Stuck in Ireland's hidden villages
After five years of 'direct provision', asylum seekers tell Kitty Holland about their sense of helplessness at being unable to work or get full-time education
She puts a brave face on it, for the children's sake. "You have to," she says. "I brought them to this country, I cannot be upset in front of them now."
Sitting in the tidy, if somewhat shabby, mobile home where she and her family of three daughters have been living for 18 months, Odette (not her real name) explains that she left her job as an agricultural economist in Cameroon because her husband was being sought for his political activities.
"He fled to the US and when he was gone they started attacking me and my children," she says. "They said they would kill us if we did not tell where my husband was. He is seeking asylum in the US and I am seeking it here."
Asked if she has contact with him, the strong-featured 36-year-old half-laughs.
"No. Oh my gosh, no. Phone calls are too expensive," she says.
Outside, on the tarmacadam site about two miles outside Athlone, Co Westmeath, are about 50 more mobile homes standing row by row, accommodating 320 asylum seekers. This is the second biggest accommodation centre for asylum seekers in the State (the largest is in Mosney, Co Meath). There are 66 others across 25 counties currently accommodating 6,500 asylum seekers on "direct provision". Since April 2000, as part of this system, all asylum seekers are dispersed to centres outside Dublin about two weeks after they arrive. They are provided with bed and board and a "payment to cover personal requisites" of €19.10 a week per adult, and €9.60 per child.
They are not permitted either to work or to take up full-time education, though children aged under 18 are entitled to education. In the five years since direct provision was introduced, some 37,000 people have been through it.
"Oh yes, I do get depressed and sometimes I cry," says Odette. "But like I say before, you have to put on a brave face for them." She looks at her eight-year-old daughter, dressed in a navy school uniform, playing at the sink. "You go to your friends here to spill your problems. But you are helpless. You have no control. It is like you are at the mercy of the system."
Odette's two other daughters are aged five and three.
The Athlone centre is situated down a hill from the main road, between the Department of Education offices and a Traveller halting site. Once down the hill, visitors must turn a corner behind a small bank of grass to get to the entrance. This community of sorts cannot be seen from passing cars. With no shop, park or play area within walking distance, its residents must get either the hourly bus or a taxi into town.
Odette goes into Athlone once a week, on Fridays, to collect her €47.90 entitlement (for one adult and three children) from the post office. It is an "outing" for the youngest girls and the money is spent "immediately", mainly at the one African shop in the town.
"I buy African food - groundnut oil, plantain, spices, yams, semolina, cornflour. As well, I buy yogurts, drinking chocolate, tea. This for the children," she says, picking up a large bottle of blackcurrant squash. Around the small living space are other items she has had to buy: Calpol, cheap toys, a colouring book.
Asked about clothes, she says she gets a clothing allowance for the children, of €60 every six months, and shops in Penneys and Dunnes ("when there are sales") and charity shops.
While food is provided, it is monotonous. Partially cooked meals are collected by residents and the cooking is finished in their vans. For breakfast they collect two litres of milk and a loaf of bread per day per van, regardless of how many people live in it or their ages. They also get a piece of fruit per person per day. Lunch and dinner, say residents who spoke to The Irish Times, are essentially the same every day: rice or pasta, a tomato-based sauce, and either fish or chicken.
Odette opens the white lunch boxes she collects the food in, to show today's fare - four small mackerel in one, a watery "sauce" that looks like puréed canned tomatoes in a second, and plain cooked pasta in the third.
"I will cook vegetables and spices and make it tasty," she says. "But my girls hate fish."
Desserts, biscuits, tea, coffee, fruit juice or condiments are not provided.
Another mother, Cordella (not her real name), shows me the "baby food" provided for infants who have moved on to solids: a pale broth with a scoop of mashed potato floating in it.
"It is the same every day. Never changes," she says. "I had to buy a blender to blend it. It was €15 in Argos and I saved up for six weeks to get it. I had to mash and mash and mash till I got it."
Babies are also provided with a packet of nappies and two small tins of formula milk a week. All mothers said that this food, as well as milk, runs out and they must supplement it from their allowance.
English and maths classes are provided on the site, though most residents have little or nothing to do all day, particularly those without children. Asked how she spends her time, Odette looks away and stares ahead a moment, before replying: "Sit and think. I think too much."
Others are involved in voluntary work. One woman from Nigeria, who volunteers for St Vincent de Paul, says the organisation has been "very good to me. They stop me and my children from going naked".
Salome Mbuga, development support worker with the New Horizons project in Athlone, lists the practical problems of the direct provision system, saying it is "very difficult bringing up children", that people have huge problems with depression and boredom and that "for men it is especially difficult when they are used to being providers and working". Most passionately, she rails against the social exclusion it forces upon asylum seekers.
"They [ asylum seekers] feel so segregated," she says. "They feel they are seen as bad people, that they must be hidden away. It definitely reinforces racism."
In Dundalk, Abraham (not his real name), from Nigeria, speaks of the loss of pride two years on direct provision has caused for him. The 34-year-old single man, living in Kincora House, would like to work using his media-analysis qualifications.
"Being in a hostel is very depressing," he says. "You don't have that pride any more. You can't do anything for yourself, just eating and going back to your bed and sleeping. You can't work. You can't get education."
Though he is provided with shampoo and toiletries, he likes to buy some for himself, "just small things, to make your own choice, to go and get it for yourself". He does some voluntary work, as "it helps you not to think".
When he introduced direct provision in 2000 the then minister for justice, John O'Donoghue, said he was doing so as a "matter of extreme urgency". The number of asylum applications, he said, was "spiralling out of control" and the welfare system "must not act as a pull factor for non-genuine asylum seekers". With Britain due to introduce a form of direct provision in April 2000, with food vouchers rather than cash welfare, O'Donoghue said that if Ireland did not have a similar system the State would be "overwhelmed" with asylum applications. The new regime, of dispersing asylum seekers out of Dublin to accommodation centres, was introduced without consultation with asylum seekers, NGOs working with immigrants or indeed the communities to which they were to be sent.
The legality of its introduction - by department circular rather than by legislation - was questioned at the time. Though the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA), which manages the centres on behalf of the department, inspects all centres twice-yearly, the department itself has carried out no review of the system. Some 37 per cent of those who have gone through the system have been children aged under 18.
Those who have examined it include the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, the Combat Poverty Agency, the Free Legal Advice Centres (Flac), Ibec, the Vincentian Refugee Centre, Barnardo's, the Society of St Vincent de Paul, the Irish Refugee Council and even some health boards. All of these have criticised it harshly.
A study last year by the North Western Health Board, found that those on direct provision had a lower than recommended intake of vitamins A and D. The diet had a negative impact on breastfeeding, infant feeding, and the "social, cultural and emotional contexts of eating". It was low on fruit and vegetables, and 45 per cent of those surveyed had gained weight. The authors found many cases of people avoiding meals because they found them unpalatable but also, as a means of "self-expression, of exercising control".
Dr Pat Bracken, consultant psychiatrist at Bantry Hospital, who has worked with asylum seekers in Britain and torture victims in Uganda, addressed a meeting organised by the RIA earlier this year. He said the system of direct provision could, in some ways, do as much long-term damage to asylum seekers' mental health as the trauma from which they have fled. He told The Irish Times that the similar regime in Britain "profoundly demoralised" asylum seekers, causing depression and mental problems.
"It is part of a whole process of invalidation of them as people, of powerlessness, giving rise in many cases to a depression more insidious than the initial trauma," he says. "My argument is that to focus on the trauma they have fled as the cause of their mental ill-health lets us off the hook."
He adds that the length of time people are left on a direct provision regime is critical. According to the department, as of the end of February, 40 per cent of those on direct provision had been on it for a year or less, 41 per cent for between one and two years, and 19 per cent for more than two years.
"In my work," says Bracken, "I found that what people want more than anything after a terrible trauma is to establish a meaningful way of life, to be a part of the society. I have yet to meet an asylum seeker who is not desperate to work. This notion that people come here to get welfare is utter rubbish."
Employers' organisation Ibec has asked that asylum seekers in Ireland more than six months should be allowed to work.
A report published by the Flac in July 2003 examined the system from an equality perspective, concluding that it was probably "in contravention of the Equal Status Act", was questionable under section 40.1 of the Constitution (which mandates the organs of the State to treat all persons with equal respect and esteem) and raised issues under the European Convention on Human Rights.
The department argues that the system is necessary to ensure that welfare doesn't act as a pull to people intent on making "bogus" asylum applications. The chief executive of the Irish Refugee Council, Peter O'Mahony, echoes Bracken's sentiments on this when he says that an asylum seeker's choic of country is "only moderately affected by factors [ such as welfare] on the ground". He points to a UNHCR statement in 2000 stating that "asylum seekers, when deciding where to lodge their application, are more swayed by the presence of their own community than by the reception standards and benefits".
When asked whether she would consider returning to Cameroon, given the hardships she and her family endure in Athlone, Odette is definitive. "No, this will come to an end. And this life is better than death," she says.