Deportations and the culture of incarceration

Talk given at an Anti Deportation Ireland public meeting, 11 April 2013

Culture of incarceration

anti-deportation-irelandAccording to a recent book on coercive confinement in Ireland, Ireland locked up one in 100 of its citizens in Magdalene laundries, industrial schools, mental hospitals and ‘mother and baby’ homes, where women pregnant out of wedlock were locked up and forced to give their babies for adoption. At any given time between 1926 and 1951 there were about 31,000 people in these institutions – only a small fraction of whom had committed any crime. This also applied to children – one child in every hundred was enslaved in an industrial school. Children in industrial schools, run by female and male Catholic orders, were treated with cruelty, not given proper food or education, made to work for the nuns or the brothers and were often physically and sexually abused. Their sole ‘crime’ was belonging to what would now be called ‘problem families’.

This history of incarceration, Fintan O’Toole writes, was Ireland’s way of establishing religious, social and moral “purity” by locking up and “correcting” potential deviants. This level of “coercive confinement” is extreme for any democratic society. In 1931, the Soviet gulags held about 200,000 prisoners – from a population of 165 million. The Irish system held 31,000 people – from a population of three million.

And this continues today. Between 2000 and 2012 Ireland locked up in direct provision hostels 51,000 asylum seekers, whose sole ‘crime’ was legally applying for Geneva Convention refugee status. In total, between 1991 and 2012 there were 68,847 asylum applications, of which only 4,130 or 6 per cent received positive answers. In November 2012, the last month for which figures are available, 4,822 people were incarcerated in these hostels, 75 per cent from Africa. Although intended to hold people for a maximum of six months, the average length of stay in these ‘holding camps’ is 44 months – almost four years, and many have been incarcerated for up to six years.

Living conditions in these hostels are dire. Residents tell us that they are often made to live in the same room with people they don’t know and who speak another language, they have to eat unpalatable food cooked by the management, they are often not given sufficient beddings and other necessities, and crucially – they are not allowed to work and, in addition to bed and board, have to live on a paltry allowance of €19.10 per adult per week, not raised since 2000.

Incarcerating people in direct provision hostels is a direct continuation of Ireland’s historical culture of incarceration, which over the years has created very deep habits of secrecy, collusion, evasion and adaptation, which is why most Irish people never questioned the incarceration of women, men and children in Magdalene Laundries, industrial schools and mental hospitals, and why they are not aware of, never mind questioning the incarceration of thousands of asylum seekers in these hostels. But there is a difference – if in the past Irish people were incarcerated so as to rid society of its misfits… asylum seekers are incarcerated in direct provision centres because of racism. They are marked as others and left to rot out of sight, out of mind.


Let me start with some recent figures: According to the Department of Justice and Equality website, nearly 2,700 individuals were deported or removed from Ireland in 2012, including 2,260 persons who were refused entry and 298 unsuccessful asylum seeks and irregular migrants who were deported. Of those deported, 111 were returned on nine charter flights and 187 on commercial aircraft.

The state keeps saying that asylum seekers cost too much. Indeed they do. According to figures published by the Minister for Justice, in 2011 the Irish State spent €69.5 million housing and ‘caring’ for asylum seekers, with the majority of the money paying for a small cluster of private contractors who run these centres and who have seen their annual turnover soar.  In addition, in 2011 the Irish State was facing a bill of over €100m to fight injunctions granted by the High Court to 2,000 asylum seekers who are fighting enforced deportation. However, many asylum seekers are highly educated and if allowed to work, they would not cost money but rather work, start businesses and pay taxes – moving from being a net if enforced liability to being income bearing.

If the direct provision system costs a lot, deportations are hugely costly. As William Walters suggests, thinking about the costs of deportations can help to unsettle the view of deportation as simply an administrative procedure of the immigration system and start to see it as an industry. This industry implicates not just police and immigration officials, but airline executives, pilots, stewards, and other passengers. Most pointedly,  remember that private companies make a lot of money from this form of suffering. Answering a Dáil question, Minister Alan Shatter replied that in 2011 the overall cost of removing 280 persons from the State was slightly in excess of €1 million; between 2005 and 2010 the cost of deportations was more than €6.8 million. These costs relate to the deportees and their Garda escorts but not to overtime or subsistence payments for Garda escorts.

If this is the economic cost to the state, the human cost to asylum seekers is much higher. The conditions under which people are deported are inhumane and degrading and, in some European countries, have led directly to a number of deaths. People who receive a deportation order often experience high levels of anxiety and depression, may develop mental health and other medical conditions, or even resort to self-harm or contemplate suicide. Such issues are compounded by life in direct provision. The United National Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has expressed concern at the negative impact of delays in determining asylum seekers’ cases in Ireland. People who are candidates for deportation live in a liminal zone of uncertainty and fear. There is no assistance to children who are traumatised by seeing their parents deported. There is no follow up to see how deportees fare once deported, although we know that many find it incredibly difficult and dangerous – but who in Ireland cares?

Incarcerating asylum seekers in these hostels is not only racist, it also leaves them in a state of deportability. Think of it – housed in these holding camps, asylum seekers with deportation orders are always available to be deported, and can be picked up at any time by immigration officers. This is the purest form of racism – getting rid of people categorised as ‘non national’, seen to disrupt  the purity of Irish whiteness. I am particularly disturbed by deportations – during World War II members of my own family were picked up from their homes in northern Romania and deported across the river Bug to Transnistria, where throughout the war Jewish and Roma people – racialised by the Nazis and their Romanian fascist partners as  racially inferior – were incarcerated in unspeakable conditions,  though thankfully not exterminated. Personally I find it hard to sleep peacefully knowing that people in Ireland can be picked up at dawn and forcibly flown back to the countries from which they escaped to seek safe refuge in Ireland.


Anti Deportation Ireland operates on antiracist principles, without state, local authority or philanthropic funding, and not seeking such funding. Its actions are determined by members, most of whom are asylum seekers or former asylum seekers. We are asking for support and assistance, but we need to start thinking seriously about what sort of support we are looking for and I would like this meeting to start discussing it. Support and solidarity are complex issues – supporters should not dictate or change the agenda, but in order to get your support, we should be asking for specific things. Learning from UK Anti deportation campaigns, there are several things we could ask for: legal advice, which we are already getting from the ever helpful solicitor Gerald Cullen; attendance in court; participation in public campaigns and demonstrations; creative graphics and posters to be distributed online and on paper; disruption of deportations at the airport; safe houses for asylum seekers who are candidates for deportation. These are just some ideas.

My final point is that deportations are racist and have to stop. We must act against Alan Shatter’s seemingly logical argument that deportations are ‘an unfortunate but necessary component of a balanced and fair immigration system’. He further wrote that ‘For the Irish State to relinquish its right of deportation, subject of course to our laws and to human rights obligations, would subvert the principles of fairness and due process which are cornerstones of our immigration system’.  ADI aims to counter this racist state logic and bring an end to all deportations.