The Culture of Control and Reception Conditions for Asylum Seekers in Ireland

A central concern of the welfare state within post-modern welfare debates is the use of discipline, whereby the democratic-welfare-capitalist society is the disciplinary or controlling society. Asylum seekers can be viewed as a threat to the functioning of the welfare state. Welfare state regimes, when they were being formulated, were addressed to citizens. However, the welfare state only ever provided a modicum of support to those relying on it. The welfare state can, in certain situations, be considered a penal institution, whose abstract penality is all the more pervasive when those outside the contours of entitlement seek to rely on basic state supports. Geddes argues that “the bogus myth of welfare scrounging” has polluted contemporary immigration and protection debates.

The welfare state has become a forum for exclusion of asylum seekers from mainstream welfare provision (For information on current reception regimes for asylum seekers in Ireland, see here). Current literature on reception conditions for asylum seekers in Ireland fails to properly account for its punitive nature. The current reception conditions in place developed against a background of heightened concern about growing number of asylum seekers and other persons seeking protection arriving in Ireland (see here).

Reception conditions for asylum seekers within Ireland moved from an inclusive welfare model, whereby asylum seekers were treated generally like others within the welfare state, towards an exclusive separated welfare regime. I argue that this is the result of Culture of Control approaches to reception conditions, which have enveloped approaches to reception conditions for asylum seekers (even though in the criminal context, the culture of control has not been all embracing).

I argue that the culture of control is present within reception conditions for asylum seekers on the following grounds:

1)      Ireland became concerned about the numbers of individuals seeking asylum. There is a belief that the provision of welfare for asylum seekers has increased the numbers of asylum seekers seeking protection in Ireland. The asylum seekers are therefore viewed as nothing more than the ‘feckless recipients’ of State benefits to the detriment of the middle and working classes, who have come to see themselves as being victims of the poor.  Accompanying the separation of asylum reception conditions from the traditional welfare state, there was an increased securitization of the asylum system. Dean argues that the welfare state has not been about progress and universal social rights, but rather about developing of State power and sophisticated means of social control which emphasise the disciplinary function and potential of the State. This has enforced ‘norms of conduct’, whereby asylum seekers who do not abide by these norms can be refused reception conditions within the host State (see hereherehere and here);

2)      The primary punitive measures against asylum seekers are the denial of the right to work (Section 9(4) Refugee Act 1996) and the lessened entitlement to welfare. The welfare state has become a forum which enforces social inequality and engenders poverty for asylum seekers. Separate institutions which provide for asylum seekers have been created. These institutions, it is argued, have two general functions (and it is accepted there may be more functions). The first function is to deliver the social rights at limits set by governments. This is achieved through the provision of services (education, medical care etc.); welfare payments lower than that available to citizens of other residents and bed and board accommodation in enclosed reception centres. The second function is to maintain a discipline and level of control over asylum seekers. The level of control and supervision for asylum seekers far exceeds the level of control within traditional welfare service delivery bodies. This has been achieved by labelling asylum seekers as ‘undeserving’ and viewing asylum seekers as “incapable of discharging the responsibilities of the late modern freedom” (Garland (2005), p. 196). Inherent within this control is a system of discipline for those who breach the rules set down by the asylum reception institution. In relation to the asylum system, concerns in relation to borders, the argument of the ‘floodgates’ and the need to ‘protect’ the State from unwanted elements from the Global South all contributed to public support for differentiated welfare entitlements for asylum seekers.;

3)      ‘Less eligibility’ is an underlying doctrine within the asylum reception systems in Ireland. Like the ‘Poor Law’ concept of less eligibility, the asylee should not be in a better position than the lowest paid worker, now defined by reference to minimum wage legislation. However, in addition, the asylee should be worse off than an individual on the lowest level of social welfare provision. Maintaining asylum seekers on a level of provision less than others entitled to welfare provision is viewed as deterring others from making an asylum claim. The clandestine nature of asylum seekers within the host State is often highlighted as justification for not equalising welfare entitlement. Notions of the undeserving poor, responsible for his or her plight within the asylum reception institution, are present within political discourse.

4)      Within Ireland, asylum seekers were gradually de-barred from access to many welfare payments from 2000 to 2004. Ministerial circulars were utilised to disentitle asylum seekers from payments to which they were prima facie entitled. In 2004, Ireland introduced the concept of ‘habitual residence’ which few asylum seekers can establish (however, see here). Within Ireland, there was no parliamentary debate on the foundation of the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA). Ministerial circulars on the foundation of the system of direct provision were not (and are not) readily available to the public or to asylum seekers themselves.

The perceived abuse of the protection system has allowed the diminution of reception rights for asylum seekers through the utilisation of repressive measures aimed at curbing the numbers of those seeking asylum. International human law and standards (both international and European) and fundamental rights provisions at a domestic level have, in general, failed to constrain this emerging culture of control. Both international and domestic legal regimes have deferred to State prerogative on matters relating to asylum and migration. Whether the recent decisions of the Chief Social Welfare Appeals Officer will have a more profound impact the on socio-economic rights of asylum seekers remains to be seen.