Following the suspected murder of George Floyd in America and the prominence of the BlackLivesMatter message in the public’s psyche, many in Ireland are now taking a more critical stance regarding the relationship between the State, wider society, and members of minority ethnic groups. One of the main issues that has come to the fore during this period of introspection is the mistreatment of many asylum seekers in Direct Provision centres, where so many are denied the ability to live their lives with a sense of basic human dignity.
Long delays in the processing of applications for refugee status can lead to asylum seekers spending years in these centres when they were originally only envisioned to accommodate people for six months, which means asylum seekers have been living long-term in accommodation where reports of issues such as leaking bathrooms, rodents, and substandard food are far from uncommon. Overcrowding is also prevalent in these centres, and concerns regarding an inability to socially distance were raised in light of COVID-19.
April Hollingworth, who has previously worked in a Direct Provision centre in Cork, spoke to me to give her perspective on the Direct Provision system. She said that, despite all asylum seekers having access to a microwave in their room “the problem is they don’t have enough money to buy something they might really like” – clearly, the current rate of €38.80 per week for day-to-day expenses is not sufficient. This is not how we should be treating those fleeing persecution. She went on to say that “most of the people [in the centre] were just trying to survive and make the best of an uncertain life. I […] was delighted when they finally got their residencies and homes”. This is in stark contrast to the vision of many on the right who erroneously portray asylum seekers as “welfare tourists”.
In Leader’s Questions today [4th June] following a question by Labour leader Alan Kelly asking if he would commit to an end to Direct Provision, An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar admitted that “a lot of Direct Provision accommodation is sub-standard, and that needs to change”, and went on to argue that “Direct Provision is ultimately a service offered by the State […] and involves people being provided with free accommodation, food, heat, lighting, healthcare, education and also some spending money. It is not the same thing as a man being killed by the police.”
There are several issues with the Taoiseach’s statement. The fact that this system is ultimately a ‘free’ service in no way excuses the mistreatment of so many of the several thousand people who are living in Direct Provision centres. Asylum seekers fleeing from persecution in their country of origin should be afforded a dignified existence in one of the wealthiest countries in the world – asylum seekers should not be expected to simply accept whatever the State decides to throw at them as it is ‘free’. It’s not good enough that asylum seekers are treated this way, and it’s not good that it is set to continue. The money spent on Direct Provision is irrelevant if those living in such accommodation are poorly treated – that it is ‘free’ is beside the point.
Whilst Varadkar is correct in his acknowledgement that Direct Provision centres do provide asylum seekers with some of the bare essentials ‘free’ of charge, his comments fail to see the bigger picture regarding the abhorrent treatment of many asylum seekers in these centres. Of course, we all know that it is not the same thing as an African American man being killed by a police officer, but in terms of the role of the State in supporting a system of racial inequality and mistreatment, Direct Provision could be seen as even more pernicious than American law enforcement – not that it’s a competition, both are horrific. If there was a genuine will to improve the material conditions of asylum seekers, then the Irish State could deal with it relatively quickly by providing suitable accommodation with adequate facilities – a term of government could likely largely resolve the issue. Yet here we are, five governments and twenty years later. The Direct Provision issue is relatively straightforward when compared to the centuries long undercurrent of white supremacy in America which has at least partially contributed to the racial profiling and subsequent mistreatment of African Americans by police officers, going beyond the realms of material condition and thus unlikely to be resolved anywhere besides the long-term future.
It’s hypocritical for Irish society to look in astonishment or disgust at the situation in America as if our own State isn’t abdicating its own moral responsibility towards asylum seekers. If we’re going to battle racism and inequality in all its forms we also need to look closer to home – we need to get things to change. Even if we take away the argument about the number of asylum seekers Ireland should ideally afford refugee status, often raised by those on fringes of the right when confronted with the uncomfortable realities of Direct Provision, the fact of the matter is that it is a moral stain on this country and efforts must be made to treat all individuals with the same levels of dignity simply by virtue of their intrinsic human value – regardless of their race, nationality or religion.
To suggest otherwise is racist, plain and simple.