There have been frequent grim warnings in recent times that the so-called Direct Provision system for asylum seekers will be looked back on, in 20 years time, as a dark stain on this country’s humanitarian record.
The Direct Provision system was originally created in 1999 as an ‘interim’ measure where, for a six-month period, asylum seekers would be offered accommodation while their applications for residency were being processed. There are now 24 such centres around the country, ‘home’ to some 5,000 people. The average stay in one of these centres is two years, but many have now been in residence for over five.
Asylum seekers were denied, until recently, the right to work, no matter how skilled or qualified they happened to be. Their children are not allowed access to free third-level education. They are forced to live in cramped, crowded conditions. Day follows day of endless monotony.
There came a ray of light for them last year when the Supreme Court ruled that the absolute ban which prevents asylum seekers from working, was unconstitutional. The Government response was to issue guidelines that would allow them to apply for work permits.
There were a few caveats, however.
Asylum seekers could only apply for jobs with a starting salary of €30,000. There would be a fee of several hundred euro to accompany the application. And there were 60 defined employment sectors from which asylum seekers were barred.
It was the classic Irish solution to an Irish problem.
The asylum seekers at Knockalisheen asylum centre in Limerick staged a hunger strike to demand that their complaints be heard and addressed by the authorities.
But what was ironic about the Limerick protest was that this was history repeating itself in the very same location, and proof that official Ireland’s attitude to immigrants had changed little over the last half century. For it was in the same Knockalisheen camp that the initial warm welcome to fleeing Hungarian refugees, back in 1956, turned sour, ending in conflict and bitterness, and the voluntary departure of the immigrants from our shores.
It had been in the aftermath of the Hungarian uprising against Communist rule, which was brutally crushed, that Ireland agreed to admit 500 refugees who were fleeing for their lives. The fact that they were Catholic victims of Communist dictatorship led to an outpouring of sympathy in church sermons and newspaper articles.
They were housed in Knockalisheen, a converted army barracks. But the welcome quickly wore off when demands from the newcomers to be given employment in Limerick were opposed by the State and the labour unions.
Soon, the Hungarians demanded a role in the running of the camp. They elected a committee, which the Irish Red Cross – which had been given the task of administering the camp – tried to suppress. The immigrants, in turn, claimed that they had been led to believe that their stay in Ireland was merely a staging post for their ultimate migration to Canada.
There followed a harrowing hunger strike, which resulted in the hospitalisation of 19 of the inmates. Only the intervention of the then Bishop of Limerick, Dr Patrick O’Neill, saved the situation. Talks commenced, with the inmates demanding they be given either employment or visas.
The authorities seized the opportunity. Within weeks, 440 out of a total of 540 Hungarians had been resettled in Canada. The crisis was over, but – not for the last time – Ireland’s brush with immigration had not been a happy one.