The system is jam for contractors but can be hell for asylum seekers and does a disservice to communities where centres are located, writes
Last Saturday evening a mini bus pulled up on O’Connell Street in Caherciveen, outside the Skellig Star Hotel. At least three people emerged from the hotel and were taken away. The mini-bus was spotted by some local people. Rumour took flight.
The Skellig Star in the south Kerry town was taken over as a direct provision centre on March 16. There was no consultation with the local community in advance of the opening. The reason given by the Department of Justice for the sudden arrival of 105 asylum seekers in the town was that it was an emergency response to the coronavirus. The asylum seekers were moved from the greater Dublin area with less than 24 hours notice.
On April 14, four residents of the centre are understood to have tested positive for Covid-19. There was no contact tracing in the town. Within the cramped, 56-bedroom centre, there were attempts to adhere to guidelines on outbreaks, but all reports from the residents suggest these were cack-handed.
Only a small number of the other residents were tested.
Local people were not told anything about what had occurred. Residents from the centre continued to shop in the town. Word about the outbreak came from abroad through a source who had known some of the centre’s residents in their previous accommodation in Dublin. Once the real picture took shape, there was anger and fear about the centre, despite the welcome that had been extended to the residents.
Now, local people want it shut down and politicians are lobbying to that effect.
Trust, which was brittle to begin with, has broken down. The asylum seekers – or at least most of them – want to be moved out and relocated. Over the last two weeks at least 19 residents have tested positive. Those who have the virus are taken away, as was the case with the minibus last Saturday evening.
The extraordinary times that pertain have brought issues around the centre in Caherciveen to a head. But the dangerous shambles does present a perfect example of why the direct provision system is not fit for purpose.
On Monday, the Irish Examiner published a special report that revealed
Some operators adhere to their own high standards. And then there are those who will cut every corner, drawn by the smell of a few euro more. There is no incentive to maintain a level of service befitting the care and accommodation of some of the most vulnerable people in the world. It’s all a matter for individuals’ integrity and conscience.
While the system is jam for owners, it can be hell for asylum seekers. Their stay in the country while awaiting the result of asylum applications is left to the winds of luck. They could be dispatched to a centre where the operator maintains decent standards and is located where there is the possibility of work. Or they could find themselves in substandard or inadequate accommodation in the middle of nowhere.
Direct provision, as it is operated by the department, also does a disservice to communities where centres literally pop up. In Caherciveen, for instance, there had been a welcome for the new residents despite dashed hopes that the hotel might serve to attract tourists. There were some reservations about the numbers earmarked for the centre based on the size of the town and stretched services. But most people could see that asylum seekers were to be sheltered rather than feared or despised.
But why was it deemed appropriate to suddenly uproot so many people from the greater Dublin area and replant them at the south west tip of the country?
It is simply not credible that this was an emergency response to the pandemic.
There is plenty of circumstantial evidence that the centre was planned for months, despite denials and a failure to engage locally.
The reality is that the direct provision system is a function of the commercial property market. In recent years, as economic growth has flourished in the big urban centres, direct provision centres in greater Dublin and surrounding counties have closed down. Owners have taken advantage of a market where sale or redevelopment offer better returns.
In these circumstances the department has been forced to turn to rural Ireland, which exists in the slow lane of economic development. Centres have been earmarked for Kerry, Cork, Leitrim, Roscommon, Donegal. Reactions have varied from unconditional welcome to arson attacks. Some of the negative reaction can be attributed to plain, old racism. Much of it is dependant on the economic circumstances in the immediate vicinity of a proposed centre. And more again has a lot to do with resentment at the manner in which locations are determined. The apparent criteria revolves around available premises, where there will be least resistance and whether any political backlash is forecasted.
Why aren’t communities at the forefront of providing shelter for asylum seekers? Throughout the state there are ample premises, either vacant or in state ownership, where asylum seekers could be housed. History suggests that communities would, to a large degree, be open to welcoming those in need. It would be more humane for asylum seekers and would engage local communities, rather than the current approach of keeping them in the dark on the assumption of a hostile reaction.
In Monday’s Irish Examiner former junior minister in Justice Aodhan O’’Riordain related his experience in government attempting to instigate reform in direct provision. He said that he encountered particular resistance among civil servants.
“They had a feeling that any moves to make direct provision more humane or anything in that direction would create what they called a ‘pull factor’ and they would use that phrase all the time,” he said. In such an analysis, the so-called ‘pull factor’ trumps any obligation to humane treatment.
A view from the inside was offered on Monday by Bulelani Mfaco from the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland, who lives in a direct provision centre.
“The longing for a place to call home can be unbearable as you count months and years existing in an environment that eats away at your humanity,” he wrote. “If that is the kindness and compassion of the Irish state, I would hate to experience its cruelty.”