What does it say about us as a country that asylum seekers have to go on hunger strike to draw attention to the government’s treatment of them? It tells us everything that we don’t want to believe or know about Ireland in 2020. Innocent people are seen as expendable. They are a means to a profitable end in the privately run system of direct provision. Consecutive Irish governments have seen to that.
Over the last 20 years private companies have profited from human misery to an extent that is obscene. Roughly €1.3bn has gone to these companies who are supposed to house and feed innocent people who simply want to escape persecution and live in peace here.
As is always the case when it comes to private enterprise, profit comes first. Corners are cut and conditions are cramped. Direct provision, which was meant as a temporary measure, became a profit-making scheme for the last two decades. In such a situation, it can hardly be surprising that basic human dignity is not seen as particularly important.
This is why we the residents of the Skellig Star direct provision centre in Cahersiveen, Co. Kerry, have gone on hunger strike. What they’ve been forced to endure has been a consistent lack of concern for their well-being that should shame any government.
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, 20 of the residents of the centre tested positive for the virus.
What was the response of the government? It introduced “restrictive measures”. The asylum seekers were to be confined to their rooms and the gate to the hotel where they are housed was locked with a chain. Social distancing is obviously impossible in cramped conditions like a direct provision centre. Apparently this did not worry the Department of Health. These measures have since been lifted and those infected with the virus moved to isolation facilities.
It has since been learned that in the midst of the pandemic disinfection protocols were not followed. There was “no procedure” when it came to cleaning the rooms of those who were infected with COVID-19. Rooms had to be “re-cleaned and disinfected using correct products”. And dirty laundry was not appropriately stored.
But the indignities have not stopped for those still in the Skellig Star. Rationing of water due to a problem with the tap water appears to have been the final humiliation the residents were prepared to take. And now 32 of them are on hunger strike.
Pointing to the “inhumane condition” they’ve been forced to live in, they describe their current living situation as like an “open prison”. The result is as you would expect. The residents explain that they “have suffered physically, socially, mentally and emotionally” because of their treatment. People can only take so much.
But in spite of everything, their demands are simple:
We have been traumatized and for us to recover from this we need to be all moved out of this accommodation immediately… to appropriate accommodation centres.
But even these simple demands are too much for the government. So far its response has been anaemic. A letter sent by the Department of Justice to the hunger strikers is emblematic of this paucity of action or concern. The letter states that the justice minister, Helen McEntee, and her department “are listening to your concerns”. And that “we are acting to address the issues you have raised”. Fine words which the last 20 years have shown to be meaningless.
How many times does the government have to be told that the direct provision is system is inadequate and, frankly, barbarian?
In 2019 asylum seekers themselves told an Oireachtas committee of the brutality of the for-profit carceral system they are forced to live in. Hearing stories of suicidal children wasn’t enough to force the then government’s hand.
The UN has also warned the state of its “continuous failure” to adhere to its responsibilities regarding asylum seekers. Pointing to the fact that direct provision is run “on a for-profit basis without proper regulation or accountability mechanisms”, it urged Ireland to “phase out” it out. Although the new government has committed to this, the details are sparse. And many are rightly sceptical.
As the system carries on as normal, asylum seekers will continue to suffer and financial profit will be made from them. This is beyond contemptible. It represents a stain on the Irish soul of the same kind as the one caused by the Industrial Schools and Mother and Baby Homes. Will we eventually face a reckoning similar to the one caused by these two state-sanctioned gulags for women and children? Hopefully.
With the hunger strike entering its third day there is no end in sight. Locals have rallied around the asylum seekers and solidarity protests are due to be held around the country. But the simple fact is that until the hunger strikers are finally treated with dignity and direct provision is abolished, there will be no accountability or justice. And if there’s one thing the Irish state is good at, it’s avoiding both.
Featured image via Twitter – MASI