Breaks are mandatory in Ireland. For every hour, you need (are required to have) a five-minute break, plus lunch and tea, or your mind won’t function properly. I’m not convinced that this system is entirely inefficient: For the other fifty-five minutes, the office is buzzing with activity, with phones to answer, reports to compile, and random meetings no one ever seems to know about.
This is my second week working at the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA), an offshoot of the Department of Justice and Equality. The term “agency” is deceptive. RIA doesn’t have any legislative powers but is an administrative entity set up by the Irish State to oversee basic provision for asylum seekers—food, housing, healthcare. Indeed, when writers at the Irish Times criticize Direct Provision, Ireland’s means of meeting the basic needs of food and shelter for asylum seekers directly while their claims for refugee status are being processed, they refer to RIA as if it is somehow separate from the State, when in reality it’s not. It is one small part of Ireland’s vast civil service.
From day one, I perceived a bit of a divide within the refugee sector in Ireland, with NGOs on one side and RIA on the other. People talk skeptically of RIA; they question their work and their competency. They worry that rights of asylum seekers are not being adequately met by RIA. The roots of this skepticism are hard to identify and harder to understand. Maybe it is because NGOs struggle for funding while RIA receives funding from a larger state budget to do its work. Maybe it is because NGOs are advocates for the rights of asylum seekers working always to extend those rights while RIA ensures legal rights to basic provision are administratively met.
Interestingly, much of the recent controversy over the work of RIA is centered on food: How can asylum seekers living in direct provision for up to seven or even twelve years eating catered food three times a day? Isn’t it a basic human right to be able to cook for oneself? Such questions expose an even deeper tension, between EU member states and Brussels, where councils far from Dublin decide what constitutes humane treatment and what doesn’t, without the direct input of the Irish people themselves.
The Irish government is still reeling from the protests over direct provision that occurred two years ago, and yet curiously Ireland remains a model for other EU states for how to care for asylum seeker populations. Sure there are trade-offs in any system and improvements are always—in theory—possible, but the standard of care for asylum seekers is in fact comparatively quite high. So it is easy to see why Ireland’s solution, despite local criticism, is an international model. The direct provision center in Mosney, located in what used to be a family summer camp by the sea before packages to Spain became cheap, boasts individual homes for families, a preschool for young children, excellent meals, and the best scones I have ever tasted. And yet it is isolated from Irish society, located in a rural area between Dublin and Drogheda. While direct provision centers like Mosney are definitely institutions that do not fully integrate asylum seekers into Irish society, Ireland does have one of the lowest acceptance rates for asylum applications in the EU. When the vast majority of refugees are unlikely to remain in Ireland, does it make sense to integrate them into the community if they won’t ultimately be granted leave to remain? In some ways, this reminds me of the rhetoric surrounding illegal immigration in the United States. Once people have integrated into American communities, worked, paid taxes, and joined universities, according to some they should be allowed to stay. Perhaps this is why the Irish public is so against asylum seekers getting jobs or granting citizenship to the Irish-born children of refugees.
Coming from an immigrant family myself, the idea that the Irish voted overwhelmingly against birthright citizenship is difficult to understand. What could be more Irish than being born in Ireland? But then I realized how I take this idea for granted, being from the most diverse country in the world. Ireland is still new to the immigrant game. On the surface, it may seem like America or the United Kingdom, but twenty years ago Ireland was an extremely homogenous country. A woman at a bus stop in the suburbs was complaining to me about how most people in Dublin don’t even know how to get around the city, because they weren’t “from here.” There is an old Ireland and a new, but they both exist at the same time, battling for dominance. At the heart of it all is the question, “What does it mean to be Irish?” that still has no answer.
I’m not sure if the kids growing up in Mosney would consider themselves Irish. It is a strange thing, to have been born in one place, hear stories of another, and ultimately know neither. Many of these children will return to Nigeria, Pakistan, or the Democratic Republic of Congo, and it will be as if they were never here. It’s sad to think about, but it’s really a question for another day, or maybe another person. Our job is to figure out what they’re having for lunch, where they’re sleeping, and where they’ll go to school. At RIA, these are the tough questions, the ones we work hard to answer. The rest is philosophy.