COVID-19 has shown that profits are more important than the lives of asylum seekers

A photo of the self-isolation methods that asylum seekers are expected to take in direct provision centres.

When COVID-19 hit Ireland the government seemed to falter in its response. It acted slowly and not tenaciously enough when it finally decided to act. In spite of this, the actions taken seem to be working for the wider population. Admissions to intensive care units are on a downward trend as well as the number of new cases. This is all due to the introduction of social distancing and a near complete lockdown of the country.

But asylum seekers have been left behind. In what appears to be an out of sight and out of mind policy the government has left them in direct provision centres that are overcrowded and unhygienic.

And now, asylum seekers are paying the price for this governmental lack of concern. 

“Restrictive measures”

As reported in Hot Press by Shamim Malekmian, the COVID-19 virus has emerged in a number of direct provision centres. The response by the government and the operators of the centres has bordered on the criminal. 

When it was discovered that a number of people in the Skellig Star direct provision centre in Cahersiveen, Co. Kerry tested positive for COVID-19, the department of health said it was introducing “restrictive measures” to control the outbreak. This consisted of confining asylum seekers to their rooms. And if that wasn’t prison-like enough, the entrance to the centre was locked with a chain. 

Although the chain has in the meantime been removed, that the government’s first response was to lock up instead of help the asylum seekers is telling.

Protests by the residents and locals have been ongoing. Their demands are simple: Close the centre and relocate the asylum seekers to somewhere more appropriate and safe where social distancing can actually be done.

Blaming asylum seekers

The government was not unaware of the risks facing asylum seekers. In fact, the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI) has consistently stated that it is impossible to contain the spread of the virus in direct provision centres. And it has pointed to the “discriminatory response” of the government. 

In a statement published in late March, MASI argued:

Asylum seekers are deliberately placed in a situation where such social distancing is impossible to observe.

In a second statement MASI published in April, it accused the government of “putting a spin” on its handling of the pandemic. Regardless of all of the measures introduced by the government, it is simply “impossible to observe social distancing” in direct provision.

MASI has suggested that the government should ensure that no asylum seeker is forced to share a bedroom, thus reducing the chances of catching or spreading the virus. This would clearly be a step in right direction although far short of the rightful dismantling of the entire direct provision system. But the government hasn’t even taken this small step.

In fact, the department of health sent a letter to the residents of the Skellig Star direct provision centre and advised the asylum seekers to self-isolate. It suggested this knowing that it is an impossible ask. Instead of doing something to change this horrendous state of affairs, the department has taken to criticising the asylum seekers themselves. 

Because of the presence of the virus in the Skellig Star, the department has argued that this is “clear evidence that some residents are not following the Public Health recommendations”. And as a result, the movements of the asylum seekers need to be restricted for “a further 14 days from the date of the last confirmed case”. The department says “This is most regrettable”. 

Profits over people

The tactic has been to continue on as if there isn’t something morally repugnant about locking vulnerable people up for years at a time simply because they want to come to Ireland. Nothing has been done to ameliorate the hardships endured by asylum seekers. And nothing has been done to ensure that they can stay safe while a global pandemic has now killed over 1,000 people in Ireland alone. 

Because of this, asylum seekers around the country are becoming ill. The virus is spreading with 149 people in direct provision confirmed as having contracted the virus at the time of writing. It is almost inevitable that deaths will follow. Yet the system that has been condemned by the UN endures as is.

It is policy that asylum seekers are to be allowed to suffer.  The reason is simple. For two decades Irish governments have believed it was better to enrich private companies than uphold the dignity of people. Profiting off the backs of asylum seekers is a lucrative business. And that system can’t be changed because profits are more important than people.

But eventually there will be a reckoning; sooner rather than later. When it comes maybe there will finally be justice and fairness for asylum seekers. Until then, it’s business as usual for the government And that means business comes first, even if lives have to be lost.

Featured image via MASI


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