Asylum seekers living in limbo

 

The first article of a three-part series explains why the hostel system is not properly accountable to its residents. What started as an emergency measure a decade ago has become a way of life for thousands of asylum seekers

FAYCAL DAOUD sits on the edge of his tattered bed with his head in his hands as he explains how he feels let down by a system that is supposed to protect and care for him. The 30-year-old asylum seeker, who suffers from epilepsy, fled Algeria in 2008, narrowly escaping death as he crossed the Mediterranean in a flimsy boat. But, far from finding safety and peace in Ireland, he says he is in a “living hell” at Globe House, a former convent housing 210 asylum seekers in Sligo.

“The food is bad, the rooms are dirty, the beds are ripped and there is nothing to do – we can’t work or study. People just sit around every day, getting depressed,” says Daoud. “There is also no justice here. Anyone who speaks out gets transferred.”

Earlier this month, Daoud claims, he was assaulted by a centre manager at Globe House after he complained about the food. Daoud made a complaint to gardaí, who told him it was his word against the manager’s. The manager would not comment when contacted by The Irish Times, and referred us to the Department of Justice, which said it would not comment on individual cases.

Within days the Reception and Integration Agency, which is responsible for 50 asylum centres nationwide, sent Daoud a transfer order, saying his behaviour was “unacceptable”. The order said the manager had reported Daoud as becoming abusive, agitated and throwing food at a staff member.

When Daoud refused to leave Globe House, he was evicted without his clothing or the medication to treat his epilepsy. “I had nowhere to go. I spent two nights in a homeless shelter and ended up being taken to hospital after having a seizure,” he says.

It took a threat of legal action to force the agency to readmit Daoud to Globe House. It is now investigating the incident.

“He was effectively dumped on the streets as an example to himself, and to potential witnesses of this violent assault, of how easy it is to transfer inmates who complain about management or conditions,” says Gerard Cullen, a solicitor who took up Daoud’s case.

Cullen says the case is not unique. He recently got a transfer order overturned which was made against an asylum seeker living at a centre in Longford. He is also pursuing a case on behalf of another asylum seeker who was transferred from the Longford centre to Sligo. In a judicial review case in The High Court in January, the man alleged that the manager of the Longford centre – Fine Gael councillor James Keogh – paid money and made promises to residents in return for their votes in last year’s local elections.

James Keogh rejected this allegation in an article published in the Longford Leadernewspaper in January, and reiterated his rejection when contacted by The Irish Timesthis week. He said the gardaí had done a thorough investigation and sent a file to the DPP, which pursued it no further.

These cases – and the ongoing controversy prompted by the transfer of 109 asylum seekers from Mosney without proper consultation – highlight the lack of an independent complaints mechanism for asylum seekers within the direct provision system, claim the system’s critics.

“The complaints system lacks transparency and fairness because asylum seekers are only allowed at first instance to complain to the manager at their centre, who often has a vested interest in disproving a complaint,” says Noeline Blackwell, director general of Free Legal Advice Centres (Flac), who is lobbying for reform. “Appeals can be made to the Reception and Integration Agency, but this body is not independent of the Department of Justice. This means that the same department which makes a final decision on a person’s claim for protection also adjudicates on any grievance they have with a centre manager.”

The Reception and Integration Agency says it can’t discuss any individual cases and defends its complaints procedure as the “only one considered appropriate”. It says a decision to exclude an asylum seeker from a hostel is usually one of last resort.

All accommodation providers for asylum seekers comply with all statutory requirements, the agency adds, in response to a question on overcrowding.

At Globe House a common complaint is the length of time it takes to decide cases. “I’ve been living in these centres for four years and three months. I’ve been in Dublin, Mayo, Longford and now Sligo. We are living three to a room – it’s like a pigeon house here. It is not humane,” says Omer Abdallah, who is from the Sudan.

The direct-provision system was set up in 2000 as an emergency measure to deal with a spike in applications for asylum. The Government contracts a range of private firms to provide beds and three meals a day to asylum seekers, at a cost of €85 million a year. A decade later, more than 6,000 people still live in the centres, and one-third of them have been there for longer than three years. Asylum seekers have no right to work or study. They get a basic weekly payment, worth €19.10 per adult and €9 per child. They can usually claim a six-monthly clothing allowance, which is worth about €150.

Journalists are generally refused admittance to the centres. But I was able to enter Globe House by signing the visitors’ book when invited by a resident last week. Over the past six weeks I was also able to get in to look around centres at Mosney, Cork and Longford.

Globe House has some good features, particularly its large common room, creche facility and a small playground for kids. Overcrowding is less of a problem than it is in other hostels, with two or three people sharing a room in Globe House, rather than the four, five or six people who have to cram into rooms with bunk beds at the Glenvera Hotel in Cork.

But Globe House is a 19th-century building and there are problems with damp and mould in some rooms. During a one-hour tour of the hostel I saw ripped beds and sheets, peeling paint, exposed electrical wiring and communal bathrooms out of order and nailed shut.

One asylum seeker from Tibet, who arrived in 2006, said he recently had to attend hospital following an infestation of bed bugs in his room.

In another bedroom a man lay on his bed sleeping at 4pm. “He doesn’t go out any more. He is depressed,” explained my guide.

Mental illness is a big challenge facing residents who have to live at close quarters, with no privacy, for several years. “The psychological impact of going through the asylum process is damaging. People are isolated, they have no right to work or study, they are living permanently under stress and have very limited means,” says Dr John Good, who works with asylum seekers at Dublin’s Centre for the Care of Survivors of Torture. “Suicidal feelings are common among people living in limbo like this.”

Earlier this year the Reception and Integration Agency revealed that 46 people have died while living in direct provision. However, the organisation keeps no records on the causes of death, which means it is impossible to determine how widespread the problem of suicide is at the centres.

Women who have fled sexual violence also face challenges at the centres, which are currently all mixed-sex. One 25-year-old victim of human trafficking from Nigeria says she has never felt safe living in the hostels provided in Ireland.

“I was picked up at the airport, locked in a room and forced to have sex with men,” she says. “When I escaped, the authorities sent me to several hostels. One of them, in Limerick, was very small and there were mostly men there. I was very scared when I arrived, and intimidated by some men. I had to complain to be moved to another hostel.”

Salome Mbugua, director of Akidwa, an NGO working on behalf of African women,believes there is an urgent need to set up at least one centre for victims of trafficking.

“At the hostels you have to share rooms, and there is no privacy,” she says. “Victims of trafficking don’t know who is living with them or if their room-mates know or are friends with the criminals that brought them into the country.”

Akidwa has also raised concerns about local men targeting woman at asylum hostels, many of whom are vulnerable to becoming involved in prostitution due to their extreme poverty.

At Globe House I was able to walk around unchallenged in the women’s and children’s wing of the hostel, and to knock on several doors to talk to women and families. In one cramped bedroom, Cecilia Okeke, who is from Liberia, is bringing up two daughters, one three years old, the other just eight months.

“The food is the worst thing for children – it is badly prepared and unsuitable for babies. The walls in some of the bedrooms are soaked through,” she says. “We also have to be very careful because there are always people coming and going around here.”

Similar complaints are made by mothers at asylum centres all across the country, particularly about the inadequate food and the lack of access to cooking facilities.

“Some children have never lived outside these asylum centres. They get used to the monotony of life. They never see their mothers cooking for them. They end up damaged,” says a member of the residents’ committee at the Kinsale Road hostel in Cork.

The policy of making single mothers and their children share rooms with other single mothers often creates stress, she adds, as does putting mothers and fathers in one room with several children, a situation which can prematurely sexualise children and expose them to things they shouldn’t see.

Nasc, the Irish Immigrant Support Centre in Cork, says child welfare is at risk. “Most asylum seekers have no choice but to be taken into care in institutions run by the State, often for years,” says says Claire McCarthy, policy officer at Nasc. “But unlike most residents in other care institutions, there is no external supervision, no Health Information and Quality Authority-style inspectorate for direct provision centres. This is a Ryan report waiting to happen.”


MORE ON MONDAY

Jamie Smyth’s series continues in the News pages of The Irish Timeson Monday, with a report on the rights and wrongs of deportation