You make your way to the edge of the town, just off the motorway exit. You pass the industrial estate on your right. You take an unsignposted slip road that brings you past metal fences on one side and the blind side of a warehouse on the other. And there, at the end of the empty road, is a traffic barrier and a security hut. A tricolour flutters in the summer breeze. There are no signs to direct visitors here. No public transport route that serves this place. This largely hidden side of Ireland’s asylum system seems to function as a closed, confined space, cut off from the rest of society.
This is Athlone Accommodation Centre, a concrete and tarmac expanse where 100 mobile homes are laid out in neat lines. It’s one of 34 so-called direct provision centres scattered across the country, which are home to 4,360 asylum seekers, including more than 1,600 children.
When the system was introduced, in November 1999, it was meant to provide shelter for just six months, until applicants were granted refugee status or deported. The system proved dysfunctional, fragmented and slow. But there has been no political will to change it. Today, thousands of asylum seekers spend years living in conditions that almost everyone agrees are damaging to the health, welfare and life chances of those forced to endure them. Under the system, asylum seekers are not allowed to work. They are not entitled to regular social welfare, such as child benefit. And they are excluded from social housing and free third-level education. Instead, asylum seekers receive bed and board through the direct-provision system and a weekly payment of €19.10 per adult and €9.60 per child.
The centres, which also include former hostels and hotels, are mostly State-owned and are run by private contractors that receive about €50 million in taxpayers’ funding each year. The State-run Reception and Integration Agency says it ensures the basic needs of all residents are met. But a range of international human rights groups, including the United Nations, as well as the Ombudsman and other watchdog bodies, have heavily criticised the significant challenges faced by those who live within the system.
It’s comforting to think of Ireland’s culture of concealment as the relic of a time of mental asylums, mother-and-baby homes and Magdalene laundries. But the way the State manages those who seek refugee status in Ireland today, say campaigners, feels increasingly connected through time and space to an era we look back on with shame. It’s hardly a surprise, then, that people such as Catherine McGuinness, the former Supreme Court judge, have predicted that a future government will end up apologising for damage done by the system today.
Simmy laughs and apologises for the chaos. "This is what happens when you share a mobile home with two children," she says. Her mobile home is crammed with boxes of schoolbooks and files, cleaning products and clothes. A child's bike is in the corner. Simmy shares a tiny bedroom with her nine-year-old.
The big problems, she says, are the obvious ones. Not being able to work. (She’s a qualified professional in marketing and event management.) Seeing your children grow up with no memory of you ever cooking a family meal. The loss of privacy that comes with sharing a cramped living space with your daughters.
But the everyday humiliations can be just as corrosive to your self-esteem: queueing for your €19.10 and getting comments from locals about “sponging the system”, or going to the GP when your blood pressure is high and being asked why your kind keeping coming here, or being afraid to complain about conditions because you’ve seen other people get moved without warning.
Simmy’s 18-year-old daughter, Yolanda, sleeps in the other room. She finished her Leaving Cert earlier this summer. Studying when the walls are paper thin and your little sister is a bundle of energy isn’t easy. But she worked hard and would like to think she got enough points to study accountancy.
It’s an exciting crossroads for her friends at school, but for Yolanda it feels as if all avenues are blocked. The system regards her as an international student, no matter how long she’s been resident here. It means paying full third-level fees of about €10,000 a year.
“It’s terrifying,” Yolanda says. “Everyone else is so excited. They knew where they’re going. I don’t . . . It’s really unfair on students who have studied very hard.” As she speaks, her eyes well up. The only option is a scholarship or, at a long shot, sponsorship from a benefactor.
“Why would anyone want to punish children for the sins of their parents?” says Simmy. “It’s just not right. If parents can’t work, fine. But taking the opportunity of education away from a child?”
For some, the uncertainty and the conditions become too much to bear. Primrose arrived in Ireland as a 19-year-old. Eight years later she is approaching her 30s. She shares a single room with two children. The years of stress have taken their toll on her. She has been on anti-depressants for three years. Primrose tries to put on a brave face for her children. But it gets harder to hide her feelings. She hates herself for it, she says, but you lose patience easily and end up perpetually short-tempered and irritable.
“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.”
At a time when Ireland, through its seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, is advocating the protection of human dignity and wellbeing worldwide, it has been on the receiving end of stinging international criticism over the direct-provision system. Just last month a UN committee called for reforms on the basis that people were spending too long in a system that was unconducive to family life.
So, if the system is dysfunctional, why has it been tolerated for so long by successive governments? A clue may lie in Government briefing papers seen by The Irish Times. A confidential 12-page document concedes that although the system is "not ideal", any improvements raise the risk of asylum seekers from the UK moving here to avail of better conditions.
“Leaving aside the considerable difficulty in putting in place alternative reception conditions for those asylum seekers already here . . . the biggest concern would be the ‘pull factor’ involved,” the papers say.
This hands-off policy seems to be working – if the aim of policymakers is to deter asylum seekers from coming here in the first place. The numbers seeking refugee status here have fallen from a high of 11,500 asylum applications in 2002 to fewer than 1,000 last year.
But thousands remain stranded in a highly inefficient system. Unlike many European countries, Ireland does not have a single process in which claims for asylum are followed automatically by claims for subsidiary protection or leave to remain.
Instead, different rules and timescales, combined with a shortage of judges, mean applicants spend years navigating their way through a labyrinthine system of appeal and review mechanisms. Given the system’s slow pace, experts estimate it would take four and a half years to clear the current backlog of appeals.
Asylum seekers spend an average of three years and seven months in the system. More than 1,600 have spent five or more years, and more than 600 have spent in excess of seven years here.
Successive ministers for justice have maintained that the direct-provision system is the most humane and cost-effective way to ensure the needs of asylum seekers are met.
But Northern Ireland’s High Court had a different take when it adjudicated on a recent case. It quashed an order by UK authorities to send a Sudanese asylum seeker and her three children back to the Republic, where they had initially sought asylum.
The judge noted that the system here meant asylum seekers could spend four or five years in communal centres and were barred from working or to claim State benefits while resident there. “The wellbeing both emotionally and financially of the primary carer and the importance of that to the wellbeing of the children in her care would point significantly to the best interests of the children being to remain in Northern Ireland,” he ruled.
The new Minister for Justice, Frances Fitzgerald, is the latest appointment to pledge to introduce reforms, one of which is to make a single application procedure for asylum applicants a "key priority" for the Government.
“Such reform would substantially simplify and streamline the existing arrangements by removing the current multilayered and sequential processes and provide applicants with a final decision on their application in a more straightforward and timely fashion,” she said recently.
Not everyone is strong
The way Simmy sees it, there are two kinds of people in the system: the people getting on with things and trying to stay hopeful; and those who have given up. You can see it in people's eyes, she says. There are eyes of hope, but there also eyes empty of anything.
“Not everyone is strong,” Simmy says. “You go to the laundry and people are fighting. A lot of people aren’t happy. They’re miserable . . . Some people are lucky. They have their [residency] papers in six months. We’re here four years, but most people are here for seven or eight years.”
She keeps busy with voluntary work. Her experience in marketing and event management helps in organising events for children at the centre. If there’s a summer sports camp in the town, for example, she tries to convince the organisers to sponsor some of the asylum-seeking children. “It gives the younger children something to do over the summer,” she says. “Some people are very good.”
The links with the community are important. She says some people still think asylum seekers lead “luxury lives” and are here to get cars or lavish benefits from the State. “At home in Zimbabwe there’s no welfare system,” she says. “You have to work. You have to make yourself useful, selling things or working for others. This kind of life is alien for us.”
It’s one of the reasons she does readings for schoolchildren at the local library. Sometimes she puts on traditional dress as she tells them stories about life in her home country. “They love it,” she says. “It’s important to understand different culture and people.”
By keeping problems out of sight, campaigners argue, it allows authorities to defend what many consider indefensible. Zygmunt Bauman, a UK-based Polish sociologist who has documented how anxieties about asylum seekers have been the basis for draconian policies, says morality is inextricably tied to human proximity. “It looms large and thick close to the eye,” he has written. “With the growth of distance, responsibility for the other shrivels, moral dimensions of the object blur, till both reach the vanishing point and disappear.”
In the meantime Simmy and her family wait. And wait. They’ve been here four years. Chances are they could be waiting for several more. “Most of us, we just want a chance to work and contribute to society,” she says. “If our application was rejected after 12 months, fair enough. But keeping families and children here three, four or five years – and seeing people deteriorate? That just doesn’t seem right.”