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Reflections on 21 Years of Direct Provision

12/4/21 – Direct provision came into existence 21 years ago, on 10th April 2000, as a temporary arrangement to accommodate people seeking asylum in Ireland. Since then, the Irish State has consistently failed to uphold the human rights of people who come here seeking international protection. Despite report after report highlighting the failures of the system, over 7,000 people still live in institutional settings with their dignity and rights undermined. The 2020 report of the Advisory Group on the provision of support, including accommodation, to persons in the international protection process advised that it is not fit for purpose and should be abolished. That message has been consistently conveyed to successive governments over the last 21 years. And yet, Direct Provision remains.

Over its 21 years, Direct Provision has been described as State-sanctioned child poverty and exclusion, a severe violation of human rights, and a system that may constitute arbitrary detention. In 2011 the UN Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination highlighted how the inordinate delay in the processing of international protection applications, coupled with poor living conditions in Direct Provision, can lead to health and psychological problems that in some cases lead to serious mental illness. And even still, the State forces people to survive for many years in Direct Provision.

We have charted some of the significant changes and campaigns over the 21 years of Direct Provision, from one of the first reports in January 2001 that documented the experiences of child poverty and social exclusion amongst asylum seekers living in Direct Provision, to the February 2021 White Paper by government that promises to end it. This commitment is welcome, but as campaigners who have worked for its abolition know, the 21 years of Direct Provision have been characterised by an ongoing lack of political will to accept the overwhelming evidence that it has failed. How many reports does it take before a government takes action to stop the human rights abuse in Direct Provision?

As we reflect on 21 years of unnecessary suffering by asylum seekers in Ireland, we remember many of the personal stories we have encountered over those years – stories of people whose children experienced racism and social exclusion; recollections of men who escaped persecution and torture, leaving their families behind, forced to suffer uncertainty for years; hours sitting with women who had been trafficked to Ireland and then had to endure the re-traumatisation of living in Direct Provision; supporting parents who want their children to grow up in an environment that doesn’t exclude them from the rest of society – and all the while, the private operators running the centres are making huge profits from running the sub-standard, isolated accommodation.

The White Paper shows that an alternative can be implemented, notwithstanding concerns over some specific aspects of its proposed alternative to Direct Provision. But it’s still only a paper. We now need to see an implementation plan for how Direct Provision will finally be ended.

To show its commitment to this goal, and to ensure an effective transition to a new system that respects and protects human rights, the government needs to speed up the international protection process now. It must also give permission to remain to people who have been waiting for a determination on their case for over two years. Leaving people waiting in a system that denies their human rights for that length of time is unreasonable and unnecessary. And not taking this step to clear the backlog of cases makes the implementation of the White Paper very difficult.

After 21 years we are still calling for an end to Direct Provision. Let’s hope that this time around the government doesn’t fail to deliver on the promise to implement a system that will be grounded in the principles of human rights.