This week here in Ireland, reports have come to light that women living in direct provision centres have been engaged in survival sex work.
Some context, for those of you unfamiliar with Ireland’s asylum processes:
When people come to Ireland seeking asylum, they are housed in what’s called “direct provision” until their cases are heard. Direct provision is a system where food and accommodation are provided to a person, and they are given a small allowance to live on. Doesn’t seem too terrible at first glance- who wouldn’t want to be given a place to live and 3 meals a day?
It turns out, though, that direct provision isn’t exactly what you’d call cushy. Having no control over the food you eat or when you eat it- and don’t forget, direct provision centres are run by private contractors looking to make a profit, and there is no profit in ensuring that people have access to decent food. If you can’t stomach the food, being barred from making or eating food in your own room. Add to that having no privacy- asylum seekers have to share rooms, either with complete strangers or with an entire family crowded into a single room. Throw in curfews, and being barred from working to support yourself, earn money, or simply pass the time. And doing it all with a measly €19.10 allowance, or €9.60 for children, for everything else that you might need. Imagine trying to live your life on that, or raise your kids and do your best to provide them with some sort of liveable existence.
The direct provision system was set up as a temporary measure, to house people for a few months at most while their asylum claims were being processed. As of this year, 59% of residents have been living in direct provision for over three years, and 9% for more than seven years.
There are more people in direct provision in Ireland than in our prisons. Asylum seekers, unlike prisoners, have done nothing wrong. And asylum seekers, unlike prisoners, live with no certainty over how long it will be before their wait is over, or whether it will end in freedom or deportation.
It’s grim. So grim that residents have recently been hunger-striking to protest the conditions they’re forced to live in.
In the midst of all this, Ireland’s Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald claims to be “shocked” to hear that women in direct provision are engaging in sex work to make ends meet. Responding to these reports, she’s said that she “certainly [doesn’t] want to see any woman in Ireland feeling that the only option for her is prostitution in order to look after her family.” She then went on to discuss calls to criminalise clients of sex workers in Ireland, “watching how Scandinavian countries had handled the issue”, and that ” she would be bringing legislation to Cabinet in the near future”.
Can we talk about how profoundly backwards this is? Not just a little backwards. It’s not that the cart is before the horse here. It’s that the horse has never, in fact, even met the cart. The horse is hanging out in a field somewhere in the countryside and the cart is stuck in a stairwell in an apartment block in a city on a completely different continent to the horse.
Let’s start at the beginning: nothing shocking has happened here.