Behind the News: ‘Sarah’, political refugee

She arrived in Ireland in 2007, after fleeing physical torture. ‘But now I find this is mental torture,’ Sarah says about living in the direct-provision system for refugees and asylum seekers, which was set up 14 years ago this week

Protest: asylum seekers, refugees and human-rights supporters march in Dublin last year against direct provision. Photograph: David Sleator

Protest: asylum seekers, refugees and human-rights supporters march in Dublin last year against direct provision. Photograph: David Sleator

Sat, Apr 12, 2014, 01:00

‘Sarah”, a political refugee from Africa, lives with her eight- year-old son and four-year-old daughter in a small town in Ireland. They live in one room, so the three of them have to eat, sleep and everything else within its four very close walls.

In some ways it’s not as bad as their previous home – “This is the second place I’ve lived,” Sarah says; “in the first one we didn’t even have our own bathroom and toilet” – but the cramped surroundings take their toll on the family.

Sarah didn’t plan to come to Ireland. “I just found myself here for my own safety in 2007, following physical torture. But now I find this is mental torture. There’s no privacy. My children have to see me suffering. I can’t work or study. The only thing we can do is live.”

Sarah’s accommodation is provided under the direct-provision system put in place 14 years ago this week. Refugees and asylum seekers receive bed and breakfast plus €19.10 a week per adult and €9.60 per child – a rate that has not changed since 2000 – as well as a medical card.

There are about 35 direct-provision centres around the Republic. The standard of accommodation and living conditions they offer vary widely.

Nasc, the Irish Immigrant Support Centre, says most residents have been in the system for more than three years, and some have been in it for more than seven years.

Sarah says that one of the most difficult aspects of her circumstances is the feeling that she and her son and daughter have no future. “My children go to school, but there’s no change to our lives. It’s the worst thing ever.”

Last month a former asylum seeker gave a similar message to a rally to mark World Anti-Racism Day: people living in the direct-provision system often become depressed, Noma Maye said, as they are living in confined spaces with little control over their lives, and children inevitably suffer.

The NGO Forum on Direct Provision agrees, saying that direct provision has an “unconscionable human cost” and that its “long-term institutionalisation is harmful to asylum seekers, to their children and to Irish society”.

Sarah has just taken part in Seeking the Village, a community arts project that was part of the Five Lamps Arts Festival, in north Dublin. It offered women living in hostels a chance to talk about their experiences while their children did art and cookery workshops.

“It was good to hear that I wasn’t the only one living like this, but it’s emotional to talk about our situations, because the wound is still there. I would never think about returning to my country, because it would be like throwing myself into a fire. Did I not burn enough already? Yet nothing changes with my life here.”

Áine Ivers, one of the artists who ran Seeking the Village, says, “the Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, Geoffrey Shannon, has raised concerns about the detrimental effect of direct-provision accommodation on children and on parents’ ability to provide adequate care. He describes the system as amounting to institutionalised poverty.”

For Sarah, at least, no end to her family’s circumstances seems to be in sight.

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