Martin Leen caught up with asylum seeker Lucky Khambule to discuss the realities and frustrations of living under the Direct Provision system in 2016. Here he outlines the steps some of those seeking asylum have taken to ensure their voices are heard.
How long have you been in direct provision, what was the process when you arrived in Ireland?
It’s been three and a half years now. I came to Ireland in January 2013. When you arrive, you lodge your application at the immigration office and you are allocated a space at a reception centre until you are moved to a proper centre. It could be for two weeks or two months. I spent 3 and half months there and then I was moved to Kinsale Road accommodation centre. I stayed there the whole time until I was moved up here to Dublin.
What were conditions like in Kinsale?
Well when we got there firstly what I noticed was that we were put in a place where three grown up men were put sharing a room with single beds like in hospital. Three of us with little movement there was no space for anything, just a small wardrobe where you could put some of your stuff, we tried to put the rest of our stuff under the bed in suitcases. Those conditions were very stressful conditions for us; mind you we had to get along mind you, because when you are put in that situations you are with strangers from wherever.
Who did you share a room with?
The first time I was with someone from Cameroon, and a guy from Nigeria. Then it was with a guy from Cameroon and a guy from Ghana. We were sharing that room and you have to have coping techniques to cope with that situation and try and make friends and trust each other and get along.
In other situations you would be paced with a person who comes from another continent, with different backgrounds both politically and religiously. Religion is the main cause of divisions especially when you have a staunch Christian and a staunch Muslim, there could be arguments where over TV programs that might conflict with different beliefs. Arguments such as these can cause rifts the longer people stay which can cause conflicts.
How did the management deal with these conflicts?
The management is not capable of dealing with these conflicts; the first thing they do is call the guards over matters which were in essence community matters not criminal. They used it as a threat “we’ll call the guards” if you do this. This was very frustrating.
When a person comes first they are given a 45 page booklet with house rules. If you don’t adhere to the rules you might lose your bed or your case could be cancelled. That is intimidating and instilling fear. Conform or you are out. They made an example of a woman who made a complaint about air conditioning, then she had a visitor in her room. She got a warning letter. Then she was moved to a different centre in Millstreet miles further away from anyone who might visit her.
Why there is a need to make people scared all the time. The people in the centres don’t know how to handle asylum seekers, they don’t understand the tension that it’s already a frustrating situation and you put petrol on the fire that is there. The people in the centres can snap very easy and the people who work there need to be aware of the tensions people are under. Maybe they could have got bad news about a family member or their case. These kind of psychological issues are issues that the people who work in these centres should be trained to deal with these people. They need to have some empathy.
How was the food there?
What was a concern was the quality of food that was deteriorating all the time. Nobody was listening when we complained, some people got sick but nobody cared. Also what was a concern was the attitude of the staff, when you went to the manager to complain about anything he had a favourite sentence “I don’t care”. I remember one morning there was a pregnant lady in the queue for food and she asked for a second bowl of cereal from the server. The manager started shouting at the lady “It’s not your turn, you’re not allowed second bowl”. There was a big row. He would swear at people publicly all the time. He was that kind of a person he was doing that for many years. He was working at that centre since it started, so he got used to being like that.
Can you tell me about KRAC Asylum Today?
KRAC was a group that was setup in relation to the conditions at the Kinsale Road asylum centre. It came to a stage whereby the residents tired of that. We organised ourselves in a small committee, and we got everybody to write down the problems that they experienced. We decided that we had to force the management to change our living conditions. The living conditions that were in the control of the management and they choose not to address them. For example they didn’t provide a bus for the children to go to school. It was far out of town and they needed to get to school. Other things we wanted was improved food, some computers for the residents so they could communicate with whomever, read news etc.
Another thing we wanted was some kind of a play area for the kids. We just wanted to make things manageable because we weren’t allowed to work study or cook your own food.
We were stuck there the whole time, most of the time these centres are placed somewhere that the people can’t see them. They are far out of town where we can’t integrate with the public. So we decided one day to take matters in our own hands to force the management to make these changes. The first thing we asked for was for the manager to be replaced because we knew that he would victimise us after our actions, that nothing would change and three things will just be worse.
We wrote down our demands and started our protest on Sept 15 2014 and it ended 10 days after that. We locked out the staff and negotiated our demands one of which was to reduce the number of beds in a room from three to two. Our protest was successful, and all of our issues were agreed upon, and we suspended the strike, and the manager never came back. The kids could go to school safely. Things changed and there was a good dialogue between the management and the residents including the food. The food is not perfect but there was a slight improvement. This group we formed was called KRAC Asylum today.
Tell us about MASI (Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland).
Unlike KRAC, this group represents asylum centres all over the country. Our aim is to co-ordinate all the grass-root organisations all over the country that agree with our demands to end direct provision. It will take time but we want the attitude to change. It will take time because direct provision was meant to be a six month project to deal with an increase in asylum applications in 2001.
The following two years the numbers of asylum seekers dropped, this was its aim, to make the situation worse for asylum seekers, to stop them coming. It was not well known by the public and people didn’t really challenge it. Even today direct provision is still not known to many Irish people.
Here in this country people have a habit of turning away on things that don’t directly affect people until it affects them directly then they take action. I make mention of the equality referendum and the water issue, the people directly affected get involved. Direct provision is kept there because we are just “those people” .
How do you feel about the direct provision system?
Direct provision is a system that makes people to feel belittled, with their dignity gone. There is a stigma that is attached to that so that when you go out, wherever to the doctor or whoever and tell them the center address, there is an attitude.Those are the challenges that people face when they live in these centres everywhere.
There are many people who are qualified to do something professionally but you stay there for many many years. What also in our opinion I think contributes in this system to exist this long is the fact that half of the time or most of the time the issues that concern the people in direct provision is that people claim talk on our behalf who know nothing about the reality of living in direct provision they have never experienced it.
We are subject to deportations, people have deportation orders that are signed at the GNIP office every month, what we are saying as the residents is that when you have a deportation order your life changes because you don’t know who is going to knock on your door and when they are going to take you. You can go to bed one night in one of those centres and wake up in the morning and your neighbour is gone, the room is empty they came and took that person away.
Deportation orders are like a hanging, you don’t know when somebody is going to kick the chair then you are gone. Nobody can explain that better than a person who has a deportation order. The people who are talking for us sometimes miss the point because they don’t know for instance what it is like to have a deportation order hanging over your head. There are no emotions.Direct provision exists because there are so many people who claim to be talking on our behalf.
No country can survive without migrants. Look at all the migrants working in this country in schools and hospitals. If you give all the migrants in this country a holiday for just one day this country will stop. This categorising of migrants is the same thing that is bringing hate and racism. There is racism in this country but people don’t want to recognise this. This direct provision is state racism.
When you deprive one section of the community to the other you are discriminating. Like Travellers have suffered from discrimination for years. It is state racism, we are not ashamed to say it. We are supposed to be grateful that we are given food and a bed, regardless of how we are treated. A man doesn’t live on food alone.
Direct provision only feeds the body but it kills the mind. There are problems, even for people who have left direct provision, people are still suffering. Even after getting papers there is a waiting period of 12 months before they leave direct provision. They are scared because they have been made dependent for years.
How do you feel about the Government’s working group on direct provision?
When we had our protest in September, immediately after that the minister announced the working group. Immediately after that she gave the terms of reference. She came with a list of the people who were going to be part of the group. She bluffed that there was an application procedure to become part of the group, but we know it was not like that, nobody had applied, it was just the puppets of the government that were part of that group.
We applied to be part of it we got an acknowledgement and that was it. We wrote to everybody who was in the list that was involved in the working group and we asked them to not partake if the people in the asylum centres were not properly represented to not take part in the group.
We wrote to all of them as a group of concerned asylum seekers telling them “You can’t talk about our lives and leave us behind, you can’t talk about reforming, you can’t accept these terms of references that will change nothing” We could see that these terms of reference would change anything. We asked them to get out of that group not to be part of a group that wouldn’t work.
Our demands were very clear, we wanted direct provision to be disbanded, deportation orders revoked and people given the right to work and study and granted residency. That was not part of it the terms of reference were to reform and make sure the borders were not compromised and the financial part, the costs does not exceed the current one.
But they carried on anyways; they made road-shows to make us think they were reaching to asylum seekers at the centres. This was not the process we wanted we wanted to be part of the process not just interviewed. We wanted to be part of it because we know what it is like to be here.
They carried on and created a “co-group” consisting of a few of the asylum seekers which were sympathetic with the NGO’s involved. This was just a kind of window dressing type of a thing to make people think that asylum seekers were involved. We wanted to choose our own representatives, not have them chosen for us. The ones that were chosen for us were just puppets. They agreed with everything.
The publication of the report was delayed and delayed and that deflated the movement of the people on the ground. This report was eventually published in June 2015 eventually with 179 recommendations for reform tomorrow is June 1 2016 and nothing has happened. All that time all that money, everybody got paid, the retired judge was OK he had his pay check. He left the mess the way it was or it’s even worse now. So the working group was just a strategy from the minister to stop protest.
How do you think the media reports on direct provision in general?
Because direct provision is so hidden, it is very hard to report on the facts. Generally the media goes to the court but they should get their hands dirty and investigate. To do a proper investigation the reporter should go to the manager, interview the kitchen staff, interview the people working there interview asylum seekers.
That is not possible because you won’t be allowed to talk with these people. RTE gave a resident to do a recording, when that camera was seen by the management, it was confiscated RTE had to fight to get it back. That is the situation. Direct Provision is something that’s supposed to be hidden, it’s not supposed to be out there, when a person tries to expose it that person is in trouble.
Is there any training or help for people who are leaving?
No there is no plan; there are no social workers to help people. There is no transition for people between direct provision and life out there. Remember you have not been taught how to integrate because you have been segregated. You have been put aside deliberately, consciously and legally, and you thought this was OK. Then you are sent out there to look for your own place to stay, find your own community. it’s worse for the children, I know some who have been here for ten years. They know no other life. What kind of society are we creating? But there is this anger and hatred that has been instilled in the children. What a child learns between 1 and 5 is what will carry that child for ever.
We don’t want a situation where they will come in twenty or thirty years’ time and apologise to us for what they have done wrong. This government owe the people who have gone through this process for so many years.
What about the direct provision industry?
If you look at the stats they will tell 14,000+ euros per head per year to keep an asylum seeker. An asylum gets 19.10 euros per week. Do the maths, where does the rest of the money go? If a person who had been in direct provision for nine years had been allowed to work for even the minimum wage think how much tax that person could have paid. The government would have been saving money and that asylum seeker would have been made a better person.
There are over 34 centres only seven are government run. The rest are privately owned. These owners own a series of these centres, some get millions every year. If you own a hotel you have a high season and a low season, for the owners of these centres its high season for 12 months. It’s a money making machine at the expense of the asylum seekers. People need to know that it’s a money making business. The asylum seekers are not taking the money, the money is been taken in their name. Some NGO’s exist because they claim to be working with migrants. Their lives carry on while the migrants are still in limbo.
I remember when the minister was just appointed there was a report in the newspaper that women in direct provision were working as prostitutes. The minister said in the newspaper and said that she doesn’t believe that there would be prostitution because of direct provision. People are living in enforced poverty. I compliment the mothers that raise kids there and people who live on €19.10 a week and still be normal.
There are people with need for medications or have been through awful things and suffer post-traumatic stress, they are not treated. Our therapy is to talk about issues that are our therapy; if we don’t talk we will die slowly in our beds. That’s how we find coping techniques by talking to people, in a way we are healing ourselves. Those are the joys and sorrows and realities of direct provision unfortunately.
Just like the marriage equality referendum and the water charges, if people in this country push together, they can get results. If they push for an end to direct provision, things can change.