How do we end Direct Provision?

Photo: Vukasin Nedeljkovic –

Words: Dean Van Nguyen

The inhumane system of Direct Provision can no longer be ignored. Dean Van Nguyen looks at big ticket changes and alternative measures that could potentially remove the evil system forever.

We now know that coalition talks between Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party have led to a commitment to end Direct Provision within the lifetime of what is potentially the next government. My gut instinct is, of course, cynicism – these parties have no problem talking out the side of their necks if it edges them closer to power. But before getting into why it’s right to be skeptical, let’s acknowledge how encouraging it is to see Direct Provision become a big ticket item in political discourse. It was just earlier this month that Leo Varadkar dismissed concerns about the system by repeating his ridiculous argument that it’s not compulsory, as though the phrase “asylum seeker” has never been explained to him. Sure, if the Programme for Government had been more accurate it would have described Direct Provision as a “human rights-abusing national disgrace”, but at least there’s finally some acceptance by Fine Gael that it’s inadequate.

We must praise those who have applied significant pressure to politicians. They include activists, organisations such as the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI) and, within the context of recent government formation talks, left wing Greens, whose message to the party bigwigs has been unequivocally – environmental politics and social justice go hand-in-hand, like rhythm and blues or love and basketball.

Still, the pledge is terribly inadequate. Like much of the PfG, it’s scant on details and soft in language: “We are committed to ending the Direct Provision system and will replace it with a new international protection accommodation policy centred on a not for profit approach.”

Look, you can’t be flippant about small changes that they cause tangible improvements to the lives of asylum seekers. But as an end goal, nothing less than the abolishment of Direct Provision is acceptable.

How is this possible then? Guardians of the system love to portray it as imperfect but a necessity. “What would you replace it with?” is the regular response. That is a complex question no doubt, and one that people who instinctively know that Direct Provision is morally wrong can sometimes struggle to answer. Here are some of my suggestions. Final plans will need to be assertive and densely detailed, but for the sake of levity, I’m going to try to lay out some broad motions that would help deconstruct this evil institute forever. 

Firstly, everyone living in a Direct Provision centre longer than one year or with Irish-born children should immediately and with no questions asked receive refugee (or an equivalent) status and their entry into Irish society facilitated. I’ve set the bar here at 12 months as a way to ensure that those who’ve been in the system longest are prioritised. Those who have arrived in Ireland more recently with special requirements should of course be accommodated as quickly as possible.

From there, public resources should be invested into a more streamlined application system for future asylum seekers with no profit-making element. (The pledge to eliminate the currently despicable process that sees private companies make money off human misery is one of the few welcome details in the PfG.) When my dad came to Ireland in 1979, he lived in limbo with other Vietnamese refugees in Blanchardstown Hospital. But the situation was short term and nothing like the years-long wait people in Direct Provision currently face. Ideally, large scale housing centres should be eschewed for an asylum dispersal system.

(One thing really quickly: the question of where people coming out of Direct Provision, as well as future asylum seekers, will be housed comes up a lot. This goes hand-in-hand with solving the broader housing crisis and has been well covered elsewhere – i.e. you bring vacant housing into use, build social housing, regulate Airbnb etc. Like ending Direct Provision, it requires political will.

Even with reduced waiting times for applications to be processed, integration should be supported from day one of arrival and not just when the right to remain has been granted. This is in-line with the Scottish National Party’s New Scots strategy, endorsed by UNHCR, the first iteration of which was introduced in 2014. New Scots is not perfect – for example, asylum seekers don’t have the right to work, though they can apply for permission if their asylum application hasn’t been processed in 12 months – but its outline grants people a lot more dignity than those trapped in Direct Provision receive.

Absolutely vital to a humane system is the ending of compulsory deportations for failed applicants. I know some people are going to charge me with crimes that range from delusion to straight buffoonery for suggesting this, but is it really so crazy? Deportations are political violence and should only be used in extremely rare cases. You don’t see North American students who overstay their visas forced onto planes, so don’t do it to anyone else. Many of us will have met someone who for one reason or another slipped into undocumented status – 15,000-20,000 are said to be out there. They work, they pay tax. It’s an undesirable outcome and a path to documentation should be in law. Anyone who survives and even thrives with the added difficulty of being undocumented is welcome in our society.

A current option open to a person facing deportation exists in the Voluntary Return programme via IOM Ireland. This assists people who do not have the means, including the necessary papers, to return to their home country. Assistance can include the cost of the travel and a small reintegration grant. Paying people to leave the country isn’t something that should be promoted – and due to the nature of why people seek asylum, is only applicable to a very small number of cases – but it is right and proper that should someone choose to return home that the Irish government helps them.

Finally, there should be the immediate repeal of the 27th Amendment and restoration of Irish citizenship as a birthright to anyone born on the island. I’ve written about this previously.

If all this seems far too radical to present to the next government, that’s probably because left to its own devices, Ireland’s parliamentary democracy, like many modern capitalist democracies, generally oversees change that is incremental. That we’ve spent a century flip-flopping from two parties that are now in the final stages of fully amalgamation makes us the poster child for the ineffectiveness of electoral politics. Substantial change is more quickly achieved through mass social movements. Like the significant gains made by grassroots activists over recent years, ending Direct Provision can’t be pinned on getting Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil out of Government Buildings. The time for us to move is now.W