There has been much focus and commentbut no full State apology, for the role that institutions of the State and the Irish people as a whole played in  permitting the operation of Magdalene Laundries for over eight decades.  The mantra of “never again” rings hollow in light of Ireland’s current practices in containment and control of asylum seekers within the Direct Provision System (see Gavin Titley’s article on this for the Guardian in October 2012). Unable to work, provided with meals, shared accommodation with strangers and a meagre allowance of €19.10 per week: the system of direct provision in all its Dickensian glory. In Ireland, there was no parliamentary debate on the foundation of the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA). Ministerial circulars on the foundation of the system of direct provision were not (and are not) readily available to the public or to asylum seekers themselves. When I initially applied under the Freedom of Information Acts in 2007 for documentation held by the Department of Justice on the legal basis for direct provision, I was told there was no such documentation. I eventually gained access to much of the documentation through the Department of Social Protection,

It is important to note that there are very significant differences between the horrors of Magdalene Laundries and the system of direct provision: direct provision hostels are not workhouses, there is no evidence of systematic abuse and asylum seekers do have the ability to leave (although this is fairly illusory given that asylum seekers are barred from receiving any other form of welfare or State support). Rather than religious congregations in charge, private enterprises generally operate this system on behalf of the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA).

However, there are some striking parallels in terms of numbers in the direct provision system, length of stay and the dehumanising and institutionalising effect of the direct provision system on asylum seekers.

The numbers in the direct provision system (p. 11) have ranged from under 400 in April 2000, 6, 406 in June 2005 to 4689 in August 2012.  Of the 4689 residents in the direct provision system in August 2012, 2, 970 were in the direct provision system for more than three years (p. 20).  In April 2012, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Alan Shatter T.D. provided a fuller breakdown of the length of time asylum seekers were spending in the direct provision system:

Less than one year: 539
1 to 2 years: 630
2 to 3 years: 770
3 to 4 years: 945
4 to 5 years: 812
5 to 6 years: 670
6 to 7 years: 397
7 years or more: 271

It is also important to note that these figures do not include children who may be living in direct provision with their parent asylum seeker, where these children are not claiming asylum in their own right.  Nor does it include Irish citizen children (yes, there are Irish citizens in direct provision centres). The attempt to justify these statistics followed fairly typical blaming of asylum seekers for prolonging the length of their stay . Sean Aylward in 2011 (now on the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture) stated to the UN Committee Against Torture that the Irish asylum system was simply a “legal racket” for immigration lawyers.

(Sean Aylward, then Secretary General of the Department of Justice and Equality also stated that Ireland bore no responsibility towards survivors of Magdalene Laundries due to the ‘private’ nature of the institutions and the ‘vast majority’ entered voluntarily or on wishes of their family).

The primary punitive measure against asylum seekers is the denial of the right to work that enforces dependency on the welfare state. Creating distinct institutions to cater for a very small percentage of the population, who are non-nationals and claiming protection, has  two general functions. The first function is to deliver social rights at limits set by Government. This can be seen as the ‘welfarist’ element of reception conditions in Ireland. This is achieved through the provision of services, a welfare payment lower than that available to citizens or other residents; accommodation; medical care, provision of food and education for children. The second function is to discipline and control the lives of those seeking asylum. This, it is argued, is the overwhelming purpose of the direct provision system. The level of control and supervision for asylum seekers far exceeds the level of control within traditional welfare service delivery bodies.

The State response to the horrors of the Magdalene laundries report in the last 24 hours has been worrying. The fact that Ireland, by which I mean State institutions coupled with the support or acquiescence of the vast majority of Irish citizens, continues to deal with perceived problems through institutionalisation and pseudo confinement, says a lot about how far we have really progressed in the last number of decades. The system of direct provision is in need of urgent and serious reform, otherwise, in years to come, we may find ourselves looking back in shock and horror at such a cruel, dehumanising, institutionalising and infantilising system.

Previous reports on the direct provision system, see the Free Legal Advice Centres Report, Direct Discrimination and One Size Doesn’t Fit All . The Irish Refugee Council‘s State Sanctioned Child Poverty and Exclusion was published in 2012. NASC, the Irish Immigrant Support Centre is leading a campaign calling for the reform of the direct provision system. My 2007 article on the direct provision system, “Upon the Limits of Rights Regimes: Reception Conditions of Asylum Seekers in Ireland” can be accessed here.  My 2013 article  “Social Welfare Law and Asylum Seekers in Ireland: An Anatomy of Exclusion” will  shortly be published in the Journal of Social Security Law (JSSL). An earlier (pre-peer reviewed) version of this article is available here

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Written by Liam Thornton

Liam Thornton is a lecturer in law and director of clinical legal education in University College Dublin. His particular research interests are on issues relating to the welfare state, human rights, socio-economic rights, Governmentality, immigration law and EU law. You can contact him at liam.thornton[at]ucd.ie or (+353) 1 716 4129.