Ireland’s Direct Provision system has been widely condemned by human rights organisations, but a network of private companies continue to make millions from the detention of asylum seekers. Gerard Stewart takes a look at the murky world of profiteering that lies behind Direct Provision.
The recent revelation of the death and secret burial of Direct Provision detainee Sylva Tukula—a transgender South African woman who had come to Ireland for asylum—in an unmarked grave by the Irish State, with no ceremony and without notification given to her loved ones, has reignited discussion about the treatment of migrants in this country.1 It has, in particular, shone a spotlight on the Direct Provision system itself; the network of detention centres that house migrants awaiting asylum, in a lucrative and profit-driven system, run by a string of private firms with financial backing from the Irish state.
Direct Provision has been widely condemned by human rights and anti-racist organisations. Sylva Tukula was just one of its many detainees—an LGBTQ and asylum activist, and contributor to research reports undertaken by the National LGBT Federation (NXF), she was housed in a single room, at the all-male Great Western House Direct Provision centre in Galway. In spite of her gender, Sylva was placed in this all-male centre, and her friend reports that administrators “spoke of her in masculine terms.” It was here that Sylva tragically passed away, her body held for nine months while An Garda Síochána attempted to make contact with her family in South Africa. Sylva’s friends and colleagues in Amach LGBT+ Galway were assured by both national and local State representatives that they would be notified as soon as her burial arrangements were made. When no next of kin could be identified, the Galway City Coroner was instructed to sign off on her burial. Sylva’s funeral took place at HSE-owned plot at Bohermore Cemetery in May 2019, without mourners present. None of her friends were notified.
The Department of Justice and Equality has apologised for this incident, putting it down to a case of miscommunication. But for many, the treatment of Sylva was emblematic of a wider lack of care for migrants and asylum seekers, reinforcing calls for an end to Direct Provision. The origins of this system are worth recalling; in the year 2000, asylum seekers who had come to Ireland were formally removed from Ireland’s welfare system and institutionalised under a new system known as Direct Provision. The architects of the scheme at the Department of Justice believed that placing accommodation in Dublin would attract more people, thus the Irish State sought to sprawl these centres outside the capital, to inland areas often in isolated locations. The resulting system is inhumane and not fit for purpose. Those held Direct Provision are compelled to live in often substandard communal accommodation, receive three strictly-timed meals a day, are afforded a small monetary weekly allowance of €38.80 for adults (€29.80 for children), and undergo restrictive access to employment pending the outcome of their asylum application.2 As noted by anti-racism campaigner Memet Uludag, “all international and national research available is consistent in showing that [Direct Provision] violates asylum seekers’ basic rights to housing, family life, food, health, work, and education and is also economic madness.” 3
Initially earmarked to accommodate people for no more than six months, Direct Provision Centres continue to hold people for upwards of 15 years and countless children have known nothing of life without the strictures of these institutions. In a system that has shades of state institutionalisation in Ireland’s past—Catholic industrial schools, Magdalene laundries and mother and baby homes—as of March 2019, there are over 6,300 people living in Direct Provision centres across the South of Ireland,4 all of which are “wholly unsuitable” for children according to the Ombudsman Office.5
The Profits Behind Direct Provision
Of the 38 centres operating, only 7 are state-owned and 3 were purpose-built. The overwhelming majority of Direct Provision centres, then, are contracted out to a class of property owners, who in turn profit from the housing of asylum seekers. Over the course of the last 20 years, these burgeoning businesses have collectively pocketed €1 billion of public money to convert their property sites into detention centres, with some making €100 million each from housing asylum seekers. Across the 26 counties, a patchwork of holiday parks, hostels, hotels, convents, bed and breakfasts and mobile homes hide in plain sight, having been readapted into Direct Provision centres. Much of this profitable asylum industry is built on offshore corporate structures, which means that significant amounts of public money being turned into profit by the industry is held behind a veil of secrecy.
As noted by Justin Akers Chacón in his recent Rebel piece on the USA’s concentration camps,“the criminalisation of non-citizens has become a strategy that has benefited the capitalist system [with asylum detention centres emerging to become one of many refugee-related] profitable growth industries”, and this is also certainly the case in Ireland today too.
The biggest earner in this system of profiteering is Mosney Direct Provision Centre in county Meath. Initially owned by millionaires Phelim and Elizabeth McCloskey, the McCloskeys—notable financial donors to Fianna Fáil—bought the centre in 1982 from Butlins, and in 2002 off-loaded the purpose-built 1940s-era holiday camp to the Irish State to house migrants. Since 2011, Mosney has been owned by an offshore firm Sonning Unlimited, which is registered in the Isle of Man, meaning that details of its profits from Direct Provision do not have to be published. Although the centre at Mosney has a corporate structure which means that its earnings from state contracts do not have to be disclosed, investigative research has found that since 2002 the centre has raked in €136 million since readapting the site into a Direct Provision centre, making more than it was towards the end of its life as a holiday camp.6 In 2017, the Mosney centre was found to be providing spoiled food to detainees,7 years after an investigative report undertaken by the Irish Immigration Support Centre raised the alarm that food in Direct Provision centres is frequently “inedible, of poor quality, monotonous, bland and culturally inappropriate.”8 It should also be noted that the 2017 McMahon Report—which revealed the prison-like conditions asylum seekers live in—claimed that the Mosney centre is the model on which all Direct Provision centres aspire to emulate. 9
Along with Mosney, Cork-based businessman Alan Hyde’s Barlow Group received fees of €7.5 million for accommodating asylum seekers in Cork and Waterford in 2018, bringing a total payment from the Irish State to €100 million since they began running direct provision centres across seven properties—An Poc Fada, Ashbourne House, Clonakilty Lodge, Glen Vera, Mount Trenchard, Sarsfield Bridge Hotel, and the Ursuline Complex—most of which are former hotels.10 Unlike some of the other companies involved in Direct Provision, accounts for Hyde’s companies are accessible, revealing profits of over €2.5 million in 2017. Hyde’s Mount Trenchard Centre—in which almost half of the detainees are torture victims, according to Spirasi (a support group for victims of torture in the past)—has been the site of protests, hunger strikes, and a detainee uprising over conditions at the centre, which the Irish Refugee Council described as “one of the worst in the system.”11 Reports revealed risks of infection from poor sanitary supplies, detainees kept for more than a decade, and observers witnessing initially healthy detainees gradually developing hallucinations associated with mental ill health. One detainee described the centre as nothing more than “a jungle and a jail.” In late 2014, The Irish Times was given video footage of conditions in the centre which unearthed cramped sleeping conditions and beds only separated by curtains, eerily reminiscent to the photographed conditions within the old Magdalene Laundries. Indeed, reports of petty cruelties and kafkaesque injustices facing asylum seekers in Direct Provision,12 and the similar situation faced by Irish citizens within the Catholic industrial schools, Magdalene laundries, and mother and baby homes has not gone without comparison.13
Similarly, Millstreet Equestrian Services, which provides accommodation for more than 500 asylum seekers in Cork and Waterford and has received a total of €82.5 million in fees from the state, has been beset with institutional maltreatment scandals. Millstreet Equestrian Services is operated by Noel Cornelius Duggan, the man who brought the Eurovision to North Cork, and his son Thomas Duggan. Together, father and son house asylum seekers at the Viking House, Bridgewater House, and Drishane Castle centres. Both the Drishane centre and Viking House were battlegrounds between detainees and management, with detainees reportedly denied the right to culturally appropriate ‘ethnic food’, claims that children were banned from playing, and reports of rat and cockroach infestations.14 Much like Mosney, Millstreet Equestrian Services is unlimited and owned by Isle of Man-based firms Arabella Unlimited and Tolosa Ltd.
If there was any doubt about the rank hypocrisy of the Irish State’s inhuman and degrading Direct Provision system, then the example of hotelier turned detention centre owner Marcus White should swiftly put any doubts to bed. In 2005, two hotels controlled by the White family—the Hydro and Imperial in Lisdoonvarna—were fined €11,000 for profiting from their illegal employment of 14 non-nationals without work permits. White now operates the Direct Provision centre at the King Thomond Hotel in Lisdoonvarna, which houses around 115 asylum seekers, with a contract agreed with the Department of Justice in February last year.15
The scandals, unfortunately, do not end there. Nor it seems do the vast sums of money being made by an ever increasing list of private firms. Aramark, which was paid almost €6 million last year for operating three state-owned centres—where in total more than 825 asylum seekers are accommodated—saw condemnation of the quality of its services in the centres, including claims of the denial of bread and milk to a sick child detainee. Bridgestock Ltd—who run centres that house 500 asylum seekers in Ballyhaunis in Co Mayo and in Sligo town—has received €97 million in public money since 2000. The Ballaghaderreen centre in Roscommon—which houses 132 asylum seekers mostly of Syrian origin—is run by Next Week & Co, owners of the Abbeyfield Hotel, received payments of €3.16 million in 2018 alone. Fazyard, which runs the Clondalkin Towers Hotel in Dublin, last year received €5.5 million for housing about 500 asylum seekers, bringing its total to €33 million over 12 years. And the list goes on.
One of the most chilling but not unexpected aspects of life under direct provision, is the oft-reported fear that any attempt to assert one’s human rights in these detention centres will be met with retribution from the Department of Justice. Threats of so-called troublemakers being transferred to centres in less desirable locations or, worse, that acts of protest will negatively impact asylum claims, intimidate those who might otherwise speak out about the deplorable conditions they experience day and daily. This fear of retribution, compounded by the isolation of those in Direct Provision, and their separation from each other never mind the rest of the population, has allowed this seemingly anarchic system to continue, as a small number of individuals make millions from it. Breaking this isolation, by exposing the reality of Direct Provision, platforming those who are detained by it, and by building solidarity is an absolute must. Ultimately, however, this must congeal into a growing call for a total end to Direct Provision itself, and the removal of the profit motive from the asylum process.
The great and the good of the Irish political establishment would have us believe that this country has changed. Gone are the days of the Magdalene laundries, they say. But the experience of Direct Provision suggests that we have only come so far. Little comfort to those suffering at its hands at the moment, no doubt, but history will not be kind to those who have allowed this system to fester. How many decades will we have to wait before the Irish government apologises for this system too? We must hasten the day when it is abolished.