Special Report: How accommodating asylum seekers turned into a billion-euro industry

The lucrative business of direct provision has been mired in controversy and criticised by human rights groups, Political Correspondents Aoife Moore and Paul Hosford investigate
Special Report: How accommodating asylum seekers turned into a billion-euro industry
Two of the resident from the Skellig Star Direct Provision Centre in Cahersiveen on Saturday after the announcement that there were further cases of Covid-19 in the Centre holding a sign outside the building. Picture: Alan Landers.

By Aoife Moore and Paul Hosford

The lucrative business of direct provision has been mired in controversy and criticised by human rights groups, writes Political Correspondent Aoife Moore

The housing and accommodation of asylum seekers in Ireland has become a billion-euro industry.

Government records, available up until 2017, show that, since the first contracts were signed in 2000, the total bill for the 17 years amounts to €1.1bn, with one family business receiving almost €140m from the State.

Ireland’s direct provision system is mired in controversy, criticised by human rights organisations, politicians of all persuasions, and has been labelled the “next mother and baby home scandal”.

A litany of complaints about health, hygiene, and civil and human rights abuses has cast the system in a dim light, with critics making a comparison with the privatised prison system in America.

Since 2000, Ireland has been paying private companies to house asylum seekers, the vast majority in older hotels, B&Bs, and holiday camps around the country which may not be considered suitable for commercial hospitality purposes, stoking criticism that the system encourages the owners of these businesses to turn to the direct provision system rather than improve the properties for other uses.

The largest earner in terms of government-contracted accommodation is Mosney Holiday PLC, which, as of 2017, received €139,577,808. Director Phelim McCloskey and his wife Elizabeth are owners of the former Butlin’s holiday camp, the 300-acre Mosney Direct Provision centre in Co Meath, which houses 600 asylum seekers.

The couple donated €6,500 to Fianna Fáil in 2008.

A close second, on €130,082,506, is East Coast Catering, running direct provision centres in Dublin and Dundalk and owned by Canada-based Irishman Patrick O’Callaghan.

A resident of the Skellig Star Direct Provision Centre in Cahersiveen on Saturday after the announcement that there were further cases of Covid-19 in the Centre takes a picture of the front window of the hotel. Picture: Alan Landers.
A resident of the Skellig Star Direct Provision Centre in Cahersiveen on Saturday after the announcement that there were further cases of Covid-19 in the Centre takes a picture of the front window of the hotel. Picture: Alan Landers.

The State has also paid Bridgestock Ltd €109,457,663 since 2002.

It has housed more than 500 asylum seekers in Ballyhaunis in Co Mayo and in Sligo, and is directed by Seamus and Michael Gillen.

Galway businessman Eoghan McGinty is no longer a director, after resigning in 2017. In 2011, shares were transferred to an offshore company registered in the British Virgin Islands.

Millstreet Equestrian Services, with an address in Tipperary, provides accommodation under the direct-provision system, in Cork, Tipperary, and Waterford, with directors listed as Noel C Duggan and Thomas A Duggan. They were paid €77,244,129 from 2000 to 2017.

Fazyard Ltd, which ranks fifth in highest-contracted values, was paid €40,125,372. It is owned by Wicklow man Sean Lyons and his son, Sean Lyons Jr, who run Dublin direct provision centre Clondalkin Towers, and Emo, in Co Laois.

The group recently withdrew a tender for a centre in Oughterard, Co Galway, which sparked media attention after local residents, bolstered by outside groups, protested against the centre.

The protest in Oughterard
The protest in Oughterard

Mr Lyons and his son appear again in the top 30, at number 23, as their company Georgian Court Ltd received €6,478,708 from 2011 to 2015 for Georgian Court Direct Provision Centre in Dublin.

Mr Lyons Jr appears again in the list at number 27, where his company, Oscar Dawn Ltd, received €3,847,900 for a direct provision centre in Kildare.

Several companies that feature in the list are directed by Corkman Alan Hyde.

There are a number of top 30 companies involved in the running of around seven centres, including Barlow Properties, Bideau, D and A Ltd, and Stompool Investments. Some of the companies have since been dissolved.

Mr Hyde is not the sole owner of any of these companies, but the only individual involved in all of them, and a director of each company.

The cumulative value of the State contracts paid to the companies Mr Hyde is involved with is €57,135,118.

The DP centre in Lissywollen, Athlone
The DP centre in Lissywollen, Athlone

The Flannery family, of Maplestar Ltd, which also operates Flannery’s Hotel in Galway and the Ashling Hotel near Heuston Station in Dublin, has been operating the Eglinton Hotel in Salthill, Co Galway, for asylum seekers and refugees and has been paid €26,103,302.

Asylum seekers at a direct provision protest in Cork in 2016.
Asylum seekers at a direct provision protest in Cork in 2016.

Total expenditure on direct provision has doubled in five years.

In 2014, €53.217m was spent in total on the fully inclusive service, which includes accommodation, catering, cleaning, maintenance, and laundry services.

Since 2014, the total cost has risen steadily but it jumped from €77.993m to €129.4m between 2018 and 2019. As of March 1, 2020, there were 5,645 people being provided with accommodation in 39 centres nationwide.

Due to an unexpected increase in applications (up 40% last year compared to 2018), these centres are at full capacity and a further 1,633 people are living in 36 additional commercial accommodation premises, hotels, and guest houses.

The 2017 accounts are for accommodation contracts only, and the cost of running the facilities will vary from centre to centre, depending on capacity, among other factors.

They are tendered out to other operators, meaning the bill for the direct provision system is much higher than €1.1bn.

One major contractor for the operation of these centres is Aramark Ireland Holdings Ltd, which holds contracts for on-site catering, cleaning and facilities, energy, and property management in a number of centres.

In 2018, Aramark received €5.89m for operating centres at Knockalisheen, Co Clare, in Co Cork and Co Meath, where more than 825 asylum seekers reside.

The 2016 government tender won by Aramark for the Knockalisheen Accommodation Centre in Meelick, which has a stated 250-person capacity, included an estimated pricing schedule for the contract, for management and staffing, housekeeping, catering, security, maintenance, and travel, amounting to a cost per person, per day, of €21.67.

According to the tender, the management of this centre, per person, per day, for 365 days per year, would amount to €1.9m.

The Contracting Authority estimation, included in the tender, noted that the expenditure on the services would cost €30m (excluding vat) over the three-year term, equating to €10m per year.

Other fees including insurance would also need to be factored into the operating cost.

The Kinsale Road DP centre
The Kinsale Road DP centre

The housing crisis is another contributor to the cost of direct provision, as those granted asylum are sometimes forced to remain in the centres due to lack of appropriate or affordable accommodation.

Residents who have been granted an international protection status or permission to remain in Ireland have the same access to housing supports and services as Irish and EEA nationals.

According to a parliamentary question to minister for state David Stanton, there are approximately 1,018 residents in accommodation centres with status or permission to remain in the State, which the Government must continue to fund to live in direct provision due to lack of other housing.

While only holders of special allowances are eligible to work in Ireland when seeking asylum, residents are given an expense allowance of €38.80 a week for adults and €29.80 for children.

The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection administers the daily expenses allowance, which was provided with €13.1m for the allowance in 2020 — rising from €6.36m in 2018 to €11.2m in 2019.

The issue of direct provision ‘just felt like a small stone in the shoe of the department’

Paul Hosford, Political Correspondent

In 2014, after Joan Burton’s election as Labour Party leader, a reshuffle saw junior ministers appointed across the various departments.

One of those was Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, and the Dublin Bay North TD was given a lengthy title — minister of State at the Departments of Justice and Equality and Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht with special responsibility for Equality, New Communities and Culture.

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin
Aodhán Ó Ríordáin

While the brief was wide, Mr Ó Ríordáin became known for a couple of key commitments, chief among them a reform of the direct provision system.

In September of that year, the issue, which had not been included in the 2011 coalition programme for government, was mentioned in the Statement of Government Priorities.

It said: “We are committed to addressing the current system of direct provision for asylum seekers to make it more respectful to the applicant and less costly to the taxpayer.

“We will legislate to reduce the length of time the applicant spends in the system through the establishment of a single applications procedure, to be introduced by way of a Protection Bill.

Work on an Immigration and Residence Bill will also continue.

At the end of that month, Mr Ó Ríordáin gave a speech on the issue. He said “I want change” and announced that former High Court judge Bryan McMahon would chair a working group on direct provision and would formulate a report that would address the system’s failings.

Six years later, not much has changed. Mr Ó Ríordáin believes it is because there simply is not the will to do it in political and civil institutions.

“When I went into the Department of Justice, it was made clear to me that would be my job,” he said. “I have to say that not every official in the department was the same, but certainly I felt that it was an unsympathetic department when it comes to this issue.

Mr Ó Ríordáin with former Labour Party leader Joan Burton
Mr Ó Ríordáin with former Labour Party leader Joan Burton

“It’s a big department that deals with a lot of things — the guards and security and so on — and this just felt like a small stone in the shoe of the department. They never seemed to have the feel for it.

“They had a feeling that any moves to make direct provision more humane or anything in that direction would create what they called a ‘pull factor’ and they would use that phrase all the time.” He felt at the time that his senior coalition partner Fine Gael believed in “focus-group equality” and was never committed to the less “fashionable” equality causes. Largely, he believes that the continued outsourcing of direct provision is the root of its problems.

“You’re dealing with a system which has been outsourced, like everything else in Ireland. It’s run by private operators, totally ill-equipped to deal with the emotional and social needs of the people in centres; you’re dealing with an unsympathetic department.” Mr Ó Ríordáin recounts the day that the McMahon report was launched in 2015 as a crystalising moment for him.

“The NGOs stayed in the discussions because they could feel something was going to happen. At the end of the day, my understanding was that this was a compromise document between the Government and the NGOs, so all of it would be carried out. Every word had been pored over, so it wasn’t an aspirational document.

“So we launched it in the National Library and I remember being asked by the press our response to it and I said ‘This is going to be implemented’, but the minister [Frances Fitzgerald] said that it was ‘food for thought’. I knew then this wasn’t going to happen.”

That document did achieve a fast-tracking of applications for a number of people who had been in direct provision for over five years, something of which Mr Ó Ríordáin is immensely proud, but he says that after the 2016 election, there was no commitment to examine direct provision in the finalised programme for government, despite being in the draft document.

His time in the ministry has left him with a number of takeaways — chiefly that the length of time spent in direct provision is the most detrimental aspect of the entire process.

I went to a number of centres around the country and I met a lot of desperate people.

"I was expecting a lot of complaints about the conditions or the food — and I did get them — the main thing was the length of time that people have to spend in the system.

"No matter how good the facilities were, no matter what improvements were going to be made to their lives, the length of time was killing them. I remember meeting one man in Limerick, in particular, who was completely broken by the experience. He had been there too long.” Mr Ó Ríordáin also says that the administration of direct provision should be taken out of the Department of Justice, but that ending the system would be a complicated process.

“I don’t regret any of the time that I put into it. But I just wish it had been taken on.”

‘What we have now is the product of nearly 20 years of a system that doesn’t work’

Paul Hosford, Political Correspondent

At the turn of the 20th century, asylum applications in Ireland had risen to unmanageable levels for the existing structure.

Wars in the Balkans, unrest in Africa, and other turmoil across the globe had seen asylum applications go from just nine in 1991 to 7,724 in 1999.

Action was needed, and Fianna Fáil’s justice minister John O’Donoghue followed the public mood by implementing a more rigid system, but it was designed as a stopgap solution.

Mr O’Donoghue’s own junior minister, the Progressive Democrats’ Liz O’Donnell, called the proposals “ad hoc”.

In March the following year, Mr O’Donoghue would announce an overhaul of the immigration system, but direct provision would remain.

By April 2001, the Directorate for Asylum Support Services (Dass), under the aegis of the Department of Justice, Equality, and Law Reform, was replaced by the Reception and Integration Agency (Ria).

Designed at the time to house around 4,000 people for between three and six months, as of last week there were 7,527 people (5,384 adults and 2,143 children) living in direct provision and emergency accommodation settings around the country. That is some 1,400 above the Department of Justice’s own capacity projection from 2019.

Of those in direct provision, 43% of residents are female, and 57% male. There are 113 people who are aged 60 and over, 57 of those are aged 65 and over. Five people are aged 80 and over.

The average stay in Direct Provision is now over 14 months, though many have stayed for 10 or 12 years.

Along the way, it has become a lightning rod for arguments around Irish immigration policy, for our treatment of other nationalities and for the basic standards which the country demands.

“What we have now is the product of nearly 20 years of a system that doesn’t work,” says Nick Henderson, the CEO of Irish Refugee Council.

Nick Henderson
Nick Henderson

Over the two decades of direct provision, the system has come to headlines time and again for a number of reasons, but chiefly it makes the news when there are breaches of standards egregious enough to make people notice.

This was highlighted in the Ombudsman Peter Tyndall’s commentary on Direct Provision issued last Thursday. The commentary said that the McMahon report — the recognised benchmark for direct provision services — had criticised the Department of Justice and Equality’s use of a definition from the 1966 Housing Act as the minimum space required for a bedroom.

Peter Tyndall
Peter Tyndall

The measurement was little more than the space required for a double bed, however the Department continued to use the definition.

After staff from the Ombudsman’s office visited 26 accommodation centres across the country last year, they received 168 complaints — up 10% on 2018.

Complaints concerned the length of time in emergency accommodation, transfers to other accommodation, access to schools for children, food facilities, and access to GP services and medical cards.

Mr Henderson says that his organisation’s main concern has long been that people in Direct Provision are expected to share small spaces with a number of strangers.

That may be manageable for a short period of time, but sharing an intimate space for a long time with someone you may not know — from a different culture and background — can be particularly difficult.

In January, the Department of Justice and Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI), an advocate group for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, became embroiled in an argument over a video clip which showed 11 asylum seekers sharing 10 beds at a hotel in Laois. The department claimed that the video had been staged.

Mr Henderson says that there is also issues raised around food, which can be inappropriate or not of a good enough standard.

Last year, residents of a Dublin hotel were told they could not bring food to their rooms “under any circumstances”, while a 2014 report by the migrant rights group Nasc found that food in centres was “inedible, of poor quality, monotonous, bland, and culturally inappropriate”.

In 2018, an investigation was launched and a commitment to retrain staff made after a woman in a centre in Clare was refused two slices of bread and some milk for her son, who had been vomiting and had diarrhea the night before.

The safety and experience of centres has also been consistently raised, with the Rape Crisis Network Ireland (RCNI) saying that Direct Provision poses a risk of sexual violence to individuals.

In a 2019 submission to the Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality, the RCNI said: “It is hard to feel safe when a person is obliged to share living space with strangers who may be incompatible at best and downright dangerous at worst.

“Bathrooms shared with the opposite sex, as they still are in many DP hostels — and sleeping accommodation shared with others of the same sex who may be completely incompatible — are additional stresses which retard the recovery of particularly vulnerable asylum seekers, those who are survivors of sexual violence.” Another issue affecting Direct Provision users is what happens if they are allowed stay in Ireland.

The Ombudsman’s commentary said that the most significant change he saw in 2019 was the increase in the number of applicants for international protection temporarily living in emergency accommodation in hotels, guesthouses, and bed and breakfast accommodation.

At the start of 2020 there were 1,524 people in 37 different locations across the country. At the beginning of March, Junior Justice Minister David Stanton said there were 1,018 people in Direct Provision whose applications to stay in Ireland had been approved.

These people are largely unable to leave due to the housing crisis, Mr Henderson says.

“That situation has changed due to Covid-19 as far as we can see, but the nature of the lockdown makes it difficult for people to leave accommodation or move around.

But people who are leaving Direct Provision face major issues around transition — be that not having the means to pay a rental deposit, not having references which landlords will accept and racial or discriminatory issues.

“Sometimes we do see people who have spent so long in the system that they become institutionalised, without having to face what had become a fairly vicious rental market.”

Case study: ‘The longing for a place to call home can be unbearable’

Bulelani Mfaco

I and many asylum seekers have spent a great deal of our time travelling to different parts of Ireland to speak about direct provision.

We share the misery of having to survive on €38.80 per week.

The process of getting people to understand why direct provision needs to be abolished can be emotionally taxing. It involves the asylum-seeking advocate stripping down to the core of their being to lay bare their psychological scars.

It starts with recounting the circumstances that made them flee their country of origin or habitual residence.

I walked into the International Protection Office in October 2017 and claimed asylum.

I was given a 60-page questionnaire to substantiate my claim with instructions to return it within a few weeks or ask for an extension. It can be very difficult if you do not have a good command of the English language.

They asked me if I had somewhere to stay while they processed my application. With no idea of how long they will take to process the claim, and being forbidden to enter into gainful employment, my answer was ‘no’.

Then they wrote down Balseskin Reception Centre, St Margaret’s Road, Dublin 11, as my new address and arranged a taxi to take me there. On arrival, I was greeted by security guards and reception staff who checked me in.

From that day, for the first time in my life I was legally forbidden to work.

The staff would decide who I would share the crammed room with and what I have for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. At first you might resist the food because it isn’t made to your liking but the rational being in you will eat whatever you must in order to avoid starving to death.

Feelings of loss of personal autonomy hit you immediately when you have staff making decisions on minor everyday things that free human beings often take for granted. You begin to feel like a child.

On arrival, you are presented with house rules to remind you that you are now in an institution. The signs on the notice boards; the endless noise of footsteps in the corridors; the smell of cleaning chemicals; the bright factory floor or warehouse type lights; the strangers you are forced to share a tiny bedroom with; the communal shower and toilets; the canteen, the smell of the canteen; and the staff you must interact with daily - all serve as your everyday reminder that direct provision is not a substitute for a home.

The longing for a place to call home can be unbearable as you count months and years existing in an environment that eats away at your humanity. ‘Be grateful, you are not dead or in a makeshift shack under a bridge in Paris,’ so suggests one of the endless trolls on Twitter.

I block them regularly for they are not the ones who have had stones thrown at them for being gay only to end up sharing a bedroom with a homophobe in Knockalisheen direct provision centre.

You start searching for things to fill your days of limbo. Maybe a language course to learn English but even that becomes difficult if you are in a rural direct provision centre with no public transport.

Even the volunteers who show up to offer lessons in the centre quickly make the place feel like prison and so attendance drops as people seek something that gets them out of the direct provision centre, even if it is only for one day a week.

The desperation to escape idleness and the poverty people are forced to endure as they wait for a decision on their asylum claim has pushed asylum seekers into exploitation in the labour market as they try to supplement their petty weekly allowance. I have a friend who used to look after children in people’s homes for €100 per week.

I am reminded of the time I visited the Maldron Hotel in Limerick which has been used as an ‘emergency’ direct provision centre for a while. There I met parents who were distressed as they had no money and were out of nappies and baby formula. They had recently moved to the hotel from Dublin and had to wait days before they could get access to the meagre weekly allowance.

Imagine being the parent with an infant in need of baby formula or nappy change with no way to provide it. The hotel said that they were contracted to provide a bed and three meals a day. We had to get members of the public to donate supplies.

An official from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, accompanied by Knockalisheen direct provision centre staff arrived with nappies, baby formula, toothpaste, shower cream and shampoo after we raised the alarm on the matter. Is that all a new born needs though?

The situation perfectly illustrated the inappropriate nature of handing vulnerable people to hoteliers and other operators who are only interested in making money from the system.

Such is the cruelty of Ireland’s system of direct provision. It takes away your ability to provide for your material needs when the State ought to be encouraging and supporting asylum seekers to live independently.

Today, the Government applauds itself for giving some asylum seekers in direct provision pots and stoves so that they can cook for themselves. They call that independent living.

Asylum seekers will still queue in food halls or a canteen to ask a contractor to give them a pinch of salt while they wait for a decision on their asylum claim.

And the operators of direct provision centres continue to rake in millions from that misery.

If that is the kindness and compassion of the Irish State, I would hate to experience its cruelty.

Bulelani Mfaco is the Spokesperson of the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland. He lives in a direct provision centre while actively advocating for the Government to end direct provision.

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