End Institutionalised Living, by Sharon Waters

Sharon Waters is Communications and Public Affairs Officer with the Irish Refugee Council.  Previously, she worked as Constituency Organiser for the Minister for the Environment, John Gormley TD; Communications Director for the youth campaign on the Lisbon Treaty, Generation YES; and in environmental communications.

Imagine sharing one room with both of your parents, your younger brother and younger sister.  Imagine that in this room you do homework, sleep, dress, argue, play, study for exams, secretly eat, and store all of your belongings.  Imagine having to eat in a canteen every day or surreptitiously prepare food in a bathroom. Imagine queuing up for toilet paper and soap.  Imagine sharing a bathroom with 3 or 4 other families.  Imagine having to accompany your younger siblings each time they want to use the bathroom.  Imagine being taken from your foster family on your 18th birthday and sent to live in a hostel in another county.  This is life for young people in asylum seeker accommodation, known as Direct Provision.

The Irish Refugee Council and Doras Luimni recently held an exhibition of a model of a typical family bedroom for Oireachtas members.  Having heard me talk about Direct Provision for years my 50+ year old mother decided to come for a look.  Her first reaction was ‘it’s just like the tenements!’  Anyone who is a fan of James Plunkett’s wonderful novel set in Dublin in the days of the 1913 Strike and Lock Out, ‘Strumpet City’, or the plays of Seán O’Casey will understand what she means.  I pointed out to her that in the tenements of the early 1900s, people would usually have 2 rooms to a family and would have an area to cook and eat.  The tenement dwellers would also have the opportunity to look for work.  They would be surrounded by neighbours, family, church and community. They would have the option of moving to a new location.  Asylum seekers in Direct Provision centres in 2013 have none of these.

Asylum seekers are forced to live in a particular centre, or transferred with little notice.  They are forbidden from providing for themselves and their children.  They often describe living in Direct Provision as like being condemned to prison with no idea how long their sentence will be.  But don’t they have food to eat and a bed to sleep in?  Some people may say that is more than many Irish people have these days.

Labour Youth’s Deirdre, Ciarán and Declan at the End Direct Provision demonstration outside Leinster House last month

But this is not just about poverty.  Although, asylum seekers experience the symptoms of poverty: malnutrition, poor physical health, social exclusion, broken schooling, low rates of progression to further education.  The inhumanity of the Direct Provision system lies in the prolonged institutionalisation of vulnerable people and children, in circumstances where as a direct result of a Government policy they are deprived of the opportunity to provide for themselves; of the choice of where to live, when to move, when or what to eat, and even with whom their children are in contact.  Unsurprisingly, rates of physical and mental ill health are high in centres, with one study finding that asylum seekers were five times more likely to have a psychiatric condition and  three times more likely to have a diagnosis of anxiety.[1]

Following the publication of the McAleese report earlier this year, a nun from a former Magdalene laundry tried to defend their system.  She said the laundries provided an important social service: they provided a food and shelter for women who had no place else to go (Irish Times, 8 March 2013).  It was not that long ago that this was the prevailing view of the laundries in Irish politics and Irish society. It took the report of the UN Committee Against Torture, informed by the excellent work of groups like Justice for Magdalenes, for Ireland to really look into the hidden reality of life in the laundries.

Speaking at the End Institutionalised Living Day of Action, coordinated by the IRC, former Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness warned that the next State apology would be to asylum seeking children.  She described the system as ‘highly damaging to children’ and called on us as a society not to allow this system to continue.

The recent media coverage of Direct Provision, particularly the comparisons with the Magdalene Laundries, offers an opportunity to push for real change to the system. We think that now is the time to demand an end.  The IRC, working with asylum seekers, refugees and other NGOs, around the country are calling for an investigation into Direct Provision and reform of the reception system.

The End Institutionalised Living Campaign is coordinated by the Irish Refugee Council and supported by Nasc Ireland, Doras Luimni, Mayo Intercultural Action, the Tralee International Resource Centre, the asylum support group in Galway and asylum seekers and refugees around the country.  Please add your voice to the campaign by liking our facebook page and signing our online petition: at you will support and participate in a National Day of Action on DP to take place on Tuesday 23rd April.
On 23 April 2013, we will be sending a message to the Government that we, the people who live in Ireland, want an end to DP.
For more information or to organise your own event contact


Tel:01 7645854/083 3903848



Sharon Waters

Communications and Public Affairs Officer, Irish Refugee Council

[1]Nwachukwu, Browne and Tobin, ‘The Mental Health Service Requirements for Asylum Seekers and Refugees in Ireland’ Report by a Working Group of the Faculty of Adult Psychiatry Executive Committee (August 2009).

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