A country seen through the lens of Direct Provision

Evgeny Shtorn has first-hand experience of the cruel and inhumane system, looks at its past and imagines the longterm impact it will have not only on those forced to go through it but on Ireland itself.

A bleak photo of a row of caravan dwellings at a direct provision centre
Image: Vukašin Nedeljković for Asylum Archive

To paraphrase Leon Tolstoy – besides being immoral, Direct Provision is also irrational and ineffectual. I am starting this text with these words, but I would also like to unequivocally stress here that Ireland will have very limited chances for proper modernisation and improvement without a revolutionary abolition of the Direct Provision system.

When it comes to discussions of Direct Provision, we very often hear people mentioning the Magdalene laundries, Industrial Schools and Mother and Baby Homes. These were terrible practices of punishing the most vulnerable, of developing a business of ‘care’, redistributing public goods to benefit those in power and developing a system of nepotism and corruption.

Another parallel with the past is the fact that the young Irish state denied Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi regime in Germany. In fairness, most countries did too, but the right to flee countries of origin in order to safe lives and freedoms was designed precisely by the generation who saw that terrible war and the most inhumane regimes in history such as Nazi Germany, Stalinist Soviet Union and Fascist Italy. That mechanism meant that after being horrified by what human beings can do, humanity decided to protect itself from itself.

I’m referring to Article 14 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and, more specifically, to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugee. The idea of the Convention signed in 1951 in Geneva was to protect the most vulnerable people: those who were forced to leave everything they had without any possibility to remain in their country of origin. 

A refugee is defined in the Article 1 of Convention as a “person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country”.

That past is still very present as we witness the rise of new inhumane regimes across the globe. That past is what dictates us to develop asylum processes and to make them as transparent and easy as possible. Unfortunately, some people, especially those in power, have a sort of blindness towards the past. For them, the past is usually something glorious that only breeds pride for national achievements. 

Perhaps, this is why the Direct Provision system resonates so much with the past of Ireland. In the last 20 years, the system has been kept very much hidden from the public, but that does not mean that the effects of it also remain invisible. A re-enactment of traumatic experience, of exclusion, poverty, dependency on social welfare from people who have remained in the system for years – all this is having and will continue to have a profound cross-generational effect on those who will be born in Ireland.

Let me just give you an example of how a traumatic past influences the present – I have a friend who was born in a very developed country as a full citizen and the son of full citizens of that very developed country. Nonetheless, he was always very nervous when he had to travel somewhere, especially across the border because his grandparents were refugees. Decades after settling down, travelling for them was a sort of re-enactment of that trauma of leaving their home forever. Somehow they passed their pain from one generation to another. Somehow that pain stuck to their entire family.

Direct Provision transforms Ireland into a place of a traumatic experience for those who came here seeking sanctuary and protection but received years of indecision, it is a constant headache that never ends. But Direct Provision is not exclusively about those who ended up living in it. From my point of view, it is primarily about public resources and, at the end of the day, a concept of power – politicians facilitate the abuse of the most vulnerable people when they distribute public money to benefit private companies rather than think about how to protect human rights. Protecting people from life-threatening circumstances is not a business and it should not be about money. The money invested in the asylum process is mostly spent on benefits of state servants and commercial structures who are supposed to provide help and support but mostly care about the financial part of the deal. People seeking asylum spend years in the asylum process living in Direct Provision, and for all those years, taxpayers’ money is used to support private catering companies who are supply shelter and food for residents. State servants also benefit as new jobs are created. This entire process is, therefore, a double abuse. It is an abuse of public means used to benefit private companies and abuse of people’s time as they wait for years for a simple procedure such as an interview.

This is why the present of Ireland is deeply condemned by the system of Direct Provision. Think about it: a huge state apparatus works to make sure people do not have their own home and remain in temporary accommodation for years to come. The temporary becomes our present. If we bring it to the most generalised debate, Direct Provision contributes to the present as the perpetuation of homelessness.

People in DP are essentially homeless: the entire system tells you that you cannot have a home of your own, you are here only for a little while – a little while that lasts for years. The government cannot be proud of the system where it keeps people homeless for years to protect them. If it could create a system that benefits the vulnerable and observes human rights instead of just transferring public money to private catering companies, then it could find grounds for pride.

The future though depends on the hidden past as much as it depends on the present. Direct Provision has been hidden for a long time and now it is becoming one of the main social issues. There are a lot of controversies about it. People with deeply racist views campaign against it, but so also do those who oppose inequality and oppression. A lot of scholars, journalists, artists and other professionals are trying to come onboard and problematise the injustices that are done on our names. However, the stronger those who support people in need of international protection will be, the stronger will be those who are opposing them. Conflicting pasts and presents bring about conflicting futures.

The system is essentially a battle for the future of an Ireland that could either be an island of mutual support, equality and inclusion, or a fortress for those who want to live better than others. I’m very sorry for spoiling it, but it won’t work for the latter ones either.

The problems of LGBT+ residents of Direct Provision are the same problems that any other person in this institutionalised form of living has, plus all the problems that any LGBT+ person in Ireland has. Add to these, the problems that any person of colour has, any woman has, any disabled person has, and etc, etc, etc. But why do all these intersections matter? Why have we constructed the reality where all aspects of one’s identity become an issue, a difficulty, a struggle? 

There are a lot of cases in Direct Provision centres when queer residents are bullied, ignored or exposed to other forms of oppression. As I mentioned earlier, the management of these centres are there for their business, not for human rights – they know nothing about human rights. So, in most cases, they won’t do anything unless it comes to direct violence or aggression.

Young gay men would be more likely to receive sexual offers from other residents who might experience difficulties finding sexual partners. Where is the guarantee that one of these young gay men won’t be raped, especially finding themselves in closed environments in remote areas? When it comes to trans-people, many difficulties applicable to Irish trans-people are very much applicable to the trans-people in Direct Provision, but add a possible poor mastery of English on the top of that or being a foreigner and trying to receive medical treatment in Ireland.

Speaking about language, I should stress the difficulties of LGBT+ people in need of international protection who do not speak English and need the help of translators. At times, those translators might be judgmental or even explicitly homophobic and interpret international protection applicants’ words in completely different ways even in formal processes.

Also, a lot of people are asked to prove their sexual orientation. Apart from referring to questionable practices in this respect, this is becoming a big obstacle and opens a huge field of insinuations and ambiguity. If a person does not know how to communicate intimate knowledge in words, they rely on translators. Many cultures do not have the same sexual vocabulary as identity-based English sexual language. 

There is no such thing as asylum seekers. There are people seeking asylum, LGBT+ people seeking asylum, people with disabilities seeking asylum, people of colour seeking asylum, and they have to be treated as people. Being in this country they have to be entitled to all the social benefits, because once the state has a right to create people of a second category, where is a guarantee that it will not create one from you? We are all people without hierarchical categories attached to us.

The past is always here, it remains invisible and intangible as oxygen. We breathe it and without it, we wouldn’t be able to exist. So, we need to care about it being conscious of the good and bad examples, being critical to the mistakes that our society committed and being open to learning lessons from the past. Once we shut down the system of Direct Provision for good, we will get a chance to learn to never create such a thing again.

The LGBT+ movement in Ireland has been an example of honesty, bravery and successful collective efforts for positive change. This community is well needed in the struggle against the DP: not exclusively for LGBT+ people in need of international protection but for everyone who is living here. Now it’s time to stand up for the rights of every person on earth to seek to be free and alive, to live in dignity and respect and enjoy her or his or their human rights!

Direct Provision transforms Ireland into a place of traumatic experiences for those who came here seeking sanctuary. Queer residents are bullied, ignored or exposed to other forms of oppression.

This piece first ran in our February 2020 issue themed Past, Present. Future. You can read it online here.

© 2020 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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