Direct Provision – Fifteen Years On


Today marks 15 years of Ireland’s Direct Provision system for dealing with Asylum Seekers. To mark the occasion, here is an excerpt from EAI’s book “Ministry to Migrants and Asylum Seekers”.

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The Direct Provision System and Children

One of the most contentious aspects of Ireland’s immigration system is how it deals with asylum seekers. Many people would argue that the western world’s foremost nation of emigrants is once again missing the opportunity to deal in a compassionate and principled way with migrants from other countries.
Direct Provision was introduced in 1999 as an emergency measure. It was anticipated that it would be a short-term mechanism for coping with unexpectedly high numbers of asylum seekers arriving in Ireland.
Basically, those living in the Direct Provision system are provided with accommodation, food and basic medical care at one of thirty five Accommodation Centres that are dotted around the country. The asylum seekers are provided with pocket money (€19.10 per week for an adult, and €9.60 per week for a child) and are not permitted to seek employment. Rules vary between different Accommodation Centres, with some preventing residents from receiving visitors in their rooms – a ban that was condemned by the High Court in 2014 as unconstitutional. Married couples often have to sleep in a small room with up to four children. Single parents and their children are sometimes forced to share a bedroom with other adults.
The effect of the Direct Provision system on children is of particular concern. When this system was first introduced it was envisaged that no-one would live under Direct Provision for more than six months. However, Ireland’s system for addressing asylum claims, including a cumbersome appeals process, means that families have ended up living like this for up to ten years. Children, some of them born into Direct Provision, have never known what it is to live in a family home. Some Accommodation Centres provide very limited access for children to play, and for recreation. Children are provided transport to attend local schools, but these arrangements often do not permit them to participate in after-school activities such as sports, clubs or other extras.
More than 1,500 child protection or welfare concerns involving children living in Direct Provision have been reported to Irish social workers in the last five years. This represents over three times the frequency of such reports for children in the rest of the population. Problems reported include inappropriate sexualised behaviour among children, the inability of parents to cope, a lack of supervision and mental health problems. The placing of children in shared accommodation has resulted in numerous cases of inappropriate sexual contact between children and adults.
Dr Geoffrey Shannon, the Irish government’s Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, has called Direct Provision ‘institutionalised poverty’ and has described it as having ‘a profound impact on the mental health of adults and children.’ Comparing our treatment of asylum seekers with previous horrendous institutional child-abuse scenarios in Irish history, Dr Shannon commented, ‘When we look back in ten years’ time, we may well ask ourselves how we allowed the Direct Provision system to exist.’

Food, Work and Security

Another major concern about Direct Provision is that it weakens the bond of the family, even though the Irish Constitution asserts that the family, as the fundamental unit on which society is built, should take precedence in all matters of law. One of the basic activities that binds a family together is a shared mealtime in the family home. Parents see the ability to prepare a meal for their children as the very essence of family life. Yet our government has created a system whereby young children have never in their lives experienced a home-cooked meal in a family home. They have to eat mass-prepared food in a canteen at set times. This is surely more akin to how Chinese children were raised during the Cultural Revolution than to the Irish concept of the family.
Some Accommodation Centres go to great lengths to try to provide asylum seekers with good food, but that is not always the case. Some years ago I was visiting members of our church who were living under Direct Provision in a centre in Drogheda, now thankfully closed. One mother from Angola, who had fled Africa in fear of her life, had tears in her eyes as she held out a plate containing a piece of pizza base smeared with tomato puree. ‘Pastor,’ she wept, ‘What kind of mother am I when this is what I am ordered to give my children for their main meal of the day?’
The irony was that this Angolan lady is actually the most talented and creative cook that I have ever met in my life. Any time we had social events in the church, she would serve up banquets of the most varied and delicious food imaginable, feeding up to 50 people yet only utilising the ordinary domestic kitchen of another church member. For this lady to be forbidden to weave her culinary magic on behalf of her own children was, in her mind, an assault upon her role as a mother.
A further irony is that the self-same building which once served as an Accommodation Centre now houses one of the best restaurants in Drogheda. Occasionally I have dined there with my wife and friends, savouring five-star cuisine. Even as I enjoy the fine food, I can’t help remembering that previous encounter in the same room, with a despairing mother and a very different standard of food.
Denying asylum seekers the right to seek employment is another detrimental aspect of the Direct Provision system. In many cultures a father is conditioned to see the ability to provide for his family as the very essence of manhood. Of course many women were also, prior to having to leave their homeland, accustomed to working hard and pursuing a career. To force such people to live for years in virtual limbo, forbidden to even look for work, is immensely harmful to their feelings of dignity and self-worth.
One of the most common complaints from the anti-immigration lobby is the number of foreigners who end up as welfare recipients, draining from the State rather than contributing to the economy. In my experience, most asylum seekers hate being in receipt of welfare. They desperately want to work, but are forbidden to do so.
In 2003, the European Union issued a Reception Directive, EU Directive 2003/9EC, which is designed to ensure that member States grant basic human rights to asylum seekers. One of those basic human rights is seeking access to work. The Directive states:
Member States cannot deny applicants for asylum access to the labour market and vocational training six months after they have lodged their application.
Even though Ireland professes to be an enthusiastic member of the European Union, to date our government has refused to participate in, or to comply with, the Reception Directive. The Irish position on the treatment of asylum seekers is, from an international perspective, looking increasingly isolated. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has also criticised the prolonged use of the Direct Provision system.
A further problem with Ireland’s asylum system concerns the care, safety and security of victims and survivors of sexual abuse. Asylum seekers are often fleeing from societies where there has been a breakdown of law and order. Rape is also a common atrocity in times of warfare. Therefore, those living in Direct Provision are much more likely to have been victims of sexual abuse than the general population. For example, according to the Rape Crisis Network, the percentage of asylum seekers who have been victims of multiple abusers (i.e. gang rape) is five times higher than the rest of the population. A higher than average proportion of asylum seekers have also been the victims of people-trafficking and forced prostitution. Despite this, access to counselling and support in Accommodation Centres is often limited.
The Immigrant Council of Ireland has warned that placing victims of people-trafficking in the Direct Provision system ‘puts them in immediate danger of abuse, threats and a return to prostitution.’ There is little or no privacy to recover from highly traumatic experiences, and the mixed-gender format of Accommodation Centres can leave vulnerable young women open to grooming and further exploitation.
There is also evidence that the Centres are targeted by men looking for prostitutes and that victims could easily be traced and intimidated by their traffickers.
Perhaps the most shaming indictment of Ireland’s treatment of asylum seekers occurred at Northern Ireland’s High Court in 2013. A family from Darfur, where Sudanese militia have been carrying out a policy of genocide and enslavement, were seeking permission to remain in the United Kingdom. The UK government wanted to deport them to Ireland, since they had been seeking asylum in Ireland before crossing the border into the North.
The court ruled that to return the family to the Irish Republic would be detrimental to the welfare of a child. The Direct Provision system, according to this ruling, is so harmful to the physical and mental health of children that it would be unlawful for a UK court to send a child to a friendly fellow member State of the European Union to be treated in such a fashion.
We would expect such a ruling to be made concerning a country in the developing world, or one known for repression and human rights abuses. For it to be issued with respect to Ireland is shocking indeed.

Ministry to Migrants Cover