The last number of weeks have seen much hand wringing and pretense of ‘not knowing’ from government, politicians and the public at large to the treatment of mothers and children for many decades in Ireland (see here, here, here and here). The penal institutions of borstals, industrial schools, ‘unmarried mother’ country homes, homes for first unmarried mother ‘offenders’, Magdalenes’, and mental hospitals, were used as a means to (mainly) punish the poor for being poor, to punish women for perceived moral sleights on the country at large and to deal with ‘problematic populations’ in Irish society. Women in the newly independent Ireland were to be disciplined for stepping outside the boundaries of what was deemed respectable Irish republican-catholic values and mores.
Hundreds of single parents and children in mass accommodation centres would of course not happen today, given that these are, as the new Minister for Children noted, yet more ‘dark chapters’ from Ireland’s past.
But, as has been highlighted by asylum seekers in Ireland (see here, here, here , here and here), Una Mullally, Helena Byrne and Gavin Titley (in 2012),the system of direct provision continues to exist. No inquiries to why 1,666 children have been warehoused in direct provision accommodation centres for years on end, no government concerns about the impact that institutionalised living is having on asylum seekers in direct provision, no hand wringing, no understanding, no pity, no interest. This, however, goes beyond government creation and maintenance of the direct provision system. There is no widespread public concern for direct provision, there is no call from the public at large for this system to end, there is little empathy and almost no compassion regarding the rights of mothers, fathers and children in direct provision. As it usually takes a few decades for the public to feign outrage and ignorance of what is well known, then will we have to wait for some sort of inquiry to inform us that direct provision has debilitating effects on all those resident in these ‘accommodation centres’.
But for the willingness of asylum seekers to speak out, and several organisations, notably the Irish Refugee Council, NASC, the Irish Immigrant Support Centre, Doras Luimi and dogged interventions by some politicians, public reaction is muted, disinterested and uncaring. The failure of Irish society to learn from past actions, is telling. The timeline below (first iteration of this here) shows just how much we do know. Moments such as now are times when substantive change can come about, it is important that this moment does not go to pass without the annihilation of the direct provision system. Direct provision is no place to call home.
Direct Provision: A Select Timeline
1996 Asylum seekers legislatively prohibited from working throughout the duration of their asylum claim, on pain of criminal conviction. No penalties are imposed on employers.
1997 Newspaper headlines include: “Asylum Seekers and Homeless vie for Shelter, agency” Irish Times 9 May 1997; “Refugees get £20 million payments” Evening Herald, 6 June 1997.
It is a source of puzzlement to many people that at a time when there are no conflicts taking place near our borders … when we have no colonial links with countries in which political turmoil is taking place and when the number of claims for refugee status is declining in other European states, the Irish state shows a major increase.
The then Minister for Social Protection, Dermot Ahern TD , writes to John O’Donoghue accusing (without evidence) asylum seekers of engaging in organised welfare fraud. On 6 September 2008, John O’Donoghue announces that a system of direct provision will be introduced. Prior to the introduction of direct provision, asylum seekers were accommodated by the Directorate of Asylum Seeker Support (DASS) under the aegis of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Asylum seekers (and dependents) were initially accommodated in an induction centre. The stay in this induction centre would usually last for one week. After this period, the asylum seeker and any dependents would move into the private rented sector. The Health Service Executive (HSE) would provide asylum seekers with supplementary (rent) allowance. This would substantially cover the cost of renting the property from a private landlord.
1999 The structure of the system of direct provision were communicated to relevant administrative bodies, in the Departments of Justice, Social Protection and Health, on 10th December 1999 (International Human Rights Day).
2000 On 10 April 2000, the system of direct provision commences in Ireland. Ministerial circulars from the Department of Social Protection are issued to health boards.
2001 The Reception and Integration Agency is formed, taking over the functions of DASS. The Reception and Integration Agency is never placed on a statutory footing. By the end of 2001, there are almost 5,000 individuals in the direct provision system. The first report on the system of direct provision by Bryan Fanning and Angela Veale, Beyond the Pale: Asylum Seeking Children and Social Inclusion in Ireland raises serious concerns about this system. The then Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern TD dismisses the findings of this report in the Dáil.
2002 The Irish Mirror in 2002 has a headline, “Free cars for refugees; Cash grants buy BMW’s’” Irish Daily Mirror, December 16 2002. A Cork North Central TD, Noel O’Flynn, refers to asylum seekers as ‘spongers’ and ‘criminals’ during the 2002 General Election campaign. Noel O’Flynn’s 2002 first preference vote dramatically increases from his 1997 first preference vote.
2003 Community welfare officers (now Department of Social Protection representatives) were legislatively prohibited from providing rent supplement to asylum seekers. Since this time, no asylum seeker had access to supplementary rent allowance. The Free Legal Advice Centres report, Direct Discrimination?, questions the legality of the direct provision system.
2004 The habitual residence condition is introduced, and asylum seekers who cannot prove habitual residence are not entitled to any form of social welfare/social assistance, except for the direct provision system. Decision makers operate a blanket exclusion on asylum seekers receiving social assistance payments, despite no such exclusion in the legislation. There are almost 7,000 asylum seekers resident in direct provision.
2005 The National Action Plan on Racism 2005-2008 comes into effect. The direct provision system is not considered in any meaningful way.
2006 Correspondence between the Department of Social Protection and Department of Justice (see p. 16-18 here) raised legal concerns as regards the direct provision system. The Ombudsman for Children‘s, Report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (2006) raises concerns about the treatment of separated children in Ireland. The Irish Refugee Council report, Making Separated Children Visible is published.
2007 There was an attempt by the Department of Social Protection to place the direct provision payment on a legislative footing, however the Department of Justice objected to this (€19.10 per adult per week; €9.60 per child per week) (see pp. 17 here). The reasons for the objections of the Department of Justice are not clear.
2008 The first attempted legal challenge to the direct provision system in Ireland occurs in A.N v Minister for Justice and Equality, however the case is settled prior to going to full hearing. See, Mary Carolan, ‘Refugee who sleeps in factory seeks subsistence aid’, Irish Times, Friday, October 24, 2008, Mary Carolan, ‘State undertakes to house destitute asylum seeker’, Irish Times, Saturday, October 25 2008 and Mary Carolan, ‘Afghan man wins case on housing provision’, Irish Times, Friday, October 31 2008. NASC report, Hidden Cork provides an overview and challenges perceptions on life in direct provision.
2009 The Free Legal Advice Centres (FLAC) successfully challenged the blanket exclusion that appeared to operate as regards denying asylum seekers any social assistance payments due to the habitual residence condition. In response to this success, the then Governmentintroduced legislation prohibiting asylum seekers from being regarded as habitually resident for the purposes of obtaining social assistance payments. FLAC also releases a substantial report on direct provision, One Size Doesn’t Fit All, calling forfundamental reform of the direct provision system.
2010 In the 2010 report, Value for Money and Policy Report on Asylum Seeker Accommodation, published by the Reception and Integration Agency, it was argued that maintaining a system of direct provision is the most cost effective means of maintaining reception conditions for asylum seekers. I have challenged the findings of this report here and here.
2011 The European Court of Human Rights finds that the lack of any state provision for asylum seekers in Greece, in breach of Greece’s obligations under EU law, constituted inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of Article 3 ECHR. As a result of the Court of Justice of the European Union decision in M.E. v Minister for Justice, Ireland could no longer return asylum seekers to Greece.
2012 The Irish Refugee Council publishes its report: State Sanctioned Child Poverty and Exclusion regarding the significant human rights concerns (both legal and moral) relating to the direct provision system.
2013 The Taoiseach apologies to those detained in Magdalene laundries and says ‘never again’, however politicians are unable to see any parallels with the system of direct provision (see, here, here, here and here). The Irish Refugee Council, along with other organisations, call for an end to institutional living and the direct provision system. The Minister for Health, James O’Reilly TD does not answer Senator Jillian van Turnhout’s questions on the legislative basis for the system of direct provision. A High Court challenge to the system of direct provision commences but is withdrawn (see Christine Bohane’s update from September 2013 here). The Northern Ireland High Court refuses to return children to the direct provision system. The former Ombudsman (now European Ombudsman) intervened in the debate on direct provision and is trying to tell the government (and the people!) to stop. We have tread this path before, and how many lives did it ruin. The Irish Refugee Council publish a discussion document on ending the system of direct provision
2014 Direct provision ‘celebrates’ 14 years in existence on 10 April 2014. A new High Court challenge to various aspects of the direct provision system commences. NASC, the Irish Refugee Council and the Galway City Community Forum highlight the continued impact that direct provision has on current and former residents. A new Minister for Justice and Equality is appointed, Frances Fitzgerald TD. Minister Fitzgerald is the seventh Minister for Justice to preside over the system of direct provision. Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton TD, is the seventh Minister for Social Protection to preside over the system of direct provision. The system of direct provision remains in place….for now….