GUESTS OF THE NATION
Direct provision, central to Ireland’s treatment of refugees seeking international protection and asylum here, has become a significant political issue. Opposition has emerged in several rural communities over plans to set up new asylum centres, with pickets on designated premises. Two mothballed hotels in Moville and Roosky earmarked for asylum centres were subjected to arson attacks. More serious was the burning, outside his house, of Sinn Fein TD Martin Kenny’s car , after he publicly supported a proposed centre in Ballinamore, Co Leitrim. The attack was widely condemned and could serve as a wake -up call. A round-the-clock picket of the proposed centre was removed in mid- November after a High Court injunction. How enduring local opposition will be remains to be seen.
The demonstrations and pickets have been directed, not at the notion of asylum seekers per se, but at a perceived lack of consultation and information from Government agencies, seen as less than transparent. There are objections also, not without substance, that there are inadequate infrastructures locally to meet refugee needs; Ballinamore, for example, with a population of 914, and an infrastructure to match, is set to receive 130 asylum seekers. The protests and placards have also called for the scrapping of the Direct Provision system, condemning it as inhumane and demanding that asylum seekers receive better treatment. These last have been dismissed as disingenuous by counter demonstrators in support of refugees who have made accusations of racism – strenuously denied – and of manipulation by right wing outsiders.
Direct Provision was established as an “emergency measure” in 1999, and arguably in recent years there have been improvements to many (though certainly not all) of its more objectionable features. Many local communities have welcomed asylum seekers over the years. So do recent events show Ireland becoming more racist or anti – immigrant, after actually receiving proportionately more EU migrants after the 2004 Enlargement than any other country, including Britain, where the post -2004 influx is believed to have been a major factor in the 2016 “Leave” vote? Was Casey’s showing in last year’s Presidential election, where 10% of the whole electorate voted for him after he made anti-Traveller remarks, a portent for the future? Is Ireland, which takes much inspiration from the Nordic model, about to experience an anti- immigrant backlash similar to that which has fuelled the emergence of right wing political parties throughout Scandinavia? Will the issue of Immigration, as some assert, become an issue in the next General Election?
Answers to the questions posed need to be teased out in some detail, though in short the answers are negative. The Irish people have welcomed, settled and integrated relatively large numbers of immigrants in the last two decades without much friction or prejudice in a period which spanned the 2008 economic crash, despite being a society frankly unused to immigration. There is little interest in or support for any anti-immigration political party and the firm consensus among politicians against one is clear. A recent attempt by an independent rural TD to attack Nigerian immigrants in particular for sending money home was firmly dismissed by the Taoiseach and the President, both of whom referred to the vital assistance provided by remittances home from Irish emigrants in the quite recent past.
Direct Provision, which nobody likes and few defend, is” live” now for a particular reason.. It was introduced to cope with what was for Ireland in 1999 an unprecedented influx of asylum seekers annually – 7224 in 1999, up from 4626 in 1998 and 424 in 1995. The number peaked in 2002 at 11,634, gradually declining to under 1000 in 2013 but since then has risen steadily to 3673 in 2018 and is expected to reach well over 4000 by year’s end, pushing an already creaking system to breaking point.
There are currently roughly 6,000 people in Direct Provision, including 1,672 minors, plus 778 persons who have received refugee status but cannot afford outside accommodation. They are housed in several dozen Direct Provision Centres scattered around Ireland (significantly only two in Dublin), all of which are full, while a further 1531 persons, including 290 children, are housed in temporary emergency accommodation centres opened over the last year. Some 8,700 applicants are currently awaiting asylum decisions (the balance applicants not requiring Direct Provision).
Under the system, after processing, newly arrived asylum seekers are accommodated in a regional centre, theoretically suited to their circumstances, while their cases are considered. There are currently thirty eight centres (the number fluctuates), with plans to set up more to cope with recent increases in applications. Most are contracted out and privately run, and provide full board to residents, about a third of whom have access to their own cooking facilities ( a major issue). The centres range in size and type; the largest, the former holiday camp at Mosney in Meath, holds 900, while many are small hotels or purpose built hostels. A much liked centre in Dublin’s Hatch Street was closed last year amid plans to become a five star hotel.
Asylum seekers are paid a weekly allowance of €38.80 (€29.80 for children), are entitled to free medical screening on arrival and qualify for a medical card, giving free access to medical care. School education is free. Since July 2018 asylum seekers can apply for work (a major improvement, long sought and lobbied for) after nine months in Ireland, though those appealing an initial rejection of their case are excluded. As of November, 3350 applications to work out of 5000 had been approved.
There are obviously problems lumping people of different cultures, language and beliefs together, with little privacy and few individual needs and requirements catered for. However, the system, which on paper looks fine, and after all provides safety and security for refugees who have fled persecution, probably would have and could have worked well if only the asylum process from start to finish could have been compressed and streamlined into a few months. This has manifestly not proven to be the case. Most asylum seekers, once turned down, appealed the decision, with, over time, an elaborate appeals procedure evolving, which in many cases has dragged on for years, institutionalising and isolating individuals and whole families in asylum centres, with all the attendant pressures and strains this brings.
The current surge in demand for Direct Provision accommodation could not have come at a worse time, with Ireland still very much in its post- crash hangover where the building industry is concerned. Not enough houses and apartments are being built to meet the current housing shortage let alone cater for both a rising population and existing pent up demand. Local authorities have had to grapple with an unprecedented situation that has left 10,000, including many families, homeless and in emergency accommodation. With new asylum seekers arriving at close to 100 a week, and no available accommodation, there has been no option but to source new premises and locations. Hence the current problem and hence the stoking of local fears.
There is general agreement that Direct Provision, after twenty years, is a flawed system which needs a radical overhaul. But how to proceed? Is there a magic bullet, and if so what is it?