BLM in Ireland exposes the inherent racism of Direct Provision

There was singing, and chants echoed in Dublin’s streets on 6 June, including “I can’t breathe”. Several placards with “White Silence is Violence” and “End Direct Provision” were placed gate of the US Embassy, the latter of which is the turn Ireland’s BLM movement has taken, protesting a life of waiting. The fight against racism in Ireland is tightly interwoven with calling for an end to Ireland’s inherently racist system for housing asylum seekers.

Everyone who is processed as a refugee needs to wait to be allowed entry and afterwards, to be granted asylum. Ireland’s system, for some, has taken up to 12 years. Children have been born into the system not knowing what living in a country of their own is like. At the end of 2017, 6% of people in direct provision had been waiting seven years or more. By 2019, there were 6 290 people living in direct provision centres across Ireland. The vast majority of these people are people of colour, who are still waiting to live.

Direct Provision is a system of centres that are run by for-profit hospitality companies under contract with the government that accommodate asylum seekers in the form of room and board. In many European countries, people needing protection receive financial assistance so that they can live safely while their application is pending. These asylum seekers can assimilate to the country by taking language classes and prepare the tools they need to seek formal employment for when their permits are approved. Under Direct Provision, however, asylum seekers live with other asylum seekers and are not allowed to integrate into Irish society. From former student housing to dilapidated hotels, these residences have strict rules and sometimes separates by gender, splits families, or puts one or more families in the same apartment. Amanda Nyoni of the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI) says even though there was a positive response and outlook to BLM in Ireland, the attitudes toward immigration and Direct Provision is an active way in which the Irish government discredits and disempowers migrants – specifically migrants of colour.

“People move freely within the EU and between Europe and the US all the time and this is seen as normal with the caveat that they are white. If you’re not white, you are seen as ‘other’. You are seen as less than. You are seen as looking to steal jobs and housing,” Nyoni says. Throughout much of the first world, migration is perceived as a threat. In recent years, more restrictions have been put in place to curb mobility from third-world countries into places like the US and Europe. These kinds of barriers often lead to irregular migration and informal work, where the economic gains of mobility are lost. The majority of people entering a country where they are met with nought but hurdles to the better life they sought often turn to informal work or crime, which only exacerbates the problem people have with migration in the first place. The informal economy is characterised by low wages, exploitative working conditions, irregular or ludicrous working hours, and lack of job security. Thus the cycle is perpetuated. Research by the Migrant Rights Centre says nine in every 10 undocumented people in Ireland are working and 46 percent of them work more than 40 hours per week, while three-quarters of them have been in Ireland for five years or more. Most of these are people of colour, whose work is unrecognised by the state, yet the state reaps the benefits of their labour. 

At the Dublin protest in June, MASI’s Lucky Khambule led the chanting before criticising the policemen involved in George Floyd’s murder. The protest was organised by MASI, along with Black Pride Ireland, and Migrants and Ethnic-minorities for Reproductive Justice. Khambule said racism was very much present in Ireland, saying the Direct Provision system “put the knee on the necks” of the people who were forced to share cramped accommodation, and violated their rights to privacy. The “state-sponsored poverty,” as Khambule calls it, is a way to ensure that people of colour do not succeed in Ireland as is a way of letting people know that Ireland is a place for white people. Nyoni echoes his sentiments and says that the racism in Ireland is not in your face, but is present in the smiles and pretences in spaces that are overly friendly, where the mainly older white people cannot express their racism. “I’d much rather have the outward racism like in the US,” says Zimbabwean-born Nyoni. “I can deal with that. I can’t deal with this underhanded stuff that denies our people scholarships and jobs and having to tiptoe around European sensibilities. There’s always this question of ‘why are you here, brown person?’” 

A 16-year-old girl, born in Ireland to West African parents, told the crowd she lives in fear of being taunted and verbally abused on the streets of Dublin because she is black. Nyoni says the backlash to the protest was due to COVID-19, and that the timing could have been better, “but there was a great response by the Irish youth. Young white people want to understand and want to do better, it seems. This generation realises, I think, that the norm has to change.” She says they might be realising that if Africa had to shut down, the world would shut down, too. “Black Africans hold no power over our own resources but if we did, we could bring the western powers to their knees were we able to take our resources back or withhold them.”

Local artists have lent their voices to the cause, with the likes of Erica Cody saying, “… there’s ‘no waaaaaay’ you can be black and Irish at the same time. It’s been an identity crisis for me most of my life, being told to “Go back to my own country” when Ireland is all I have ever known.” Representation Matters Ireland has highlighted the lack of representation of POC in the Irish media numerous times and beauty blogger Yasmin O’Connor has taken up the issue, iterating that diversity in the beauty industry should not mean filling a quota. “We migrate for economic, political, and social reasons,” says Nyoni. “All of us are trying to do better for ourselves, so to get put into scant housing with the bare minimum and no prospect of integration is Ireland telling us that people of colour are not welcome to seek a better life here. The hostility and bias are always based on skin colour and never on what we can offer this country.”

A report by the Ombudsman for the Children’s Office found that racist remarks were reported by every surveyed group of children living in Direct Provision and was commonly cited as a source of exclusion in school. “Several participants talked about the use of the N-word by their peers in school.” Children of colour have been called “black monkey” and “terrorist”. They have been excluded from sports teams and group work; and Muslim girls have been abused for wearing the hijab, according to the report. The racism extends beyond the centres. Despite the Irish people’s history of being the victims of racism, Ireland’s relationship with foreign nationals is worsening. The Immigrant Council of Ireland reported that there was an 85% rise in the number of reports of racism since 2013, with black Irish people saying it’s not overt, with one musician saying, “You know you’re not going to get that apartment you applied for when you have an African-sounding name.” There have been adverts insisting that immigrants need not apply for certain housing, most of which have been removed. Still, the comments on Reddit threads are damning.

In government, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, a mixed-race politician of the liberal-conservative Fine Gael party, says young people of colour are treated as if they are not fully Irish. “I never experienced any violence, thankfully, but it can certainly range from name-calling and things like that as you walk down the street, or it can be the kind of stuff you can see for yourself online, or it can be just the fact that people treat you differently – little things. “You’d be surprised at the [number] of people in the last couple of days who’ve heard I’m visiting India with my family, and have asked me when am I going back to India.” There has been criticism levelled against Varadkar, though, with some hardliners saying he’s too soft in the face of racism in government, even after being called “The Indian” by a British unionist. No matter what goes in office, though, Nyoni says they’re not involved in Irish politics because of the lack of access. “People in Direct Provision can’t generally engage directly with politicians and I honestly prefer [Robert] Mugabe’s way of dealing with the first world – he didn’t bend to their will and they showed Zimbabwe what happens if you’re not a ‘good black person’ who plays by white rules. They will take your own resources and strangle you with them.”

The Expert Advisory Group, in a review of the Direct Provision process, recommended that a new permanent system be established no later than mid-2023, with the need to move away from a largely reactive system based on regarding international protection as a temporary phenomenon. The group recommended that a permanent system be put in place that accepts Ireland will need to process around 3 500 new applications every year and shorter processing times must be set with binding deadlines, as well as including access to education, driving licenses, and bank accounts. The recommendation says asylum seekers should also be allowed to work in public health should they have the relevant qualifications. “This doesn’t take away from the fact that it is an intrinsically racist system that puts on a face of benevolence,” says Nyoni.

In August 2018 a trans woman was found dead in a Direct Provision centre in Galway. The Department of Justice and Equality says the woman was believed to have been living in the men’s ward of the centre despite identifying as a woman. At the time, it was the 63rd death in the system for people whose lives and deaths remain hidden from public view, disavowed by white Ireland. MASI’s Bulelani Mfaco said that as a gay man who has had to share a bedroom with a homophobic man in Direct Provision, “I am amazed that an openly gay [then] Taoiseach would choose to ignore the many LGBT+ asylum seekers who have had to endure the same.” Many organisations call it incarceration where they receive a paltry weekly “residual income maintenance payment to cover personal requisites” of €29.80 for children and €38.80 for adults a week. “We are treated like we should be grateful,” says Nyoni. “We are promised so many things and we end up living like mice waiting for scraps for years, having to be thankful to the government for giving us food and lodging, when this is the bare minimum anyone can do for another human being. The system protects white Irish people from having to ‘deal with’ black immigrants. That’s all it is.”

In some emergency Direct Provision centres, Mfaco said he came across asylum seekers who did not know how to access services such as solicitors, psychologists, doctors, or chronic medication, despite the Irish government having a legal and moral obligation to ensure asylum seekers have access to those services. Mfaco read a case where a woman spent eight years in Direct Provision. She was effectively used as a sex slave for the military in her country. The Department of Justice and Equality said she was lying and rejected her asylum claim. She was granted refugee status in the appeal tribunal after eight years in the system. She is not the only one to spend years in the system because the Department claimed they are lying. Some LGBT+ asylum seekers say the Department wants them to prove their sexuality after declaring their sexuality “not credible”.

While many have called for reform of the system, MASI says it’s not enough and Direct Provision needs to end entirely. An interdepartmental group was set up to advise the government on how to improve the system and its recommendation was that asylum seekers initially be housed in state-run facilities but says the use of private sector and emergency accommodation should be retained in preparation for a surge in numbers. But trying to improve a system set to impoverish and disempower is much like petitioning for better slave conditions while others seek to end the system that enslaves. Nyoni says black history needs to be included in schools and universities for people to see the reality. “We need to change the curriculum to show Ireland that while they might have been oppressed by the British, it does not give them free rein to oppress people of colour.”

Although there are many layers to how Black Lives Matter has progressed in Ireland, the focus on Direct Provision has brought many other issues to light and highlights the attitude of white Irish people toward black Irish people. “We need to keep pushing and let people know what’s going on. Form allyships, get international attention, and destroy the misconception that Ireland is this happy place with no problems,” says Nyoni. Black visitors to Ireland have been warned by the newest edition of the Rough Guide to Ireland, the guidebook consulted by young people, says the state is “shamefully intolerant of minority groups”, who are viewed by the Irish authorities as potential criminals. From a history of revolution a mere century ago, Ireland’s increasingly homogenised view of who is Irish and who isn’t has led to marginalisation, inhumane systems for refugees, and more people expressing their “dislike” of black people – a far cry from the spirit that gained the country its independence from England in 1922. Further indeed when thinking about the slogan calling for Irish unification, Tiocfaidh ár lá – our day will come – when there is still doubt over who gets to be part of that.