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Dr Yvonne Marie Daly and Dr Noelle Higgins: Direct provision

10 April 2015

Dr Yvonne Daly is a Senior Lecturer and the current Director of Law in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University, where she is also a member of the Socio-Legal Research Centre. Dr Daly lectures in Criminal Law and the Law of Evidence and publishes widely on matters of criminal justice, criminal procedure and evidence. She is co-editor of the forthcoming Routledge Handbook of Irish Criminology. Dr Noelle Higgins is a Senior Lecturer in Law at Maynooth University. She previously worked at the Irish Centre for Human Rights, NUI Galway and at the School of Law and Government, DCU. Noelle's main research interests are in the fields of international human rights law, international humanitarian law and international criminal law. She has also undertaken research on the topic of legal education. Her current research focuses in particular on minorities in international law.

Over 50 million people are currently displaced from their homeland, forced to flee as a result of conflict or persecution. In 2013 close to 1.2 million people submitted asylum claims worldwide. Different states approach the issue of asylum seekers differently. In Ireland, for the past 15 years, persons seeking asylum have found themselves part of a system known as “Direct Provision”. Under this system, funded by the state but run on a day-to-day basis by private contractors, asylum seeking individuals and families are housed in 32 former hotels, hostels and a mobile home park scattered around the country. At present, approximately 4400 people are housed in Direct Provision centres, and approximately 1550 of these are children. When these centres were established in 2000 the plan was that those seeking asylum would spend just 6 months in Direct Provision while their applications were processed. The latest available official figures suggest that the average period of residence is 4 years and 5 months. Some people have been resident for more than 7 years. Many of the children living in the centres have only known a life in Direct Provision. The Direct Provision system seems to place asylum seekers at the edge of Irish society and raises a number of important ethical questions. Can the Irish state honestly claim to be providing for these vulnerable, displaced people in an ethical way? Is it right to hold families and young children in conditions such as those provided within the system?

The state-run Reception and Integration Agency has stated that all the basic needs of Direct Provision residents are met – all meals are directly provided, and the costs of heat, light, laundry, television, household maintenance, etc. are covered – but does the system facilitate a life with dignity? The conditions are often quite bleak, with asylum seekers living in cramped and unhygienic accommodation. Family life is completely abnormal, with families often given just a single room to live in; children are forced to share communal bathrooms with strangers; parents cannot cook for their children; parents cannot provide additional food outside of that provided for them; children may witness violent and sexual behaviour; there is a lack of safe space to play and toys to play with; children cannot invite schoolmates home; there are difficulties in providing transport to school; asylum seekers are not allowed to work and are provided with only a meagre personal allowance of €19.10 per adult and €9.60 per child per week. The lengthy stay in these conditions creates huge stress on parents and families and the courts have already witnessed children being taken into care because their parents’ mental health is so adversely affected by the system that they can no longer cope. The prevalence of mental health problems among those in Direct Provision is up to five times greater than in the rest of the population. This is perhaps unsurprising given the interminable waiting time in the system, without any right to work, or control over one’s own life and destiny.

While some asylum seekers have launched constitutional challenges before the courts, others may be afraid to speak out or criticise or question the system for fear that they be labelled troublemakers, and that such criticism may impact negatively on their asylum application, or that they may be moved away from friends to a different centre. Others have mounted hunger strikes and lock-outs. Concerns about the system have been raised by numerous non-governmental organisations and by the human rights bodies of the United Nations. These concerns were demonstrated in a decision of the High Court in Northern Ireland in 2013 after the Northern Ireland authorities sought to return a Sudanese asylum seeker and her three children to Ireland, where they had originally applied for asylum. Stevens J, refusing to return them, held that this would not be in the best interests of the children because the Direct Provision system would have an adverse effect on the emotional and financial wellbeing of the mother, which would adversely impact on her children.

Consideration of the ethics of immigration is a relatively underdeveloped endeavour and conflicting views are beginning to emerge. Should there be a universal moral right for persons to cross borders? Should sovereign states retain the right to close their borders to unwanted immigrants? Is there a middle-ground compromise? These macro-ethical considerations are of little use to those now within the realm of the Irish state and the Direct Provision system. At a more micro level, in their current predicament, they might more likely ask whether the Irish state can ethically justify this system over others. Is it right to detain asylum seekers, side-lined from society, for indeterminate periods of time? Can the Irish state justify the damage to adults’ mental health and to children’s childhoods, accentuated by delays in decision-making?

Certain government ministers appear to have genuine concerns about the Direct Provision system. A working group has been established to examine necessary improvements. However, it may be that abolition, not improvement, is necessary. Parallels with workhouses, Magdalene laundries and other institutions from Ireland’s dark but not too distant past have been drawn, and future apologies to damaged individuals have been forecast. There is little dignity for asylum seekers in Ireland’s institutionalised holding pens. As a society we are surely better than this. If we are not, why not?

About This Series

This opinion series explores what ethics currently means to Irish researchers across a variety of disciplines and was led by the RIA Committee for Ethical, Political, Legal and Philosophical Studies and was a contribution to President Higgins’ Ethics Initiative in 2014/15.

The views and opinions expressed by authors are their own and do not reflect the position of the Academy, but are simply an illustration of the various opinions reflective of the diverse Academy Committee membership.

Ethics Initiative

The President of Ireland’s Ethics Initiative is the second in a series of public seminars and reflections that President Higgins is holding during his term of office. This series aims to explore, throughout all aspects of society, the topic of ethics and the challenge and invitation of living ethically.

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