Abolish Direct Provision, Ireland’s New Magdalene Laundries

Deprived of their basic human rights, asylum seekers in Ireland are taking it upon themselves to agitate for change. The system of Direct Provision needs to be abolished and replaced with a radically different policy toward refugees.

A Direct Provision center at Lissywollen, Athlone, Ireland in 2013. (Wikimedia Commons)

Every year in Ireland, state tourism agencies Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland spend millions to first attract and later entertain moneyed travelers. With the help of large promotional campaigns, Ireland’s political class projects onto itself a particularly rosy strand of multicultural social liberalism: former taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkar is a gay man of Indian heritage, the country voted overwhelmingly in recent momentous referenda to legalize abortion and same-sex marriage, political interventions frequently invoke progressive values, and pop sociology informs us over and over of the small state’s openheartedness.

The reality in Ireland is unfortunately a bit less rosy.

Shannon Airport on the country’s west coast moonlights as a stopping point for the US military. In Dublin, lawmakers have no qualms about entrenching the disenfranchisement of Irish Travellers. Further afield in Brussels, Irish MEPs often align themselves with the far-right “Fortress Europe” ideologues to vote against resolutions meant to save migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean.

Then there’s Direct Provision (DP), the life-sappingly purgatorial system Ireland uses to process asylum seekers. Founded in 1999, DP is a network of accommodation centers run by for-profit hospitality and catering companies, who are subcontracted by the Irish government. In many ways, this system demystifies the reputation Ireland has built abroad. The state’s generosity of spirit when it comes to European and North American tourists, in other words, conceals the outright hostility it displays toward primarily black and brown refugees and migrants fleeing persecution, war, and famine.

Against this backdrop of hypocrisy, Abolish DP has, over the past few years, become a broad rallying cry for many migrant rights organizations, anti-racist campaigners, and leftist activists. (As Black Lives Matter protests spread across the world following the police murder of George Floyd in Minnesota, Irish solidarity protests aimed their wrath at DP.) So much so, in fact, that eventual abolition of the system managed to become official policy ahead of the recent general election for most of the country’s soft left parties. This included the green-tinged centrism of the Green Party, who have since entered government with the old right-of-center civil war parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The new administration’s pledge to end the system is long overdue — a clear indication of newfound political influence for the Left in Ireland.

But political influence and real leverage are two very different things. Left to its own devices, the Irish state will only act incrementally, leaving full abolition a distant possibility. Deprived of their basic human rights, however, asylum seekers are taking it upon themselves to agitate for change.

Earlier this summer, residents in a Direct Provision center in a remote rural town in County Kerry went on hunger strike. Housed at the Skellig Star Hotel in Cahersiveen, residents opted for this drastic action in response to months of silence and evasion: their complaints about accommodation standards, an outbreak of COVID-19 among residents, and food and water rationing were met with dismissiveness and box-ticking. For asylum seekers in Ireland, this experience is not the exception. Prolonged persecution has become the raison d’être of DP, a system which prioritizes bottom lines for a handful of private companies over legal obligations, and was fundamentally conceived, like many similar systems the world over, as a means of dissuading people from applying for protection in the first place.

While in the early 1990s you could count on two hands the number of people seeking asylum in Ireland, the number leaped to 3,883 by 1997, prompting government officials to consider a new arrangement to replace the under-resourced Refugee Council. Though Ireland has at best a checkered history with regard to refugees, and this old system was ill-equipped to handle large numbers of claims, it was traveling in the right direction.

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

In Migration and the Making of Ireland, migration scholar Professor Bryan Fanning describes the approach the Irish state took in receiving and integrating Kosovar refugees in the late 1990s as an aspirational model which, in hindsight, ought to have been expanded rather than replaced. The Refugee Agency provided applicants with comprehensive language and support programs, along with study visits to Kosovo after hostilities ended for those contemplating return.

Although envisaged as a short-term integration system to last a maximum of six months, there are many who have lived in DP for up to twelve years. Applicants are crammed mercilessly into small hotel rooms, guest rooms, or purpose-built accommodation, most of which are located in small towns and villages with poor transport infrastructure, where they anxiously await decisions on their right to remain.

There are now approximately 7,400 people seeking international protection living in thirty-eight DP and emergency accommodation centers around the country, at least 2,250 of which are children. Adults receive a weekly allowance of €38.80, €29.80 for children, and an annual clothing allowance of €200. In 2013, the Irish government opted out of an EU directive that required asylum seekers be allowed to work. It wasn’t until July 2018, after organized pressure from activists and human rights advocates, that residents’ rights to work and apply for welfare were finally legislated for. Even with this development, additional supplies — childcare products, grooming essentials, food to stave off the hunger — still often have to be provided by local charities.

Since as far back as 2004, research has shown that DP has not only immiserated and excluded adults from Irish society but also thousands of children. Testimony from these centers, ranging from the disturbing to the heart-wrenching, includes a litany of complaints about overcrowding, poverty, abuse, sexual harassment, racism, atomization, and depression. Futureless and disconnected from everyday life, many people living in these centers suffer from grave mental health problems. The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance found in 2013 that 90 percent of DP residents suffer from depression after spending just six months in the system. This is all the more unforgivable when one considers that 94 percent of applicants have experienced traumatic events prior to arriving on Irish shores, with over a third reporting torture in their past.

All of this pointless cruelty comes, too, in the name of austerity. This, after all, is a country — an offshore tax haven — whose servility to neoliberal doctrine is next to none on a global scale. With DP, the state has pushed its contractors to squeeze overheads down to a bare minimum. More often than not, this involves packing upward of five people into single rooms, maintaining low staff-to-resident ratios, employing low-wage workers, and providing beige slop as sustenance. Here, DP’s inhumanity is laid bare: suicide is endemic, deaths are uncounted, trans residents are forcibly placed in incorrect facilities, disparate cultures clash, and personhood and agency are chiseled away.

DP should be understood as a natural culmination of policy and neoliberal ideology, intersecting neatly with the welfare scrounger discourse regularly summoned by establishment politicians. Back in 1998, the blueprints were drawn up: an interdepartmental committee on asylum and immigration proposed that DP should ensure that “those motivated solely or mainly by economic factors should have no strong incentive to journey to Ireland.”

It was designed — explicitly, conceptually — as a bulwark against roaming bands of so-called economic tourists, desperate to take advantage of Irish welfarism and drive up expenditure. This fearmongering was based, in its entirety, on unverifiable ghost stories, foreshadowing the tenor of racist rhetoric used by the Fianna Fáil–Progressive Democrats government during the 2004 referendum campaign to limit automatic birthright citizenship to Irish citizens (which passed resoundingly, depressingly, by 79 percent to 21 percent).

The resulting DP system has since reached its full potential as a physical deterrent to those attempting to seek international protection. Indeed, the name Direct Provision is a misnomer considering the system’s current guise: every aspect of the process is purposefully indirect and labyrinthine. But this is precisely the kind of oppressive architecture its technocratic architects dreamt up: disincentivizing unworthy migrants by making the whole journey interminable, littered with bureaucracy, and practically unlivable.

Like any country in the West, Ireland speaks eloquently the language of universal rights while practicing exclusion, vetting individuals as though refugee status is a privilege. Sociologist Didier Fassin argued in 2016 that while asylum was once viewed by Europeans as a right, it is increasingly treated as a favor benevolent liberal democrats bestow onto poor people from the Global South rather than a legal entitlement or moral imperative. “The image of refugees had to be transformed,” he writes, “from victims of persecution entitled to international protection to undesirable persons suspected of taking advantage of a liberal system.”

It should also be remembered that carceral systems akin to DP have a dark history in Ireland. It was only in 1996, three years before DP was created, that the country closed its final Magdalene Laundry. For good reason, the system attracts comparisons to the Magdalene Laundries, the Catholic Church–run labor camps where untold numbers of women and girls — some with children out of wedlock, others suspected of sexual deviancy — were sent to toil, with tacit approval from successive governments and hushed acceptance from the population at large. As DP resident and spokesperson for the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland, Bulelani Mfaco, put it last year: “In several years’ time, the Irish state will be apologizing to asylum seekers for the conditions they put them in as they did with the women in the Magdalene Laundries.”

Alongside Ireland’s aforementioned 2004 referendum, which has put Irish-born children at perpetual risk of deportation, DP reveals cracks in Ireland’s self-conception abroad, and even at home among self-described liberals. Although calls for more funding (and less privatization) from the usual quarters might marginally improve the lot of DP residents, such moves risk entrenching the system and ignoring baked-in problems.

But times have changed since DP’s foundation. Following years of activism, and the painfully slow trickle of mainstream media stories revealing the horrors of the current system, Ireland’s new government vowed earlier this year to end it within the lifetime of the next administration, replacing it with “a new international protection accommodation policy centered on a not-for-profit approach.”

This is welcome: according to figures released by Ireland’s Department of Justice, private companies — including Aramark, coincidentally the largest prison catering company in the United States — have earned over €1.3 billion since Direct Provision was introduced. Month after month of business as usual, this craven system will continue to inflict monumental suffering on its inhabitants.

As this year’s general election has shown, large swathes of Irish people are frustrated with housing, inequality, and an underfunded, two-tier health care system. Any dismantling of DP will involve integrating people not into inadequate centers but Irish communities, where affordability and supply are low, and wages are stagnant. Fighting back against an inhumane system like DP is therefore not a sideshow: its dismantling must come hand in hand with a larger project of turning back the relentless tide of neoliberalization.