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Asylum seekers in Ireland are intimidated into silence over their poor treatment

Direct provision centres demean and deter those who seek protection, but residents fear retribution if they complain

Emer O’Toole

In the year 2000, asylum seekers were formally removed from Ireland’s welfare system and institutionalised under a system called direct provision. Direct provision provides compulsory communal accommodation, three meals a day at strict times and a small monetary allowance. Direct provision centres – located in old hotels, hostels and guest houses; on paved caravan sites; in disused barracks; and, in the case of one centre, a defunct holiday park – are run by private contractors for profit. By now, they are big business.

Direct provision was supposed to accommodate people for no more than six months. Some people have been there for years – children have grown up in these institutions.

The architects of the scheme believed that placing accommodation in Dublin would attract more people. Thus, direct provision centres are often in isolated locations poorly served by public transport. If the residents want to eat, they cannot leave for more than a few hours. The 2015 McMahon reportrevealed that asylum seekers feel they live in prison-like conditions.

For years, reporting on direct provision has revealed a mental health crisis. As Primrose, a mother of two who spent eight years in direct provision, told the Irish Times’ Lives in Limbo series in 2014, “some of us came here when we were normal, but now we are abnormal”. Noreen, a single mother who had spent five and a half years in the system, testified that living in direct provision had left her with clinical depression.

Tales of petty cruelties and Kafkaesque injustices facing asylum seekers continually leak into the public domain. In February, a homelessness charityreported that it had been prevented from delivering toys left over from its Christmas drive to children living in direct provision. Bulelani Mfaco, of the Movement for Asylum Seekers in Ireland (Masi), writes of a mother being refused a slice of bread for her sick child. The government suggested the mother report the incident to the Ombudsman. But the Ombudsman has already declared direct provision “wholly unsuitable” for children.

In the wake of the McMahon report, there have been some improvements. In October last year, the weekly allowance was increased from €21.60 (£18.60) to €38.80 for adults and from €21.60 to €29.80 for children. Also last year, asylum seekers gained the right to work, although many barriers to employment remain.

One of the most chilling aspects of life under direct provision is the oft-reported fear that any complaint or attempt to assert one’s human rights will be met with retribution. Threats of “troublemakers” being transferred to centres in less desirable locations or, worse, that acts of protest will negatively impact asylum claims, intimidate those who might otherwise speak out.

On 25 April, residents at the Mosney direct provision centre in County Meath staged a protest, which, Masi explained in a statement, responded to the hospitalisation of a single mother moved against her wishes to a hotel in Cavan with her three children. In a video of the protest circulated online, Phelim McCloskey, the businessman who owns the facility, can be heard telling protesting women: “This will have an impact on you.”

Irish society now knows of the abuses committed in its institutions of yesteryear – in its Catholic industrial schoolsMagdalene laundries and mother and baby homes. I often hear people ask how a whole society could have looked the other way. Public discourse surrounding direct provision gives us the answer: dehumanisation. When you can be convinced that the people hidden behind those walls are liars, are immoral, are lesser, then you do not care what they are suffering.

A common refrain from those without empathy for asylum seekers is that Ireland has to look after its own first. But how is that philosophy working out? Is it true that abusing asylum seekers for almost 20 years has lead to improved living conditions for other vulnerable members of Irish society? There are currently more than 10,300 homeless people in Ireland, a third of whom are children. This is the highest number since records began.

Human rights are not a zero-sum game. In fact, I believe it’s the opposite: that empathy for the vulnerable inspires more empathy, and contempt breeds contempt.

Now is the time for solidarity with those who come to Ireland seeking protection, to insist that asylum seekers deserve humane treatment while their claims are processed, and to condemn a system intentionally designed to demean and deter them. It’s time to end direct provision.

• Emer O’Toole is associate professor of Irish performance studies at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada

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