More than 4,000 living in ‘direct provision’ system

‘Irish Times’ series explores the lives of these ostracised people who are barred from work and welfare

Carl O'Brien has interviewed a number of residents of Ireland's Direct Provision centres for the Irish Times series 'Lives in Limbo'. Here they share some of their insights, frustrations, and hopes for the future. Video: Bryan O'Brien

Sat, Aug 9, 2014, 15:54

You make your way to the edge of the town, just off the motorway exit. You pass the industrial estate on your right. You take an unsignposted slip road that brings you past metal fences on one side and the blind side of a warehouse on the other. And there, at the end of the empty road, is a traffic barrier and a security hut. A tricolour flutters in the summer breeze. There are no signs to direct visitors here. No public transport route that serves this place. This largely hidden side of Ireland’s asylum system seems to function as a closed, confined space, cut off from the rest of society.

This is Athlone Accommodation Centre, a concrete and tarmac expanse where 100 mobile homes are laid out in neat lines. It’s one of 34 so-called direct provision centres scattered across the country, which are home to 4,360 asylum seekers, including more than 1,600 children.

When the system was introduced, in November 1999, it was meant to provide shelter for just six months, until applicants were granted refugee status or deported. The system proved dysfunctional, fragmented and slow. But there has been no political will to change it. Today, thousands of asylum seekers spend years living in conditions that almost everyone agrees are damaging to the health, welfare and life chances of those forced to endure them. Under the system, asylum seekers are not allowed to work. They are not entitled to regular social welfare, such as child benefit. And they are excluded from social housing and free third-level education. Instead, asylum seekers receive bed and board through the direct-provision system and a weekly payment of €19.10 per adult and €9.60 per child.

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The centres, which also include former hostels and hotels, are mostly State-owned and are run by private contractors that receive about €50 million in taxpayers’ funding each year. The State-run Reception and Integration Agency says it ensures the basic needs of all residents are met. But a range of international human rights groups, including the United Nations, as well as the Ombudsman and other watchdog bodies, have heavily criticised the significant challenges faced by those who live within the system.

It’s comforting to think of Ireland’s culture of concealment as the relic of a time of mental asylums, mother-and-baby homes and Magdalene laundries. But the way the State manages those who seek refugee status in Ireland today, say campaigners, feels increasingly connected through time and space to an era we look back on with shame. It’s hardly a surprise, then, that people such as Catherine McGuinness, the former Supreme Court judge, have predicted that a future government will end up apologising for damage done by the system today.

Everyday humiliations
Simmy laughs and apologises for the chaos. “This is what happens when you share a mobile home with two children,” she says. Her mobile home is crammed with boxes of schoolbooks and files, cleaning products and clothes. A child’s bike is in the corner. Simmy shares a tiny bedroom with her nine-year-old.

The big problems, she says, are the obvious ones. Not being able to work. (She’s a qualified professional in marketing and event management.) Seeing your children grow up with no memory of you ever cooking a family meal. The loss of privacy that comes with sharing a cramped living space with your daughters.

But the everyday humiliations can be just as corrosive to your self-esteem: queueing for your €19.10 and getting comments from locals about “sponging the system”, or going to the GP when your blood pressure is high and being asked why your kind keeping coming here, or being afraid to complain about conditions because you’ve seen other people get moved without warning.

Simmy’s 18-year-old daughter, Yolanda, sleeps in the other room. She finished her Leaving Cert earlier this summer. Studying when the walls are paper thin and your little sister is a bundle of energy isn’t easy. But she worked hard and would like to think she got enough points to study accountancy.

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