A motion on whether to hold a referendum that could mandate Trinity College Students’ Union (TCDSU) to campaign for an end to direct provision centres for asylum seekers in Ireland will be put to class representatives at SU Council this Tuesday. If the motion is passed, the referendum could be reaching students as early as 19th March, Education Officer Jack Leahy has told Trinity News. This would be the first time for the union to adopt a policy concerning the rights of asylum seekers, according to Leahy.
The campaign to hold a referendum on the issue, headed up by student Peter Gowan, progressed quickly last week, with a petition containing the requisite 250 student signatures handed up to the Electoral Commission on 5th March. The signatures were collected within three and a half hours.
The term “direct provision” refers to the reception centres where asylum seekers are held upon entering the country. Asylum seekers are provided with a stipend of €19.10 a week for adults and €9.60 a week for children, but are barred from gaining employment during their time in the centres. Over 5,000 people are currently housed in the Irish direct provision system, with 30 to 40% of these having been resident for over five years. Between 2000 and 2010, it is estimated that the state paid about €655 million to private businesses were awarded contracts to run accommodation centres. Speaking about the issue, campaigner Peter Gowan told Trinity News that the system Ireland has in place is “regarded internationally as being insufficient”, explaining that people who go through the system find the experience very degrading. “The system in this country goes far beyond the legal norms, “ he said.
When asked about his motivation for organising the campaign, Gowan cited the short documentary film, “An Open Prison”, directed by DIT student Rich O’Mahony, as a source of inspiration. “It is one of the most heartbreaking films I have seen about my country,” he said. He added the issue is also relevant to the student body due to the number of Trinity students who have been through the system themselves. “There are people in this college who have been affected by this system in a serious way,” he said.
Gowan said that while his goal is to stop direct provision, he is happy that awareness will be raised about the issue irrespective of the results of the proposed referendum. TCDSU would be “an incredibly powerful tool” in the campaign against direct provision, he said. He said the campaign team have been in contact with Sue Conlan, head of the Irish Refugee Council, with regards to the issue, as well as having contacted USI Vice President for Equality Laura Harmon about submitting a draft motion to the USI national council.
With potentially less two weeks to prepare material for the referendum, the campaign team is confident about the outcome of the proposed referendum. “The response from people shows that students really care,” Gowan told Trinity News. If passed, he said he is “prepared to hold the SU to account”, with regards to campaigning, though he is quietly confident about the abilities of incoming sabbatical officers to lobby for the end of direct provision. Incoming SU President, Domhnall McGlacken-Byrne, declined to comment when contacted for an interview.