Why are we locking female asylum seekers into limbo?


OPINION:3,000 women and girls who have fled horror are stuck in hostels and caravans full of new fear

AIKIDWA MEANS sisterhood, and today the African women’s group of that name will publish a report that will call upon the Irish people to extend our solidarity to some of the most impoverished and traumatised women in the world, living here in Ireland.

They are asylum seekers, many of them waiting for years in conditions not meant to last more than a few months.

In a week that has seen the news full of Irish people venting rage and frustration because they have had to queue for hours to get a passport, it is worth considering the silence which has surrounded the plight of those living in limbo here, exiled from home and without status.

The report, Am Only Saying It Now, is based on interviews with women living in what is known as “direct provision” in hostels, caravan parks and converted convents around the State.

Out of 6,482 asylum seekers awaiting application decisions, almost 2,000 are women and almost 1,000 are girls. Some are here with husbands and families, some with their children, some alone. More than half have been waiting for more than two years, while one-third have been waiting for more than three. For some, it has been over seven years.

This means that some children are spending their formative years in a system which one woman described as being “like jail, except that in jail you would know when you are getting out”.

When the Government introduced its direct provision and dispersal policy in 2000, we were told the accommodation being purchased would be used to house people for “not more than six months.” Those living like this are paid €19 per week for an adult and €9 for a child. Asylum seekers are not allowed to work, may not attend third-level education, and must not be absent from their hostel for more than three nights.

Families live in single rooms, often sharing bathrooms with others. Single women may have to share rooms with women with children; single men live alongside families and single women. This is not well designed for women who have been raped or trafficked.

While some centres are run well, others are dirty and overcrowded. Many women say they feel unsafe. When asked by Aikidwa director Salome Mbugua, who researched and wrote this report, what her predominant feeling was, one woman replied: “Fearful.”

Many women fear their own partner. Some men were violent before they arrived here; others have become so. “Men feel frustrated . . . and they take it out on women,” another woman said.

Some spoke about the Irish men who hang around outside the hostels, shouting at them from cars, inviting them to sell sex. Some women are strong and cope by volunteering with Irish community groups. “I would go mad with boredom otherwise,” a highly qualified professional told me. Mental illness and depression are rife in the hostels.

For Princess Oriyomi Somorin (41), the right to live a normal life in Ireland was granted too late. After five unsuccessful attempts, she managed to kill herself with an overdose of prescription drugs, less than two months after her application for asylum was finally approved by the Department of Justice last year.

During a recent meeting Aikidwa held about women in armed conflict, women from Rwanda, Nigeria, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo talked about the harsh brutality they had fled. These women had variously known war, poverty, hunger, political persecution, rape, female genital mutilation and domestic violence. They had lost relatives and friends to war, and they had to leave behind people they loved.

Aikidwa’s report reveals the harsh indifference they have met in this country.

Not getting to Disney World because you didn’t get your passport is disappointing.

Having no place safe to lay your head is worse.

Susan McKay is director of the National Women’s Council