This week the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Roderic O’Gorman published a white paper setting out the governments plan to abolish direct provision. The proposals include the full wind up of the current institutionalised for-profit system by 2024. It was originally designed to be a temporary measure and was established in 1999. Direct provision has long been criticised for its unfair and inhumane treatment of asylum seekers.

Its very existence has spurred a long-running social movement largely spearheaded by young people. So, what is included in the plan to replace direct provision? And what role did students play in getting us where we are today?

There are currently 34 direct provision centres in Ireland. They are predominantly run by private companies that are contracted by the government. In August of last year, it was reported that due to COVID-19, the cost to the state of the system would be up to €200m. In its 20-year history, the estimated cost ran up to €1.3 billion. With enormous amounts of taxpayer’s money being paid to private contractors, the system has been accused of failing its occupants with cramped and unliveable conditions.

Last year a state-appointed advisory group examined the system and concluded that it places applicants for unacceptably long periods in segregated, congregated accommodation with little privacy or scope for normal family life. Last year the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) said in a statement that ‘it is the Commission’s strongly held view, shared by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination that Ireland needs to take steps to phase out the direct provision system.’

Direct Provision centres in Athlone. Wikimedia Commons
Direct Provision centres in Athlone. Wikimedia Commons

The white paper published by the department is the first step in phasing out the system. The paper sets out two phases. Firstly, locations are to be selected for new State-run reception and integration centres made up of own-door accommodation before applicants are to be moved to their own accommodation through a mix of both urban renewal and community hosting schemes. Most of the accommodation is to be delivered by approved housing bodies. In phase two, all applicants are to be accommodation in own-door, self-contained houses, or apartments for families.

The white paper also includes further supports in the areas of education, healthcare and childcare. Importantly, it states the asylum applicants right to work after six months from the date of their application for international protection and a commitment to cut the processing times for applications also to six months. Phase one and phase two of the plan is expected to cost €281m and €391m respectively and is intended to cater for 3,500 applicants annually. Speaking about direct provision at the launch of the white paper, Minister O’Gorman said, ‘too often it has failed to meet & nurture the basic dignity of people coming to Ireland seeking protection,’ adding that it is ‘a person-centred approach to support people to integrate into local communities.’

Overall, the reaction to the publication has been positive with early support from opposition parties and human rights groups, however, there is an acknowledgment that swift and effective action is required to bring the ambitious plan to fruition. In a statement regarding the white paper, the UN Refugee Agency, the UNCHR said it is a ‘welcome, ambitious plan that has the potential to radically transform the integration outcomes of refugees in Ireland,’ adding that the plan could ‘integrates access to services into existing community settings that will promote positive links between refugees and their communities.’

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The College Tribune spoke to UCD student and volunteer for the grassroots ‘Abolish Direct Provision Campaign,’ Christine O’Mahony. She said, ‘I welcome the white paper,’ but added that ‘I need to know how they plan to implement it all.’ Clearly, the mistrust remains after the supposed temporary system was allowed to continue for so long. Christine said, ‘Politicians make a lot of promises. It doesn’t mean they are going to implement them all.’

The white paper published this week follows years of campaigning from various groups across Irish society. Students and young people have been at the forefront of this movement. Christine O’Mahony said ‘(youth activists) have pressured the government and raised awareness of all the horrid things that have taken place in direct provision.’ The plan would unlikely have come about if the Green Party hadn’t fought for its inclusion in the programme for government. The abolishment of direct provision has long been a Green Party policy and has been largely spearheaded by young activists in the party who have helped the party achieve impressive electoral success in recent years.

The various students’ unions have been very vocal on the issue in the past, particularly in highlighting the barriers to education faced by those in the system. Also, UCD students have played their part. In 2018, a campaign was launched called ‘Aramark off UCD,’ after the company was one of those private firms profiting from running some direct provision centres. The company since left UCD citing commercial reasons.

For those campaigning to abolish the heavily criticised system, the publication of the white paper will come as a relief, with the early signs that the government is planning to act. Young people have been front and centre of this campaign and have demonstrated yet again their ability to spur positive social change in this country.

Conor Paterson – Features Editor