#DirectProvision15: Safe Havens

DP15_logoBashir Otukoya is a PhD candidate in the Sutherland School of Law and the School of Politics and International Relations in UCD. Bashir is an active member of the Irish Refugee Council and also independently campaigns for the rights of asylum seekers. Bashir’s PhD research is mostly influenced by DP, and it advocates for the ‘right to belong’ and the ‘rights of “the others”‘. 

In its original form, asylum means safe haven. It is perceived that those who come under the protection of the “safe haven” are by definition, “safe”. From this, it can be assumed that hospitality would seem key to establishing an efficient asylum system. Sadly, this was not the case post-independence Ireland, and even sadder is that this is not the case in Ireland today.

To clarify, and the confusion is justifiable given that the general outlook of asylum is related to asylum seekers (i.e. those who are seeking a refugee status under Article 1A of The United Nations Convention on the status of the refugee 1951), I argue that the treatment of asylum seekers in Direct Provision centres (DP) are comparable, albeit (arguably) on a non-physical scale, with the treatment of individuals in lunatic asylums post-independence Ireland (or in modern terms mental hospitals), and other institutions which confined persons with a view of treatment but instead inflicted punishment. I compare these asylum regimes because of the obvious similarities between them that has been unheeded but need be stressed; not least because they share the word “asylum”, and with it a perception of a safe and caring environment, but because they share a common similarity, namely the opposite of the latter. Instead of a safe and caring environment, unmarried mothers, delinquents, and the mentally ill, to mention but a few, were confined in institutions which were intended to provide treatment but instead transpired the opposite.

Magdalene Laundries

Helping others who are less fortunate, or in need of aid, are characteristics of the moral compass embedded in the Christian based democracy of Ireland. It is in light of this strong Christian dominance, which persisted particularly during the eighteenth and nineteenth century, that ‘help’ was been afforded to those who needed it. Those who were particularly in need of help during that period were female, especially teenage girls who were often poor, without affection and in a state of perpetual destitution. The help they received however were not the typical or moral definition one perceives when the subject of help is raised. Rather, women who practiced prostitution, other perceived immoral acts, and actual criminal acts (though criminal acts derived from the immorality of certain acts), were steadfastly ‘helped’ by means of paying penance to God. Paying penance however, envisaged a regime of coercive confinement, hard labour and isolation.

Direct Provision

Though not as severe as being required to pray out loud whilst washing soiled clothes without any sanitary consideration, asylum seekers in Ireland today face similar degrading treatment as those in the Magdalene Laundries. The length of time spent in accommodation, which was intended to last six months, is not the only thing degrading about the centres, conditions in DP produces a range of day-to-day tensions and pressures that affects the psychological well-being of children and parents. Conditions such as; duration of time spent at the centre, lack of financial support, lack of space due to overcrowding, and societal neglect all contribute to the negative impact that direct provision has on its residents, including the higher mortality rate of children born in direct provision when compared to normal Irish born children.

Where is their haven?

The mentally ill, and destitute women and children went to the Magdalene Laundries seeking safety. For them, that was their haven. Whether it was ‘safe’ however is a question that has recently been answered in the McAleese report, which confirmed that the Laundries were not a safe environments for the women who resided there. Similarly, DP seemed a haven to asylum seekers and their children, but recent case law establishes that the centres are far from being catergorised as safe environments.

One prominent difference between the two systems can be found in the legality of the systems. Whilst some Magdalene laundry residents were confined under criminal sanctions, asylum Seekers enter DP at their own discretion; no lawful convictions compel them there. This is a striking difference between the two regimes. Nevertheless, their similarities provide an opportunity to dwell deeper into re-designing, or abolishing direct provision. Just as it was found that the Magdalene laundries had breached the right to freedom from degrading and inhumane treatment and was therefore abolished, it is time to rework or abolish direct provision. Women in direct provision, their children, and their family have suffered great mental distress, as did women in the laundries. It is time to extend the rectification provided to women who received treatment in the laundries, to Asylum seekers.


This blog is an extract from an essay I wrote as part of my LLM in Public Law on a comparative study of asylum institutions in Ireland and is available here.

#DirectProvision15: Safe Havens

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