Hard to stay optimistic living in Hatch Hall

Patrick Freyne visits the direct-provision centre for asylum seekers at Hatch Hall


A young man in his mid-20s shows me a picture of Nzinga, the 17th century warrior queen of the Mbundu people. Then he pulls up some YouTube footage of a man dancing frenetically to kudoro music, traditional Angolan rhythms sampled around a four/four beat. “It’s like breakdancing,” I say.

“Yes, and they do it on the street,” he says.

He’s referring to a practice in a country he hasn’t seen since he was a teenager. He’s doing a presentation about Angola for Africa Day. He has historical facts printed on card.

“You have to keep busy,” he says.

There seem to be two kinds of people living in Hatch Hall, those trying to “keep busy” and those tired of trying. Many have spent years in the asylum system, living on €19.10 a week (it’s €9.60 for children), not allowed to work or study and subject to movement or deportation at short notice.

While visiting Hatch Hall, I speak to people from Angola, the Congo, Cameroon, Afghanistan and the Balkans. None want to be identified by name lest it affect their applications for asylum.

Even on a sunny day, the place is forbidding: a big, old red-brick Victorian building with long corridors, high roofs, shabby carpets and exposed pipes. The rooms have bunk beds and there are hand basins in the corners. Some say the place got a lick of paint and some newer carpets last year in advance of a visit from Minister for Justice Alan Shatter. The Department of Justice says that “maintenance requirements are dealt with on an ongoing basis”. David (that is not his real name), who is showing me around, once lived here. As we enter the courtyard, he’s swamped by five little African kids shouting “Uncle! Uncle!” They try to climb all over him.

“I tried to connect with people when I was here,” he says. “I was involved in campaigns to better the lives of asylum seekers, but it’s very hard to be optimistic.”

‘In a bad way’
Other people walk by as though fighting their way through a fog. David stops to talk to one man on the stairs. “Why haven’t you called me?” David asks. After the man leaves, David looks at me, shakes his head and says, “He’s in a bad way.”

We go around to several rooms on the third floor first. I sit talking to men who have left their families behind and are sharing rooms with strangers. Many also left good careers. There are civil servants and shopkeepers. There’s even a former immigration officer.

The initial interaction with David is often high spirited. “Patrick, this man is the president of Guinea! ” he says when we meet one man and they both laugh. But the subsequent conversation is usually more downbeat. “I don’t do much,” says the man who is not actually the president of Guinea. “I stay in my room. I keep to myself.”

Residents get three meals at designated times (“I can’t even cook for my child,” a woman says later), but the department says provision is made for those who miss meals due to interviews or travel.

Two men sigh when I ask about the food. “The food is the least of our worries,” says one man, who receives therapy designed for torture victims.

“I only had a cup of tea today,” says another. “I didn’t feel like eating. You lose your appetite.” He says he needs a purpose in life.

In another room, I ask a 19-year-old from a war zone about a brightly-coloured drawing above his bed. It’s a picture of a sword going through a heart, over which the words “Heart Brokn” are written. “Sorry, my English wasn’t very good when I did that,” he says. Why was he heartbroken? “I was in love with my home,” he says. He’s been here two years.

On the family floor more small children greet David. “Uncle we got BOOKS!” they say, clutching a random mix of picture books, recipe-books and magazines. “Books! Books! Books!” sings one girl triumphantly. They’re very funny.

But Hatch Hall is not really a place for children. Some time ago, a man snapped in the middle of the night and started throwing everything out of his window and into the courtyard below. “A lot of people here develop problems,” says David.

One man is sharing a room with his wife and children. There’s a single bunk suspended over a double bed, beside which there’s a cot. They share a bathroom with the rest of the people on the corridor. “When my wife needs to get changed [their older son] has to go outside or stand in the wardrobe.”

He says he knows Ireland better than Irish people. They’ve been moved all over the country. “I know Irish people who’ve never left Dublin.”

Open prison
His wife likens Hatch Hall to an open prison. She pauses, looks at David and says, “Can I say it?”

“Go ahead,” he says.

“Nearly every family here keeps a bucket in their room at night.”

“A bucket?”

“For weeing in,” she says. “Nobody wants their children to go out in the corridor at night.”

Down the hall a young girl shows us medals won for various sports and academic achievements. We’re in the room her parents share with two children. The room is artificially divided using furniture. “But they can still hear everything we say,” says her mother, who’s sitting on the bed. “There’s no privacy.”

I’m sitting in one of the only chairs. The father sits on a tiny plastic stool. He outlines their long experience of the system. His young daughter chips in with the right words in a soft Irish accent whenever English fails him.

Treated differently
Does she feel Irish? “People treat us differently. My friends are nice but other people at school tease the people who live here.”

The Department of Justice point to various social and recreational services provided here beyond the direct provision remit. And there is a sense of community in Hatch Hall. But it’s a stigmatised, isolated and marginalised community. And that’s really the point of the system – to keep these people apart from the rest of society.

Some of these people have been in the asylum process for over a decade and a number of bedside lockers contain medication. They try to keep their spirits up but many are mentally and physically unwell. As for children, they don’t get birthday treats. They can’t afford consistent after-school activities. They shouldn’t be here.

“I was taking a small girl to school the other day,” says one lady. “She’s five. She had been away and I asked her if she had a nice weekend. She said ‘Auntie, I had the best weekend ever because I was away from Hatch Hall.’”