Kate O’Sullivan is a Communications Intern with Nasc Irish Immigrant Support Centre, Cork. Nasc is an NGO working for an integrated society based on the principles of human rights, social justice and equality. This originally appeared in the Cork Independent, here – http://corkindependent.com/20130417/news/the-campaigner-end-institutional-living-campaign-S63453.html on the 17th April 2013

Female silhouette by window

A National Day of Action is taking place on 23 April to raise awareness for the ‘End Institutional Living’ campaign which hopes to put an end to Direct Provision centres where asylum seekers are kept while awaiting a decision on their application to call Ireland home. 

The campaign, which is a collaboration of non-governmental organisations, asylum seekers and community groups, is a response to the negative effect these centres have on their residents.

Jennifer and Michelle, who do not want to be named, both came to Ireland a number of years ago in search of asylum. Throughout the long process, of applying for asylum, appealing their asylum refusal, applying for subsidiary protection and humanitarian leave, all which have been refused, the women have lived in direct provision centres with their young children.

These women and their families have now been given deportation orders and fear being sent back to their home countries which they fled many years ago. Both say they fear for their lives if they return home.

“The night is the worst. It is hell. You hear footsteps in the hall and you think they are coming for you to send you back,” Michelle said. “I feel like I am living in a prison.”

Michelle has been in Ireland for the past six years and has a young son who, even at an early age, battles with the uncertainty of his future.

“In the morning sometimes, he starts crying, saying he wants his papers, his friends have left and he wants to go with them. He says he hates God because he never listens to his prayers.”

The women spoke of the often inadequate facilities.

“The food is always the same,” Jennifer, who shares a single room with her two small children said, “we have told management and staff but every day it is potato, rice, potato, rice. It doesn’t change.

“There are ten washing machines for everyone and the dryers have been broken for months, there is just one working. We must queue or dry our clothes in our room.”

Both women – Jennifer is a trained seamstress and Michelle has a degree in textiles and design – would like to contribute to society by working and earning a wage but they are not allowed to work and are forced to survive on €19.10 a week and €9.60 per child. “There is an attitude among Irish people that we are taking their money and we are lazy but I would love to be able to work,” Michelle said.

The women also said the staff at the centre they live in are not very empathetic or helpful. “They are all smiles to our faces but when we turn our backs it is another story.”

Jennifer also described a recent incident where staff refused to call an ambulance during an emergency in which her child had an accident, advising her to call a taxi.

“I went to the reception and told them but they did not help. My friend called an ambulance for me.”

Michelle expressed concern for the effect of these living conditions on her children. “In school my son was trying to understand what a kitchen was. He had no idea; he has never seen one, all his food is prepared for him at the centre. He has just a bedroom.”

Michelle also said the cramped living conditions were an issue. “The three of us live in one room and I must get changed in front of them every morning. It is not right that they are exposed to my nakedness every day, morning and night.”

Both women are currently pursuing high court cases to have their deportation order agreements reviewed in the hope of being granted leave to remain in Ireland.

“There is no escaping my thoughts,” Michelle said, “There is nothing to do, I go and chat to a friend but then I go back to my room and I look around and everything is the same.”

Spokesperson for Nasc Kate O’Sullivan said “Direct provision centres were initially supposed to be for a sixmonth period but now there are people living in them up to seven years. The conditions are unsuitable and we are campaigning for a more humane system.”

A rally is taking place in Daunt Square, Patrick St on 23 April at 5.30pm. Dr Joan Giller, who is a strong advocate for the abolition of direct provision centres and who has worked in direct provision centres since 2007 will be speaking at the event.

“People think we are here to just take from them, but I want to give back. I wish people knew what life is like for us really, I think they would look at me differently.”

The man who said this to me had been living as an asylum seeker in Ireland for 5 years, and still didn’t know what would happen to him. What strikes me the most when talking to people like him is the fear. Fear of deportations if they speak up for themselves and fear that their children will become lost and hopeless. There has been a lot of concern recently for those who have lived and are living in State institutions, including asylum seekers. This recent spotlight is welcome but this is not a new issue. Since 2000, asylum seekers having been placed in institutional centres under what is called the ‘Direct Provision system’. Direct Provision means that on applying for asylum in Ireland, people are sent to one of 35 accommodation centres around the country until a decision is made on whether they will be granted refugee status or subsidiary protection. The majority of people wait 3-7 years for this.

People are housed in private centres, run on a for-profit basis.  The estimated value of the contracts from 2000 – 2010 was €655 million. One of the issues being raised is how such a large amount of money could be paid out to private contractors yet asylum seekers themselves are often living in poverty, or at risk of it. They receive €19.10 per adult and €9.60 per child a week to cover anything outside of basic needs. One lady based in Cork told me she hates collecting even this small amount of money because people look at her as though she is ‘sponging’, though what she does get never covers what she needs for her two children. She is also not legally entitled to work, as Ireland is one of two countries in the EU which refuses to allow asylum seekers to support themselves through employment.

What is most worrying is the effect of all this on the approximately 1700 children in Direct Provision. Parents are not allowed to cook for their children. They often cannot afford for their children to participate in activities with their friends, or pay for their school books. The effects of living in accommodation and sharing facilities with strangers, up to 250 in some centres, is also a huge concern.

So what can we do? Nasc, the Irish Immigrant Support Centre is part of an alliance of NGOs, asylum seekers and community groups calling on people to take part in the ‘End Institutional Living’ campaign. 23 April is a national Day of Action, with events happening in Cork, Dublin, Galway, Tralee, Castlebar and Limerick. In Cork city, people are gathering at 5.30pm at Daunt Square on Patrick Street for a rally. Asylum seekers will address the rally as will Dr Joan Giller from Cork, who recently sparked a huge reaction with her letter to the Irish Times on conditions in Direct Provision.

The ‘End Institutional Living’ campaign believes that this institutional living needs to end and are wasteful of taxpayers’ money. We need to pressure our government into taking action now and this is the first step.