‘A form of torture’: life for asylum seekers in direct provision

The plan was that asylum seekers would live in these institutions for no more than six months, but some have been there for over seven years, in cramped conditions, with no privacy, little for children to do, and deteriorating mental health

Hadija was 10 when her older brother and father were shot dead in her home in Koyama, south Somalia. A few years later, her mother was attacked and died shortly afterwards. With no family left, Hadija travelled to Kenya and secured passage abroad. She was 16, had no idea where she was going and couldn’t speak a word of English.

Hadija became one of the thousands of asylum seekers to arrive in Ireland in the 2000s. In recent years these numbers have diminished substantially. The Government is now focused on the harsh reality of homelessness in Ireland and the growing numbers of Irish families living in the cramped conditions of emergency accommodation.

However, children living in direct- provision centres often live in similar conditions for years at a time. Since 2000, countless families with small children have spent years waiting for refugee status without access to social-welfare payments. Today there are still 4,278 asylum seekers living in direct-provision centres around Ireland. Of these 1,590 are children.

Hadija arrived in Dublin in February 2006. She was sent by the Department of Justice to Chester House in Phibsborough, Dublin, a centre for underage asylum seekers, where she was treated very well. She started learning English, and a few months later began to study for her Leaving Cert Applied.


Everything changed when Hadija turned 18 and was relocated to the Viking Lodge direct-provision centre near Christ Church in Dublin. “Life became so hard. Nobody cares about you. I cried about everything and hated my life. I just wished to be somebody else.”

Caroline left her home in Zimbabwe after her partner was beaten and taken away during unrest there. She left behind a farm, a business and three other children, but took her five-year-old daughter, who was suffering from TB at the time.

“I had everything in Zimbabwe. I was a farmer and had cows, a tractor, a car.”

When she arrived in Dublin, Caroline and her daughter were sent to the Balseskin reception centre. Two months later they moved to a direct-provision centre on the outskirts of Dublin where they have been living ever since.

‘No privacy’

Parents in direct provision must share a room with their children. Caroline has shared a room with her daughter for five years now. “There’s no privacy. Where I came from, things were completely different. My children had their own bedrooms and we had a big house.”

Those who are alone, such as Hadija, must share a room with strangers. At Viking Lodge, Hadija shared a stuffy room with two other girls, one from Somalia and the other from Nigeria.

Residents are obliged to eat food prepared by the privately run accommodation centres. Hadija hated the food and often used her tiny savings to buy her own meals. “You don’t want to know what we ate,” she says. “You would think twice before even giving that stuff to a dog.”

Caroline agrees that the food is poor, particularly for children. “We’ve been eating the same food for five years. It’s the same all the time, the cheapest stuff.”

She says she has never felt strong enough to explain to her daughter exactly what’s going on. “It isn’t easy to explain to your kids: you just start crying.”

Caroline has no idea how much longer she will have to spend living in direct provision and says some people in her building have been waiting seven years.

In April 2010, Hadija finally received official refugee status. During her time in direct provision, she witnessed young women her own age in the centre resort to prostitution. “Girls get pregnant a lot in there but I could never do that. I can’t imagine what my mum would think if I took that route. I just stayed in my books.”

She says the moment she left, her life changed. “I finally knew that now I was living, because the whole time I was in Viking Lodge, I wasn’t living.”

Hall filled with rubbish bags 

Megan, also from Zimbabwe, is five months pregnant. She arrived in Ireland in 2011. She shares a tiny room with two other women in a hostel in central Dublin.

To reach her bedroom, visitors must pass through a hallway filled with rubbish bags waiting for collection. She worries about bringing up a child in an institutionalised environment. The building where she lives has no play area and is situated on one of Dublin’s busiest roads.

After three years of waiting for refugee status, Megan is frustrated. “You get frustrated but have to tell yourself: I’m just going to wait. If you put it in your mind, you wouldn’t be able to cope.”

Megan hopes to leave direct provision and move in with her Irish boyfriend, the father of her unborn child. When she emigrated, she had to leave her other two children behind. She hopes to send for them once she is given her papers. “No matter how old you get, you still need your mum. Your mum is your mum.”

Helen Ogbu, who lives in Galway and originally comes from Nigeria, spent three years living in direct provision with her young daughter. She recently wrote a report for Unesco highlighting the plight of people living in these centres.

“These parents aren’t able to protect their children and cannot provide for them,” she says, adding that it is heartbreaking for a parent to deny her child the opportunity to go to the cinema or on a school trip with friends.

“Living there is a form of torture. Children ask, ‘Why am I here, why can’t we leave?’ They can’t understand why they are stuck in a room with their siblings for years. Why they can’t be normal like other children?”

Sue Conlon, chief executive of the Irish Refugee Council, worries about the long-term psychological implications for children growing up in these centres. She also highlights the long-term financial costs for the State of supporting refugees suffering from mental-health issues later in life.

“What will their sense of who they are as people and their self-worth be? We haven’t yet seen the long-term consequences of direct provision.”

She has met teenagers with thoughts of suicide and says parents are often reluctant to engage with psychologists. Conlon underlines that these parents are trying their best to care for their children but find it difficult when they are denied their right to human dignity. “The ability to cook and cater for children’s needs is fundamental to parenthood.”

Dr Geoffrey Shannon, Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, says living in direct provision can have a "detrimental effect on children. If we look at the conditions in the centres, by any standard it could not be said to equate to normal family living. These families live in very restricted accommodation, and this can have a profound impact on the mental health of adults and children."

Irish migrants

Dr Shannon argues that Irish people need to reflect on their own history and remember the millions of Irish who have had to leave in search of asylum from poverty and unemployment here.

“Many Irish travelled abroad and were badly treated. We want to make sure we don’t mete out a similar approach to those who travel from very difficult situations in other countries.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Justice says that “every effort is made” to inspect direct provision centres three times a year, and that the Reception and Integration Agency “strives to ensure” asylum seekers live in “suitable” conditions. She says residents receive “nourishment on a par with, and in some cases superior to, that available to the general population.”

She admits that the application process for asylum seekers does not “lend itself to achieving speedy outcomes,” but anticipates a large number of outstanding refugee status requests will be resolved by the end of 2014.

Living alone in Dublin as a refugee was not a life choice for Hadija, who fills her hours with her studies and hopes to run her own business one day. She is lonely and misses her family.

“My mum used to tell me she had a sister and a brother, but I never located any of them. I wish I knew where they were to tell them that I’m still alive. I wish I could see somebody of my blood.”

Some names have been changed


Direct provision was introduced in April 2000. It was originally envisaged that people would spend no more than six months in the system.

34 Number of direct-provision centres around Ireland, plus one initial reception centre in Dublin called Balseskin. These are operated by private providers and contracted by the Reception and Integration Agency.

3 of these 35 centres are purpose-built.

€19.10 The weekly allowance asylum seekers in direct provision receive, or

€9.60 for children. This allowance has not increased since it was first introduced in 2000.

59% of all residents had been in direct provision for longer than three years as of the end of 2012;

31% had been in the system more than five years; and

9% for longer than seven years.

644 Number of lone-parent-family units in accommodation at the end of 2012, or 1,828 people.

Rules and conditions Residents are not allowed to cook or have food in their own rooms. Asylum seekers in Ireland are prohibited from working.

Source: European Migration Network/ESRI 2014 report The Organisation of Reception Facilities for Asylum Seekers in Ireland; Irish Refugee Council