Direct Provision: Why it exists, why it’s wrong, and why it must end

Image courtesy of A Ryan via Flickr. Image license found here.

In the late 18th century, English philosopher and social reformer, Jeremy Bentham, was troubled by something. He was working on his concept of utilitarianism, a revolutionary theory that stated that an action is just if it results in the happiness of the largest possible number of people in a society. However, Bentham could not help but notice the vast communities of poor people that dotted the cities of Georgian England, as though they were misplaced weeds in the prosperous fields of Oxford and London. This upset him immensely, and he wanted change to occur.

He travelled to Krichev, a town on the Dnieper river, encompassed in the modern state of Belarus, to visit his brother. Samuel Bentham was an engineer in the Russian army and introduced Jeremy to his employer, Prince Potemkin, the secret lover of Catherine the Great, the last Empress to rule Russia. It was here that Jeremy Bentham developed the concept of the Panopticon, a “central inspection principle” in which unskilled workers were trained and supervised by experienced craftsmen. In Bentham’s view, the Panopticon could be used to house and incarcerate the “undesirable” peasantry that “contaminated” the beautiful waters of the Georgian-era British Empire. He wanted to ensure that only one guard was required to watch over many inmates. A watchtower was placed in the centre of the prison, achieving this objective. Though the guard could not watch over everyone at all times, inmates were not able to see the guard, meaning that they could not know if they were being watched or not, exacting their compliance.

Holding people in custody contradicts our fundamental natures. French philosopher, Michel Foucault, derided the extreme surveillance and social control imposed by the Panopticon, writing that, “he who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection”. Foucault was not talking about drug gangs and rapists crossing the US-Mexico border; rather, he was talking about ordinary people.

The phenomenon of incarceration may be something that many of us in both Ireland and the UK have never experienced. That is a positive thing, of course. However, for these “unpeople” - to use an Orwellian phrase - having their autonomy constrained so profoundly is part of their daily lives. They’re not serial killers, and yet they must be hidden away; out of sight, out of mind. I’m going to talk about a difficult topic, and an important one: Direct Provision in Ireland.

The Direct Provision “system”,  with particular emphasis being placed on the quotations, was established by the State in 2000 in response to a rapid upsurge in applicants seeking asylum in the Republic of Ireland. It was set up to house asylum seekers who entered the Republic of Ireland. It was initially intended to be a “temporary” form of accommodation, which would provide accommodation for a 6-month timeframe whilst applications were reviewed. Beginning at just 9 in 1991, the number of people seeking asylum in the Republic ballooned to almost 11,000 by 2000. This rapid uptick in numbers was incomprehensible to society at large, with an Irish Times poll concluding that almost three quarters (74%) of Irish people sought limits on numbers. Then Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Liz O’Donnell, mused that “something is seriously wrong when all we get is an ad hoc policy, instead of a comprehensive approach.” The Minister for Justice and Equality, John O’ Donoghue, worried that “every immigration service in Europe” was telling him that the welfare state in the Republic of Ireland was acting as a “magnet” to draw asylum seekers in. Amidst such an atmosphere of uncertainty, direct provision was established in April 2000.

The Department of Justice in the Republic of Ireland set up the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) in 2001, a heavily privatised system which outsourced the provision of immigration services to wealthy corporations. This means of market-based accommodation for non-nationals was novel in Europe in the early-2000s, but this “Migrant Industrial Complex”, as noted in Foreign Policy in 2015, has since been replicated by others across the continent. Current weekly stipends range between €21.60 and €38.80 for adults and are capped at €29.80 for children. Though, it does seem that the RIA’s methods have worked if it is to be seen as a method of deterring immigration. From a high of 11,634 in 2002, the number of people seeking asylum in the Republic of Ireland dropped to 946 in 2013. Despite a slight uptick in the years that followed, numbers have not come close to 2002 levels. In the 10-year period between 2008 and 2016, the Republic of Ireland had the second lowest rate for granting asylum in the EU, at just 13%. Contrast this with the EU average of 44% over the same period.

I am reminded at this point of the Second World War, and the fact that, at most, 100 Jewish were permitted to enter the Irish Free State between 1933 and 1945, the years of the Nazi regime. When I consider that Ireland was a neutral country during the war, the fact that one of the most famous characters in Irish literature (Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s 1922 classic, Ulysses) was Jewish, and the fact that a vibrant Jewish community existed in Dublin at the time, I feel perplexed, and saddened.

One article that caught my eye, which typified the depravity of direct provision, was written by the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI). In it, South African spokesperson for MASI, Bulelani Mfaco, a resident of Knockalisheen Direct Provision Centre in Clare, described Christmas dinner. People are not allowed to cook their own meals at Knockalisheen, a measure that is propagated by the much maligned, and justifiably so, American corporation, Aramark, which runs the centre. Mfaco is only half-joking when he states that “The Irish Government applauds itself for allowing some asylum seekers to cook.” Cold dinners are the norm; a chicken leg served with a leaf of lettuce, some cucumber, and 2 onion rings, all served at midday, to ensure that staff can return home early to be with their families. Mfaco compares this with his childhood, when he would prepare Christmas meals with his mother, using Stokvel groceries and lamb to concoct a treat that would be enjoyed in Black households all over South Africa. They would drink and share gifts, before going to the beach on St. Stephen’s Day.

Continuing in this vein, let us consider the sad case of another South African, Sylva Tukula. She was a transgender woman incarcerated in an all-male direct provision centre in Galway, having come to Ireland as an asylum seeker. She died in August 2018 of “natural causes” but the details we do not know for certain. Her body was held onto by Gardai, who spent 9 months trying to contact family members via Interpol. Failing that, she was buried without any family or friends present. She is just one of many asylum seekers that has been degraded and dehumanised by unwarranted confinement. Racism and denialism is firmly embedded in Irish political institutions, documents the Irish Network Against Racism (INAR).

Many organisations across the country are doing exceptional work with regards to the promotion of this pressing issue. Take Doras Luimní,  a Limerick-based non-profit group who promote the rights of foreign nationals in Direct Provision. As Doras themselves have stated, the average time spent residing in squalid centres is about 2 years, with some people spending over 10 years seeking asylum. Until February 2018, residents had no right to work, making Ireland an outlier amongst EU member states. About 30% of residents are children. A 2013 study found a 6% lifetime prevalence of PTSD in a native Irish group, and an equivalent figure of 47% in a group of refugees and asylum seekers. The Irish Medical Journal reports that asylum seekers are five times more likely to be diagnosed with psychiatric illnesses than Irish citizens.

The publication of the McMahon Report in June 2015 was critical in laying bare the depravity of Direct Provision. The frustration of social workers with current arrangements is telling. One participant told the commission that, “In Direct Provision, [young asylum seekers] face daily challenges; they are frustrated with having less than their friends in school; they are bullied or maltreated by classmates because they come from an accommodation centre. They develop anger issues out of this frustration, and more often than not they take it out on their parents, as they are cooped up in small houses”. Other respondents cited the “learned helplessness” of residents, and frequently brought up the word “lack”; the social workers were speaking about the absence of things that indigenous families can take as a given, such as suitable accommodation, and basic social support.

Net immigration into the Republic of Ireland is a relatively new phenomenon; it is well known that many people have left this country over the years in search of work. It is estimated that about 10 million people have emigrated from the island of Ireland since 1800. The population decreased steadily from 8.2 million in 1841 to 4.2 million in 1961. Between 1820 to 1840, before the Great Famine would permanently scar the Irish psyche, approximately 800,000 people left the island in search of a better life. Over a million people emigrated during the Great Famine (1845-1850), with about 550,000 settling in New York alone. About 70 million people across the globe have Irish ancestry.

Anti-Irish sentiment was strong when destitute immigrants arrived in the ports of Liverpool, Boston, New York, and more besides. One of the most famous accounts of the Irish in America, and the means that they used to subsume themselves into dominant American castes, is provided by the author, Noel Ignatiev. In his book, How the Irish Became White, he argues persuasively that the Irish immigrants attained their “whiteness”, a socially constructed ideal that represented superiority, rather than a direct reference to their skin colour, through labour. They organised themselves into a vocal and effective political force. They were opposed to the abolition of slavery in the United States, as they would be forced to compete with free African Americans in the labour market if emancipation occurred.  This fear of displacement and economic insecurity led to substantial social unease and anxiety amongst Irish workers, culminating in the New York Draft Riots of 1863, and other anti-Black violence.

We do not live amidst such discrimination today, nor should we subject others to it. We should not fear the other. It is reassuring that measures are being taken to phase out direct provision. The Department of Justice has pledged to close all Direct Provision centres by 2024. Assistance with housing, education and employment support will be provided to new arrivals by the State. This is a positive and necessary step, but many people nevertheless remain a little skeptical. Lucky Khambule, a co-founder of MASI, remarked that “having seen the history of this Government”, he “won’t get too excited” until proposed plans become reality. The human costs of direct provision must also be taken into consideration; two decades of indifference towards the problem may be difficult to reverse.

I discussed the Panopticon, and the mass internment of poor people, at the beginning of this article, and we have seen the harm that Jeremy Bentham’s segregationist theories caused. His ideas echo loudly in the chambers of Irish history. The Irish Poor Law Act, which was passed by officials in Westminster in 1838, facilitating the construction of workhouses for Irish peasants across the country, can trace its roots back to the idea of the Panopticon. Workhouses also brought about social decay and destruction amongst the poor in England, Scotland and Wales. Workhouses bring out complex emotions in Irish people; the famine and the sickness that were brought about by the potato famine of the late 1840s invoke images of destitute Irish people crowded into large prison-like structures. They may also remind us of the Magdalene laundries, with an astounding number of “undesirable”  women locked up to “repent” their perceived moral shortcomings, a system of imprisonment that was wrapped up in a veil of secrecy, conservatism, and institutional misogyny.

The Irish story of incarceration is long, disturbing and laced with tales that we would rather not revisit. However, we must confront it; we have no choice. In his 1952 book, Black Skin, White Masks, Martinique-born intellectual and psychiatrist, Frantz Fanon, introduces us to the idea of the “zone of nonbeing”. Why must we debase others, he asked, on the basis of their skin colour or their ethnicity? Why must we hide them away, and pretend that they don’t exist? I don’t understand it. We must hope that the new legislation put forward by the Department of Justice comes to fruition. We must maintain consistent dialogue with our representatives, our MPs and our TDs. We should not let power go unchecked; that is our duty as citizens of democratic nations.