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Female asylum seekers ‘living like prisoners’

Women asylum seekers have said they are living like prisoners and that direct provision is like "a hell", while expressing concern about their mental health and that of their children, according to a new study.

The project by Dr Joan Giller, a GP in West Cork, also found that religion is seen as a source of comfort and coping amid worries over a lack of privacy, uncertainty regarding their futures, and a lack of concern by management at centres.

Entitled Dimensions of Distress — A qualitative study of female African asylum seekers in Ireland, the study formed part of Dr Giller’s MA Counselling and Psychotherapy and recounts the experiences of a number of women based in a West Cork direct provision centre.

The eight participants had an average age of 33, had been in the asylum system in Ireland for an average of 5.7 years, and four had partners while another four did not.

All the women had children, on average more than two, with an average age of seven.

Five major themes emerged from the study: waiting, "living like a prisoner", concerns for children, resilience and resignation, and a lack of utilisation of mental health services.

Among those themes were other issues, illustrated by direct quotes from the women involved, such as: "they leave you there like in prison" "she [her daughter] has been deprived of her childhood"; "you don’t have a choice; you have to endure it".

Religious beliefs and prayer were often relied upon as a way of coping with the challenges of living in direct provision, according to the interviews, while counselling and psychotherapy was not always found to help, as illustrated by one woman who said: "Telling the story … wasn’t helping me".

As for psychiatric medication, one interviewee said: "It made me drowsy and useless".

According to the study: "All the participants have been waiting for between two-and-a-half to seven years in the asylum system in Ireland.

"The theme of waiting, with the uncertainty, fear and demoralisation that this entails pervaded all the data."

One woman said: "It’s stressing me. I don’t know when they will answer me, answer my children … Every day you don’t know how long we’ll be staying here … you don’t know which day you will leave here … thinking maybe tomorrow my letter will come, maybe tomorrow..."

The report states: "The major fear of being returned was of being recognised or discovered by the perpetrators of their traumatic experience/s.

"There were also fears engendered by reports of other deportations: one of a mother being deported to Africa from Ireland without her three children, or fears of being returned as a failed asylum seeker who has been out of the country for a long time."

The Irish Refugee Council has called for alternatives to the direct provision system, while women in the Co Cork centre said respondents felt little care or compassion from the staff, with one woman describing it as: "The management don’t care. It’s just a business."