Today I decided to write about Ireland’s Direct Provision System and how I feel we can learn lessons from our history about why this system is wrong. Before I continue with the rest of this post, I feel I must explain what exactly Direct Provision is and how it works. I will include my sources at the bottom of this article.
According to Nasc, an advocacy organisation, Asylum seekers who arrive in Ireland are offered accommodation in residential institutions, known as Direct Provision Centres. People living in Direct Provision are provided essential services by the State, this includes medical care, accomodation and board and a small weekly allowance. The system is overseen by the Reception Integration Agency (RIA), which is a body of the Department of Justice and Equality. Many centres are privately owned and operated and conditions vary widely. According to a 2018 Irish Times article, the system was established in 2000 and was intended as a short term process. It goes on to state that in 2017, 5,096 men, women and children were living in 34 centres across the country. This figure has likely risen since then. Most people in Direct Provision face many legal obstacles that prevent them from seeking work. In 2017, adults and children living in the system earned €21.60 per week.
I first became aware of the system last year, when a well-known hotel in my town was converted into a Centre. It faced much opposition from people in the town, not because the system is cruel and violates refugees’ Human Rights, but because many people didn’t feel comfortable with refugees or ‘foreigners’ coming to the town. I remember hearing stories from people in class about shops being robbed by the refugees and how the Irish government was giving priority to them over people suffering from the Homeless Crisis.
In the past decade, Ireland has taken a liking to viewing itself on the international stage, in a new dynamic way. Since the Marriage Equality Referendum in 2015 and the Repeal of the Eight Amendment in 2018, Ireland has presented itself as this modern, diverse country, free of the sins of misogyny, homophobia and its conservative, Catholic past. You would think that racism would fit right in with this list, yet sadly that does not appear to be a reality. The opposition to the arrival of refugees and the rhetoric of some, such as Gemma O’Doherty, serve as testament to that. According to the 2016 Census, the largest ethnicity in Ireland at 82% was White Irish, this was followed by Any other White background at 9.5%. This means that as a society we are still very racially homogenous, yet this will change as more and more migrants and refugees immigrate to Ireland.
As a result of the death of George Floyd in the US, many countries are reflecting on their histories with racism and colonialism. Ireland, in my opinion, has a very unique perspective when it comes these issues. The most obvious factor is, we are a country with a larger diaspora than our population. For generations, Irish people have migrated to countries such as the US and Australia. This, of course, started mostly during the Potato Famine in the 19th Century, yet has continued to this day. I can remember watching the news, circa 2011, during the Great Recession, they were filming in Dublin airport and interviewing people leaving Ireland seeking economic prosperity somewhere else. I especially remember feeling a sense of melancholy, as I had relatives who had also left. This history of emigration, should surely make Ireland empathetic to the plight of refugees, especially from countries such as Syria, who for reasons, not dissimilar to our ancestors, have left their beloved homelands in a search for a better life.
There is another important reason for Ireland to be kind to refugees. Many of the issues faced in developing countries from one way or another have either been directly or indirectly caused by Colonialism. Colonialism has played a part in everything from racism in the US, to war in the Middle East. In many ways, Ireland has an unusual relationship to Colonialism, as it is the only country with a white native population to have suffered under Colonialism, in particular, the brand of Colonialism under the British Empire. Although we were never truly enslaved, the native population of Ireland suffered under the Plantations, the Penal Laws and the Famine. Most of the country broke free from Britain around the same time period as India. Depending on your political beliefs, Northern Ireland continues to suffer as a member of the United Kingdom to this day.
When it came to independence, the Republic of Ireland had many advantages that other former colonies did not have. Geographically speaking, as Ireland is located in Western Europe, we had the advantages of trading with richer countries. As a population of white, English speakers we didn’t face the same racism that other former colonies faced. However, it could be easily argued that our post-Independence deep dive into widespread Catholicism and our extremely conservative culture in the 20th Century was a direct response of wanting to differentiate ourselves from Britain and establish a cultural independence, in manner not dissimilar to other former colonies. In many ways we are still a relatively new country, still working out its place in the world, yet we have so many advantages to help us. Just because Ireland is more advantaged than other former colonies, it does not mean we should forget about them. We should view refugees as ‘Sister Survivors’ of a shared and horrific Colonial past who need our help. If we truly want to move out of the shadow of the British Empire, we must help those who still suffer the consequences of it.
I must admit, I find it strange at times, writing about Ireland and it’s history as someone who has some ancestors directly linked to Colonialism. I can’t change the actions of my ancestors, but I can do something to change the future. Direct Provision is an awful system with clear similarities to both the Magdalene Laundries and the Colonialism of the British Empire. If Ireland wants to present itself as a modern liberal country, the cruel treatment of Asylum seekers must be eradicated. Otherwise, how are we any different to the same people who spent Eight-hundred years oppressing us.