By Shane Finnan
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought to the surface existing inequalities and oppression within our society, and has indeed exacerbated them. An important case in point is the open-air prison system that is Direct Provision.
Direct Provision (DP) is a system that was designed not to meet the needs of asylum seekers but to facilitate easier deportations. It cannot be reformed into a better model when its primary purpose is to assist institutional state racism and profit for groups of select private businesses. In March 2019, it was reported that various catering and accommodation companies involved with DP received €72 million in fees over the course of that year, an increase of 18%.
There are 5,686 people, including 1,739 children, living in 39 direct-provision centres around the country. The state has paved the way for a potentially horrific situation with the real risk of the virus spreading throughout DP centres. Most asylum seekers in DP simply do not have the option to practice social distancing when they are forced to share a bedroom with six, eight or sometimes even more residents.
The current crisis in DP is a reflection of the inherent racism and callousness of the Irish capitalist state. This can also be seen in its disgusting treatment of the Traveller community, who often live in overcrowded halting sites due to the unwillingness of county and city councils to build culturally appropriate accommodation, despite them having the resources to do so. Consequently, Travellers are also particularly vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic.
If the state had an approach of guaranteeing the right to work and housing to asylum seekers — extremely vulnerable people fleeing violence and persecution — then this crisis wouldn’t exist. So far, its response has been utterly deficient, finding alternative accommodation for just 650 residents. Hotels that are now sitting idle should be taken over to provide a social distancing space for people trapped in DP centres. Of course this is a temporary measure rather than a lasting solution.
It is completely unacceptable to allow overcrowding in DP centres. Overcrowding is inhumane from the point of view of risking the health of asylum seekers. It is also deeply troublesome in the sense that if the virus spreads violently in DP that could then result in the overwhelming of the health service. If that were to happen, the blame would lie solely with the state as a direct consequence of years of state policy perpetuating this system.
Homes and jobs for all – not racism
For years successive governments have refused to build public housing. A pandemic isn’t an ideal time to begin doing so in the context of social distancing being practiced. However, measures need to be taken as soon as this pandemic ebbs to immediately begin a major programme of building social and affordable homes on state owned land. Everyone living in Ireland should have the right to safety and a home and there should be no competition between Irish and migrant working-class people for this to happen.
Asylum seekers should be immediately given the right to work. If they are unable to find work at this time, which is completely understandable in the context of the lockdown, they should then be able to access the emergency Covid-19 welfare payment. There must be no austerity to pay for the economic fallout of the Covid-19 crisis. Rather, the enormous wealth in the hands of the super-rich and big business, including the 17 billionaires with over €40 billion in wealth, must be seized and utilised to provide well-paid and decent, quality jobs for all, regardless of their nationality.
Though it’s been largely ignored by the mainstream media, the danger posed to asylum seekers and the population as a whole by the policy of DP in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic must be highlighted. For more than two decades asylum seekers have suffered rank state racism in the brutal confines of DP. Enough is enough — the system must go! Likewise we need to break with this capitalist system which breeds inequality and division. We need a humane, democratic and socialist society where its vast wealth can meet all our needs and the challenges that pandemics like COVID-19 pose.