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The business of direct provision: outside the integration debate?

by Steven Loyal
17 Jun 2008 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: General Issue [0] | Commons

Despite indications of a movement towards recession, some businesses in Ireland have continued to thrive. During the last fiscal year Bridgestock Ltd. increased its profits before tax by over 600% on an annual turnover of over 6.1 million. Bridgestock is one of the country’s largest privately run ‘direct provision’ centres responsible for accommodating over 20% of the 6,844 asylum seekers dispersed across the State.In marked contrast, asylum seekers housed in these centres have continued to live precarious lives on a weekly allowance of €19.10 for adults and €9.60 for children, which for a single adult amounts to about 3% of the national average industrial wage. This amount was established in 2000 and remains unchanged despite inflation. Given that over 49,100 asylum seekers have passed through this system since then, the numbers who have lived a socially excluded, marginalized existence since this system was put in place, are by no means insignificant.

Numerous reports have shown the detrimental effects of direct provision, both materially and psychologically. A GP recently speaking at the Irish Medical Organization estimated that up to 90% of asylum seekers suffer from depression after having spent 6 months in the state. Similarly, another doctor stated that asylum seekers enduring these conditions were 5 times more likely than an Irish citizen to be diagnosed with a psychiatric illness.

For many asylum seekers, the long period of waiting for a final decision to determine their status – almost half have been waiting 2 years and a quarter 3 years – is a significant cause of severe depression. Uncertainty concerning their future leads to great stress and anxiety for many.

The legal restriction which prohibits asylum seekers from working or accessing training or education programmes, further inclines them towards reflection on their situation. In conjunction with a lack of assurance about the future, their inability to control the immediate present often results in a sense of hopelessness. In interviews I have conducted many talk about living in an open prison, in which their experience of duration was of empty, homogenous, wasted time in which all they did was wake up, eat, and sleep.

Despite general standards set by the Reception and Integration Agency, the facilities and resources provided by the direct provision centres and their various management styles differ greatly. Many asylum seekers live in sub-standard accommodation and in cramped conditions. One family I spoke to lived with two other families in a house which accommodated 14 individuals, including 9 children. The parents found it difficult to sleep, and the children were unable to study, because of constant noise and stress. In other centers, 4 to 6 single men shared one room, denied privacy and forced to accommodate each other’s different sleeping patterns. In both cases insomnia exacerbated cases of depression.

Nutritional issues were also significant. Many centres cannot provide an ethnically-diverse range of products – with 96 different nationalities that would be very difficult. As a result of poor diet and enforced inactivity, many asylum seekers have gained weight – some up to 40%, according to one study.

The Council of Europe Report recently noted that, ‘the commissioner is concerned about the current state of accommodation for families and about the deficiencies reported by independent inspectors. The commissioner is also concerned about the low degree of personal autonomy asylum-seekers may retain throughout the process.’ Rather than confronting these complex issues the forthcoming Immigration and Residence Bill (2008), has focused instead on establishing detention centres and accelerating procedures for deportation.

How can we account for these narrow policy concerns and moral slippages? Is it simply a result of the decline in the numerical significance of asylum applications with only 3,985 received in 2007? Rather we need to look at the powerlessness of asylum seekers as a group. The democratic deficit, which characterizes the whole sphere of immigration, is redoubled here. Asylum seekers lack the power to voice their concerns or to react to negative media and political representations.

As a consequence, they have been de facto excluded from the remit of the Minister of Integration, and remain generally outside of the purview of social partnership plans aimed at social inclusion. Instead, for the State they constitute both an unclassifiable imposition -between citizens and foreigners – and source of embarrassment.

Historically, three broad criteria have determined the Irish State’s treatment of immigrants: economic cost and benefit, national homogeneity, and security considerations. With direct provision these three criteria have been condensed into a single process.

For political reasons the Government has chosen to pay large sums of money to private companies, to accommodate and feed asylum seekers in 62 centres across the state; over €83 million was spent in 2007. Many such companies have, however, cut corners in order to secure greater profits from service provision reducing costs from €38.60 per person per day in 2000 to €28.35 in 2006.

As such, and given the enforced inactivity to which asylum seekers in this situation are otherwise condemned, it would make both financial and moral sense to allow them to work and to feed themselves, after a delimited period of 3 to 6 months, in the process becoming self-reliant, less of a financial burden, and no longer viewed as a tax burden by the general population.

However, in the current context, direct provision has become a ‘commonplace’, namely, an idea or reality which one takes for granted and in relation to which one speaks, but not over or against which one argues. Thus, despite some 700 amendments that have been tabled in the forthcoming Immigration Bill, none concern overhauling or improving the position of asylum seekers in relation to direct provision.

The new legislation may expedite the processing of asylum claims and may make the removal of asylum seekers from the state easier, but this will certainly be at the expense of the fairness of the decision-making process. As a result, it is likely that one of the most dispossessed and dominated groups in Ireland will remain so, come boom or recession.

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Sociology Department, University College Dublin
All posts by: Steven Loyal | Email | Website

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