Inside Ireland’s Direct Provision System: Enter Covid-19
DUBLIN, IRELAND 21/04/2020
Surviving Ireland’s asylum system is emotionally taxing. In the first instance, a person claims asylum when they fear for their lives. To start the process, they must declare the need for international protection either at the port of entry or in the relevant office. From there, they will be directed to complete a form – the submission of which recognises them as an asylum seeker in the state. In Ireland, they will be asked if they have somewhere to stay while their asylum claim is being processed. The default reply from most asylum seekers who generally arrive without money, friends and family in Ireland, nor the right to work is “no.” Hence, most asylum seekers are sent to a Direct Provision centre.
Direct Provision is an asylum reception system that is presented by the Irish State as a benevolent means of looking after asylum seekers and their well-being. In reality, however, Direct Provision has inflicted great misery and suffering in the lives of those who have had to spend years in the system waiting for decisions on their asylum claims. After surviving the many horrors people escape from in their country of origin or habitual residence, asylum seekers must spend years trying to convince a hostile Irish bureaucracy that their experiences – of being chased by machete wielding herdsmen in Nigerian villages or of being used as sex slaves by the military in the DRC or Sudan — are real.
And even if they do believe that you’ve had stones thrown at you and of having been spat on for no reason other than your sexual orientation, they may still tell you to go back to your country. If you did not die from such experiences, they must not have been that bad. In such a way, one could only infer that a “good” refugee is a dead one.
And while you are busy trying to convince the Irish government that the horrors you experienced in your country of origin or habitual residence are worthy of international protection, you will also have to deal with the often petty cruelties of living in the abhorrent system of Direct Provision on a daily basis.
HUMILIATION AND INHUMANITY
They will take so much of your time you may end up complying with whatever management conjures up without question. Such as when the Eyre Powell Direct Provision centre banned asylum seekers from using their mobile phones and other electronic devices after 10pm. Or the time the Central Hostel in Milltown Malbay in Clare imposed a 10pm curfew for adult asylum seeking men. But even these inhumane treatments become minor when compared with the mother who told Irish courts that she had to sell sexual favours to support her sick child while living in Direct Provision.
Everyday life is characterised by poverty. Asylum seeking parents often make humiliating sacrifices to ensure that their children’s experiences of life are “cushioned” from the cruelties of living in Direct Provision. They may subject themselves to exploitation in the labour market by accepting a child minding job that will only pay them €20 per day if it means their children will have money for school lunch instead of the same sandwich provided by the Direct Provision centre everyday or rotationally. They may also take these jobs just to support their family back home, especially if they were the breadwinner prior to having to flee.
Most asylum seekers start each day by negotiating physical space or lack thereof, in the bedrooms they share, such as they did within the recently closed Mount Trenchard Direct Provision centre where as many as 10 men shared a bedroom or the Central Hostel in Clare where 8 men shared a bedroom.
These conditions are particularly harmful if you happen to be gay or transgender. You will have to live with the bigotry that prevails in many Direct Provision centres.
And if you are a teenager with 2 siblings, you will have to negotiate space in the 1 bedroom you share with both your parents and siblings in the Eglinton Direct Provision centre in Galway or in the Hazel Hotel Direct Provision centre in Monasterevin.
THE PAINS OF WAITING
And the more days, weeks, months, years you spend in the centre, it becomes an open prison. Your everyday experiences of life are shaped by your interactions with the people you live in uncomfortably close proximity to. This includes not only fellow asylum seekers but the the management and staff in the Direct Provision centre and the Irish State which presides over this system.
Stripped of agency, a contractor appointed by the Irish government will decide what you have for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They will also decide where you will have it – in the canteen, along with 200+ asylum seekers if you’re in the Knockalisheen Direct Provision centre, which is where I am currently residing.
The man who spent 10 years in the room I currently share with another man would have had Aramark staff decide what he has for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for 10 years of his life.
If your children are hungry and it is not yet meal time in the canteen, they will starve until the canteen opens like they have had to in Ciuin House “emergency” Direct Provision centre in Carrick-on-Shannon. Heaven help you if you cannot access the bathroom because the building is not accessible to any person who has a disability. If you need a wheelchair, it’s tough luck. You will just have to use arms to crawl, dragging your body on the floor like Ivar on Vikings to get where you need to go. Such is the cruelty of the Direct Provision system where vulnerable people are dispersed like goods to greedy operators who are only interested in lining their pockets. Life in Direct Provision is hard to bear. Every day is a new challenge.
Like biblical Leviathan appearing at sea, enter Covid19, in Direct Provision – an environment ripe for the disease to thrive. The virus taking days to reveal its presence in the human body means that the unavoidable close contact in Direct Provision would have a devastating impact. It would have spread to too many residents by the time a person starts showing symptoms and is taken to one of the government’s self isolation facilities.
All advice issued by the authorities on social distancing goes against the way everyday life is structured in the disgraceful system of Direct Provision. Hotels that had spent months refusing to allow asylum seekers to take food into their rooms like the Clayton Hotel suddenly had to learn to treat asylum seekers with some decency.
Some Direct Provision operators still insisted on asylum seekers congregating in canteens and dining halls, even though the government’s advice (which later became regulations) discourages that.
Asylum seekers across Ireland are anxious to this day as they are stripped of agency with no control of who they share a bedroom with, communal toilets, or dine with in many of the Direct Provision centres. The government says you should keep 2 metres away from the next person yet there is barely space in between beds. In some Direct Provision centres, we had as many as eight people sharing a bedroom.
I am reminded of my first night in Balseskin Direct Provision centre in Finglas. I was allocated a room on the 1st November in 2017 with a Ghanaian man, Edward. The tiny room had 3 single beds lined up. I went to sleep on the bed in the middle and Edward on my right. I woke up at 2am and there was a third man breathing on my left. He was so close to me I could feel his breath on my face as if we were sleeping on the same bed. I woke Edward up and inquired about the man on my left. Edward explained to me that the man arrived in Dublin Airport just before midnight seeking asylum and staff brought him to the room. It was creepy and I hated the place from the first night.
What of communal toilets, showers, kitchens, canteens and laundry facilities? I could not stand the communal showers in the men’s block. It was awful. The sight of semen, mucus or blood in communal bathrooms in the morning when you only want to brush your teeth, shower and head to canteen for breakfast is disgusting. Direct Provision makes it impossible to observe social distancing because of the shared intimate living spaces.
Even in a centre like Mosney Direct Provision centre where asylum seekers have their living quarters, it remains a massive ghetto with over 700 people who must queue in the food hall or laundry room.
A DISASTER UNFOLDING
It is no wonder that asylum seekers are terrified of a simple cough or sneeze.
Many feel ignored by the government and are left powerless to do anything to protect them against the Covid-19 pandemic. You can keep 2 metres away from the next person when you are outside but you will have to go to bed or the communal toilets/showers at some point. You are definitely going to the kitchen or canteen for food, with everyone in your centre. And when all that is done, you will have to go to sleep, with your roommate or roommates.
The first asylum seeker to test positive for Covid-19 the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI) learned of is a single mother who shared a communal kitchen with other asylum seekers in county Cork. The second shared a bedroom and other communal facilities with several others in a former hotel in Wicklow. The third is a man who shared a bedroom with two other men and other communal facilities in a hostel styled Direct Provision centre in Galway. And the numbers grew. In all instances, the asylum seekers had unavoidable contact with other asylum seekers due to the nature of the system of Direct Provision.
MASI learned about an asylum seeker who first had a persistent dry cough. Then came the sore throat. Fever followed before a night of difficulty breathing. Her roommate had to nurse her as staff in the centre seemed clueless on what to do. When the roommate who had to play nurse went to have breakfast the next day, staff asked “how is your roommate?” instead of providing self isolation facilities and the necessary support.
MASI wrote to the Department of Justice and Equality and the newly opened Direct Provision centre in Kerry designated rooms for self-isolation. This is the same hotel that recently refused to provide proper nutritious meals for a 2-year-old saying they will have to eat whatever is served in the dining hall with rest of the 120 asylum seekers. According to residents, the same operator was starving asylum seekers in the Central Hotel in Dublin. Elsewhere, terrified parents have had to keep their children in their bedrooms for weeks as every other space is communal.
While the impacts of the pandemic on school children in Ireland have been profound, children in Direct Provision will inevitably face developmental challenges if their living environment does not guarantee their safety, let alone their freedom to be children.
But this is not new in Direct Provision. Operators seem to do as they please. A security guard in Knockalisheen who had been sitting in the canteen ran towards me in a bid to prevent me from taking food to my room using Aramark’s precious plates.
The government’s regulations banning gatherings are ignored. There were over 200 asylum seekers living in Knockalisheen then. The thought of having to congregate in the canteen at meal times frightened me. We had to get food containers donated so some asylum seekers can take food to their rooms and avoid the crowd in the canteen at meal times.
It is extremely terrifying to be told that you should stay apart while the government places asylum seekers in an environment where such measures are impossible. More terrifying was receiving a call from staff in the Clayton Hotel which has had asylum seekers for more than a year. The staff member was calling because they needed to know what the protocol is when an asylum seeker in the hotel has tested positive for Covid-19.
The asylum seeker should have been in self-isolation from the minute it was believed that they could have the virus. That never happened. The asylum seeker was not in isolation at the time of receiving the Covid-19 diagnosis.
Along with the asylum seeker who had to nurse their symptomatic roommate in Kerry, all of this has been a harsh reminder of how cruel the system of Direct Provision can be. The Covid-19 pandemic has made such cruelty more salient with the Irish government’s refusal to provide self contained units for both singles and families in Direct Provision.
What the government did was to facilitate cocooning for the elderly, tried to identify people with underlying health conditions so they can cocoon too, and start the process of moving healthcare workers out of Direct Provision. The government also procured hotels that would be used to provide self isolation facilities and reduce overcrowding in Direct Provision. However, the people who were moved to these hotels were shocked to learn that they would still share bedrooms and other living spaces with strangers. It seems the government only moved them to appear to be doing something about Covid-19 in Direct Provision.
And while many across the country adjust to the realities of staying at home or sheltering in place, it has become clear that social distancing is itself a massive privilege. In the congregated settings of Direct Provision, such measures remain an elusive dream.