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Hotel Limbo: how Ireland institutionalises asylum seekers

Likened to “being in an abusive relationship”, the Irish policy of direct provision gives residents no hope, and no freedom.

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In direct provision centres in Ireland, refugees live on €21.60 (approximately £19) a week. “We don’t buy outside [of the centre],” says a mother in Mosney Accommodation Centre. “You can’t afford to”.

Established in 1999, the Irish programme of direct provision is supposed to be a short-term solution for asylum seekers. They are housed and provided for in camps, old holiday parks and hotels, all owned or managed by contractors for the Irish state.

Families are kept here while awaiting the outcome of their asylum applications. In theory, residents are not supposed to be here for more than six months. In reality, 55 per cent of those in direct provision have been there for five years or longer.

Residents must sign in and out of direct provision centres if they choose to leave for a day. In a 2014 case taken to the Irish High Court by a Ugandan asylum seeker mother, it was revealed that at the Eglinton Hotel in Galway, residents could not have visitors to their rooms or leave for protracted lengths of time, and were told to expect unannounced entry into their rooms. Asylum seekers are also unable to leave Ireland without the permission of the minister for justice and equality.

Direct provision is justified by the government as a response to the increase in asylum seekers since 1999, when 7,724 requests for asylum were received, up from 32 in 1992. The Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) asserts that at the time, given the increasing quantity of asylum applications, there was “a serious prospect of widespread homelessness among asylum seekers”. The response was the establishment of direct provision, which has been defended on the grounds that it fulfils Ireland’s duty towards refugees and is broadly in line with the situation in other EU states. Crucially, direct provision was only ever intended to be a short-term solution. In court during the 2014 case, the principal officer for the department of justice and equality, Noel Dowling, said that “were a person genuinely fleeing persecution...[they] would welcome the quiet and peaceful enjoyment of the Eglinton Hotel.”

This Hostel Life is a short story collection by Melatu Uche Okorie, the first publication by Skein Press, established in June 2017 with the aim of publishing voices in Ireland from ethnic minorities. The book opens with a short essay by Okorie, who lived in direct provision for eight and a half years with her young daughter. In a diary entry written in 2013, she describes direct provision as “like being in an abusive relationship”. She tells of never knowing what you could wake up to. An essential product could be withdrawn, the quantity of washing powder reduced, and the time of meals changed. Dinner “which was usually served between 5-7 pm, was moved to 4.30-5.30 pm. We swallowed it, as the management knew we would”.

In the Mosney centre, there is a shop that residents can purchase food from. In some ways, this is a luxury – the majority of the 34 centres around the country have no cooking facilities, instead serving three set meals a day. If you miss one of these meals, you go hungry. But the shop at Mosney was last year accused of selling out-of-date food to residents. After cooking and eating one of three packages of chicken she had bought, one mother staying at Mosney realised that the other two were two months out of date. Another mother in the centre told the Dublin Inquirer that “there is not enough food” in the shop to cater for the residents.

These issues with catering seem surprising because Mosney is a well-funded direct provision centre, having received €127.4m from the Irish government between 2002 and 2017. It is owned by Phelim McCloskey, a businessman from Drogheda whose personal wealth in 2015 was estimated at €46m.

Despite the millions of euros that the Irish state pours into direct provision centres, a report by Keelin Barry published by the Irish Immigration Support Centre (Nasc) in 2014 reveals an alarming situation. Food in direct provision centres is frequently described as “inedible, of poor quality, monotonous, bland and culturally inappropriate”. It fails to cater to cultural and religious needs of residents, or specific dietary requirements. With fears over food not being halal, some residents choose to become vegetarian to ensure that they uphold their religious rules. 

Direct provision robs asylum-seekers of the ability to create a community or celebrate their culture, unable to honour Ramadan, Orthodox feast days and other religious celebrations through cooking their own food. Residents are stuck in limbo, with restrictions on leaving or guests preventing them from fully integrating into Irish society, yet also unable to replicate their home communities through food and shared culture. One stark example of this comes from families in a Limerick Direct Provision, who, on Christmas Day 2017, found themselves locked out of the communal living space in their centre, despite dozens of residents having set aside part of their weekly allowance to contribute to food and drinks for the celebration.

The food provision is particularly demeaning for parents, who are unable to provide for their children by cooking meals. And especially concerning is the food actually offered for toddlers and children, which has been reported as unsuitable due to high levels of sugar, salt and fat. In interviews, parents also described the food as culturally inappropriate, meaning that their children refused to eat it.

The company Aramark holds 50 per cent of the market share of food services in Ireland. It also manages the direct provision centre studied in the report. In late 2017, students at UCD and Trinity College began boycotting food services on campus that were supplied by Aramark.

Of Ireland’s 34 direct provision centres, only three were purpose-built. They are owned by 17 different companies, including transnational corporations, private individuals, and one of the world’s richest investment funds. They are “making money from the asylum-seekers in the local DP centre they own, or manage, on contracts from the Irish State” according to John Grayson, an activist and researcher who writes for the Institute of Race Relations. Many of the companies have unlimited status, meaning they are hybrid companies where members or shareholders have unlimited legal liability. The companies do not have to declare their profits or publish their public accounts.

This is one of the key differences with the Irish system. The RIA has a very narrowly defined role, providing asylum seekers with accommodation and coordinating services. It does not lease services. Instead they “contract-in” services from a third party. There are no volunteer positions in direct provision centres because they are all managed or owned by different external parties, which can vary massively. Essentially, the services for asylum seekers are privatised with very little intervention from the government.

This is particularly concerning when it was revealed that the RIA “does not seek information outside on protection applicants outside its remit”. This means that finding out the cause of death in direct provision centres is not part of the RIA’s role. Rather, it relies on information provided by managers of the centres. 44 people died in direct provision between 2007 and 2016, and the cause of one in three of those deaths is unknown.

What is known is that life in the direct provision centres is demoralising and overcrowded. In 2014, the Irish Times produced a video called Lives in Limbo, in which asylum seekers spoke about their experiences of direct provision. Waleed, 14, was sharing a room with his parents and younger siblings. At the time of the video, he had just done his junior certificate (a qualification comparable to GCSEs in the UK). “It was really hard for me,” he said, “because I wasn’t able to study properly”.

Minahil, 12, had been living in a centre for nearly eight years. She says she finds it difficult to do homework because she can always hear her siblings crying. “There are five in my house including my mother ... it’s very hard: you can hear her crying at night. It’s very hard for me to sleep.” Youths are allowed free primary and secondary education, but are ineligible for government funding for university.

Perhaps the saddest part of Waleed’s story is the simple statement “I’ve nowhere to play”. The Lives in Limbo video effectively highlights the key problems with direct provision. Children are denied a proper childhood: they have nowhere to play, they have no private space, and they often feel embarrassed to bring friends home. They are not eligible for free tertiary education or student loans. Yet adults are also denied the responsibilities and privileges of adulthood. They are reduced to a level of dependency that is humiliating, prevented from providing for their families in even the most basic sense. Both children and adults are trapped in a state of reliance where they are prevented from properly experiencing either childhood or adulthood.

The €21.60 a week allowance is per person. But residents must buy sanitary products and pay for transport out of their allowance, and there are claims on social media that residents buy drinking water with this too. These claims have neither been confirmed or denied by the Irish Government, though the original tweet regarding the matter has been deleted. Supplies like nappies are rationed, and when mothers run out they can often not afford to purchase them. Such a tight budget leaves little room for leisure activities, and also makes it difficult to save up for things like university education.

In the title story of This Hostel Life, Okorie’s main character Beverléé complains that at her last hostel, “dey give you provision any day, but its gonna be one month since you collect last. So if you get toilet paper today, its gonna be one month before you get another. Dat is why me I happy when dey give me every week for here, but now, me I don feel happy again. Dis direct provision business is all the same, you see, because even if you collect provision for every week or you collect for every month, it is still somebody dat is give you the provision.” Crucially, it is still a system of reliance.

The book also contains an essay by UCD law professor Liam Thornton. He writes that “the system of enforced dependency and institutionalisation reminds me of the crueller and less understanding Ireland of the borstal, the Magdalene laundry”. He describes it as “degrading”. Ultimately, “Irish society’s ability to condemn, institutionalise, and castigate persons due to differences is ever present in 2018.”

The comparison Thornton draws suggests that direct provision is in part a hangover from a culture that has a history of institutionalising the vulnerable. The Magdalene laundries are the most famous example of this, with hundreds of women testifying to the degradation, cruelty and abuse suffered at the hands of the Irish State and the Catholic Church. The experiences of those in direct provision and the laundries are definitely not interchangeable, and to a large extent not that comparable. What is comparable, however, is the attitude of the State to the vulnerable. There is a definite sense of continuity; as journalist Una Mullally points out, “Ireland has an awful history of incarcerating people who have done nothing wrong”.

On the 25 July 2018, the Supreme Court of Ireland found the prohibition of asylum seekers in employment to be an “unlawful restriction of the right to seek employment under art 40.1 of the Constitution of Ireland”. While the removal of this prohibition is undoubtedly an important step for asylum seekers, the Supreme Court has given the Irish State power to restrict the rights on broad grounds. Asylum seekers cannot take employment that pays below €30,000 and a year, and are required to pay between €500 and €1000 for a work permit.

In an interview, Okorie described how “everybody [in direct provision] wanted to work. 100 per cent.” The right to work is essential to accessing the independence denied to those in direct provision, especially given that many asylum seekers are skilled workers. Having an income allows people to provide for both themselves and their families, most importantly reasserting some control over their own lives.

The Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (Masi) and the Anti-Racism Network Ireland (ARN) released a joint statement in response to the government’s decision. While welcoming it, they point out that the right to work is restricted to those have been in the international protection system for nine months and have not had a first decision on their application. In short, those who are appealing a negative decision will be unable to work. Asylum seekers are also unable to get a driving licence, or open a bank account.

Many asylum-seekers feel unable to complain about how they are treated in direct provision, for fear that it will hinder their asylum application. This is despite reports like that from the Johnston Marina Hotel, where evidence of bed bugs was found in family hotel rooms.

The direct provision system leaves asylum seekers in Ireland dehumanised and freedomless. It robs them of the autonomy of choice – the ability to cook for oneself, to seek higher education, and to integrate into the wider Irish community. As Beverléé says in This Hostel Life, “nothing is better than when you for decide something for yourself.”