Direct Provision to be Ended: But What about the Right to Work?
Lydia Howard Chevalier
15th June 2020
In 2018, Ireland opted into the EU Reception Conditions Directive, which, in theory, gives those seeking international protection the right to work. However, the state has imposed several bureaucratic obstacles for anyone hoping to work under this scheme. Only those who have been in the system for 9 months and who are awaiting a first decision (not an appeal) on their status can apply; even if they are successful, work permits are only valid for 6 months at a time. These pre-conditions make it extremely difficult for asylum seekers to access the labour market, improve their language skills and integrate into Irish society. Despite current government formation talks discussing the abolition of direct provision, remaining restrictions on the right to work suggest that we’re in for another battle.
The state’s attitude towards the right of migrants to work in Ireland has been somewhat challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic. Migrant healthcare workers in Direct Provision centres were called on to volunteer their services (mostly as healthcare assistants in nursing homes) to free up essential frontline workers to deal with the surge in cases. Many migrants have viewed this as a positive opportunity for them to finally contribute to the communities in which they live, and 160 of them were deployed. However, many more have been outspoken about the challenges they face working during a pandemic.
“Despite current government formation talks discussing the abolition of direct provision, remaining restrictions on the right to work suggest that we’re in for another battle.“
Bulelani Mfaco, a resident in a Co. Clare centre, outlined his concerns in a recent interview with RTÉ: the most frustrating aspect of working is the inability to observe social distancing rules when he returns to his direct provision centre after a shift. He is forced to share a room, communal toilets and showers with at least 18 others. Over 200 people gather in the canteen to receive their daily meals and petty bureaucratic processes impede residents from taking measures to protect themselves, such as taking their meals to their rooms. This is a serious oversight in health and safety and the protective measures for asylum seekers outlined by the Department of Justice are wholly inadequate. Surely there must be a better way to care for these selfless workers who are risking their lives trying to save others. If we reformed, or even abolished direct provision, there would be no need for special isolation units – better living conditions and the right to privacy and space could mitigate any serious outbreak. Direct provision centres risk being overlooked in a similar way to Ireland’s care homes, and this is simply unacceptable.
Fear is a significant feature of any pandemic. Managers of care homes where migrants work are fearful of them bringing the virus from the direct provision centre to the home; there is also fear of the reverse happening. The measures put in place to minimise this are having a detrimental effect on individuals in centres who are already vulnerable. Children cannot attend school and are forced to stay in their cramped bedrooms, and residents’ social contact with the outside world is diminishing. Migrant workers face the uncertainty of being relocated; in recent weeks 600 people have been relocated to facilitate social distancing, with some being told to relocate to centres far away from their workplace.
An important point raised by Consultant Microbiologist Dr Martin Cormican during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa outlines our need to focus on what really matters during times of crisis: ‘Fear is contagious, poverty is deadly, Ebola is a virus’. We must not neglect meeting the basic needs of all – by depriving migrants of the basic right to a decent quality of life, we are creating a problem far more serious than the risk any virus could pose. Our fear of COVID-19 is justified; however, we shouldn’t neglect our responsibility to address the well-being of our entire population. Inequality and poverty have far-reaching consequences, especially during a health crisis; evidence suggests that African-American minorities in the US have suffered disproportionately throughout the pandemic – the impact of being an underprivileged minority rearing its ugly head. The recent Black Lives Matter protests have highlighted the ever-present discrimination in our societies and addressing this inequality must be a key factor in any effective pandemic response.
” An important point raised by Consultant Microbiologist Dr Martin Cormican during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa outlines our need to focus on what really matters during times of crisis: ‘Fear is contagious, poverty is deadly, Ebola is a virus’”
We must also exercise caution about how we view ‘the other’ in times of crisis. Members of the LGBTQ+ community have recently been made scapegoats after an outbreak was linked to a gay nightclub district in South Korea. Care must be taken not to allow the same to happen to our frontline migrant workers in Ireland; we have already witnessed the devastation caused by scapegoating during the HIV/AIDS epidemic – lessons must be learned.
The current pandemic has served as a stark reminder of how deeply connected we all are and provides us with an opportunity to reassess how we treat the most vulnerable in our societies. Migrant healthcare workers can now use their volunteer service as a platform to highlight the poor conditions they have been subjected to. Now is our chance to truly appreciate the value of welcoming migrants into our communities and our workforce by instituting major reform to our reception system. Our government felt it appropriate to call on the services of those in Direct Provision and the Minister has significant discretion in asylum cases. An appropriate show of gratitude could involve providing our migrant community with a sense of security about their place in Irish society, following in the footsteps of Spain and fast-tracking applications for asylum. It is vital that we recognize the value of inclusivity and asylum seekers’ right to security, decent work, good health and well-being, and equality.
Featured photo by Free To Use Sounds