Victoria White: Caherciveen and Covid-19 could consign direct provision to history

We have a history of contracting out 'social problems' and then swear our hands are clean when abuses emerge, writes Victoria White

Victoria White: Caherciveen and Covid-19 could consign direct provision to history
Two of the residents from the Skellig Star Direct Provision Centre in Caherciveen on Saturday after the announcement that there were further cases of Covid-19 in the Centre holding a sign outside the building. Photograph Alan Landers.

The scourge of Covid-19 has told many truths as it has passed through our country.

It has shown you can’t defend public health by private means alone.

It has shown that homeless people should not be in hotels while tourists are in houses and apartments.

Now in the Skellig Star Hotel, Caherciveen, Co. Kerry, Covid-19 is showing us that we need to end Direct Provision as we know it in this country.

What is going on in Caherciveen is wrong on every single level. The staff of the Skellig Star Hotel were reportedly given a day’s notice that 105 asylum seekers were to be housed there.

The reason gjven for the sudden transfer was the threat of Covid-19.

Many believe the transfer was happening anyway but if the threat of Covid-19 were really the reason why these people were transported to the South Kerry town, the measures taken to protect both residents and the town were inadequate to non-existent.

The asylum-seekers were packed into a 56-bed hotel, with unrelated people sharing bedrooms and common areas, the situation of 1,700 migrants nationwide.

The staff at the Skellig Star had no adequate training to deal with a group of transplanted and suffering people from different cultures at the best of times, let alone in the middle of a global pandemic. By April 14th four residents had tested positive for the virus.

The people of Caherciveen were not told. They had to confront the owners to get the truth after seeing pictures of the four being transferred.

There was no comprehensive testing and contact tracing carried out among the other residents some of whom continued to frequent the shops in the town.

If you have a heart, it has to bleed both for the residents of the hotel and the townspeople.

They have all been put in an outrageous position by our Government and its Department of Justice which could scarcely have engineered a more incendiary scenario if those were the terms of the invitation to tender.

19 former residents of the ill-starred hotel have now tested positive and have been transferred yet again. Most of the remaining possibly 77 residents want to be transferred as well and this newspaper has carried Alan Landers’s pictures of some of them holding a sign which reads, “Move us Out.” Obviously, the majority of local people want them out too.

That doesn’t make them racists, bigots and bog-trotters, though that is a useful way to portray them if you want this mercenary method of housing refugees and asylum seekers to continue.

From the conversations I have had with some local people it seems likely there would be 100,000 welcomes for a reasonable number of families of refugees who would be helped to integrate in the town.

“Let us be the model for a new way of housing asylum-seekers”, says one Caherciveen native who wishes to remain anonymous.

“We’re a town of 1,000 people so a group of 150 is too many”, says Caherciveen-based lecturer in Social Policy at Waterford IT, M/aire O’Reilly. “But we could take eight, nine, 10 families. There’s a school in the area losing a teacher in September. If we could have 10 or 12 extra kids… sure we’d love them.” Love is what kids who’ve lost their homes and God knows what other trauma really need.

I’m convinced they’d get it in Caherciveen, just like they would get it in Oughterard or Ballinamore or Moville if we had a half-way decent policy on accommodating refugees and asylum-seekers.in this country. Yes, it is pie-in-the-sky to expect any government to allocate own-door accommodation to every person who presents to the services on the day of arrival.

“We have no control over the demand”, explained a Department of Justice official to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Direct Provision which met last year, “we struggle a great deal to keep ahead or abreast of the demand for bed places.” Yes, emergency accommodation - safe, clean, welcoming and respectful - is going to be a fact of life as long as there is unplanned migration.

The issue is not so much “End Direct Provision”, which is a policy shared by every left-wing party and one of the Green Party’s 17 demands in any Programme for Government: it is “End Direct Provision for any individual within two weeks.” In Ireland in 2018, residents stayed in Direct Provision on average 14 months.

The UK, red in tooth and claw, aims to have its asylum seekers out of emergency accommodation in 19 days but admits it sometimes takes three weeks.

After that, residents are moved into own-door accommodation, sharing with others if single, and together if a family. Yes, they are moved out of London - they have the same vicious housing market they have, - but the aim is to move them into communities.

While in the UK the provision of this housing is contracted out to private companies, housing associations and local authorities, in Northern Ireland a charity called Bryson Intercultural partners with accommodation providers to help create homes for asylum-seekers..

Bryson takes pride in the fact that so many have found peace in a place which has had its own troubles.

We could take pride in our treatment of asylum-seekers too if we had not squandered our national ability to welcome by leaving the matter with a Department of Justice which sees every asylum-seeker as guilty until proven innocent.

In fact, Ireland’s Co-operative Housing recently won an international award for a community-sponsored refugee housing project.

By contrast, the Department of Justice has sub-contracted the accommodation of these vulnerable newcomers to a myriad of private companies which this newspaper calculated in a Special Report last week, has earned them €1.1 billion between 2000 and 2017. The companies get a headage payment of about €100 a night and have a vested interest in maintaining the system.

We have a history of contracting out our “social problems” and then swear our hands our clean when abuses emerge. From the Mother and Baby homes to the Magdalene Laundries to the creches and nursing homes of today, we have put our vulnerable individuals in private warehouses and closed the doors on them.

Congregated settings are now again, as they were before, seed-beds for infection; Eamonn Faller, Registrar at CUH called Direct Provision Centres “huge powders kegs for Covid 19.” Since their inception during the Celtic Tiger era by then Justice Minister, John O’Donoghue, they have been powder kegs for mental distress which threaten to promote racism in the often isolated places they are placed.

Let’s hope that Covid and Caherciveen have together consigned them to history.

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