation from the rest of society, and the effects on children have attracted widespread criticism

They are not the first to criticise it on these grounds. The system’s refusal to allow people to work, their conditions and isolation from the rest of society, and the effects on children have attracted widespread social, political and organisational criticism.

In 2015 Hiqa found child-protection and -welfare services were “radically inconsistent” across different centres, while the Department of Children and Youth Affairs reported children were stigmatised because of where they lived and felt unsafe sharing a space with single men.

In his 2018 annual report the former special rapporteur on child protection Dr Geoffrey Shannon repeated an earlier call for Ireland to “abolish” direct provision, which he says was “detrimental to children’s well-being and development”. He also noted accounts of harassment and sexual violence against women.

In 2019, Tanya Ward of the Children’s Rights Alliance said human-rights abuses in the asylum system are “probably some of the worst I’ve ever witnessed in this country” while warning that staff in direct-provision centres risked becoming institutionalised themselves.

Arising from recent difficulties, the Government has established an independent group chaired by the former European Commission secretary general Catherine Day to examine the international protection system. It is expected to report back in about a year.

Meanwhile, as the numbers of those arriving seeking international protection continues to increase, Ireland’s 39 direct provision centres are full.

WHEN JOHN O'DONOGHUE launched the direct-provision system at the turn of the century, the Irish State was grappling with a similar rise in numbers. In 1999, 7,724 asylum applications were received, a rise of 3,098, or 67 per cent, in just one year.

The Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats government had to be seen to take control. As well as expressing a desire to shorten application waiting times and a policy of geographical “dispersal”, O’Donoghue’s detailed position document announced in March 2000 the establishment of a statutory Reception and Integration Agency that would administer direct-provision services.

But it was most concerned with the lingering question of accommodation. O’Donoghue, who declined to be interviewed for this article, set out an ambitious vision, including the construction of 4,000 permanent spaces “as quickly as possible” – something that ultimately never materialised.

The document proposed plans to purchase hotels and other centres, along with short- to medium-term accommodation in prefabs, hostels, mobile homes and even “flotels”, or floating centres, an option never pursued although thoroughly researched in other countries.

This was the dawn of widespread direct provision. Established by ministerial order, it was not underpinned by legislation that could be scrutinised in the Dáil.

What is the purpose of asylum? It's not to allow them to move for economic reasons; it's to give them refuge if they are persecuted. The problem is that there were so many non-genuine cases

Asylum seekers’ needs would be met on a “full board basis”, supplemented by payments of €19.10 a week for adults and €9.60 for children, sums that would increase only three times. The size of the payment was criticised often for excluding recipients from participation in day-to-day life in Ireland.

By the end of 2000, according to a report by the Free Legal Advice Centre, Ireland had 62 accommodation centres in 21 counties. A year later this had grown to 84, including nine initial “reception centres” and 75 accommodation facilities across 25 counties, numbers that would soon decrease.

“It’s terrible that they came over here and they can’t work, but the problem was that it was said all the time in the early years, ‘If we allow them to work we would be the only country in the western world to allow them to work, and it would mean every asylum seeker would come to Ireland to work or qualify for social welfare,’” says a person who was a member of government at the time. They requested anonymity while speaking to The Irish Times for this article.

“What is the purpose of asylum? It’s not to allow them to move for economic reasons; it’s to give them refuge if they are persecuted. The problem is that there were so many non-genuine cases.”

Concerns about “economic migrants” have been central to the asylum debate over the years, particularly the argument that some may disingenuously seek “protection” when they all they really want are better prospects.

Writing in The Irish Times earlier this month, Michael McDowell – justice minister between 2002 and 2007 – said there is a "world of a difference" between the two. "Where migration masquerades as asylum seeking, we must have laws, systems, controls and enforcement measures to counter such abuse effectively," he wrote. McDowell declined to be interviewed for this article.

The reality of that situation, however, is complex. It is difficult to distinguish sharply between refugee and economic migrant. Many who are initially declined asylum under the UN definition of refugee may have legitimate reasons to flee their countries and can be given permission to remain for different, humanitarian reasons.

POLITICAL DEBATE ABOUT asylum and accommodating asylum seekers had begun in the mid-1990s. Before then Ireland received few applications.

Those who had arrived had effectively been treated as homeless and entitled to social welfare – a sensitive issue in early debate. In 1996, as the number of asylum seekers began to increase, the Refugee Act was introduced, providing a legal basis for processing applications. An appeals body was also established.

One cabinet member of the time says there was a clear if unofficial policy agenda to quash the notion of Ireland as a welfare haven for those seeking a better life.

“I don’t think it would have been a political concern about the view of the rest of society, because it was a relatively new phenomenon, and I think people were coming to terms with so many asylum seekers coming into the country,” the former minister says.

Calls from some quarters to allow asylum seekers to work were dismissed by government. Such a right, John O’Donoghue had said, “would simply create another pull factor”.

Another former minister, also requesting anonymity, says the “deep assumption” that allowing asylum seekers to work would attract more people to Ireland “lived beyond its time”. It continually delayed any changes, says the former cabinet member.

In 1999 tensions deepened between Fianna Fáil and its junior coalition partner, the Progressive Democrats, when the latter party's minister of state at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Liz O'Donnell, dismissed asylum policy as a "shambles". Her then party leader, Mary Harney, said a wait of five years for the processing of asylum applications was unacceptable.

TODAY SEVEN OF 39 direct-provision centres are run by the State. Most new arrivals are sent to Balseskin, in Finglas, before transferring to a semi-permanent setting.

Conditions in centres have varied over the years, with some, like Mosney, in Co Meath, providing small independent housing units. Until recently, most centres did not have kitchen facilities, and residents were forced to eat in canteens at prearranged times. Parents told of putting food in plastic bags for their children who might not make it home in time for the evening meal.

Those families living in hotel settings tend to share a room. Single residents must often share with strangers – often from different cultures and religions. In some cases up to four people may be forced into a small space.

Some centres, such as the Mount Trenchard accommodation for single men, have been widely criticised for their poor conditions. That facility, in Limerick, described as one of the worst in the system, continues to house between six and eight residents to a room, the only privacy provided by curtains between beds.

Most centres impose a curfew and expect residents to sign visitors in and out.

In September 2018 the Government began to rely on emergency accommodation because of a rise in application numbers.

Although regular direct-provision inspections are carried out, the same rules do not apply in emergency accommodation, which tends to be run by hotel and B&B owners with limited, if any, experience of working with asylum seekers.

The Government has been criticised for relying on the generosity of local people and charities to ensure people in emergency beds receive basic supports such as laundry services, baby formula and medical supplies.

This temporary housing, which costs the State €99 a person a night, is "hugely problematic", says the Irish Refugee Council's chief executive, Nick Henderson. In some cases people are transported directly from the airport to remote locations; others do not receive the temporary residence certificate that enables them to register for a medical card, PPS number and daily expenses allowance, he says.

The State’s failure to assess the vulnerability of all asylum seekers when they arrive is in breach of Irish and EU law, Henderson adds.

In April 2000 the plan was to accommodate people for no more than six months. By the end of the first decade, applicants were spending as long as eight to 10 years waiting, mainly as a result of prolonged legal challenges against earlier decisions.

THE ONSET OF RECESSION brought additional problems. Tanya Ward, who previously worked with the Irish Refugee Council, says austerity led to a serious deterioration in conditions at centres, while job cuts saw a drop in the number of staff processing applications.

When the former High Court judge Bryan McMahon was appointed, in late 2014, to oversee a working-group report into conditions, he discovered that more than 4,000 people had spent more than five years in the system. “It needed a sharp, radical cleaning out of the backlog,” he says. “If you have people wandering around for seven years doing nothing they’re going to go mad and [become] institutionalised.”

He called for people to be fast-tracked through the system. “The word amnesty was being used, but the Government didn’t want to use that term – it was anathema to them. They did it in an ad-hoc way over a period of maybe a year and a half. It was a kind of under-the-radar thing.”

After eight years in four different accommodation centres, Joseph (not his real name) eventually received his papers under this amnesty. Even today he fears the repercussions of speaking on the record about his struggles in direct provision. “I’ve seen when people speak out a hurricane blows through their life. I don’t want trouble. I’m just trying to put my life back together.”

They basically train you not to work. I could have had a master's degree in that time, but instead they spent eight years teaching me how to rely on social welfare

While in direct provision, he felt he had “no identity, no confidence”. “I didn’t pay for rent, I wasn’t allowed to go to work or go to school. You were given €20 a week, so you couldn’t even afford to have a girlfriend. You couldn’t integrate into the local community because you couldn’t afford to do anything.”

As a Nigerian, he says, his application received priority status and was refused within three weeks. His appeal for subsidiary protection was also refused. Finally, in 2015, he was given leave to remain.

Despite the relief of finally leaving the system, Joseph felt like a shadow of his former self. He enrolled at a local college but was scared to raise his hand in class. “I felt I’d lost the real me. I didn’t talk to people, I didn’t look at anybody.”

He wonders how many of the asylum seekers who spent a decade or more in the system are actually capable of working now. “They basically train you not to work. I could have had a master’s degree in that time, but instead they spent eight years teaching me how to rely on social welfare. You don’t know how to contribute. You live in your own little shell.”

He does believe, however, that direct provision has improved considerably in recent years. “The system needed to be revised. But thank God for the Irish people who put up with us. The food we ate, the bed we slept in, that was all paid for by the taxpayers. We never forgot that.”

THE MCMAHON REPORT also called for the introduction of the right to work, which came into effect following the 2017 Supreme Court ruling that the ban was unconstitutional. The employment barrier created "damaged" people who became deskilled, depressed and isolated, says McMahon. Even so, Government officials had to be "dragged kicking and screaming" to make the necessary changes.

For Lucky Khambule, of the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland, removing the ban “restored the dignity” of people.

Khambule argues the Government should have taken this step in 2013 instead of opting out of the EU directive that required that asylum seekers be allowed to work. (Ireland would subsequently opt back into the directive in 2018.)

The Government can “pat themselves on the back” for opening the labour market, but they never would have changed the system without pressure from the courts, says Khambule. However, while some asylum seekers are now eligible to work, they cannot apply until they have spent nine months in the country. Anyone appealing the first rejection of their application cannot work.

Minister of State for Equality, Immigration and Integration David Stanton says that huge improvements have been made and that there is no comparison between 2000 and today

By November 2019, 4,964 applications had been made for permission. Of these, 3,350 were granted. But the 1,607 employer returns received by Government reveal that more than half of those with permission have not found work. Many employers are confused by the system, and certain banks won’t let asylum seekers open accounts without passports, says Henderson.

Direct-provision conditions have gradually improved since the McMahon report, with most privately owned centres now offering kitchen facilities. However, the judge has criticised the Government for failing to introduce these facilities in State-run centres.

Minister of State for Equality, Immigration and Integration David Stanton says that "huge improvements" have been made and that there is "no comparison" between 2000 and today. He rejects "out of hand completely, totally and utterly" claims that accommodation centres are inhumane.

Refugees have integrated well and are of “great benefit to their communities”, says Stanton, who believes sport and education play a major part.

“Integration is a two-way process; it’s not just the migrants themselves that have to change; communities have to get involved.” Deliberate efforts are made to place people around the country to avoid the narrow experience of other countries, he adds.

The former minister for justice Frances Fitzgerald agrees that integration has "overall been positive" when compared with the "deep divisions" in other European countries. "I think we've made enormous progress. There is a tolerance and acceptance here."

Both Fitzgerald and Stanton regard Ballaghaderreen, which welcomed Syrian refugees in 2017, as the gold standard for integration. There, despite initial criticism from members of the community that they did not have enough time to prepare for the arrival of more than 200 Syrians, locals quickly banded together, creating a Welcome to Roscommon group and other support mechanisms for the refugees.

Although this was an emergency reception and orientation centre, as distinct from direct provision, established in response to the 2015 Mediterranean migrant crisis, it remains one of the more positive examples of successful migrant integration on the island.

Community sponsorship, which has seen a number of towns sponsor a refugee family, has also been a tremendous success, says Stanton. “People involved say they have never done anything that gave them so much personal satisfaction.”

The State launched a pilot sponsorship model in December 2018 as an alternative way to resettle mostly Syrian refugees and is expected to announce a national programme in the coming weeks.

This one-to-one interaction is vital if people are to understand and accept asylum seekers, says Nick Henderson. “Direct provision is an institutional beast, and there’s a fear of the other there. Parking people on the edge of town in an old hotel reinforces that.

You can be poor or rich, you can be black or white, you can be Muslim, Christian, atheist: if you meet one of the five reasons in the convention then you're a refugee

“The refugee convention is very clear: a refugee is a person with a well-founded fear of persecution for one of five reasons – race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. You can be poor or rich, you can be black or white, you can be Muslim, Christian, atheist: if you meet that definition you’re a refugee. If you can convey that to a community you can change perceptions.”

Despite the stereotyped and often misguided perception that asylum seekers travel from just a small handful of countries, the distinct pattern is small numbers actually come here from a comparatively large numbers of countries. Volumes and backgrounds have shifted dramatically over the past two decades.

According to data compiled by various Irish authorities, the numbers peaked in 2002, when the system had 11,634 applications. The period in particular between 1999 and 2003 – when average annual applications reached 9,700 – fuelled debate about how best to cope with rising levels of demand.

In 2001 an application rate of 10,325 was recorded – one of the highest per capita in the EU. That compared to just 424 in 1995, a rise of 2,335 per cent.

But arrivals dropped off considerably from 2004 to 2013, when numbers petered out to less than 1,000. This was partly the result of a referendum in 2004 that restricted Irish citizenship rights, and partly an effect of the recession that followed the 2008 financial crisis.

In the peak years between 2001 and 2003 the most common countries of origin included Nigeria, Romania and Moldova. Official figures since 2001 show the most likely origin of those seeking refuge are Nigeria, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo and both Albania and Georgia, in that order.

In comparison with other European states, the number of people seeking asylum in Ireland remains low. Germany received 157,875 asylum applications in the 12 months between March 2018 and March 2019; France received 113,625 and the UK 39,735.

In Ireland 3,762 claims for international protection had been made by the end of September 2019, a 42 per cent increase on the same period last year.

According to figures compiled by the Department of Justice, the number of unsuccessful applications is higher than the number successful ones. Between 2008 and October 2019, 5,870 people were granted protection status compared to 27,269 who were declined.

THE LEGAL CONTEXT in which the State processes these asylum applications has also evolved. Having arrived and requested asylum, the individual often has to delve into troubled personal histories. This is a crucial aspect of the international approach but one that can prove harrowing.

“We are like an emergency service in some ways. We are helping people at a critical moment in their life,” says Henderson, whose legal team helps applicants. “They have fled persecution. If the case goes badly, [if] it is not properly prepared, they could be returned back to their country, back to persecution.”

When a person enters the system they should be issued with a temporary residence certificate while their case is examined. (These are separate from refugees on precleared placement programmes, which include many of the Syrians who have arrived in recent years.)

Applicants must fill out a 68-page form and sit through an interview in which the worst of their life experiences might be discussed.

Officials considering their cases will decide, based on the 2015 International Protection Act, whether they qualify as a refugee or for subsidiary protection. The latter is EU law designed for those who, while not refugees per se, face severe risk if they return home.

Refugees seek protection under the most basic legal foundation: the 1951 UN Convention, a cornerstone only grounded in Irish law through the 1996 Refugee Act.

In 2015 the more streamlined International Protection Act was introduced as part of an effort to increase efficiency. Three years later the Government transposed the EU’s reception-conditions directive into State law, finally bringing Ireland in line with other European countries. Governing both reception conditions and access to employment, its arrival followed the Supreme Court decision on the right to work.

In August the Department of Justice published its national standards for direct-provision centres, which will become legally binding in January 2021.

FOR TUMI GAONWE, who arrived in Ireland with her two sons in February and spent six months in emergency accommodation before moving into direct provision, the future remains deeply uncertain.

A former bank worker and politician in South Africa, she was transferred to emergency accommodation in Bray, in Co Wicklow, after she ran out of money to pay for accommodation in Dublin. Asylum seekers had to eat dinner at 5pm and use a separate entrance from other guests at the hotel where they had been sent.

“To be honest it felt so humiliating,” Gaonwe says. “It felt like we are not human beings, we are nobodies.”

With no guidance on where to enrol her sons at school, Gaonwe turned to a local refugee support group for help. Just days before the boys were due to start, the family was transferred to another emergency-accommodation centre, in Courtown, Co Wexford. They discovered a building still under construction.

My kids could see me crying. Emergency accommodation is not a good thing. They don't care about people's feelings; the only thing they care about is money in their pocket

The situation became more difficult when Gaonwe disagreed with the owners about the centre’s conditions. “My kids could see me crying. At some point we were even scared to leave the room. Emergency accommodation is not a good thing. They don’t care about people’s feelings; the only thing they care about is money in their pocket.”

Two months ago the family was relocated again to a direct-provision centre in Carrick-on-Suir, in Co Tipperary, where they have separate bedrooms and cooking facilities. Gaonwe says staff at the centre are friendly and try their best.

Despite the improved conditions, she, like so many others, believes direct provision must end. “It’s not a good place, especially for people with children. I’m looking forward to a brighter future – to getting a job, being able to work and having my own accommodation where my kids will be free to play in their own yard and not be locked up in a cage.”

Today Pierrot Ngadi works an instructor at St John of God Hospital in Dublin. “People should not have fear but integrate into the society where they’re living and show they exist. It’s up to them to show what they’re capable of.”

But after 20 years what’s the alternative? For McMahon the solution is more State-owned accommodation centres. “With the accommodation situation in this country now I don’t see an alternative. If we were starting out again maybe there’s a better model they could have used, but we are where we are.”

In contrast, Henderson believes a new system based on own-door accommodation is still possible. “There’s a real risk that we constantly try to improve a system that at its heart is fundamentally wrong,” he says. “Direct provision is institutional accommodation. We know from our history that this has produced very serious ill effects and directly harmed people.”

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times