22 years of Direct Provision

December 2021 marked the 22nd anniversary of the introduction of Direct Provision, a system created in 2000 intended as a temporary programme. With the Government recently pledged to end the system by 2024, Caroline Kelly speaks to people who live or have lived in the system about their experiences

On Valentine’s Day 2010, Abeni (39) and her two children, aged five and seven at the time, disembarked on the evening ferry from Holyhead to Dublin. Her journey from Nigeria to Dublin port took weeks, but the confidence and means it took to get there was months in the making. “I had to leave everything behind, everything I knew. But my home couldn’t sustain me and my two children. Moving to Europe meant I would be able to do that,” Abeni told the University Observer.. The following morning, Abeni and her children were transferred to a direct provision centre in St. Patrick’s, County Monaghan. “Within the first year, we were transferred to three different places before resettling in St. Patrick’s. I had no idea of the system we were entering, I didn’t know staying in this country would be so unreliable,” she continued, “I could not even get to Dublin very easily, where I would relocate for work.” The fastest and easiest way to travel from St. Patrick’s to Dublin involves crossing the border into Northern Ireland, which is a criminal offence for asylum seekers. Such geographic isolation is just one of the many dilemmas facing asylum seekers every day in direct provision, a system that marked its 22nd anniversary in December 2021. 

In brief, direct provision (DP) is a system used to house asylum seekers in state-funded, privately-run centres throughout Ireland. Described as an “abhorrent system” by grassroots organisation Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI), asylum seekers in direct provision are subject to a set curfew and fixed mealtimes, are forbidden to cook for themselves, are limited in their ability to work, and entitled to no more than their social welfare of €38.80 per adult and €29.80 per child weekly. Until recently, they were not entitled to third-level education, career training, language classes without paying international student fees. In many European countries, such as Germany, asylum seekers receive financial assistance, so that they can live in that country while their application is pending; meanwhile, they learn the language and the ways of the country with access to education and training. Under Direct Provision, however, asylum seekers live amongst other asylum seekers, in accommodation centres to which they happen to be assigned, often in isolated areas throughout Ireland. 

Up until the 1990s, Ireland seldom took in refugees. At the turn of the century, asylum applications in Ireland were rapidly increasing and the government established the direct provision system in response to the global refugee crisis. Direct provision was introduced as a short-term measure in 1999, to offer applicants emergency accommodation. What was intended as an “up to six months” stay in DP turned into years for many asylum seekers. Abeni remembered her first day in Moville when they advised her of such: “I was told six months and then I could go from there. I stayed in direct provision for five years, and my children grew up there. I started working many months later, saving up much as I could to get out of there. It took a while but in 2016, we moved into our own house where we currently live.” 

Mosney is a direct provision centre in County Meath, approximately 30km outside of Dublin. Currently, it is the largest earner in terms of government-contracted accommodation, which, as of 2017, received €139,577,808. Director Phelim McCloskey and his wife Elizabeth are owners of the former Butlin’s holiday camp, the 300-acre Mosney Direct Provision centre in Co Meath, which houses nearly 600 asylum seekers. One mother (33) and her daughter Grace* (10), fled their home in Albania, sought asylum in Ireland and ended up in Mosney where they lived for two years. When she first came to Ireland, Grace was seven years old and struggled to adapt to the changes.

Within the first year, we were transferred to three different places before resettling in St. Patrick’s. I had no idea of the system we were entering, I didn’t know staying in this country would be so unreliable

“The centre was big, a bit dirty. The parents and the kids would fight a lot; it was always so loud and not always peaceful. Sometimes, it was sad because I missed my family and my friends back home. But, I had my mother, my teachers and my friends. I had school, too, which was a lot of fun and I loved it. I went on playdates. The room where we lived didn’t really have enough space, so I just went to my friends’ houses instead.” 

Last year, Grace and her mother moved into their own home after receiving their papers. “It’s nice; I have my own space. I have play dates with my friends at school, and they mostly come to my house now,” says Grace. 

In February 2021, the Government published “The White Paper” which details the strategic dissolution of Direct Provision by the end of 2024. The full report describes a two-phased approach where asylum seekers should expect to spend no more than four months in reception and integration centres. These centres will no longer be privately-owned and instead will be run by non-profit organisations or State-run. Nick Henderson, CEO of the Irish Refugee Council, said that the report’s focus on “the integration from the day a person arrives in Ireland is hugely important”. It promises to offer healthcare, housing, education and employment support, including the option for English language classes and a particular focus on children’s education. 

However, many organisations which aim to end direct provision are sceptical. In a statement to the press, MASI noted that “The White Paper is ambitious in some areas and lacks imagination in others.” Commenting on the plan’s legal gaps, MASI asserts that direct provision “has existed for a long time without being on a statutory footing. The four month stay in a reception centre will not be a limit imposed through law for instance. This is problematic as people might end up in the system longer with no way of holding the State to account if it happens, as has been the case with Direct Provision…It is difficult to trust that the State will strictly adhere to this 4-month maximum stay in a reception centre without it being a legal requirement. Surely the legislature must determine how asylum seekers will be treated in future through legal protections to avoid the shambolic situation we have experienced over the past two decades in Direct Provision.” 

The centre was big, a bit dirty. The parents and the kids would fight a lot; it was always so loud and not always peaceful

Since 2014, MASI has fought to end direct provision by petitioning politicians and organising protests around the country. Last year, MASI was awarded the Council of the Bar of Ireland's Human Rights Award in “recognition of their work with those in Direct Provision, and in the community, advocating for better legal and social protection, as well as access to State services, including education,” according to the Council Bar of Ireland. With the publication of the White Paper, MASI commended the positive changes being made, such as more supports for children and the end of shared living spaces. Even still, many changes are needed to ensure asylum seekers are safeguarded, MASI concluded, “Otherwise we’ll still be talking about backlogs and limbo in the asylum system in a few years’ time.”