The recent killing of George Floyd in the US and the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement has exploded worldwide. It has brought direct provision services in Ireland once again into sharp focus. The controversial system for housing asylum seekers has allowed private companies to profit from the system, including Aramark, who also provide catering services on the University College Dublin (UCD) campus.
Aramark is a global corporation operating in 22 countries, offering food, facilities, and uniform services. The company has a large presence in Ireland, including in three of the 34 direct provision centres in Ireland, in counties Clare, Cork and Meath which house over 800 asylum seekers. In 2018, the state paid €72 million to private firms operating in direct provision centres, €5.89m of which went to Aramark. The company also is contracted by UCD to run the main restaurant in the Gerard Manley Hopkins building beside the Newman and helps to run the Subway in the same building.
The links between Aramark and UCD have long been a source of aggrievement for students who feel that Aramark provide an inadequate service in the direct provision centres, which have been criticised for their cramped and inhumane conditions since the system was created in 1999. In early 2018 a campaign was launched called ‘Aramark Off UCD.’ This came after an attempted boycott in 2017, both of which failed to make any lasting impact, with Aramark continuing its presence on campus.
There are currently over 5,000 people currently living in direct provision here in Ireland. Many of them struggle to complete their education in difficult living conditions, including students in UCD. One such student is Lesley Mkoko, a second-year mature student, studying sociology and social policy. Lesley has been very critical of the living conditions in his centre in Waterford city and has also spoken on the challenges of living in direct provision whilst trying to get a degree.
Earlier this year, in an interview with the journal.ie, Lesley highlighted the problems with bedbugs calling the system ‘toxic’ and said people living there feel ‘so out of control.’ Lesley also described how hard it is to be a student whilst living in the centre. He discussed the struggles in getting access to food when he needs to leave his accommodation so early in the morning and arrives home so late at night and he also described how the lack of Wi-Fi in the facility makes studying very difficult.
Lesley is not the only one to speak out about the conditions in direct provision centres. Former UCD student Bulelani Mfaco and the organisation he workers for MASI (Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland) criticised Aramark’s role in direct provision centres and pointed out the hypocrisy of the company following their anti-racism social media posts in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Both Aramark and UCD have been contacted for a comment but at the time of writing neither have responded to our requests. However, Aramark has spoken previously about its service in direct provision centres following prior student action. In 2018, in response to a planned boycott by the students in the University of Limerick, Aramark said that they have “no say, influence or involvement in the establishment of this system or in the residency or asylum application process” but that the company supports asylum seekers by providing “quality services which help make their lives more comfortable.”
This statement which highlights “quality service”, which is intended to make the lives of asylum seekers comfortable, seems directly at odds with the experience of the thousands of men, women and children living in the system. At a time when racism and discrimination are high in the public consciousness, direct provision will be under intense scrutiny, as will the private companies like Aramark, profiting off the controversial system.
Conor Paterson – Reporter