Lives in Limbo: ‘It affects you as a parent and a man’
The direct provision system for asylum seekers has a high human and social cost, and adapting to normal life afterwards is a slow process
After five long years in the direct provision system spent waiting, hoping and praying, Heidar finally got the news he had dreamt of. His asylum application was successful. He wouldn’t have to return to the chaos and uncertainty of Baghdad with his young family. His wife wept with relief.
“For so long we were living with so many questions,” says Heidar, who worked as a shopkeeper before seeking asylum in Ireland. “What would happen to us? Why is this taking so long? How would we manage? The future was unknown. Life was blocked. It caused me and my wife much stress and upset.”
For Heidar, however, the official letter confirming his status was met with relief rather than joy. It was, he thinks, because he was a changed man. He came to Ireland as a proud shopowner with a strong work ethic; a provider for his family; a role model for his children.
Instead, he was forced to sit on his hands in a system where work is forbidden and where time feels stuck on a never-ending loop.
He ended up doing a blur of vocational courses – community development, caring, photography – and volunteering; anything to keep busy.
But there’s no escaping the gnawing sense of inadequacy. Over time he could feel his self-confidence drain away.
“It affects you as a parent and a man,” he says. “Fives years of not being able to provide for your children or meet other family needs. Coming from the Middle East, in my culture a man works. He doesn’t sit at home.”
So, even as he secured his status, he felt consumed with doubt: how would he survive? Where would they live? How would they make ends meet? Would he be able to find a job?
The Government has defended the direct provision system on the basis it is the most humane and cost-effective way to meet the needs of asylum seekers.
But campaign groups say they have documented how often highly qualified asylum seekers who secure refugee status have ended up deskilled and demotivated after years spent in the system.
Even though refugees typically have a high standard of education, their unemployment rates are several times higher than the general population. “It is difficult to understand why the authorities maintain this system when the evidence of the human, financial and social cost is clear,” says Sue Conlan of the Irish Refugee Council.
Ireland is one of just two EU countries that doesn’t allow asylum seekers work no matter how long their application takes to process. The average length of stay in the direct provision system is three years and eight months. While government ministers have acknowledged this is too long, the prohibition on work has been defended on the basis that any relaxation would be an additional “pull” factor for more applicants.