Photo by Caroline Brady

In response to the humanitarian disaster of people fleeing Syria and elsewhere, the Irish government has been shamed into pledging to take in 4,000 such refugees. At a protest rally I attended in Dublin last Saturday, many felt that this response was insufficient – rally organiser Memet Uuludag described it as “nowhere near enough”.

Concerns have also been raised about whether the new arrivals will end up in direct provision – the widely criticised system whereby asylum applicants (approximately 4,500 of them) are housed, often for years, in institutional settings that are grossly inappropriate for families, and children in particular, and afforded a paltry €19.10 per week allowance. Last year saw a wave of protests by residents against these conditions, and the government may now be considering some limited reforms.

Asylum seeker Siphathisiwe Moyo, who has endured the system for seven years, says “it’s like being slowly poisoned – I wouldn’t wish the life of direct provision on my worst enemy”. In a report on direct provision written for the NGO Action from Ireland (of which I am a board member), Sakhile Heron uses words like “nightmare” and “apartheid”.

The government claims the “new” refugees will not go into direct provision, but others are sceptical. (And the people currently in direct provision are understandably resentful at any suggestion that they would be treated less favourably than new arrivals).

Sue Conlon of the Irish Refugee Council has said she wants “to debunk the myth that these [new] people will not go into direct provision”, pointing to the proposed usage of old army barracks to accommodate them: “if former military barracks are not a form of institution equivalent to direct provision then I don’t know what they are”.

She also criticises the fact that such centres will be run by the people who currently run direct-provision centres, rather than by people with the specialist support skills refugees require.

So who are the people who run direct-provision centres?

Writing in the Irish Times in December of last year, Carl O’Brien tried to get to the bottom of this. He found that 17 companies are paid some €50 million a year by the state to run 34 centres. For the companies that published their accounts, accumulated profits amounted to €25 million.

For example, Fazyard Limited runs two direct-provision centres in Dublin – one in Clondalkin and one in the North Inner City – as well as a third in Laois. It made a profit of almost €800,000 in 2013 and recorded accumulated profits of €10.8 million in total.

But profits in the sector are understated because some firms go to great pains to conceal their affairs, including establishing offshoots in locations such as the British Virgin Islands. Other firms do not publish profit figures at all.

The largest recipient of state funding is Mosney Holdings, which runs the direct provision centre at the former Butlin’s holiday camp in County Meath. It has not published accounts since 2009, when its profits stood at €5.4 million (and during which year it made a donation of €4,050 to Fianna Fail). It is now an unlimited company (and thus does not have to publish its accounts), and is officially owned by a corporation in the Isle of Man.

An NGO that did not publish its accounts would not long remain a recipient of state support, so why are private companies allowed to get away with it?

More fundamentally, why are we subcontracting the care and protection of vulnerable people to private companies in the first place?

Jennifer DeWan of the Irish Immigrant Support Centre notes that “in any situation that involves the care of people, mixing that care with profit often ends up with profit coming first”. Edel McGinley of the Migrant Rights Centre echoes the sentiment: “The for-profit system we have for housing migrants is not working and is not acceptable”.

But the government sticks to the system for the same basic reason that it will not decisively step in and solve the more general crises of housing and homelessness that are afflicting Dublin in particular: because a wasteful system that channels profits to a few is preferred to an efficient system that would uphold the rights of many.

Andy Storey is a lecturer in political economy at University College Dublin and a board member of human rights group Action from Ireland (Afri).

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