We are approaching twenty years of the system of direct provision for asylum seekers in Ireland. The phrase ‘direct provision’ is short-hand for the communal accommodation, food, low weekly payment, health and education rights that asylum seekers in Ireland are entitled to. Over the last (almost) two decades, there has been sustained criticism of the system of direct provision from asylum seekers subject to the system. Protests against the direct provision have not resulted in any significant shift away from government policy of asylum seeker institutionalisation and segregation. Successive governments have argued that direct provision is the only means by which asylum seekers will be able to access shelter, food, clothing and a weekly allowance. Reports documenting the significant challenges for many asylum seekers over the last two decades have failed to convince governments to change their approach. Reform initiatives have partly achieved some of their limited aims, but have always been focused as having to accept direct provision as the only way to meet needs for asylum seekers. Only in 2018 was the system of direct provision given legislative form. Due to a Supreme Court decision, there is now a limited freedom to work for some asylum seekers. The system of direct provision has been discussed in the Oireachtas incessantly since its establishment. Some of its biggest detractors became its biggest supporters once in government.
The Direct Provision Files
Exploring Direct Provision makes over twenty years of documentation, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, on the system of direct provision available to all. Only through understanding the processes by which direct provision was proposed, discussed, established and implemented can we properly begin to offer alternatives.
While readers may access the direct provision files directly, I have also created a PDF summary file of the database. This file provides a short summation of what is discussed in each document, or series of documents. Since I first began utilising Freedom of Information legislation in 2007 to try to understand the creation and operation of the direct provision system, over 350 separate documents have been emerged. Until now, the vast majority never available.
Due to a successful award of a UCD Seed Funding Grant in 2019, all of these documents were scanned by Róisín Dunbar, project assistant. Over the last number of months, my time has been spent curating and organising these documents, in the hope of building a coherent narrative on the creation and operation of the system of direct provision in Ireland. Organised by year, over 350 documents have been collated into 79 different files, with a total digital depository of over 2,000 pages (as of 01 November 2019) . The Database provides a brief narrative to indicate to the reader some core issues discussed/provided for in each file. Technical and communication aspects for this website were expertly dealt with by Danielle Curtis, ensuring the website was minimalist, but easy to use, while also assisting in presentation of information on the website.
The Potential and Limits of the Direct Provision Files
The Direct Provision Files evidence how over twenty years, Government has never really got to grips with the system of direct provision. Its foundation and implementation was haphazard. Its continued existence often justified on the basis that many other European Union member states treat asylum seekers even more horrendously. The Direct Provision Files are a mix of high-level policy documents, government decisions, government consideration of ‘alternatives’ (tents, ‘flotels’, army barracks’). The documents also stand as a record of the detailed and in depth engagement by civil servants, mainly within the Departments of Justice and Social Protection, with the system of direct provision. The Direct Provision Files provide at least a partial insight into how the system of direct provision has been sustained over a twenty-year period.
Yet, the Direct Provision Files also have significant limitations. First, the documents requested and now available often tried to explore questions of law and legalities. This means that the freedom of information requests I submitted were, at times, focused on legal norms and legal values. I lack expertise in health policy, education policy, poverty policy, gendered and racial aspects to the system of direct provision. Second, in reading these documents I must acknowledge the limitations of my own knowledge on the system of direct provision. How I read a document, inbuilt from lawyerly training, may be very different to how a person seeking asylum, a person within the immigration process, an expert on social justice, gender, poverty, governance, politics, policy-making etc will read the documents. Third, my analysis is constrained due to the lawyerly lens I tend to view issues with. Yet, by making these files available to all, it may allow persons much more qualified than me to bring their expertise and analysis to the fore.
An On-Going Project
UCD Seed Funding has ensured that I will be able to continue to make (and pay for!) the cost that comes with making at times fairly wide-ranging freedom of information requests. This project is funded until 31 December 2020. The Direct Provision Files have significant gaps. For instance, government/cabinet papers are currently only up to date from 1997-2001 (with some files from 2003). From re-reading some documents that were granted over a decade ago, I now have further questions, which will necessitate further Freedom of Information requests. The Database File will be updated monthly from December 2019.
In addition, short blog posts, no more than 700 words, will be published over the next 12 months, focusing on some key aspects of the system of direct provision, such as why did the increases in direct provision allowance occur in Budget 2019? Why did Government want an (almost) entirely privatised system of accommodation centres? Why were the Departments of Justice and Social Protection constantly bickering about the system of direct provision? Why was a system which the Department of Justice get Government approval for, on the basis that persons would not be in direct provision accommodation for more than six months, resulting in people spending years within the system?
While the project is in someway looking back, those of you who examine some of these documents may notice just how eerily similar and repetitive all the official government/civil service discussions on the system of direct provision were back then, with more recent discussions of late. Whether it is discussing using guesthouses and hotels to shelter asylum seekers (1999-2000), concerns about communities protesting direct provision centres (1999-2002), government pronouncements about how wonderful direct provision is (throughout), it all seems to be just an endless cycle of the same discourse, the same ‘concerns’, with the same outcome: government maintenance of the system of direct provision.
Liam is an associate professor in UCD School of Law.