Ireland’s Prisons for Migrants

Asylum applicants in Ireland are forced to live in prison-like “Direct Provision centers,” whose private managers preside over shocking abuse. And Ireland’s “liberal” prime minister Leo Varadkar doesn’t seem to care.

A proposed Direct Provision center in Achill Island on the west coast of Ireland. (Twitter)

Twenty years ago this past October, the Irish government adopted an “emergency measure” to deal with the rising number of asylum seekers. Until then, the statutory rights of asylum applicants and Irish citizens were broadly similar: they received equal access to the labor market, health services, social welfare, and emergency housing. But under the new plan, which was only intended to last six months, asylum seekers were stripped of such entitlements and excluded from mainstream society. Instead of living independently with state support, they were forced into detention centers in remote parts of the island, where they were given three meals per day and a weekly allowance of just €19.10 (or €15.60 for children).

These centers — comprised of disused hostels, nursing homes, guesthouses, and an abandoned holiday park — were privately owned and run for profit. The state would fund private catering and housekeeping services to provide for the detainees until a more workable immigration policy was developed.

That system, introduced in 1999, is known as Direct Provision (DP). Meant to be a temporary measure, it remains in place today. Almost six thousand people now live in the nation’s thirty-eight DP facilities, while a further 1,389 are housed in emergency accommodation. The average time spent in these institutions — waiting for the notoriously punitive immigration service to process an asylum claim — typically ranges from two to four years, but in many cases people are trapped in this legal purgatory for over a decade.

The official justification for DP was to prevent “widespread homelessness among asylum seekers” after a spike in applications put pressure on state housing services. Yet given the sharp decline in migration levels since the millennium and the stratospheric cost of the scheme (€120 million in 2019 alone), the logic of austerity can no longer account for DP’s continuation. Were the government willing, it could use these vast resources to fund a humane and accountable program for Ireland’s tiny asylum seeker population (ten times smaller than that of similar-sized EU countries like Norway and Denmark).

But its interest in maintaining the current policy stems from an ideological imperative: private contractors must be enriched at the expense of migrants, whose marginalized and immiserated position will deter other displaced people from crossing our borders. Throughout Ireland’s recent history, this institutional racism has been upheld by every major political party. However, it has recently come under sustained attack, as NGOs, local campaigners, and asylum seekers themselves have raised the demand for much-needed reforms — putting Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on the defensive.

Abusive Behavior

Neglect and abuse are endemic in DP, with an endless string of incidents coming to light despite the tight-lipped secrecy of center operators. An Irish Refugee Council report described DP spaces as “confined” and “unhygienic,” with several families often crammed into a single room. Residents are not allowed to cook for themselves, so they rely on food which is low-quality and culturally inappropriate, leaving many with malnourishment and chronic gastric illness.

The living quarters are small, devoid of insulation, and populated by “old, worn, and unclean” furniture. Privacy rights are nonexistent — staff can enter residents’ rooms without warning — and asylum seekers must adhere to an array of infantilizing restrictions: no decorating one’s room; no drinking alcohol; no food, kettles, or electronics outside communal spaces; no leaving overnight without formal permission, and so on. A mandatory registration system requiring residents to “sign in” every day was enforced until the courts deemed it unlawful in 2014. For many years, the state imposed an outright ban on private visitors, who may now enter at the discretion of the center manager — although the latter can still refuse access without providing an explanation.

Given such routine humiliation, it is no wonder that 90 percent of DP residents suffer from depression after the first six months of their stay. “It feels like a prison more than anything,” one asylum seeker told the Irish Times. “You feel watched the whole time. There is no real privacy. Everyone watches you come and go . . . You feel controlled. It’s an institution we live in. It’s not a home.”

Another likened her center to “a concentration camp,” noting its high fences, ever-present surveillance mechanisms, and 8:30 PM evening curfew. “We didn’t have much freedom to go wander,” she said, “there were security guards everywhere.” Meanwhile, children — some of whom have spent their entire lives in DP — are at high risk of bullying and sexual abuse, and frequently left unsupervised according to official reports. An Irish NGO which conducted extensive inquiries into DP centers noted that basic necessities like nappies and formula milk were often denied to newborn babies.

In theory, residents are allowed to register complaints about these conditions. But the procedure is neither independent nor confidential, and multiple testimonies claim that DP staff have threatened asylum seekers and bullied them into silence. Last April, the state tried to force a woman living in a Meath DP center to relocate across the country while her son was seriously ill. The resulting stress caused her to attempt suicide.

When fellow residents turned out to protest against her mistreatment, the millionaire businessman who owns their facility told them this would “impact” their asylum claims. Although center managers should not be able to affect the outcome of asylum applications (which are processed by the Department of Justice), residents fear that they could unduly influence the process. Managers can also enforce disciplinary procedures: troublesome residents risk losing their weekly allowance or being transferred to worse centers. Foynes, a facility in Mount Trenchard whose conditions have been described as “overcrowded and inhumane,” is known to asylum seekers as “Guantanamo Bay” because — as one resident told the Irish press — “it’s where they send you for punishment.” 

This is worsened by the centers’ ownership structure, which creates a black hole of transparency and accountability. They are run by a range of private companies and landlords with scant oversight from any public body. Between 2007 and 2017, forty-four people died in DP accommodation. Of those, fifteen had their cause of death recorded as “unknown” or simply “died,” yet the Health Service Executive made no further inquiries into any of these cases.

This year, a transgender activist named Sylva Tukula, who had fled to Ireland from South Africa, was found dead in her room at the all-male DP center in Galway, where she had reportedly suffered transphobic abuse. Again, no cause of death was given, and she was buried without ceremony in an unmarked grave. None of her friends or family were notified that she had passed away.

Shut Away

As these episodes have come to light, DP has attracted greater attention from international observers. In 2015 the United Nations described the system as a “severe violation of human rights”; the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance called for “an in-depth systematic review of the policy of direct provision, with a view to allowing asylum seekers greater control of their everyday life”; and an investigation by the New Yorker documented the “strange, cruel” treatment to which residents are regularly subjected.

In step with these findings, two internal government reports — by the Public Service Oversight Committee and the Health Information and Quality Authority — concluded that DP was “not fit for purpose” and “placed children at risk.”

The Irish judiciary has itself stepped in to moderate the excesses of DP. The prohibition on asylum seekers receiving child benefit was recently ruled unconstitutional, and a landmark decision to grant DP residents the right to work marked the culmination of a years-long campaign led by migrants and civil society organizations. Asylum seekers’ allowance has also risen to €38.80, and restrictions on their access to third-level education have been eased.

Fine Gael (the center-right technocratic party that has ruled since 2011) has simultaneously tried to bolster its liberal credentials by condemning Trump’s immigration policies and decrying the reactionary populism of Tory Brexiters. But while changes to DP are welcome, it is increasingly clear that Fine Gael will fight their implementation at every turn.

When it comes to jobs and education, asylum seekers remain systematically excluded. Because DP centers were deliberately established in isolated areas with few public transport links (in an attempt to move migrants outside the capital), getting to work requires a driving license — for which they are still unable to apply. Asylum seekers are also barred from opening bank accounts (a prerequisite for most jobs) and must spend nine months in detention before they apply for an employment permit, which must then be renewed every six months. Permits used to cost €1,000, but when a legal challenge forced the Department of Justice to drop this charge it began simply rejecting applications en masse. Those lucky enough to be accepted are required to pay rent on their DP room, and even reimburse the state for the cost of their detention.

These absurd obstacles are reflected in the persistently low employment figures among asylum seekers: of those eligible to work, an astounding 85 percent remain jobless. Steady reforms in higher education policy — allowing DP residents to apply for state grants — have similarly failed to promote integration. At the time of writing, an asylum seeker can only attend university if they have spent at least three years in the Irish education system, or if they can afford annual fees of up to €20,000.

Parochial Nationalism

Why is the Irish political establishment — led by Fine Gael — invested in preserving such a degrading and inefficient system? The answer is threefold. First, it has inherited a deep sense of parochialism from the country’s reactionary nationalist heroes, such as Éamon de Valera and Arthur Griffiths. This attitude was expressed in court testimony given by the principal officer of the public body tasked with administrating DP, who claimed it was “the only system that could have fulfilled Ireland’s humanitarian and international obligations and, at the same time, not have created an economic pull factor for economic migrants using the asylum system to enter the state.”

In other words, DP represents a minimal attempt to comply with human rights conventions while warding off unwanted outsiders. The rationale is by no means economic — Ireland’s recession has been worsened by large-scale emigration, with sectors including health and education in desperate need of new workers — it is a simple expression of nativist prejudice. Bound up with this attitude is a Thatcherite hostility to anyone who uses state services, evinced by the punishing austerity measure implemented after the 2008 financial crisis, and encapsulated by the title of Leo Varadkar’s 2017 public awareness campaign aimed at demonizing people on benefits: “welfare cheats cheat us all.”

This chauvinist Thatcherism, in turn, fits with the neoliberal project pursued by the Irish state since the mid-1980s: to use public resources for the expansion of private enterprise. DP is a particularly egregious example of this trend: an estimated €1.2 billion worth of taxpayer money has so far been funneled into its providers, some of whom have returned annual profits of €2.5 million.

One company received €82.5 million to run a cockroach-infested center in which children were banned from playing, while another was paid €6 million last year to operate a facility whose staff withheld milk and bread from a sick child. Yet the remaking of the state as a support system for big business is a broader feature of the Irish economy, manifest in schemes like JobBridge — a mandatory “internship program” in which the government pays employers to hire job seekers at a rate considerably below the minimum wage — or the state’s refusal to comply with an EU legal injunction for Apple to repay the €14.3 billion which it has stolen from taxpayers.

In the case of DP, it is standard practice to throw public money at multinational companies that dodge taxes and conceal their revenues. Some of the main recipients of state support include secretive corporations like Sonning Unlimited and Arabella Unlimited, which are registered in the Isle of Man and exempt from publishing their annual accounts. Arabella is a major shareholder in Millstreet Equestrian Services, a father-and-son-owned firm that runs several DP centers across Ireland and pays its director a €163,265 salary.

Three other centers are owned by US-based multinational Aramark, a company best known for providing food services to American prisons. The business attracted attention in 2013 when it emerged that it was feeding inmates “dog food, worms, and scraps of food from old meals,” as well as breaking numerous employment laws by withholding back pay and systematically underpaying employees. Alongside these opaque enterprises, individual investors have made millions off DP monopolies. Reports by anti-deportation campaigners have exposed how would-be oligarchs like Alan Hyde are acquiring multiple detention centers via proxy companies — some of them registered under false names — in a bid to evade scrutiny and obscure profit rates.

Patently, there would be little humanitarian benefit from taking DP centers “in-house,” as the myriad abuses in British immigration facilities and American border camps show. But DP’s private ownership structures give it a unique logic of cruelty: standards are not merely driven down to stop migrants from entering the country; they are eroded so that contractors can capture the surplus from sky-high state subsidies, which are themselves covered up through barely legal business practices. Unlike the British system, where the government bears sole responsibility for the hellish condition of prisoners in Yarl’s Wood, Ireland has outsourced its racialized violence to a diffuse network of private actors, operating with no public accountability.

Solidarity Initiatives

As Ireland confronts its dark history of state-sanctioned abuse — repealing its archaic abortion laws and facing up to the institutionalized misogyny of the Magdalene Laundries (church-run prisons for “fallen women” which existed until the late ’90s) — the ongoing injustice of DP becomes increasingly hard to ignore.

The Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland has run a tireless campaign to end DP: documenting migrants’ living conditions, organizing conferences on asylum policy, agitating against deportations, and submitting detailed reform proposals to the Justice and Equality Committee. Alongside their efforts, resident-led strikes have paralyzed the centers: in Cork, three hundred asylum seekers occupied their facility for ten days until the management agreed to create a children’s play area and limit the number of families per room. Solidarity initiatives such as Our Table have enabled DP residents to cook for themselves, while boycotts have targeted the catering and accommodation companies who profit from the system.

Public outrage at DP has risen to such heights that the state is largely unable to establish new centers. Last month, three thousand people in the rural town of Oughterard protested against plans to turn a derelict hotel into a DP site. The justice minister tried to tar them as racist — presenting their legitimate opposition to the plan as NIMBY-ist bigotry — while the property developer was accused of “threatening” and “intimidating” Oughterard residents. Nonetheless, their movement gathered such momentum that the developer eventually withdrew his tender application for the property, which is now likely to be taken into community ownership.

While Oughterard exemplifies the power of grassroots opposition to DP, it also highlights the invidious position of migrant solidarity activists. By blocking new centers, they frustrate government plans to extend the program — but they also run the risk of exacerbating the overcrowded and under-resourced condition of the existing facilities. Equally, calls for more DP funding — reflected in the latest national budget — could marginally improve the lot of residents, but at the cost of entrenching the system as a whole. In the final estimation, neither local acts of resistance nor improved humanitarian provisions will rectify the structural problems with DP, whose abolition is a vital precondition for asylum seekers’ dignity.