A cross-party group of Senators is lending its support to a nationwide “day of action” tomorrow to highlight the “inhumanity” of the direct provision system for asylum seekers.
The series of events co-ordinated by the Irish Refugee Council (IRC) aims to highlight the negative impact of prolonged institutionalised living on almost 5,000 adults and children – and to stress that direct provision also "makes no economic sense".
Such is the physical and mental toll taken on people living in overcrowded conditions – with basic food, a €19.10 a week allowance and no right to work or study – that the health costs are incalculable, the group says.
And when even the ombudsman is denied a remit in this area, there is a very real risk that another “State-sanctioned scandal” similar to “that of the Magdalene laundries” is occurring “on our watch”, says Sinn Féin Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, a member of the Seanad’s “ad-hoc” group.
There has been little if no oversight of the actual conditions provided by private contractors, who earned €655 million between 2000 and 2010 to run asylum seeker hostels, Ó Clochartaigh and IRC chief executive officer Sue Conlan point out.
Some 38 per cent of the hostel residents are children, who have to share one room with their parents, and who the council has identified as suffering from malnutrition, poverty and lack of play space – in breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Cause of death
The dearth of information on a group of people existing in a parallel and highly controlled world while their asylum applications are processed means that there is no way of knowing the exact cause of 53 deaths which have occurred in direct provision over the past 12 years, Ó Clochartaigh says.
“A quarter of these deaths have been of children, and the official reason is natural causes, but when there is no independent oversight of how these people are being managed here, and no independent complaints mechanism for them; there is a question mark,” he says.
He and fellow members of the group, which he set up with Senator Jillian Van Turnhout (Ind), aim to seek a full Oireachtas debate on direct provision as part of a series of initiatives which included a day-long exhibition in Dublin last week by Doras Luimní of a replica of a typical family home in an asylum centre.
Asylum seekers have, at times, tried to publicise their plight, but the level of fear now of repercussions from authorities is such that few, if any, see protest as an option, according to several former residents of Lisbrook House in Galway.
One west African asylum seeker who had been involved in a demonstration there in May 2011 over hostel conditions believes his application may have been further delayed as a consequence.
Several of the demonstrations had received local support, as Lisbrook's location in the city was such that families were involved in community activities, such as an organic garden in Ballybane. Lisbrook House contractors Bridgestock Ltd declined to respond to queries from The Irish Times at the time of the protests over conditions there in 2011.
Lisbrook House, formerly the Ibis Hotel in Galway city, was closed in controversial circumstances six months ago and its 254 residents were transferred to other centres in Galway, Cork, Limerick, Waterford, Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo, Portlaoise, Newbridge, Co Kildare, Monaghan, Athlone, Co Westmeath, Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary, Dublin and Mosney, Co Meath.
Almost two-thirds of the Lisbrook residents were families with school-going children, who had already started the new term, and had to find education elsewhere.
An effort was made to relocate families with secondary school students doing State exams to the Eglinton centre in Salthill.
Unable to give his name to The Irish Times for this reason, the former Lisbrook resident spoke last week of his feelings of "complete despair" as he and his wife and three small children try to adjust to new circumstances since the transfer.
“My daughter woke up this week and cried about how much she missed her friends at school in the Mercy in Galway,” he said.
“People are going mad and dying of depression, but if an asylum seeker dies there is no change,” he said. “Once your name is mentioned in a newspaper, you become a target.”
“In Africa, we embrace white people, but I am not sure my children will feel the same way after this experience, if they ever are lucky enough to return there,” he said.
“Just recently, a Nigerian lady who had been here for eight years was deported with her two sons – and one man, who is a father, was sent away. Tomorrow they can still ship us like goods. It is having a terrible effect on families, and we never thought that Ireland would be like this,” he said.
The former resident spoke warmly of President Michael D Higgins who, as a Galway West Labour TD, had been in constant contact with asylum seekers, even though they have no right to vote.
He said he believed it was “no coincidence” that the treatment in Lisbrook, and ultimate closure, occurred after Mr Higgins had been elected to the presidency and was powerless to intervene.
The stated reason for closing Lisbrook was economic, to use up spare capacity in other hostels as part of an “ongoing programme of consolidation” by the State’s Reception and Integration Agency.
However, Ó Clochartaigh believes that there was no saving, as the lease with company Bridgestock Ltd was up for renewal.
Labour TD for Galway West Derek Nolan, who expressed concern about the hardship caused by the closure at the time, says that when he raises the issue of direct provision in the Dáil and in local papers, he has experienced a negative response from anonymous quarters.
“I have received vicious correspondence, and phone calls to the office,” he says.”A lot of TDs wouldn’t have direct provision centres in their constituency, or just wouldn’t get involved, so they wouldn't have had this experience, but I know that it is not a popular topic.”
He says he could see the value in direct provision when first established as an immediate measure for people traumatised and fleeing conflict. “When people are caught in it for years, it causes terrible despair,” Nolan says.
Some 36 per cent of asylum applicants have been waiting for over five years in a system which was set up in 2000 to give short-term shelter. As the Irish Immigrant Support Centre pointed out earlier this month, Ireland is out of step with Europe in opting out of an EU directive laying down minimum standards for asylum seekers.
Minister for Justice Alan Shatter told the Dáil last month that this was because access to the labour market would have to be granted under the EU directive to applicants still waiting for a decision after a year.
“Extending the right to work to asylum seekers would almost certainly have a profoundly negative impact on applications,” he said.
Speaking on behalf of Mr Shatter in the Dáil last week, Minister for Health James Reilly said that he intended to republish a revised Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill, which would “substantially simplify and streamline the existing arrangements for asylum, subsidiary protection and leave to remain applications”.
Since the Minister took up office the number of persons being accommodated in direct provision had "fallen significantly by approximately 1,000 or 25 per cent in the period in question", Mr Reilly said.
Day of action
The Irish Refugee Council's day of action tomorrow takes place in Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick, Castlebar, Co Mayo, and Tralee, Co Kerry, involving groups such as Doras Luimní, AkiDwa and Tralee International Resource Centre.
Mrs Justice Catherine McGuinness is supporting a “solidarity walk” in Dublin from Leinster House at 12.45pm to the Department of Justice at 1.30pm where a presentation by young people living in direct provision will be made.
Full details can be viewed on irishrefugeecouncil.ie/event /campaign-to-end-institutional-living-day-of-action