Back in early October, something unusual happened – instead of recycling the reactionary moral panic of his listeners into stellar ratings, Joe Duffy turned his attention to the fate of those left languishing in direct provision. Rashers Tierney takes a look at our nation’s latest institutional wrongdoing.
With Joe’s blessing, the oddball maze of myths and lies, the stories of free cars and prams and of eating up local authority housing lists – lifted for a moment as Joe Public heard the voice of a Syrian called Ali describing six years of his life systemically stalled.
A string of articles appeared in the Irish Times. Anyone with their ear to the ground already knew most of the facts: adults forced to survive on €19.10 a week, cramped conditions, no proper cooking facilities and people locked away awaiting decisions for the best part of a decade. Taking their lead from a favourable ruling in Northern Ireland, two families (with support from the Irish Refugee Council) went to the High Court challenging their exclusion from social welfare payments.
After years of closing its eyes to this ticking time bomb of human despair, direct provision was centre stage in the Irish media. Campaigners weighed in, and Senator Jillian van Turnhout brought a motion to the Seanad backing their calls for reform.
Shatter of course inveighed against the motion. Yet like many of our hypocritical politicians, he had very different opinions before power. Back then he went as far as to criticize the “inefficient and maladministered asylum system” for its “detrimental and stultifying impact on individuals.”
In the offices of a city centre based NGO that works to support refugees, Nathan (name changed to protect his identity), an asylum seeker activist dissects Shatter’s official-speak to the Oireachtas.
“The minister said in the Dáil that the policies are working because people are not coming in. In a way the people who are already in the country are being punished for the others who are coming in! That is what is implied!”
Rather than the direct provision system being broken, from the point of view of the state, its very much doing its job as a deterrent. As its chief architect John O’Donoghue put it: “Giving a right to work would simply create another ‘pull’ factor which would put further pressure on the asylum-processing system.”
Nathan is among a new generation of outspoken asylum seekers who have been working on the End Institutional Living Campaign supported by the Irish Refugee Council. Using the dirt cheap Lyca phone network, they are able to build a network of activists across the 35 or so centres, many out of the way and isolated.
“Social media has created empowerment. Before, there were issues that were kept quiet but now the moment they go public the media will definitely get it – no matter that the centres don’t allow journalists in, but now someone can use their smartphone and record something…and give it to journalists.”
Trinity academic and ardent critic of state racism, Ronit Lentin, argues that direct provision centres keep people in a “state of deportability” – fear is purposefully maintained. Tools like Facebook might forge strength through shared knowledge, but the community is a hard one for heads like Nathan to mobilise.
In April, there was a demonstration followed by a deportation – he remembers the same thing happening back in 2010. Is the state deliberately carrying out reprisals against the community? Nathan doesn’t think it could be officially that callous but maintains cynicism. He continues:
“Look at it this way, this demonstration we did, people were afraid to participate, but it was the largest across the country, but two days after that a lot of people were issued with deportation letters, a lot of people who had participated – what a coincidence! So the next time you call for a demonstration how many people will come? The timing! These guys will know, ‘when we did THIS, they did THAT’. That is how it plays out in my mind.”
It’s not like the Irish state is known for its subtlety. Remember World Refugee Day in 2012? Deportation raids took place in Carrick-on-Suir, Cork and Portlaoise. The Anti Racism Network described how “A woman called Adekemi tried to harm herself with a knife while she was being taken from her room. After having dragged her outside naked from the waist up, the police pepper sprayed her, beat her severely, and handcuffed her in front of early age children who were visibly distraught.”
Nathan told me a story about a middle aged woman, so upset with what she’d heard on Liveline that she brought down thousands of euros worth of vouchers to a hostel in Dublin. It’s the deliberate dispersal of asylum seeker housing that keeps the problems they face out of sight.
“Those who know about it tend to say it’s none of my business, it doesn’t affect me directly – so they ignore it.” Locals, he says, sometimes get a notion and pop into the centres to see what it’s like with their own eyes. “The moment people get an awareness, of what is happening and how the taxpayer’s money is being used to fund such centres for asylum seekers the more infuriated the taxpayer is getting.”
It’s the economic irrationality of it all that bugs him too. In 2005, researchers for the European Migration Network put the cost paid to a contractor as somewhere between €189 and €230 per resident per week in a privately owned centre.
“To me that doesn’t make any sense, I don’t know how they go about calculating their money. I want to go get a job, I want to earn 60 grand a year or earn 15 grand a year – I could still sustain my family, why give me 12 grand for nothing? I just wake up and sleep and they give me 12 grand.”
This forced idleness means each day becomes the same as the next, time becomes a loop and it’s mentally devastating. “If someone has more than twelve hours in a day to do nothing, it all depends on your mental strength how you are going to survive that.” Nathan occupied himself with volunteering and keeping on top of his professional field. Others don’t fare so well. “I mean this is an ever changing world we are living in…we have lots of professionals in the direct provision centres, but now they are deskilled.”
One guy he came across has some of Microsoft’s highest qualifications: “He’s a super whiz, but he’s in Mosney! At one stage Dell called him from Poland. I don’t know how they got his number. But they couldn’t pay him because he is an asylum seeker.”
Conditions in the centres are famously bad and the human costs obvious. Carl O’Brien has reported extensively in the Irish Times on the 800 million given to a string of privately owned former religious buildings, failed hotels and mobile home parks and hostels. The system is a huge financial lifeline to private companies that may well have hit the wall once the recession hit. Many of which shield their profits from public view.
A care worker that worked with separated children in an Aungier Street hostel told me more about their conditions.
“At some point over 30 young men were living in that hostel which is a tight squeeze. The conditions were very bad. Only when we went in did we request that they bring the standards up. The HSE did not advocate (as far as I could see) for better living conditions…the food was appalling.”
Nathan has been through a string of these centres. While Mosney sits in the popular imagination as a dilapidated holiday home made up of prefabs it’s far from the worst he says: “Mosney is like the show house, any official coming into the country to deal with asylum or how we are accommodated, we have seen all kinds of people coming…there is a house that is kept and never opened.”
He gestures around the tiny office we’re sitting in, with barely room for two desks and says: “in Hatch Hall this is the size of the room…you have your bed there, and if you are a married couple you have a bunk bed, so you are sharing your space with your family, so there is no privacy.”
The first time I met Nathan, he recounted how someone else’s child drew a family picture in school. A stick figure mother just sat on the bed crying. There’s a deep psychological scarring being ploughed in here.
“A friend of ours got their papers and they had a little child who was my four year old daughter’s friend, and they are moving out so my little daughter was crying and I said ‘don’t worry our own papers are coming’ and my four year old was looking at me saying ‘how come they got theirs and ours didn’t come – is it that we are not praying enough?’ Those are questions that when you hear them they hit you.”
“I mean, there are things that the Irish government are apologising for now, they are going to be apologising about this really. These kids are going to question this. My kids have been born and bred in direct provision, they don’t know any other life.”
There’s a bittersweet twist to this story, Nathan’s papers arrived a few weeks after we talked. But one of the High Court cases challenging the entire system has fallen by the wayside, the Irish Times said it was due “on foot of papers received from the State.” A further 4,650 are still left to live like ghosts in institutional living.
Over the clatter of chat and dinner plates in a Phibsborough cafe, I meet with a representative of the Asylum Archive project. What started off as a visual arts project has grown beyond that into a collective historical documentation of direct provision centres.
His words provoke a much broader question: “Why does Ireland have a tendency to incarcerate people? And I’m talking about the historical aspects of laundries and industrial schools? And then even direct provision, it seems like the country really has a tendency to put people into institutions and I don’t know why.”