Op-ed: Why students are essential to direct provision activism

Colm O’Halloran, USI’s Vice President for the Dublin Region, outlines the role students have to play in social change

Why should students campaign to end the direct provision system? There are two answers to this question. Firstly, there are students who are living in direct provision in Ireland. Secondly, even if something does not affect you, it is important to have solidarity with those who are being treated unfairly. Shepherd Machaya is a refugee from Zimbabwe who is also a student in DCU. Machaya is living in the direct provision system and still faces deportation. It is absurd that a refugee in the University of Sanctuary programme can be pulled away from their academic environment midway through their studies. When a member of any college community is under threat, that community has a duty to fight. This attitude was exemplified by the DCU Students’ Union in their orchestration of the Save Our Shepherd campaign. Machaya’s cause is a reminder to the student community that they too are being directly affected by the Irish asylum system. Refugees are excluded from third-level education as they are usually recognised as non-EU international students, a status that is accompanied by the payment of international fees of between €16,000 to €20,000 in order to study in Ireland. A number of Irish universities have become, or plan to become, Universities of Sanctuary, where fees are waived for refugees, but Shepherd’s case highlights that even this may not stop deportation.

Students who are living in direct provision should be given a platform to speak about their experiences.

There is work here for both students and colleges to ensure that refugees enrolled in the University of Sanctuary programme are never at risk of being deported. Although, the question remains as to what is the way forward for students to campaign on this issue? It would appear apparent that university communities must ensure that all those who want to get involved are contacted and are present to shape the campaign. Students who are living in direct provision should be given a platform to speak about their experiences, and students ought to be guided by organisations such as MASI as to how best they can help. The effort should also reach out to student activists who have already been campaigning on this issue, as well as students’ unions, and all universities and institutes of technology. It is vital that students who have been involved in direct provision campaigns are actively included in any national student campaign against the draconian regime.

A significant part of the campaign in ending direct provision should be spreading awareness of how the system operates. This is an area wherein the students’ unions’ broad reach of student engagement can effectively help the degree of awareness that students have regarding direct provision. TCDSU have successfully run poster campaigns highlighting the issues with direct provision. One particular poster had a powerful quote by a refugee from the Congo on Irish direct provision centres emblazoned across it, which stated: “One thing that made me cry was that […] I made friends outside the hostel, but sadly none of them were allowed to come visit me in [the centre].” UCC Students’ Union officers have previously challenged themselves to live on €38.30 for a week, the same weekly allowance that adults living within the direct provision system will be given from March 1, in a bid to highlight the impossibilty of leading a regular life in an expensive city centre. NUI Galway Students’ Union has previously protested and organised marches campaigning against direct provision. These actions inform students about the reality of DP and should inspire students to fight against the system. Students’ unions can inform students on the matter and act as a unifying platform in order to bring like-minded students together in action.

USI, as a national body, can bring together students and those living in direct provision to fight and challenge the Irish asylum system.

The Repeal campaign was years in the making and had students at the forefront. It was the solidarity displayed by all facets of Irish society that ultimately saw the success in the May referendum. We need to see the same kind of solidarity in the campaign to end direct provision. The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) has a mandate to campaign for an end to the direct provision system and following on from this leadership, students’ unions can both inform and rally students to take the necessary action. USI, as a national body, can bring together students and those living in direct provision to fight and challenge the Irish asylum system. We, at USI, are organising a student-led think-in on direct provision on February 8 in NCAD to do exactly that. We hope to bring together all people who want to make a positive impact in the lives of refugees in Ireland, and collaborate on ideas that will help to bring about affirmative action.