Local people began drifting down to the Skellig Star hotel shortly after 10am.
They were there to support the 32 asylum seekers in the direct provision centre who are embarking on a hunger strike.
The Skellig Star is located on O’Connell Street in the south Kerry town of Cahirciveen. Daniel O’Connell’s image is prominent along the street named after him. Next to the Skellig Star is the closed Daniel O’Connell Hotel. Further down the street there is a guide to the O’Connell heritage trail. What would The Liberator have made of dispossessed people in his hometown embarking on a hunger strike to achieve basic human rights?
At 10.30am, 10 residents filed out of the hotel. They lined up on the street, presenting an array of posters highlighting their fervent wish to be moved from the centre. That in effect would close the Skellig Star as a direct provision facility. Last March the Department of Justice signed a twelve-month lease with businessman Paul Collins, who owns the company that runs the centre.
The asylum seekers are at the end of their tether. They have been in the centre since mid-March when it opened. There has been a succession of controversies around the Skellig Star since then. The latest one, the last straw apparently, was what the residents say was restrictions on their access to water.
Cahirciveen is on a boil water notice since July 9. In recent weeks the residents claim they were restricted to one litre of water a day. On July 19 the hotel ran out of bottled water but supplies were replenished the following day. A statement from the department said that residents have access to two litres, but did not address the allegation that it was a single litre daily in the weeks prior to the media inquiry.
“At no time were residents without access to safe drinking water,” the statement read.
Some of the residents claim that they are still restricted to a single litre daily.
Currently, there are 41 residents at the centre, down from 105 who were transferred there on opening. An outbreak of Covid – the origins of which continue to be shrouded in mystery – saw over 20 residents transferred to other centres in April and May. Dozens more simply left of their own volition, preferring to take their chances with homelessness rather than remain in the hotel.
One of the big issues during the outbreak of Covid-19 was the complete absence of proper facilities in which to self isolate. Yet, last October, the department sanctioned the hotel as suitable as a direct provision centre to accommodate 300 residents. These residents were initially scheduled to move in on November 4 last. Irrespective of the upheaval caused by the pandemic, that plan appears in retrospect to have been ill thought-out.
“I would leave but I can’t because I have a wife and child,” says Azwar Fuard, one of those embarking on the hunger strike.
Another resident, Precious, was holding one of the posters at the entrance to the hotel. She is from South Africa and doesn’t want to give her second name.
This is not untypical among asylum seekers who fear retribution if they speak out.
“The conditions are horrible,” she says. “Especially for kids. They have not had nutritious food since they arrived."
She is sharing a room with her 14 year-old son. “The children have nowhere to play or go except their room. We were told there was an area at the back of the hotel but this is a construction site.”
Work has been ongoing on apartments at the rear of the hotel complex.
Notably, the centre has not been inspected since the pandemic outbreak. The department says this is due to health concerns, but it is difficult to see how an inspection could not be carried out.
Precious says she feels she has no option but to go on hunger strike.
“It is a serious move but we will make sure that our kids and the people in here who are suffering from underlying illnesses don’t suffer,” she said. “This is just so difficult, especially for the kids.”
The opening of the Skellig Star and the subsequent controversies highlights one the major issues that have dogged the direct provision system.
The system is operated for profit. This effectively places some of the most vulnerable people on the planet in the care of private operators motivated to make money. In such a scenario some operators will comply with both the highest standards and, in some cases, compassion for their residents. Not all operators are imbued with that kind of integrity.
The system also means that the department must identify suitable properties.
In recent years centres have increasingly been opened in rural areas, often already overstretched in terms of services, and at the cost of huge disruption for asylum seekers, as well as diminished possibilities that they will be able to access work.
To what extent the current government intends to change the system remains to be seen.