'Living in direct provision is teaching us to be dependent, and weak'

Direct provision cocoons asylum seekers in a half-life of dependency. Unable to work and in fear of deportation, they stagnate in centres like the former Butlins in Mosney, says Donal O’Keeffe.

“I WANT to feel Irish,” says Emily, “but now I would be very happy to just feel like I am a human being.”

Emily is 35 and from Zimbabwe. She lives, with her husband and three children, in the Mosney Accommodation Centre in Co Meath. Emily (not her real name) and her family have been in direct provision for the five years since they arrived in Ireland, moved from one of 34 centres to the next. They live on doled-out food and roughly €20 each per week, and they have subsisted in boredom and in constant fear of deportation.

The Mosney Accommodation Centre opened 18 years ago. In 1948, Mosney was the first Butlins outside of the UK, and it still has the slightly washed-out look of a 1950s English postcard.

On a hazy summer evening, Mosney’s tree-lined avenues are alive with humanity. Dozens of children enjoy the playground, and their parents watch over them as they sit in the sun. One young woman in a hijab looks up from the book she’s reading, Skin Deep, by Liz Nugent.

On well-tended lawns, groups of men sit around chatting. Outside the terraced, two-storey chalets, women sit on stools as children run past. A father helps his two little daughters down from a tree. They roar with laughter, as he swings them to the ground.

Security staff patrol Mosney at snail’s pace in white cars. I accompany one guard on his drive, and he tells me there are 600 people living here. His car slows to a halt, as a tiny African child pedals past on a push-car, fast as his legs will go.

Emily is a warm, intelligent woman, and her chalet is tidy, if sparsely-furnished. The downstairs is made up of a cosy living area and a kitchen. Upstairs are three small bedrooms and a tiny bathroom. It looks like it would be adequate accommodation for a family-of-five in the summer, but it might feel cramped in winter.

Emily and her husband, Josiah, left Zimbabwe with their sons five years ago, fleeing violence. Arriving at Dublin, via Germany, they sought asylum. They were denied, and they appealed. They have been in the system of appeal, denial, appeal, denial, ever since, and their daughter, Sinéad, was born here three years ago. Their sons, Jamie (14) and Charlie (7), attend local schools.

Emily was an accountant, and Josiah was a college lecturer. She says they don’t want to be “charity cases” and feels they could be giving a lot to this country.

“I am from Africa,” she says.

We struggle a lot, but our goal is always to be self-sufficient. Africans are strong. Living in direct provision is teaching us to be dependent, and weak.

“In Africa, we were adults. We had jobs, we had goals. We knew how to budget money, and food. Things were often bad, but we knew what day it was. Here, we are treated like kids. Everything we do means nothing. Everything is just to pass the time.

“If I was Charlie Flanagan, I would come and talk to people,” she says. (The Justice Minister is responsible for the Reception and Integration Agency, which oversees the direct provision system.) “I would say, ‘These people could be very good for Ireland, let’s get them to work’.” Direct provision was introduced in 1999, when Ireland had 10,938 asylum applications. It was promised, initially, that asylum-seekers would not stay in direct provision longer than six months, but the average stay is 23 months and many people spend years in the system.

Asylum applications peaked in 2002, at 11,634. In 2017, we had 2,927 applications for asylum. According to RIA’s figures, there are currently 4,947 people living direct provision, approximately one third of them children.

Applicants receive full board, and a weekly allowance of €21.60. Up until very recently, no-one in direct provision was allowed to work.

Emily’s family is Roman Catholic, and she and I talk about how direct provision is often likened to limbo, but maybe it is more akin to another Catholic concept: purgatory.

For some, if they can suffer through the uncertainty, the boredom, and the isolation of direct provision, perhaps they will eventually be granted leave to stay.

Jamie, a thoughtful 14-year-old with a wry smile, wants to be an architect, but says he know this is impossible.

People in direct provision are not entitled to free third-level education, “unless Leo Varadkar changes the law”. His brother, Charlie, is cheeky and funny and says he wants to be a professional footballer, so he can buy his parents a mansion.

“It’s very boring in winter here,” says Charlie. “It’s always raining, and there’s nothing to do. Except in the snow.” Ireland’s longest winter in living memory offered at least one blessing to the guests we barely acknowledge.

“We all built snowmen! It was so great! The snowball fights were really fun!” Jamie and Charlie laugh in unison at the memory.

Both brothers are enthusiastic fans of Marvel’s Afro-futuristic blockbuster, Black Panther. Jamie says it was good to see a black superhero film.

Their sister, Sinéad, is three, and she is shy around strangers.

“I am sad to see kids born in Ireland, who, because they live in isolation, speak no English,” Emily says.

My daughter was born here. Why is she not Irish?

(The 2004 Twenty-Seventh Amendment abolished the automatic right to citizenship for children born in Ireland, regardless of the nationality of their parents.) Emily says there is no sense of community in direct provision. For instance, she says, every morning there is a fight at the laundry machines. She says this is no way to live.

“Everyone is under pressure. A lot of people suffer from depression. We are all in the same position, so it is hard to give anyone comfort.

“African society is based around extended families. Here, you are cut off. You can’t call home, because they think you are doing well in Ireland, and have forgotten them. You would be a laughing stock if they knew.” Emily has had friends deported, and the fear is there all the time.

They come for you in the night. During the day, people might fight back. So they come when everyone is sleeping. Some mornings, whole families are just gone; they are vanished in the night. People you know, children your kids played with, you will never see them again.

The evening sun is still shining as I leave Mosney. Birds sing in the trees, and sea-gulls cry overhead. By the beach, a few hundred yards across the fields from the accommodation centre, a train roars by. Mosney Station closed at the turn of the millennium.

It’s just another note of loneliness in the lives of people who are not Irish and who perhaps will never be allowed to be Irish, people living in uncertainty, and in fear of deportation, people trapped in a place that is in Ireland and might as well not be.

“I just live in hope we will have our papers some day,” Emily tells me as I go. “If I don’t have hope, I have nothing.”

- Names have been changed

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