Time to close the Direct Provision system

To be published in Metro Eireann

arn-stop-dpOn Saturday 18 November a rally organised by United against Racism heard moving speeches by several asylum seekers living the Direct Provision for-profit incarceration system where men, women and children are held often for up to ten years. The Irish Times reported Mavis who has lived in Direct Provision with her three children for fifteen months, as saying: “For me every day is a struggle, to watch my children suffering and getting sick. I wish one day somebody, an Irish citizen would go into my life for one week and they would know what a hell it is. I don’t even have words. Waiting and waiting for a decision is one of the hardest things a mother can do. What can we do? We have to pray and hope.”

The rally was part of the campaign to close the Direct Provision system, end deportations and grant asylum seekers the right to work, as per the Supreme Court recent ruling. According to Lucky Khambule of the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI), the restrictions imposed by the government on asylum seekers’ right to work, including not working while appealing their applications for refugee status, amount to a total denial of asylum seekers’ right to work.

Beside bed and board – including inappropriate, out of date and insufficient food – asylum seekers are forced to exist on a weekly “comfort allowance” of €21.60, and their lives are decided by for-profit managements that dictate who shares their rooms, what and when they eat, who can visit them, when they can do their washing and what facilities their children enjoy.

As I have written many times before, Ireland must close the Direct Provision system that racializes, dehumanizes and segregates asylum seekers, whose plight Irish society “manages not to know.” This continues decades of disavowal, as Una Mullally has recently written in The Irish Times, “The Mother and Baby Homes and Magdalene Laundries were hiding in plain sight for years. We knew they existed, we knew – in broad brushstrokes – what went on there. Direct Provision centres hide more successfully in our communities, towns and cities. Many of us are not aware of their locations. That makes their presence even more insidious. But we know that they’re there. We know this system exists. We can’t keep repeating the process of unjustly hiding people away. They are not less than. They are people just like us, with families and aspirations.”

Together with the current rise of racism and Islamophobia, asylum seekers are being targeted by many racial states. In Australia’s inhuman off shore concentration camps asylum seekers are deprived of water and food and are beginning to be infected by cholera, as the camps are being closed. Israel too is beginning to close its concentration camps in the south of the country, forcing asylum seekers to either be willingly deported to Rwanda (which is being paid $5,000 dollars for each person it admits) or face indefinite jail. Ireland’s Direct Provision system, while not quite so deadly, condemns asylum seekers to a frozen existence in DP centres where private for-profit operators such as the international catering company Aramark are paid millions of euro to maintain Ireland’s version of what the African American activist Angela Davis terms ‘the prison industrial complex.’

Besides the obvious benefits to the Irish economy of allowing asylum seekers to work, pay taxes and spend money, and beside the obvious human benefits to Irish society of their talents and enterprise, there is also the moral imperative of Ireland’s choice to close the dehumanizing Direct Provision system, end all deportations, and use Ireland’s new wealth to include asylum seekers in solving our appalling housing crisis. The time to act is now.

Incarceration, disavowal and Ireland’s prison industrial complex

Incarceration, disavowal and Ireland’s prison industrial complex

Paper presented at the ‘Irish Prisons: incarceration, repression and control’ conference, Crumlin Road Gaol, Belfast 26-27 October 2017.

Introduction

In September 2014 residents of several asylum centres in Ireland staged protests against their incarceration. Since April 2000 asylum seekers have been dispersed to ‘Direct Provision’ centres, managed by private for-profit companies under the supervision of the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA), an arm of the Department of Justice and Equality, costing the state around 50 million euro per annum. Residents, who get bed and board, are not allowed to work or access third level education, and until August 2017 were given a small weekly ‘residual income maintenance payment to cover personal requisites’ of €19.10 per adult and €9.60 per child, increased to €21.60 per adult and first to €15.60 and then to €21.60 per child per week (Bardon 2017). Steven Loyal (2011) describes the Direct Provision centres as Goffman’s (1991[1961]) ‘total institutions’, where residents are controlled as to what and when they eat, who they share rooms with, who can visit them, and what access they have to crèches, laundries, kitchen facilities and appliances, and argues that ‘the negatively socially valued category of “asylum-seeker” becomes their master status.’

Although the Direct Provision system was originally intended for no more than a six months stay, 19.5 per cent have stayed for over three years. The average length of stay was 38 months while 450 people had been living in Direct Provision for more than seven years, leading to people becoming de-skilled, bored, depressed, destitute, and institutionalised. By September 2017, there were 5,063 people in Direct Provision centres. Seven of the centres are State-owned, the others are operated by for profit companies (Gartland, 2016) – making the Direct Provision system part of what Angela Davis term the ‘prison industrial complex’.

Many asylum seekers live with deportation orders in a state of deportability (Lentin and Moreo 2015), arguably making them what the Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben (1995) calls ‘bare life’, at the mercy of the laws of the sovereign state, which exempts itself from these very laws. And as Eithne Luibhéid (2013: 91) argues, ‘Direct Provision institutionalized the construct of the “asylum-seeker” as a distinct, undesirable type of person who must be subjected to relations of governance that were intended to deter, control, and incapacitate’.

The Direct Provision protesters demanded that all asylum centres be closed, that all residents be given the right to remain and work in Ireland, and that all deportations end. These demands are articulated by MASI, the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland, a platform for asylum seekers to join together in unity and purpose.

In October 2014, apparently in response to these protests, the government appointed a working group ‘to report to Government on improvements to the protection process, including Direct Provision and supports to asylum seekers.’ The Working Group was made up of representatives of migrant-support NGOs but had no significant representation of asylum seekers themselves. While the then deputy Justice Minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin admitted that the Direct Provision system is ‘inhumane’, and that ‘the way we treat asylum seekers and people in the (Direct Provision) system says a lot about us as a country’, the Working Group was charged with reforming rather than closing the Direct Provision system (The Journal 2014).

The Working Group’s recommendations were largely not adopted by the government (although the Minister for Justice said in October at the Senead that 98 per cent were adopted), and the Direct Provision system remains in place. However, in 2016 the government increased the ‘comfort allowance’ paid to asylum seekers in Direct Provision centres by an insulting amount. In 2016 the government introduced the International Protection Act based on a Single Application Procedure. The new act raises serious concerns in relation to firstly, the erosion of refugee families’ reunification rights; secondly, the impact on the applicants already in the asylum process in relation to the availability of appropriate legal advice and sufficient time and resources to shorten the waiting time; and thirdly, the ease with which deportations could be effected. In May 2017 the Supreme Court unanimously agreed that the absolute ban on asylum seekers working was unconstitutional (Carolan 2017), and in October 2017 the Minister for Justice announced the intention to give asylum seekers in Ireland the right to work after six months in Direct Provision, a problematic announcement as very few details have been worked out. Lucky Khambule will elaborate on these developments.

Against this background, this paper makes three interlinked propositions. Firstly, I propose that as Irish state and society managed to ignore Ireland’s system of ‘coercive confinement’: workhouses, mental health asylums, mother and baby homes, Magdalene Laundries and industrial schools (O’Sullivan and O’Donnell 2012), they also ‘manage not to know’ about the plight of asylum seekers in Direct Provision. The Direct Provision system isolates asylum applicants, makes them dependent on state handouts and carceral rules, and makes it difficult for them to organize on a national level. ‘Managing not to know,’ or disavowing, erases the Direct Provision system from Ireland’s collective consciousness, but I suggest that asylum seekers signify the return of Ireland’s repressed, confronting Irish people, themselves e/migrants par excellence.

Secondly, I propose that we must not theorize residents of the Direct Provision system as passive victims at the mercy of sovereign power, to whom everything is done, but rather as active agents of resistance.

Thirdly, and more broadly, the incarceration of asylum seekers must be seen as continuing the tradition of administrative detention of political prisoners in the north of Ireland and of the widespread Irish practice of incarceration. I therefore theorize the Direct Provision system as the current embodiment of the island of Ireland as two parallel carceral states, where the prison industrial complex has historically incarcerated one in every hundred people in the Republic and administratively detained political prisoners in the north. I conclude, following Angela Davis, by calling for the total abolition of imprisonment and incarceration. Continue reading “Incarceration, disavowal and Ireland’s prison industrial complex”

Why Taoiseach Varadkar is bad for equality in Ireland

varadkar

When Larry Gordon, a member of the progressive Dublin Food Co Op recently told a niqab-wearing Muslim woman that she has no right to come to shop for organic produce at the Co Op and refused to apologise for his racist and Islamophobic outburst, a white Co Op member told me, after I intervened, that ‘veiled women put all of us women in Europe in grave danger’ and protested when I told her Islamophobia comes in all shades. This racist incident, still to be resolved by the Co Op board, is an omen of the ‘I am not a racist but’ Ireland, particularly as we are facing an ethnic minority gay Taoiseach who however disavows racism and denigrates migrants, poor people and disabled people.

On the face of it, having supported immigration into Ireland and having been actively involved in resisting racism and discrimination of LGBT and disabled people for many years, why am I less that delighted that Ireland’s next Taoiseach is the son of an Indian migrant and an openly gay man? After all, Ireland’s record of electing ethnic minority politicians is very poor: apart from three Jewish TDs, a single Muslim TD and a couple of African and Traveller local politicians, Ireland has consistently upheld white supremacy, while protesting its non-racialism and continuing to incarcerate asylum seekers in direct provision hell holes and to treat migrants as mere economic commodities who must emulate ‘our culture’.

Examining Varadkar’s record of focusing on welfare fraud, calling to send home migrants who have become unemployed, not allowing gay parents to adopt children, calling to make mentally disabled people pay for their incarceration in the Central Mental Hospital, and calling upon migrants and refugees to accept ‘Irish culture’ explains why I am so opposed to this (unelected, remember) gay son of an Indian doctor becoming Taoiseach, well beyond my general distaste for Fine Gael’s reactionary conservatism.

Although for many migrants Varadkar’s rise sounds like the immigrant’s dream come true, according to Dublin born half-Asian Dean van Nguyen writing in the Irish Times, there is no reason to get excited by Varadkar, who has shown little interest in migrants or in Ireland’s racial issues. Indeed, while saying ‘I’m somebody who thinks immigration is beneficial. I’m in charge of a health service that is heavily influenced and dependent on migrants, doctors and nurses form overseas. So I’m somebody who believes it is good for our economy and society,’ he called for the deportation of unemployed ‘foreign nationals’ who should be offered three or four months benefits if they agree to go home and forego benefits beyond that. The suggestions, Van Nguyen argues, ‘fed into the trite typecasting that people come to Ireland only to claim benefits, while also undermining all immigrants’ hopes of being accepted in their new homes’. While Varadkar did support accepting a small number of refugees from Syria (in fact only 760 out of the promised 4,000 Syrian and other refugees arrived in Ireland in 2016), he see immigration merely as ‘beneficial’ to Irish state and society and has warned about cultural differences, claiming that ‘people will come to Ireland to work but will actually look down on our culture and look down on our freedoms and liberalisms and think they are wrong’.

For me, Leo Varadkar’s insistence that being the son of a migrant is meaningless signifies what Alana Lentin calls ‘post racialism’: ‘declarations of the end of race ignores the continuing impact of racism upon socio-economic inequality in racial states.’ Post-racialism, closely linked to culturalist solutions to problems seen as originating from excessive cultural diversity, she argues, is firmly set within the history of modern racism, even though most people in Ireland prefer to ignore it, insisting, despite evidence to the contrary, that they are not racist, but that ‘Irish culture’ is endangered by all those immigrants and foreigners.

Varadkar will thus be the first post-racial Taoiseach, whose ‘drawbridge’ mentality insists that while his own migrant father had worked so hard during the ‘tough’ 1980s, today’s migrants should work just as hard and emulate ‘our’ culture, and when becoming unemployed should go back home, because, as he proudly stated in his election campaign video: ‘It’s all about hard work and ambition…’