“What do you all think of the issue of living accommodations for asylum-seekers? If we’re talking about the current state of Ireland, we ought to be talking about the injustice occurring every day in those direct provision centers.”

When I hear this question, I’m sitting in a large canvas tent on the coast of Dalkey, a beautiful seaside suburb of Dublin and home of the wonderful annual book festival which I am fortunate enough to attend. The panel I have just listened to about the ‘State of the Irish Union’ was insightful and interesting, but I had been content to simply listen and be fascinated by the conversation, which primarily concerned the recent referendum to legalize abortion. It was not until this first question from the audience that I felt a personal, instinctive and surprisingly defensive reaction.

This summer, I am volunteering for the Department of Justice and Equality at the Office for the Promotion of Migrant Integration (OPMI). OPMI is responsible for facilitating and creating policy regarding the integration of all migrants, including refugees, asylum-seekers, and other legal immigrants, into Irish society. It is a daunting task, particularly because the progress of integration is incredibly difficult to measure. Just down the hallway, the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) is dealing with an equally challenging task: to provide accommodation and services to all applicants seeking international protection, often by housing these individuals in the aforementioned direct provision centers. All of my co-workers in both of these offices work incredibly hard to do their jobs well, and they genuinely care about the individuals they serve.

So, given the dedication and compassion that I have witnessed at work so far, imagine my natural reaction when I hear an entire panel of journalists and community leaders condemning the entire Department of Justice and Equality, referring to what is supposedly the most optimal direct provision center as a ‘cesspool,’ and equating the entire system of direct provision to the Magdalene Laundries, which were absolutely brutal institutions of confinement.

My initial reaction to all of these denunciations was defensive because my mind at the time was consumed by the kind faces of my new co-workers and their explanations of why things operated the way they did. Since a new system for processing applications for international protection was implemented in 2015, there has been a backlog of cases from the old system that still have not been completed. The direct provision centers are surely not optimal, and anyone in the department will likely agree. However, the centers were never designed or given the resources to house families for multiple years as they often do.

Upon reflecting on this conversation that I witnessed in Dalkey, I have realized that I was too quick to feel so defensive. I have established friendships and working relationships with the wonderful people at the Department of Justice and Equality. At the same time, I cannot let my position as a volunteer for OPMI obscure my vision of this complex and heated political debate in Irish society. More importantly, I cannot dehumanize the people living in these suboptimal centers for years who are quite possibly as victimized as the critics in Dalkey claim, regardless of the well-intentioned people I have met in my office.

Reading through The Irish Times yesterday, I stumbled across a political cartoon criticizing the recent atrocities at the border of the United States and Mexico, where young children are being mercilessly separated from their parents. The catch of the cartoon was that it pointed out the hypocrisy of pointing fingers at the United States while direct provision centers are viewed by many as an equally brutal form of incarceration. This reference to a US political debate made me realize the implications of my internal struggle here as a government intern. I am beginning to wonder: How can my observations about the nuances of the direct provision debate here in Ireland inform my own political opinions and actions at home? Rather than constantly criticizing, how can activists and concerned members of society think more critically about solutions to these astronomical issues? Is this push and pull of outrage and government response simply the natural state of a government and its people, or could this relationship ever be changed for the better?

I did not expect my experience here in Dublin to be so introspective and morally challenging, but I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to learn from and work within a society that is rapidly transforming. I hope that my unique perspective as an outsider can positively inform my work at OPMI, and I know I will bring my reflections about the complex nature of these large political issues with me when I return home.