Xenophobia and Direct Provision, by Ciaran O Rourke


In the wake of ‘Brexit’ in Britain, xenophobia is in the air – with hate speech and hate crimes against minority groups and presumed immigrants on the rise. In British and international media, condemnations of these appalling racist acts and language have been coming from left, right and centre – as is only proper. Racism, particularly in its explicit and violent manifestations seen in the past week, needs to be called out for what it is. More than that, acts of discrimination in any form should be openly condemned and actively opposed.

There’s the logic. But here’s the thing. As everyone in Ireland knows, there are currently almost 5,000 people living in the ‘direct provision’ system here: a network of privately run detention centres where people born in countries outside the Anglosphere are corralled for seeking asylum in the Irish State. Asylum seekers have their right to food, shelter, fair employment opportunities, access to third-level education and even the smallest chance of personal independence systematically controlled and curtailed – for years on end.

All of which is why the recently announced reforms of the ‘direct provision’ system were long overdue. However, the normal conditions of life under this system are also the reason why mild reform feels like an insult to even the idea of migrant rights and State obligations, not to mention the people and families who have been campaigning on this basis for years. The message, of course, has been clear and reasonable from the beginning – clear, reasonable, but always ignored by the series of centre-right Ministers it was directed to, most recently Frances Fitzgerald. ‘Direct provision’, after all, is not an efficiency issue, to be tweaked, rubber-stamped and kept intact – and certainly not on a for-profit basis. No: ‘direct provision’ is a human rights issue. It always has been. And it still is.

Anything less than a comprehensive overhaul of the current asylum-seeking process – with the aim of recognising the basic needs of migrants and the obligations of the State under international law – can be understood as State racism. With or without reforms, ‘direct provision’ is a rights-denying system of control and detention of human beings, enforced on xenophobic grounds. On the level of base discrimination, it is perhaps only surpassed by the European Union’s systematic efforts to deport, demonise and deny the rights of refugees along its mainland borders – people also characterised by their common flight from persecution, poverty or distress in their home countries.

Even beyond the issue of xenophobic thinking, the tendency to objectify and then deny the humanity of other human beings has been one of the defining characteristics of both the Irish and EU political establishments over the last decade. It’s a telling fact that there are over 57,000 refugees now stranded in Greece on EU orders – a country in which the unemployment rate has risen above 25% in the wake of EU-imposed austerity. Similarly in Ireland, the homelessness crisis has deepened – in no small part due to that pernicious strand of political thinking, from Dublin and Brussels, that views the health and well-being of ordinary people as disposable, ignorable and secondary to the supposed freedoms of big business and financial capital.

After all, and broadly speaking, what privatisation has meant for Ireland’s asylum seeking process is similar to what it has meant for other areas of Irish society: the ‘service’ in question is run (the system in place is organised) on the basis of the profit margins of the private sector, and not according to the needs of the people whom the service was supposed to provide for in the first place. The divisive and damaging results of this creed are evident across Ireland’s housing, healthcare and education sectors, as well as finding an incarnation in the ‘direct provision’ system.

Once again: these are not efficiency issues. They’re human rights issues – and a failure to address them as such, in Ireland and in the EU, has consistently generated what can be objectively described as inequality and injustice. The fact that these last have become the norm, that they are accepted and even defended as legitimate outcomes of a valid worldview, is proof of our complicity in that more obvious violence we’ve seen of late – the dehumanising violence of xenophobic acts. As for ‘Brexit’? Maybe soon we’ll reach a radical response: dealing with the roots of that disaffection the EU has sown and reaped with the help of our own political leaders over the past decade.