Coronavirus: Outbreaks in direct provision centres could be ‘devastating’

Support groups say overcrowding in asylum system makes self-isolation impossible

Refugee support groups have warned of the “potentially devastating impact” of an outbreak of the coronavirus in direct provision, claiming accommodation centres for asylum seekers would be unable to cope with the virus.

Some 5,686 people are currently living in 39 direct provision centres around Ireland including 1,739 children. An additional 1,585 people, including 285 children, are residing in emergency accommodation B&Bs and hotels.

Fiona Finn, chief executive of Nasc, the Migrant and Refugee Rights Centre, said many of these people use communal bathrooms or share rooms and in some centres entire families share one room. She said that in certain centres, up to six strangers must share a room.

“There are people who are immune-compromised or in other high-risk categories who are sharing rooms with strangers. Being able to take even the minimum precautions of regularly washing your hands with warm water and soap in these conditions can be challenging,” Ms Finn said.


Bulelani Mfaco, spokesman for the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI), said overcrowding in some centres would make self-isolation impossible. He expressed concern at how the Government would manage a virus outbreak and shared photos with this journalist of bedrooms where asylum seekers live in crammed with bunk beds and suitcases.

John Lannon, director of Doras Luimní, noted that people in most accommodation centres would be unable to self-isolate as they also share kitchens, living areas and bathrooms.

Appropriate measures

He accused the International Protection Accommodation Services (formerly the Reception and Integration Agency) and Department of Justice of failing to take the appropriate measures to curb the spread of the virus in centres and called on them to make preparations as quickly as possible.

“Direct provision, and the use of emergency accommodation, leaves some of the most vulnerable people in Irish society at an increased risk of contraction and transmission if Covid-19 continues to spread in Ireland,” he said.

Nick Henderson, head of the Irish Refugee Council, said that much of what had been said about homeless accommodation and Covid-19 also applied to direct provision and emergency accommodation.

“Self-isolation and limited social interaction will be near impossible. People living in Direct Provision should be included in policy assisting vulnerable people and those living in congregated settings,” he said.

People who arrive into Ireland from Iran, China or any other country affected by the virus, and are seeking protection, should be given an appropriate place to self-isolate and their application should be paused while in isolation, he added.

A Department of Justice spokesman said HSE information notices were being translated and distributed to all accommodation centres and that department officials were contacting residents in emergency accommodation to ensure they fully understand the guidelines.

Department staff are in “regular communication” with all centres and information is updated on a daily basis with any changing circumstances are “responded to effectively”, he said, adding that risk assessments had been issued to centres.

“In accordance with best practice, contingency planning is also in hand to address any issues arising in the centres, should circumstances change.”

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast