Forty-four people have died in Direct Provision since 2007. That the Government doesn’t know the cause of death of more than one in three of them should surprise nobody, says Donal O’Keeffe.

Late last year, I visited a Direct Provision centre in Munster. As such places go – and they’re all horrible – this is one of the better such centres. Accommodation is cramped, grubby and unfit for purpose, but the residents at least have the luxury of woodland surroundings. No, it’s not much, but most centres don’t offer even that.

I met some young women who told me – in hushed tones – that the food they receive in the centre is of a very poor quality.

“If we have chicken today,” I was told by one woman, “we have the same chicken tomorrow, and the next day, the same chicken in sweet ‘n’ sour sauce. Or if it’s beef on Monday, the same beef on Tuesday and beef stew with the same beef on Wednesday.”

They told me that food quality improves around the times of official inspections and then reverts to normal.

I thought this a shocking allegation and asked if they had made a complaint to the centre’s management. The women whispered that they dare not cause a fuss, lest they be moved to another centre, or worse. They all have deportation orders hanging over them and their families, and live in constant fear of being woken in the night and taken under Garda escort to the airport.

Since Direct Provision was introduced as what was intended to be a temporary accommodation system for asylum-seekers in 1999, more than 60,000 people have lived in 35 centres around the country. The initial plan was that asylum-seekers would spend perhaps six months in these centres, given full accommodation and board, and a personal allowance of €19.10 per adult. Asylum-seekers are forbidden from working.

Currently 4,300 people are in 34 Direct Provision centres across the State. One third of those in Direct Provision are children; 55% have been here for five years, 20% of that for seven years or more.


Direct Provision centres are operated by private firms which receive in the region of €50 million per annum in State funding. These firms are overseen by the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA).

I went through the rigmarole of trying to talk to someone in authority about the allegation that people in at least one Direct Provision centre are fed sub-standard food. I was eventually referred to the Department of Justice, which is ultimately responsible for RIA.

I asked the Department of Justice for a comment and was told: “RIA has a complaints procedure which resolves to deal with problems quickly and efficiently. RIA oversees a comprehensive and detailed inspections system of asylum seeker accommodation.”

I was asked if an official complaint had been made. I explained that these are people living in constant fear, people who dare not make a complaint. I was told that – if there hadn’t been a complaint – the Department of Justice couldn’t possibly comment.

I asked, hypothetically, if there actually had been a complaint, might a comment be more forthcoming?

I was then told that – had there been a complaint – the Department of Justice couldn’t possibly comment!

I thought of this “Yes Minister” exchange last week, as I read an excellent piece by Mags Gargan in the The Irish Catholic newspaper.

From new figures obtained under Freedom of Information by The Irish Catholic, we learn that the Government does not know the cause of death of more than one in three asylum-seekers who die in State care.

Since 2007, 44 people have died in the Direct Provision system. As Dearbhail McDonald put it on the final – and much-lamented – ‘Tonight With Vincent Browne’, these were de facto deaths in State custody.

For 15 of those deaths, RIA records the suspected cause of death as “unknown” or “died”. One “unknown” was a 41-year-old man “found in room by roommate”.  Another, a 53-year-old man, was “found dead in his bed at 9am” by his roommate. A 35-year-old man is listed as “found unconscious in room and died in hospital”.

What stood out most for me was the 16-year-old asylum-seeker recorded simply as “sudden, died in school”.

Gargan points out in a further piece that the true extent of official ignorance may be even worse, because while the Department of Justice admits to not knowing the cause of death in more than one in three deaths in Direct Provision, in other cases the “suspected cause of death” is based on “information known (or believed to be known)” by management at Direct Provision centres.

In a statement, the Department said that while RIA will have in some cases general knowledge of the cause of death, it does not “seek information on protection applicants outside its remit”.

It adds rather peevishly that neither the HSE, nor a coroner, has “ever raised an issue relating to the accommodation in which a deceased (asylum-seeker) lived prior to their death”. It says that if such an issue were ever raised, RIA “would respond accordingly”.

The sheer, breath-taking shoddiness of this is hard to exaggerate. Imagine having a duty of care to those under your roof and not even bothering to ascertain how a third of those who died in your care actually died. What’s really at issue here, of course, is an unwillingness to address whether the abysmal living conditions in Direct Provision affected the causes of deaths of these people.


To its hand-washing statement, the Department of Justice might as well actually add the words “Sure they’re only asylum-seekers”.

Father Paddy Byrne is a Catholic curate in Portlaoise. He ministers to residents in the Montague Hotel Direct Provision centre and his comments to The Irish Catholic are scathing.

“This is a living injustice,” he said, “…a rotten disease, that the vast majority remains silent about… we have learned nothing from the secrets of the past.”

In 2014, as Ireland – and the rest of the world – reeled at the horror of the Tuam Babies revelations, and 796 children in a mass grave, a visibly-shaken President Higgins told RTÉ News that he was appalled.

“My first reaction is one of enormous sadness,” the President said. “These are children who while they were alive had rights, the rights to protection, and who, if dead, had the right to be looked after with dignity.”

We have been here before. Those we deny dignity in life, we grant no dignity in death.

We have learned absolutely nothing.