Ireland’s asylum system needs a complete overhaul. This plan does not go far enough | Bulelani Mfaco

In 2000 the Irish government introduced a policy for asylum seekers called direct provision, which still holds to this day. Before then, Ireland treated asylum seekers no differently to the way Irish citizens were treated when accessing accommodation, healthcare or other support – but from that date on, they would be removed from general housing and welfare systems.

Under the new system the Irish state hired private contractors to accommodate and feed asylum seekers, who can spend years in limbo awaiting a decision on their asylum claim. The companies that accommodate asylum seekers have collectively earned more than €1bn since the system of direct provision was created – with one family business alone earning almost €140m. Alongside this, the government provides a weekly allowance to pay for clothes, toiletries and other expenses, which stands at €38.80 per adult asylum seeker and €29.80 for a child. No one in the system is legally allowed to work.

The Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (Masi) has reported to the Irish parliament on the poor condition of much direct provision accommodation; it is often overcrowded, with entire families stuck in a standard hotel bedroom for years. In one direct provision centre, as many as seven men shared a bedroom. Operators of these centres are paid for each asylum seeker and not for physical space, with rooms crammed to maximise profit.

My time in direct provision has taken away all the simple pleasures of life – even just the ability to taste one’s own cooking. I am forced to get naked in front of strangers after a shower while I dress, and I have been subjected to homophobic abuse – the very reason I left my country. The social exclusion, being deprived of privacy, the inability to have social and sexual relations due to being stuck in dormitory accommodation for years with no end in sight, is infantilising, degrading and cruel.

For years asylum seekers have found themselves caught in a harsh system of direct provision, with no hope of their circumstances improving. Nor did there appear to be any political will to change this desperate arrangement – until last week when the government announced plans to finally bring direct provision to an end. However what the government seeks to put in its place appears deeply flawed and risks repeating the problems of the past 20 years.

When Ireland introduced direct provision in 2000, it was inspired by the UK, where in 1999 the Labour government passed the Immigration and Asylum Act, empowering the Home Office to meet the needs of asylum seekers through means other than mainstream welfare benefits. The Irish government claimed that its EU counterparts were complaining that Ireland’s welfare system was serving as a magnet for asylum seekers. The rationale for the curtailment of benefits in Ireland – and in Britain – has always been to deter others from travelling to claim asylum.

Domestic and international human rights bodies have repeatedly condemned direct provision for depriving asylum seekers of privacy and dignity, and for the cruelty of enforced idleness in appalling conditions. In 2015, the UN’s committee on economic, social and cultural rights said: “The centres have a negative impact on asylum seekers’ right to family life, their mental health and their children’s best interests.” In late 2019, the UN’s committee on the elimination of racial discrimination called on Ireland to phase out the system.

The Irish supreme court has ruled that the absolute ban on the right to work for asylum seekers, with no certainty of how long it would take for their claim to be processed, was a breach of the constitution. Meanwhile, the ombudsman for children has detailed cases of asylum-seeking children experiencing racism at school and in the community, while others have talked of feeling unsafe in the centres where they are housed. There have been reports of women and children in direct provision being offered money for sex, and resorting to selling sexual favours to survive.

After years of campaigning by civil society groups and asylum seekers who have faced intimidation when they protest against the appalling conditions, the Irish government announced last week that it will end the system of direct provision by December 2024.

Under the new proposals, asylum seekers will only be housed in state-run accommodation centres for four months. These will not be isolated detention centres or military barracks, and there are explicit plans for accommodation in urban areas. Such centres will no longer be run on a for-profit basis, as has been the case over the past two decades. After four months it is planned that asylum seekers will be helped to move into in-community accommodation. They will also be allowed to work after six months.

But the government’s white paper to end direct provision still has elements of direct provision. The changes announced will not be on a statutory footing, which makes it difficult to hold government accountable. Asylum seekers will still be shipped around the country with no choice of destination, and single people will still be forced to live in communal facilities.

One of the biggest flaws in the government’s plans is that the state will still not provide any support for an asylum seeker who doesn’t accept initially staying in a reception centre before being moved into the community. This reflects a government that is not interested in allowing asylum seekers to get on with their lives.

The Irish state is still refusing to go back to treating asylum seekers like Irish nationals, as was the case before the introduction of direct provision 20 years ago. For asylum seekers now in the system, such as my friend Ola Mustapha, who has lived in direct provision for seven years with her children, or Ayoola Titus Fabunmi who was evicted from a direct provision centre after eight years and left homeless, no one knows what will happen between now and December 2024, the date set for ending the abhorrent system of direct provision. Conditions in the proposed alternative may be better in some ways, but personal autonomy and legal protections remain elusive, as they have long been for asylum seekers.

And here lies a challenge for the Irish state: trusting the “undesirable others” to take charge of their lives without external supervision. We wait for December 2024 to see if Ireland ends an era of abusing asylum seekers to deter others from coming.


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