The first thing I’m asked by an African man when I attend a fundraiser for asylum-seekers in Ireland is: “Are you alone? Do you have someone with you? A friend? Will I introduce you to people?”
The purpose of the fundraiser is threefold: to end direct provision (DP) in Ireland, to include asylum- seekers in normal Irish society, and allow them to live independent lives.
Currently, immigrants seeking asylum in Ireland are housed in the direct provision system, in one of 36 centres around the country.
Conditions vary widely, and their lives are subjects to a variety of restrictions, from being ineligible to work, to being unable to cook for their own food for years on end.
The term “direct provision” means asylum-seekers are provided for directly, as in their food and shelter is provided for while their application for protection is processed by the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA), a body set up in 2001.
There are 5,848 people living in direct provision in Ireland according to the latest statistics provided to the Irish Examiner by the Department of Justice (DoJ).
Of these people, 1,047 have spent between two to three years in a centre waiting to hear about the status of their asylum application.
“I would prefer to be in jail because I would have a definite sentence, and I would know when I was getting out,” is how one asylum-seeker described the waiting process to Judge Bryan McMahon.
Judge McMahon was chair a review group which published a landmark report on the system in 2015.
Many of the “big ticket items” of the report’s 173 recommendations have yet to be implemented.
The latest figures from the DoJ, as provided to the Irish Examiner show that 157 people are spending more than seven years in direct provision as they wait for the application for protection to be processed.
A further 748 people are waiting between three and four years, and 1,110 people are spending between one and two years in direct provision.
The Irish Examiner asked the DoJ how much has been spent on direct provision this year, and they estimated a spend of €76m.
The system had been allocated a budget of €66.44m for 2018. While the State owns seven of the 36 facilities, private contractors run each of the direct provision centres in Ireland.
In the first 11 months of 2017, the State paid these private contractors approximately €57.7m to run these centres.
The profits that a number of the companies are making from direct provision are beyond public scrutiny as several of the firms have re-registered as unlimited companies where they are not required to file annual accounts.
When asked by the Irish Examiner how much the State paid private contractors to run the 36 direct provision centres, commercial “sensitivity”, was cited.
“For reasons of commercial sensitivity, details in relation to current contracts are not published,” said a spokesman.
“In 2018, contract values up to 2015 were published on the website. Contract values for 2016 will be published in 2019, and contract values for 2017 will be published in 2020.
"It is not appropriate to provide values for current contracts entered into by the department,” he added.
According to figures from the DoJ, €580.38m has been spent on direct provision from 2010 until 2018.
The Irish Examiner asked how many asylum applications the State had received in 2017 and 2018, and how many had been processed in those same years.
There were 2,926 applications for asylum/international protection received in 2017. 770 people were granted asylum or international protection in that same year, and 72 people were granted permission to remain (PTR).
In 2018, as of October 31, 3,017 applications for asylum/international protection had been received.
A total of 859 people had been granted asylum/international protection as of the same date, and 201 people were granted PTR.
A common criticism of the system is the “indefinite” period of time people have to wait to hear about their application.
Another criticism of the system is how conditions vary widely from centre to centre.
In a total of 30 of the centres, all of the food is provided through a canteen system, meaning there is no independent living.
The department said this will change in 2019, a full 18 years after the system was first created.
“With regard to the availability of self-catering in direct provision six centres can provide independent living facilities (food hall distribution and cooking) to a total of 1,714 residents.
"By Q1 (the first quarter of) 2019, the total number of residents with access to independent living (food hall distribution and cooking) facilities will increase to over 2,900.
“This will mean that access to independent living within the centres will be provided to over half of those availing of accommodation under the direct provision model,” said a spokesman for the DoJ.
Any business tendering to run one of the centres will need to show they can provide independent living.
“The requirement to provide independent living will form part of the Request for Tender for Accommodation under the Direct Provision model that will be publically tendered for,” he added.
Alternatives to the direct provision system have been called for by the Irish Refugee Council (IRC) and those living in direct provision.
“The IRC believes that there is an opportunity to end direct provision through shifting away from the current privately-operated, ‘managed emergency’ model to one that is centred around human rights and dignity,” said Nick Henderson of the IRC.
“For example, the tendering process for accommodation centres should be made more accessible to not-for-profit housing bodies. Social housing funding streams should also be amended.
"Proposals to provide accommodation should also be measured against human rights criteria which should be incorporated into the contracts between providers and the Government.”
Doras Luimní, an independent, non-profit human rights organisation based in Limerick, which has worked to support asylum-seekers since the establishment of direct provision, sees the system as “unfit”.
“Progress has been made in recent years, but Doras remains convinced that the existing system is unfit for purpose,” said Aideen Roche from the organisation.
Meanwhile, MASI, the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland advocates for the abolishment of the system.
A spokesman from the DoJ told the Irish Examiner that “significant improvements” have been made in recent years.
“Significant improvements to living conditions for applicants for international protection have been made over recent years, in particular with the implementation of the recommendations of the Justice McMahon Report,” said a spokesman.
Furthermore, on June 30 of this year, the minister for justice and equality signed the European Communities (Reception Conditions) Regulations to transpose the EU (recast) Reception Conditions Directive into our national law.
The directive lays down the standards for the reception of protection applicants and, for the first time, places our reception system on a statutory footing.
The Department of Justice also said that procurement of services will be made public in the next 18 months.
“The Department is currently rolling out a procurement programme in conjunction with the Office for Government Procurement and the Chief State Solicitor’s Office which will see full open and transparent competitions for the provision of accommodation centres throughout the state within the next 18 months,” said a spokesman.
Set meal times, isolated settings, shared bedrooms, waiting years for an update on their application, and living on a weekly allowance of €21.60, asylum-seekers in Ireland often describe life in direct provision as living in an “open prison”.
“For many residents in Direct Provision, life revolves around meal times,” explains Aideen Roche of Doras Luimní.
“Residents frequently describe the monotony, where a typical day is breakfast in the canteen at 7.30am, lunch in the canteen at 12pm, and dinner at 5pm.
"The majority of centres are canteen-based. The food ranges (from centre to centre) and the standard and food provided varies widely,” adds Ms Roche.
According to the Department of Justice, just six of the 36 centres offer independent living, where residents can cook for themselves.
Jennifer DeWan of Nasc, a non-profit human rights organisation working with people in direct provision centres in Cork and the rest of Munster, said they hear the same experience from residents.
“What we hear a lot from residents is: ‘I get up and I go have breakfast. I take the kids to school. I go back to bed. I have lunch. I go back to bed. I collect my child from school and I go back to bed’,” said Ms DeWan.
Groups of residents were interviewed in five direct provision centres about life inside the system for a report by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC), UCC’s Centre for Criminal Justice and Human Rights, and Nasc.
“Also because to wake up in the morning... it has some kind of impact on psychology, you know? You know in the morning, you wake up, you go in the line.
"At lunchtime you put... I don’t know... It’s like... a prison, going for food’,” said one resident about the routine of queuing for food.
“We don’t have choices here. It’s like I’m a baby, I’m a prisoner,” said another in the 2018 report.
Vukasin Nedeljkovic, a former resident of direct provision, who was in a centre in Mayo told the Irish Examiner that he had to queue for fruit.
“We got seven pieces of fruit per person per week. You had to queue every Tuesday. The queuing was very humiliating,” he said.
His experience of food was chicken nuggets, sausages, and chips, whereas Nqobizitha Vella, who lives in a centre in Cork, told the Irish Examiner that she and her son regularly eat lasagne and potatoes in their canteen.
Another resident said: “You begin to see yourself as someone who is not accepted by society. And you have so much to give.
"You know your strengths, you know your capabilities. And you are not able to do anything for yourself — anything good for yourself.”
Another interviewee described the experience as living in an institution: “It’s just, they’re trying to contain us in like an institution, keeping us in this direct provision of a thing.
"They (control) when we have breakfast, when we have lunch, when we have dinner, when we go out, when we come in.
“If you spend five years, how do you now go into society, be able to be part of this society, when you’ve been contained for so long. I don’t think this is an ideal... I have been here just six months, but every day I think I’m going down,” the resident said.
Another core part of life in direct provision is communication with the outside world, in order to contact family or hear about their application for asylum.
Asylum-seekers receive a weekly allowance of €21.60, up from €19.10 in 2017. Much of this is spent on communication.
"There is a huge backlog of cases in the High Court. People are waiting up to 20 months for their first interview.
"A new system was brought into place in 2015 (to deal with this backlog), but we haven’t seen a positive impact yet,” said Ms Roche from Doras Luimní.
In interviews conducted by the IHREC, UCC, and Nasc this year, one resident described using all of their phone credit to contact 50 local councillors in order to access accommodation.
They had got their application decision and could stay in Ireland, but could not exit direct provision because of a lack of accommodation in the private rental market. The resident did not hear back from one councillor.
“On a weekly allowance of €21.60, there is very little opportunity to engage in life outside of direct provision. It’s eating, sleeping and waiting for an update on your case,” said Ms Roche.
A number of people have died by suicide in direct provision centres in Ireland.
“Anxiety, depression, boredom, isolation, fear, and uncertainty really take over people’s lives. This is people who have already suffered tragedy, trauma, and loss before the came here,” said Aideen Roche.
The key factor appears to be the indefinite amount of time people wait to hear about their asylum application.
“You know when you’ve got so much time on your hands, you think a lot. And when you think a lot, the stress just builds up, and at the end of the day, you get depressed,” said one resident interviewed for the December 2018 report.
“It’s so annoying because you know the people that came after you, they got their interviews... they have all your documents back there, they have everything about you, you understand, but they never call you about interview. It’s so annoying,” said another resident in the same report.
The report cites mental health as a key issue.
“We have seen the sudden rise of deaths in direct provision this year alone. These deaths can be attributed to the results of the frustrations and mental health issues that are not visible and not even spoken about in direct provision.
“The more we see people still walking, the assumption is that people are well and fine — not knowing that they are actually suffering and dying from the inside.
“Mental health issues need to be addressed as a matter of urgency. The lack of activities and lack of support consistently of residents on issues like education, housing, and social activities is what leads to these mental health issues in direct provision,” said Lucky Khambule from MASI, the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland.
Jennifer DeWan from Nasc described the sense of “demoralisation” that sets in when people are living direct provision.
“There is a sense of demoralisation in direct provision, because of the ‘waiting and not knowing,’ what status your application is at. You could ring someone and then not hear back. There is no timeframe.
“Whatever you have fled and having to leave your family and this is system of life in limbo just piles on top of all of that and compounds and compounds and compounds the suffering. It is hugely stressful and not an environment that is conducive to mental wellness,” she said.
“When the family separates, the plan can be to send money home and then reunite, but then none of those things become reality.”
Another issue that has emerged for people living in direct provision in recent times is once their application for asylum has been approved they often find themselves with nowhere to go, because of a lack of rental properties.
There are currently more than 600 people who cannot exit the system because of the housing crisis, according to the Irish Refugee Council (IRC).
Lovely rooms with 10, 8 or 6 people at a time, you might say "yes people share room in hostels for an overnight or a weekend stay all the time." But in #MountTrenchard you would usually spend around 5+ years and yes the transfer to another centre is usually denied.#EndDP pic.twitter.com/NH8kN6pOMV— Passive and Aggressive (@MT9466) November 25, 2018
“The number of people with status living in direct provision at the end of October 2018 was 620. The housing crisis, which affects many families and people, means that the most vulnerable in our society are struggling to secure and retain affordable rental accommodation,” said Nick Henderson of the IRC.
He said the lack of accommodation is made worse by discrimination people face, and also because of an inability to save for a deposit.
“This is particularly so for people trying to leave direct provision who face huge challenges. These include a lack of any means to save for a deposit and no network that they can rely on; they may also suffer racism and discrimination.
“Our housing officer gives intense support to people in this situation. This includes helping people find possible rental properties, supporting people to attend viewings, and explaining to landlords about HAP (Housing Assistant Payment),” said Mr Henderson.
He added that this bottleneck has caused knock-on effects for those trying to enter the system, leaving them “destitute”.
“People were not offered alternative accommodation or given any information regarding homeless services or emergency accommodation. They were left destitute to fend for themselves on the streets. This was a clear breach of EU and Irish law,” he explained.
Another issue is the fact a number of centres closed this year, a result of the Government being reliant on private operators.
These closures then resulted in centres opening in remote places in Kerry and Leitrim.
Up until 2018, those in direct provision were not allowed to work in the State, meaning they were solely reliant on their weekly social welfare allowance of €21.60.
This year though, asylum-seekers won the right to work after a Supreme Court ruling. However, it is restricted.
Under the new rules, an asylum-seeker must have been in Ireland for a period of nine months and be awaiting a first decision from the International Protection Office about their case.
If they have been waiting for a decision for that period, they are then eligible to apply for a letter of permission to work in Ireland.
The letter of permission will allow the person be either employed or self-employed, and it will be valid for six months.
The asylum-seeker can then apply for the permission to be renewed every six months until a final decision on their asylum status has been made.
An applicant who gets a negative final decision on their refugee status, but who is in the process of appealing the decision, can also apply for their permission to work to be renewed.
However, once a final decision — after the appeals process is finished — is made, their permission to work will stop.
The inability to work has caused huge issues for those living in direct provision.
Residents have described it as “suppressing”.
“It’s not just the culture of giving you money... You know, sometimes it’s suppressing, I don’t know the right language to put it.
"But if you know you can fend for yourself, you know you can contribute something, you feel more human,” said one resident in a 2018 report by UCC and the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission.
“You begin to see yourself as someone who is not accepted by society. And you have so much to give. You know your strengths, you know your capabilities. And you are not able to do anything for yourself, anything good for yourself,” said another.
The Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland, MASI, is advocating for the right to work for all.
“If everyone could be given a proper right to work, somehow this would go a long way to make sure that people do not suffer from boredom, and are not dependent on the State for a very long time.
"It is then very hard to get the mindset right when the time to live independently comes,” said Lucky Khambule from MASI.
A single male adult centre called Mount Trenchard in Foynes Co Limerick has been described as the “Guantanamo of Ireland” because of the living conditions there.
“It is the Guantanamo of Ireland. It’s a single male centre only,” said Vukasin Nedeljkovic, a former asylum-seeker who has created a photographic archive of centres around Ireland.
A Twitter account, at @MT9466, posts images allegedly taken of the inside of the centre, showing unhygienic and cramped living spaces.
One image also shows bags of water with fruit soaking in them, allegedly in order to make alcohol.
Aideen Roche, from Doras Luimní, said their staff have been working with residents since the centre opened.
“Mount Trenchard centre, we have been working with residents there since it opened 10 years ago. It’s 45km from Limerick city and 5km from Foynes itself.
“Its isolation gives added challenges for accessing support and integrating. And there are concerns over living conditions with eight to 12 people living in a room.
“In the past it’s been a challenging place, as an all-male single adult centre. People often describe it as living in a ‘pressure cooker’ with 100 adults. Small issues would spark challenges.
"One person could feel cold and want the heat on and one person could feel hot and want the window open and that could lead to tension and conflict,” Ms Roche told the Irish Examiner.
The Department of Justice was asked about the allegations that it is like the “Guantanamo of Ireland” and images coming from the centre.
“The Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) have contracted with Baycaster Ltd for the provision of accommodation and ancillary services in Mount Trenchard, Foynes, Co Limerick.
"The centre, which is a former convent and boarding school, has a contracted capacity for 85 persons and there are currently 83 people residing onsite.
“The centre was inspected by QTS Ltd, an independent inspection company, in January 2018 and by a RIA staff member in June 2018.
“During these inspections, no hygiene concerns were noted, and no residents raised any concerns regarding their accommodation arrangements while the inspectors were onsite,” said a spokesman for the department.
“RIA held a clinic in the centre in November 2018. In a clinic, RIA staff member visit the centre with the specific purpose of engaging with residents about any problems or issues that they have.
"The dates of clinics are notified to residents in advance and four residents met with RIA staff during the November clinic.
“Their issues related to transport and the right to work. No residents raised any concerns regarding their accommodation arrangements,” he added.
The Irish Examiner also asked how much the department paid to run the centre this year but an answer was unavailable due to “commercial sensitivity.”
While MASI wants Direct Provision abolished, and the IRC looks to alternatives which include a not-for-profit model, both Nasc and Doras Luimní advocate for other more immediate changes such as a roll-out of national standards and an independent monitoring system, so residents can make complaints comfortably.
“Progress has been made in recent years, but Doras remains convinced that the existing system is unfit for purpose,” said Aideen Roche from Doras Luimní.
“Grave concerns have been raised about the living conditions and treatment of people living in Direct Provision, but their issues have not come to the fore through a complaints and monitoring system.
“In the absence of a monitoring system, the reality of living in direct provision and the challenges people have only become known because people have spoken out through the media or through advocacy groups,” she said.
“There is a (complaints) procedure now, but a complaint must first be reported to the centre (in question). People are afraid of the repercussions,” she added.
Meanwhile Nasc points to lack of a proper and uniform standards procedure as highly problematic.
“Direct provision is the only residential setting in Ireland that doesn’t have national standards. That is a work in progress.
"There isn’t a body in place yet but the Minister (for Justice, Charlie Flanagan) has committed to doing it.
“Current inspections are only inspected on health and safety grounds. Inspections are carried out by RIA (the Reception and Integration Agency) themselves and QTS, a private health and safety firm, contracted by RIA.
“There is a vast disparity from centre to centre,” said Jennifer DeWan from Nasc.