It’s not enough to feel sad about direct provision. In January, during a United Nations committee examining the rights of children in Ireland, Children’s Ombudsman Niall Muldoon pointed out the irony that children in direct provision could make a complaint to a UN committee but not to any body in Ireland.
Now the Minister for Justice, Frances Fitzgerald, has committed in principle to allow asylum-seeking children in direct provision to have complaints examined by the Ombudsman for Children. The Government has committed to increasing the weekly allowance for children in direct provision from €9.60 to €15.60. But €6 is not going to fix anything. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has said it is specifically concerned about how children living in direct provision are treated.
I believe most Irish people think the direct provision system is desperate. But most of us wonder what agency we carry as individuals to try and change it. What is very crafty about direct provision is that as much as it locks people in, it also locks people out. There are few access points for Irish people to engage with people living in the system. Although the centres are all around the country, we barely know of their locations or the conditions in them.
Most people don’t know who these people are or where they came from. Are there votes in direct provision? Politicians certainly don’t act like it. There’s a lot of talk, and little action. In the absence of political will, the public has to show that it matters to us that entire childhoods are being lost in the direct provision system.
The work journalists such as Brian O'Connell, Kitty Holland and others have done in their reporting on direct provision has been crucial, as well as broader journalistic initiatives such as the Irish Times's Lives In Limbo project.
But the media needs to question the system more robustly and bring the voices of those in this system to the fore. How often do we hear people living in direct provision on our radio and current affairs television programmes?
Who benefits from the system of direct provision? Who benefits from placing so many obstacles in people’s lives and imposing limits on the potential of children? Who benefits from not allowing people to cook for themselves, from not allowing mothers to pass on cultural knowledge of food to their children? Who benefits from removing the very idea of privacy from families, with children having to share rooms with their parents?
Who benefits from imposing a structure on people that strips them of their dignity and identity; from not enabling smart, talented, well-educated people to participate in our society? Perhaps once upon a time the system seemed adequate as a short-term stopgap. But “it’ll have to do” isn’t good enough when people are languishing in limbo for years, their lives and aspirations curtailed.
We certainly don’t benefit as a society. But some people do benefit. In fact, they profit from it. Direct provision is a multimillion-euro industry for companies such as Aramark (which recently bought Avoca for more than €60 million), which received €16 million from the State up to 2010 to run three direct provision centres.
Aramark reported a turnover of €223 million in 2013. Barlow Properties in Cork has received €40 million from the State for running five direct provision centres. East Coast Catering has received €90 million since 2000. Bridgestock, based in Roscommon has received at least €68 million for its role in running direct provision centres.
Mosney Irish Holidays plc, which has made the rather dystopian shift from being a holiday camp to a direct provision centre in Meath, had a turnover of €8.8 million in 2009. This is not small change. This is big business.
Support groups are disparate, under-resourced and often inaccessible to the average Irish person, but we have to try to connect with the issue. Recently I have been involved with the Change of Address project, “a collective of artists seeking to increase the visibility of refugees and asylum seekers in Irish society through inclusive creative connections and events”.
Unstoppable force for change
In discussing issues and experiences about direct provision with activist
, and seeking out other projects that engage asylum seekers in the system, sadness quickly evaporates to be replaced by anger – which can be a force for change. It was only when straight people began advocating for their LGBT brothers and sisters that what was perceived as a niche rights issue became an unstoppable social movement.
It was only when Irish men started marching with Irish women for reproductive rights that many Irish women finally felt solidarity. It’s that spirit of solidarity that Irish people need to harness to stand up for some of the most vulnerable people in our country.
Our parents stood by when Magdalene laundries and industrial schools abused the children and women within them with impunity. Knowing what we know now, how can we stand by and let the institutionalisation of people continue to be embedded in our communities?