Direct provision: ‘I know people see our opposition as racist, but we are terrified’

Direct-provision protest: silent demonstration walking from Oughterard to the former Connemara Gateway Hotel last Saturday. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Recent years have seen objections to the opening of direct-provision centres in a number of Irish towns. We visit three of those towns: Roosky, in Co Roscommon, where plans for a centre were dropped after arson attacks on the hotel earmarked for the project; Lisdoonvarna, in Co Clare, whose centre opened this year; and Oughterard, Co Galway, where locals are protesting against the proposed conversion of a local hotel into direct-provision accommodation.

The Department of Justice would not confirm whether a direct-provision centre is planned for the Connemara Gateway Hotel, adding that consultation with communities such as Oughterard’s would begin only when a proposed location had been evaluated and contracts with the owner signed.

Oughterard

Population: 1,318

If small rural towns are looking for causes to bring their people together, Oughterard will tell you that the Department of Justice has delivered one to them.

The entire local population appears to have mobilised against an apparent plan by the Reception and Integration Agency, the arm of the department that oversees accommodation for asylum seekers, to open a direct-provision centre in the small Co Galway town.

On Wednesday morning, just a week after 800 people attended a highly charged “information meeting” in the town about the rumoured reception centre, more than 60 people are manning the now around-the-clock picket against the centre. They have gathered outside the closed-down hotel where, speculation has it, the centre will be.

Although the protest remains largely peaceful – in an incident on Tuesday, one protester was knocked over by a car – unhappiness, anger and frustration are clear. The numbers on the picket are large, and some people in the town not involved in the protest fear that it could get nasty.

Other recent protests against direct-provision centres, in Moville, Co Donegal, and Roosky, Co Roscommon, saw proposed centres attacked, on-site fires overnight, verbal clashes between opposing demonstrators, and the RIA in the end moving to postpone or cancel the planned centres.

Direct-provision protest: a silent demonstration in Oughterard last Saturday. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
Direct-provision protest: a silent demonstration in Oughterard last Saturday. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

The first hint people in Oughterard got that the Connemara Gateway Hotel, which is about 2km from the town centre, and has lain idle for more than a decade, was being reopened came a few weeks ago. Construction workers began appearing on the site, and rumours circulated first that it had been bought by the Supermac’s fast-food chain, and then that it was to become a direct-provision centre.

Since then the Department of Justice has confirmed only that it is being evaluated as a possible centre. It has not said whether the hotel is to be a reception centre, how many asylum seekers would be coming, whether they would be families or single people, or which countries they may come from.

The atmosphere at the picket on Wednesday morning is at times tense but also good-spirited, even upbeat. Women push buggies as they walk back and forth. Men are chatting as they stroll. Some protesters carry placards that say “Oughterard says no to inhumane direct provision centres”. Some are walking dogs. Others sit and chat, having brought chairs and blankets.

Fires from the night before, in metal drums, are still burning, and supplies of tea, coffee, soup, home-made bread and cakes are plentiful. Through the morning motorists pull up, delivering boxes of brownies, sandwiches and biscuits, while the beeping of car, lorry and bus horns in support is incessant.

In the town, much of the chat is about the protest, with people discussing when they’re going up “to put in a few hours”. And although outside observers may feel uneasy about the tone of the protest, people here are resolutely standing by one another in opposition to a reception centre, and standing by Noel Grealish, their local Independent TD.

Noel Grealish maybe made a slip of the tongue... but you only have to investigate the Department of Justice to find out how many asylum seekers are turned away because they have dubious backgrounds

Grealish has been called on by people outside the town, including Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, to withdraw comments he made at that highly charged meeting on September 11th. Grealish suggested people from Africa were arriving in Ireland to “sponge off the system” and is reported to have received loud applause for claiming the creation of a direct-provision centre in the town would “destroy the fabric of Oughterard”.

Anthony Previté, a retired rector of Clifden who is now an Oughterard resident, is one of several on the picket saying that although Grealish “got a lot of stick” he was “absolutely right”.

“He maybe made a slip of the tongue... but you only have to investigate the Department of Justice to find out how many of these guys [asylum seekers] are turned away because they have dubious backgrounds.”

Grealish, says Previté, simply voiced a widespread fear about the impact a centre could have on the small town, which is more than 20km from the nearest urban centre – Galway city – with limited public transport, insufficient housing and few services, and almost wholly dependent on tourism to survive.

Direct-provision protest: demonstrators outside the Connemara Gateway Hotel. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
Direct-provision protest: demonstrators outside the Connemara Gateway Hotel. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

On top of this fear, say protesters, you can add the apparent secrecy with which the Department of Justice is going about its proposals, the dearth of State investment in key infrastructural projects and services in the area, and a deep distrust of State agencies, the Government and the ‘‘system’’.

These issues, and locals’ avowed opposition to the direct-provision model, make them determined that a centre in Oughterard “will not happen”.

While agreeing that opposition to the arrival of migrants could be seen as racist, they say they are hurt and angry to have been “put in a position where Oughterard is called racist”.

“I just don’t want so many people coming to the village at once,” says Joan Donnellan, who grew up locally and is married to a Dutchman. “It’s nothing about race. It’s about numbers. I know people see our opposition as racist, but really it’s just people are terrified. It’s fear of the unknown. People don’t know what’s happening.”

Sammy Nawi. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
Sammy Nawi. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Sammy Nawi, who is from Morocco and has been living and running the Highlander Pizzeria in the town since 2012, loves the people of Oughterard “like family” and agrees with concerns that the town is “too small” to accommodate large numbers of asylum seekers.

He arrived in Ireland on a work permit. His business relies on tourism. What would hundreds of asylum seekers with very little money do all day in Oughterard, he asks. “It’s too many. Imagine they are walking in the town and they have no money and they see a tourist in the pub... They will be begging, of course.”

One woman who lives alone wonders if she will need extra security in her home; another says Oughterard relies on tourism, and “when visitors come, well, they expect to see natives”.

All say that they have huge sympathy for anyone seeking refuge in Ireland from war or persecution but that Oughterard is not the right place for them. Nawi suggests the town could accommodate perhaps “a few families” of asylum seekers, who should live in houses, not a hotel – but not hundreds. “These people, they should be in a city, not a village.”

Repeatedly, they say Oughterard has been neglected. Its national and secondary school are both full, its Garda station closed several years ago, replaced with an intercom on a wall to Salthill Garda station, more than 20km away. One of its two GPs retired a few months ago, and a long-standing campaign to widen a narrow humpback bridge over the Owenriff river, which children on foot must share with cars, remains unheeded by local authorities.

“We haven’t got the safety bridge for the kids which we have been campaigning for for years. They haven’t done up the N59. They haven’t built any social housing. All the facilities are under-resourced,” says one local, Patrick Curran.

“So they couldn’t find any money for those things, but they can find millions for this [centre]. We are not having some guy come in from Dublin and say they are putting them there because they don’t want them in Ballsbridge. So far from their end there’s only been secrecy. When there’s a cover-up it’s usually because they know people won’t like the truth. Communities don’t like to be treated like this.”

As for their opposition to “inhumane direct-provision centres”, none of the locals who speak to The Irish Times has been involved in campaigning against direct provision before. “We never had reason to,” comments a local businessman, who does not want to be named.

John Gibbons, a retiree, had not known much about direct provision before last week. “I was going on with my life. Just overnight I heard about this. I didn’t realise it was like this... We wouldn’t do to animals what they do to those poor individuals. This situation has got me thinking about it. The whole model has to change, and Oughterard has to be a voice for that, for all our communities.”

If Department of Justice officials visited Oughterard and gave people facts and figures about what was being proposed, could they support asylum seekers coming to the town?

Francis Herron at Oughterard’s narrow bridge. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
Francis Herron at Oughterard’s narrow bridge. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

“If they came down and told us what was happening, and if there was a limited amount [of asylum seekers], absolutely we could work together,” says Donnellan. “If we had Syrian families here wouldn’t we take them in, embrace them, love them, clothe them? Isn’t that who we are? It is. We just don’t know, and no one’s telling us a thing.”

Others, however, say it’s too late for visits from department officials. “You can’t trust them,” says the unnamed businessman. “They’ll say what you want to hear, and then they’ll find a way to do what they want anyway. We’re kind of sure the deal is done. The Government is not going to draw back, so neither can we.”

Francis Herron, owner of the Urban Tearoom, seems a lonely voice but may speak for more people than is apparent. He agrees that a wider, safer bridge is needed for the children; he crosses the existing bridge twice a day with his young son. But he fears for the direction the protest may take. “I hope they find a solution to it soon. I’d be very worried the way it could turn. It could get nasty.”

Lisdoonvarna

Population: 829

Two hours’ drive south, Lisdoonvarna, in Co Clare, is about 18 months ahead of Oughterard. And all who speak to The Irish Times this week say the town is calmer than it was.

A direct-provision centre was first mooted here, to open in the then closed King Thomond Hotel, in January 2018. As in Oughterard, locals learned about the plan through rumour and word of mouth. When a vote was taken at a public meeting in the town in February 2018, on whether the people would accept a reception centre, the result was 197 against and 15 in favour. But the hotel subsequently opened to women and children seeking asylum.

Some of the asylum seekers, who have been in Ireland more than nine months, have been able to take up employment locally. The two schools – St Enda’s National School and Mary Immaculate Secondary School – have taken in about 40 new pupils between them. Although both principals have decided not to give media interviews, people say the children have had a “wonderful” impact. The schools have been allocated additional resources, including extra staff, and a community creche has also seen additional investment.

Has there been any trouble since the centre opened? Christy, an elderly man, says: “Not at all. Sure they are up there and they keep to themselves. You see them coming into town for shopping, and if it’s a wet morning you’d give them a lift, the same as anyone else. The only thing you’d say is there is very little provision made for them, very little facilities for play for children.”

Being an asylum seeker is a very tough, terrifying and precarious position to be in. There is a huge reliance on voluntary groups to smooth the edges of that

Peggy, who is in her 60s, and sitting outside her shop in the sun, says she was worried when she first heard of the plans. “We’re just a small population. They said it wouldn’t go ahead if too many objected. Everyone objected, and it still went ahead. It did cause division.

“Has it turned out okay? I’d say so. We thought they would be around the streets, but you wouldn’t see much of them. There are droves of the children, but they’re all right.”

The new residents seem reasonably happy, although several refer to how small Lisdoonvarna is and how little it has for the children, especially during school holidays.

Smoyo, who is from Zimbabwe, has been in the King Thomond since March 2018, with her two children. She suffered depression at first. The people were “so welcoming”, she says, but she found the isolated location difficult. She has since got work housekeeping at a hotel and hopes to study information technology.

The centre itself, unlike many visited by The Irish Times, is in good condition: bright, clean and well maintained. The manager on duty, who does not want to be named, is in good spirits and seems proud of the centre, showing a huge television it has just bought for a planned Friday cinema club for the children.

She urges visitors to join residents for the evening meal, which looks and smells appetising. Coffee, tea and biscuits are going all day in the lobby, and volunteers from Lisdoonvarna Links are in helping children with homework.

Orla Ní Éilí, manager of Clare Immigrant Support Centre, says this kind of voluntary community work is vital to making life in direct provision bearable. But it is also “pot luck” whether it’s in the community.

The immigrant support centre provides free legal and practical advice on the asylum process, entitlements, education, housing and supports to asylum seekers in the county.

“Being an asylum seeker is a very tough, terrifying and precarious position to be in. There is a huge reliance on voluntary groups to smooth the edges of that. In most towns there are good people who will stand up and set up the support organisations, but there is no reason to assume those agencies will be there.

“The mostly voluntary work in ensuring the residents are supported in making progress in their lives is constant. The people of Lisdoonvarna have been very lucky with the fantastic work and support that has come from the school principals, the education and training board and Lisdoonvarna Links.”

Roosky

Population: 564

The opportunity to have 80 asylum seekers boost the local population was denied to the people of Roosky. In March, after two arson attacks on the Shannon Key West Hotel, the Reception and Integration Agency cancelled plans to reopen it as a direct-provision centre.

The hotel, on the banks of the Shannon, closed in 2011 and remains shuttered. The village, many of its shops and houses boarded up, is deserted.

“The hotel is an eyesore,” agrees one woman sitting outside Tegi’s Tea Room in the village. “But the whole town is an eyesore since the Glanbia factory closed, in 2002. I’m definitely glad the direct provision is not going ahead, though. There’s no jobs for our own in the village, never mind bringing other people in.”

Why did they choose here, in the middle of nowhere? Why not in Naas, Newbridge, Portlaoise? Why pick a village like this? And no one asked us. They just imposed a plan, and that’s why people don’t trust them

Tegi Brennan, owner of the tea room, who is originally from Mongolia, disagrees. “I would be very happy if it opened for asylum seekers. We need people in the town, a bit of life. If other people come in I’m very happy. We have to learn other people’s lives.”

Similarly, Jimmy Gjyrevci, who works in a chip shop and came to Ireland as a refugee from Kosovo in 2002, says: “My wife is from here, and I have two beautiful boys. Whatever people say, if they are people coming from war, I came as well from war and I never had any problems. It would be good to see anything open there.”

As in Lisdoonvarna and Oughterard, the lack of consultation from the Department of Justice is mentioned. In Tighe’s supermarket a smartly dressed man in his 50s initially says he has no view on the issue.

“Why would I mind? But why did they choose here, in the middle of nowhere? Why not in Naas, Newbridge, Portlaoise? Why pick a village like this? And no one asked us. They just imposed a plan, and that’s why people don’t trust them.”

The direct-provision system

Direct provision was introduced in 1999 as a temporary measure to provide accommodation and meals for people from overseas seeking asylum in Ireland. Twenty years later, often criticised by international and Irish human-rights organisations, the system remains. Adults and children receive a personal allowance of €21.60 a week. Children go to primary and secondary school but have limited access to third level. Adults in the system may now work.

As of September 8th, 2019, 6,056 people were living in the 38 accommodation centres. And with applications for asylum this year, centres are full to bursting. As a result the Reception and Integration Agency has turned to emergency hotel accommodation for a further 1,250 people.

Nick Henderson, chief executive of the Irish Refugee Council, says the varied experiences of the small towns shows that the agency must consult, inform and listen to towns when a direct-provision centre is proposed.

“Communities should not have a veto, but there should be basic requirements for where people in the asylum process are accommodated,” he says. People must be reassured that services will be enhanced where necessary, and the growing unease with placing “large numbers of vulnerable people in institutional-style buildings on the edge of local communities” must be listened to.

It is also important to have people in the community – such as Lisdoonvarna Links – who can steer local discontent towards positive demands for enhanced resources to accommodate new arrivals, and away from outright rejection of them.

Lucky Khambule, a founder of the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland, says he is not convinced that protesters are genuine in their opposition to direct provision on humanitarian grounds.

“From our experience, their opposition is to asylum seekers, not the way we are treated. I look forward to seeing them at our rallies this autumn against the inhumanity of the direct-provision system. We refugees and asylum seekers are looking forward to working with communities, like Oughterard, all over Ireland to end direct provision.”