It was supposed to provide shelter for just six months. Today, many asylum seekers in the State’s direct provision system spend years in conditions which most agree are damaging to the health, welfare and life-chances of those forced to endure them. Asylum seekers are not allowed to work. They are not entitled to social welfare. And they are excluded from social housing and free third-level education. In all, more than 4,300 people, including 1,600 children, live in 34 accommodation centres spread across the State. The centres, which include former hostels, hotels and a mobile home park, are run by private contractors who receive about €50 million in State funding annually.
The State-run Reception and Integration Agency says it ensures the basic needs of all residents are met. But the United Nations and international human rights groups have heavily criticised the system. Former Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness has predicted that a future government will end up publicly apologising for damage done by the direct provision system. The voices of asylum seekers are rarely heard. Many are fearful that speaking out will damage their request for refugee status. But their personal stories provide a rare insight into the impact of the system on these lives in limbo.
More than 1,600 children are growing up in the direct provision system with limited access to play or recreation. The State’s Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, Dr Geoffrey Shannon, has raised concerns that many children are living in State-sanctioned poverty and in environments that could prove highly damaging . “We are in a situation where we treat children in direct provision as being second-class citizens,” he says.
Waleed, 14, shares a hotel room with his parents and younger brothers. “I feel I can’t tell my friends where I live,” he says. “Even if they come over, they’re not allowed come to my room. I’ve nowhere to play.” In the room, his mother and father sleep on a mattress on the floor. He, along with his two younger brothers, sleep on beds surrounding them. “I just did my junior certificate. It was really hard for me because I wasn’t able to study properly – because my brothers are fighting and disturbing me all the time.”
Minahil, 12, has been living in a mobile home in a direct provision centre for almost eight years now. “I find it very hard to do my homework, because I can’t concentrate at all,” she says. “When you close the door, you can still hear my brother and sisters crying. There are five in my house including my mother ... it’s very hard: you can hear her crying at night. It’s very hard for me to sleep.”
Natasha, 12, is used to coming up with excuses. Whenever her friends at school plan a sleepover or a trip away, she knows she won’t be able to go. So she makes up a story about why she can’t. “Sometimes I tell my friends that I’m going somewhere, or I can’t go because my mom is sick,” she says. She lives in a mobile home in a direct provision centre in Athlone, along with her mother and brother. Visitors to the site must pass through a security barrier and sign in at a reception desk. “I’m ashamed that if they see where I live I’ll get bullied,” she says.
Asylum-seeking children are entitled to attend primary and secondary school. They cannot, however, access third level education as they don’t qualify for free fees. As a result, teenagers who complete their Leaving Cert are not able to progress on to college. The Department of Education says there are no plans to change these rules for young people in direct provision. Campaigners say it is a policy which simply stores up problems for the future. “Having very limited access to educational or training opportunities results in individuals becoming de-skilled and unmotivated,” according to a report by the Free Legal Aid Centre.
Next week, Yolanda will get her Leaving Cert results. With her talent for figures, she’d love to study accountancy. But even before she finds out, she’s disconsolate. Even if she gets the points, she’s not entitled to free third-level education. The only alternative is paying full fees of about €10,000, which isn’t a possibility. “Our parents can’t afford that because they only get €19.10 a week,” she says. Her only hope is sponsorship from members of the public, which her mother is trying to organise. But, she realises, it’s unlikely. “It’s really unfair on students who have studied very hard.”
Palesa is fascinated by nature. When she sat the Leaving Cert, she applied for herbal sciences in Cork Institute of Technology on her college application form. She was thrilled when she secured enough points to get the course. But, because she is an asylum seeker, she has no entitlement to free third-level education. It’s four years since she sat the exam. “At the moment I’ve been sitting at home doing nothing, going around and around in circles, waiting to go to college,” she says. “Each year you hope ‘this is the year I go to college’. But as each year goes by, it gets more and more frustrating.”
Asylum seekers in direct provision system spend an average of three years and eight months in conditions that can be bleak, overcrowded and sometimes unhygienic. The Reception and Integration Agency says it conducts regular inspections and seeks to adapt and improve conditions for all residents. But some inspection reports provide a dismal snapshot of a system where families often have to live in a single room, are not able to cook for themselves, where adults are not allowed to work, and where children are unable to play with any meaningful sense of freedom.
Simmy doesn’t want to sound ungrateful. The direct provision system provides three meals a day. But several years of institutionalised meal-times and not being able to cook for herself or her family takes its toll. “Where I live, there are 15 nationalities and it’s difficult to cater to them,” she says. “The meals are at certain times. If you miss breakfast, it’s gone.” She would love to provide more nutritious food for her two daughters - but on €19.10 a week, there isn’t enough money left over to buy food.
Laiq, his wife and three children have been living in a single hotel room for eight years. It exacts a heavy mental toll - but there’s a physical one too, he says. He has a range of health problems. But prescription charges mount up when all you have is €19.10 a week. So he ends up cutting corners on looking after his health. “It’s mentally damaging and physically damaging,” he says. “I have cataracts, I have depression, I have diabetes, I have blood pressure.”
Many asylum seekers are afraid to speak out. Doing so, they fear, will damage their application for refugee status or result in them being moved to another centre. “I don’t want to be identified,” says this man. “I’m afraid of the consequences.” In his case, he has health complications including diabetes, but maintains he’s not given any meaningful choice over the kind of food he receives. But he fears complaining will only make matters worse.
Ireland is one of just two EU member states where asylum seekers are prohibited from working after a designated period. The UK, for example, may grant the right to work after 12 months if an applicant is awaiting a decision, subject to strict terms and conditions. The Government argues that extending the right to work for asylum seekers would “almost certainly have a profoundly negative impact on application numbers”. But the Health Service Executive has documented the negative health effects of not being able to work among asylum seekers . “Lack of entitlement to work, when this restriction extends over a long period, may further compound mental health, with boredom, depression, sense of isolation and loss of self-esteem commonly reported symptoms,” it concluded in a recent report.
As a trained nurse, Bisola is used to demanding work. But for the past six years she has been unable to get a job because asylum seekers are prohibited from working. “I’m happy to work, to contribute to society, not to be sitting down, sleeping every day, to be not doing anything,” she says. “I am a role model for my children … They should allow us to work, in order to provide for our families, so our children see us as responsible mothers and fathers.”
In Bangladesh, Badrul worked as a chef. He took pride in his job and his work ethic. But for the past seven years he has had to rely on State-funded handouts. “I am not a lazy man,” he says. “I want permission for work.” He will forever be thankful for the protection he has been offered by the Irish State. But the system, he says, makes people idle.” And the public think that asylum seekers aren’t interested in work. “I love this country, I respect this country... but I just want to work.”
Depression and mental health problems in the direct provision system are up to five times higher than in the wider community. In a study carried out by the Royal College of Surgeons, researchers found the length of the asylum process was associated with an increase in psychiatric disorders. Dr Joan Giller, who has worked with residents in the direct provision system, is not surprised at the high incidence of mental health problems. “I have witnessed the change in the past five years in many people: from hope, to anger, to despair. And when people stop struggling to try to improve their conditions, then we should become very worried about them,” she wrote in an Irish Times article.
Eight years of uncertainty and cramped living conditions have taken their toll on Primrose. She tries to put on a brave face for her children. But as time goes on, it gets harder to hide her true feelings. “People think I’m normal, but to tell you the truth, I feel mentally disturbed,” she says. “We don’t know when we’re going to come out.” She shares a single room with her two children at a hostel in Galway. She hates herself for it, she says, but the years of cramped living conditions leave her short-tempered and irritable. In many ways, she concedes, she’s lucky. Other families live in even more challenging conditions with even more family members.
When she arrived here with her daughter to seek asylum, Noreen felt a brighter future lay around the corner. Five years and six months later, all that optimism has drained away. These days she feels increasingly hopeless about what seems like a continually uncertain future. She’s been taking anti-depressants for the past three years to cope. But her temper is frayed and fears that she’s not being a good mother. “I just want [my daughter] to live like other children,” she says, “Every year when it’s her birthday, she comes to me and asks me, are you going to do my birthday again in the corridor? Who will be happy with their child doing their birthday in the hotel corridor? I need a life just like any other human being.”
Last year, authorities in the North sought to return a Sudanese asylum seeker and her three children to the Republic, where they initially sought asylum. But the High Court in Northern Ireland prevented the move on the basis that returning the family to direct provision was not in the best interests of the children. “The well-being both emotionally and financially of the primary carer and the importance of that to the well-being of the children in her care would point significantly to the best interests of the children being to remain in Northern Ireland,” Mr Justice J. Stevens found. Government ministers acknowledge the system is flawed. But they maintain it is the most humane and cost-effective way of ensuring asylum seekers’ needs are met.
Like any parent, Mosa says, her priority is to protect her son. But over the course of seven years in the direct provision system, she feels powerless to shield him from darker side of life. “They’re exposed to all sorts of activities which, in the future when they are teens, it will be hard for them.” Child protection concerns are a worry, living in such close quarters to other adults. But given that many of the kids spend so much time on the street, she says they’re more streetwise about things like drugs and prostitution than others of their age.
Zee wants to be a good example to her children. She would like to work, cook and to give them the best chance in life. But after four years unable to do any of this, she feels the system is undermining her hopes of being a positive role model. “You want to provide financially and to be psychologically fit to carry out your duties as a parent,” she says. “But the system is like an institution… children are confused about what your role is as a parent.”
Asylum seekers are not entitled to regular social welfare payments. Instead, they receive €19.10 a week and €9.60 for children. They may occasionally apply for exceptional needs payments. Applicants are not allowed to work or receive any other welfare payment. Under Irish law, asylum seekers are not regarded as “habitually resident” in the State, although many have spent years living in direct provision. The Irish Refugee Council and the Free Legal Aid Centre have called for the payment to be increased. However, successive governments have opted not to change the size of the payment over the past 14 years. It argues that bed, board and food is provided for free under the system.
Patricia is not entitled to work. Neither is she entitled to receive unemployment benefit. Instead, she gets €19.10 a week from the State. It doesn’t go far. She is an insulin-dependent diabetic and spends €7.50 on prescriptions. And by the time she buys washing powder, washing-up liquid and other basics, the money is gone. She also has two teenage children - who receive €9.60 each a week. But this isn’t nearly enough to pay for school activities, books or other day-to-day expenses. “There’s no way to manage on that kind of money,” she says.
The State has given more than €850 million to private firms for the provision of accommodation and food since the direct provision system was established. Many of these companies are large firms involved in the property, hospitality or catering business. Several have moved to shield their company accounts from public scrutiny and, in some cases, their beneficial owners include companies in offshore jurisdictions such as the Isle of Man or British Virgin Islands. Mosney has been the biggest recipient of public funding (€101 million), followed by East Coast Catering (€91 million), which runs three centres in Dublin and Dundalk.
After direct provision
Ireland has one of the lowest success rates for those seeking asylum in western Europe. For those who do secure refugee status, many end up de-skilled and de-motivated after years in the system. “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. Campaign groups say that, for many, integrating into the community and finding work is challenging after so many years of dependency and social exclusion. The Government says it is committed to reforming the asylum process and speeding up the processing of applications.
A few months ago, Heidar got the news he was hoping for. Five years after he left Iraq, his application for asylum was successful. But adjusting to life in the community and finding a job for the father-of-three has been challenging. Not being able to work for so many years means he’s lost skills - and confidence. And trying to get a reference or even work experience is difficult. “It’s good news. I am happy,” he says. “... but the [direct] provision centre where I was living refused to give me written references… it makes things more difficult.”
How the project was produced
Lives in Limbo is based on interviews conducted with asylum seekers in several locations across the State over a number of months. Interviewees’ first names were used only, to help protect their identities. Photographs of the interiors of direct provision centres were provided by asylum seekers themselves and courtesy of the Asylum Archive.