Direct Provision – the Magdalene Laundries of the 21st Century?

Paul Carey

JF Law and French | TCLR Junior Editorial Board


In the past few weeks, the issue of Direct Provision has been discussed at length in light of the recent case of C.A. & T.A. v The Minister of Justice and others. Many were shocked and dismayed upon learning of the High Court ruling that Direct Provision does not breach human rights. There has been widespread criticism of the systemDirectProvision2, which is supposed to provide for the welfare of asylum seekers and their families as they await the decision on their applications. Among the complainants are Minister for State Aodhán Ó Riordáin, who has described Direct Provision as ‘not humane,’ and our own President, who commented that the system is ‘totally unsatisfactory.’ For me, the most poignant comment made was by Francis Timmons, an Independent Councillor on South Dublin County Council, who said that

I think in 20 years’ time, this is going to be a huge source of regret, this is going to be like the Magdalene Laundries – where we kept people against their will … We need to learn from the past. This is taking place on our doorstep.

On first thought, the Magdalene Laundries appear to have been more barbaric, with brutal conditions and heinous human rights abuses; however upon further reflection this proves to be an interesting comparison. On analysis Direct Provision in depth, we see startling similarities between it and what Labour TD Michael McCarthy described as “our own holocaust.”

First, it is clear that there exists a fundamental distinction between these two ‘institutions’, in that the Magdalene Laundries were controlled by the Catholic Church whereas Direct Provision is the brainchild of the Department of Justice, yet we see analogous human rights abuses present in both. One of the most prominent of these abuses is the lack of communication that existed, resulting in unawareness of when people in each system would be free to re-enter society. If Direct Provision truly were what it was intended to be, id est temporary accommodation for asylum seekers, there would be little cause for complaint. However, the reality is that the average person spends three years in a direct provision centre, with a seven year stay not being uncommon. Some refugees, even those with children, have spent over ten years in a Direct Provision centre, not knowing if they will have to spend another ten obeying a regimental schedule in cramped conditions. They cannot plan for the future or establish a life for themselves with such uncertainty dominating their lives. This situation is reminiscent of a comment made by a survivor of the Magdalene Laundries: “There was never any communication to tell me anything…No one ever spoke why I was there. In our heads all we could think of is we are going to die here. That was an awful thing to carry.” Women were admitted to the Laundries for falling pregnant outside of wedlock (which was often the result of incest or rape) or, in some cases, simply for being branded a ‘Jezebel’. The women were not told for how long they would be there, and in most instances given little or no information about their families. To different extents, both institutions seem to have had a distinct lack of communication between those in authority and the “detainees.”

Secondly, the well-established right to work is another right of which both systems are in violation. An aspect of Direct Provision that is coming under scrutiny is the fact that those in the system are prohibited from finding employment. One frequently hears complaints that those in Direct Provision “refuse to work”, but the truth is that they cannot. Asylum Seekers have their meals and lodgings paid for, and are given €19.10 as discretionary spending money per week, a figure many feel is too low. Many turn to illegal means of making a living – such as prostitution – which creates further social problems in an already deeply flawed and troubled system. This prohibition on asylum seekers from working may not be in line with The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which the government have vowed to discuss in the proposed Constitutional Convention. Part III, Article VI states that

The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right to work, which includes the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain his living by work which he freely chooses or accepts, and will take appropriate steps to safeguard this right.

Clearly, Direct Provision is in violation of this right as the asylum seekers under its care cannot freely choose to earn their living by working. This Covenant also states that ‘the full realization of this right shall include technical and vocational guidance and training programmes.’ Whilst in Direct Provision, asylum seekers should undergo training and upskill in preparation for their integration into Irish society. This would be a productive and positive purpose to the system, which at present does little to prepare people for their life outside of the centres.

The Magdalene Laundries violated this Covenant on the other end of the spectrum – they forced women to work in a way that many have compared to slavery. Few people realised the abuse that went into the laundry services, which were until recently enshrouded by the religious orders. Article VII of this same Covenant recognises ‘the right of everyone to the just and favourable conditions of work which ensure remuneration which provides all workers as a minimum with… fair wages.’ The women of the laundries earned absolutely nothing for their work, which comprised of very long days with few breaks. The fatiguing work that was inflicted upon these women is undeniably less humane than the prohibition on asylum seekers to work, yet both institutions denied and continue to deny people the right to earn ‘just and favourable’ payment for work, which is a serious breach of their human rights, whether it is denying people the dignity to earn their keep or forcing people to work without any form of pay.

Thirdly, it cannot be denied that there is also an element of psychological abuse present in both systems. Though there have been no known reports of physical abuse in either the Magdalene Laundries or the Direct Provision centres, many have reported being taunted and humiliated. Numerous survivors of the Laundries have spoken of how the nuns degraded them: one stated that ‘they were very, very cruel verbally – “Your mother doesn’t want you, why do you think you’re here?” and things like that’; another recalled how ‘the nuns were very nasty. They’d say, “Your father is a drunkard” in front of everyone. It would degrade me. You know everyone knows your business.’ These harrowing accounts of humiliation remind me of an anecdote recited by Sue Conlan, the CEO of the Irish Refugee Council, at a recent talk on Direct Provision co-hosted by Trinity FLAC. She told of how a refugee housed in a Direct Provision centre in Dublin was informed that he would be moved the following week to a centre in Sligo, a place he had never even heard of. When he attempted to speak to an official from the Department of Justice about his anxiety and concerns about the move, he was taunted with jeers of ‘Sligo, Sligo, Sligo.’ Ultimately, the Gardaí had to be called when the man became irate, and Ms Conlan poignantly remembered the refugee saying that the guard was the ‘most humane’ of all involved in the incident. This incident shows how little respect some of those in authority have for the people housed in direct provision centres, and is one of the many accounts of bullying and taunting. Ms Conlan also spoke of how the Gardaí are often unnecessarily involved in disputes, and may be used an intimidation tactic. When examining the psychological abuse that both refugees and the victims of the Laundries underwent and continue to undergo, we see why so many argue that they are awarded nothing better than the status of second class citizen. It appears that many treat people with disrespect simply because they are asylum seekers or ‘foreigners’ in the same way that so many looked down on unmarried mothers and ‘harlots’ during the last century. Most now see that the latter case is both morally wrong and illogical, but it is disquieting to see how many continue to see asylum seekers as unworthy of equal treatment.

In short, whilst I concede that the Magdalene Laundries were crueller and more shielded, we should be appalled by the similarities between it and the horrific system of Direct Provision in force in 21st Century Ireland. Many claimed total ignorance of the extent of the Laundries when the truth came out in the early 1990s, but the people of Ireland cannot claim that this time. It is time we put an end to Direct Provision before it becomes another dark period in Irish history.

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