“I do not tell him about Santa,” Cindy (not her real name) says, lowering her voice so her three-and-a-half year old son doesn’t hear.
“He hears about Santa from other children but I have to keep his expectations low. The presents he will get will come from charity.
“We are very grateful for the kindness but he cannot get his hopes up. I do not want to break his heart.”
It’s just before Christmas. Cindy and her son have met me for a chat in a hotel lobby in a Munster town. Over the fireplace, Christmas lights wink on and off. Cindy’s son, Aaron, shouts “Broken! Fix!”
Cindy stops him from going at the lights and tells me that she, her husband and Aaron have lived for the past two years in a Direct Provision centre outside of the town. Most locals are barely aware of the centre.
“Christmas Day is the same day as every day,” says Cindy. “The staff will not be there, so we have cold food they leave for us and the day is very long.”
Cindy is South African. Her husband, Joshua, is Nigerian. She was a supervisor in a marketing company in Johannesburg and her husband was a businessman. She says they came to Ireland because they faced persecution as Joshua was a non-national. She says they were attacked and threatened with murder.
Cindy and Joshua chose to come to Ireland because they didn’t need a visa and came here because they are Catholic and liked Ireland. On arrival, they applied for asylum. Their application was rejected because South Africa is not recognised as a conflict zone. They appealed the decision and their appeal was rejected. They have appealed again.
The cycle of rejection and appeal is a common story, although it is unusual for asylum-seekers to actually pick their destination as Cindy and her husband did. Most asylum-seekers are smuggled here and have no idea where they even are when they arrive in Ireland.
Cindy says that she is shocked at the levels of violence in the Direct Provision centre.
“There are a lot of fights. Gardaí call all the time. It is always women. These are desperate women suffering from boredom and depression. ‘Are you looking at my husband?’ Stupid stuff. ‘What are you looking at?’ Sometimes we fight over food. Like animals.”
As we chat, Cindy’s son shouts and runs around, ignoring Cindy as she tries to calm him. She is mortified by his acting out but then she tells me she is worried about his behaviour.
“He goes crazy here because he usually has no space. Because he spends all his time with us. One small room. This cannot be healthy.”
In another Direct Provision centre in the south, later the same day, I speak with a number of women who tell me that Christmas Day will be for them and their children “A nothing day. Less than a nothing day”.
Like Cindy, “Katherine” too is from South Africa. Similarly, she says her husband being a non-national led to their having to flee to escape persecution. She has two small children, a boy of four and a one-year-old girl. She alleges that the food in her Direct Provision centre is very poor.
“If we have chicken today, we have the same chicken tomorrow and the next day the same chicken in Uncle Ben’s sweet’n’sour sauce. Or if it’s beef on Monday, the same beef on Tuesday and beef stew with the same beef on Wednesday.
“Are we animals? Are we dogs that you feed scraps?”
She says she has not made a formal complaint for fear of being moved to another centre. Bad as she says things are, she fears her family being uprooted again. She claims that when the Reception and Integration Agency – the State body which oversees privately-run Direct Provision centres – inspects the facility, food quality improves dramatically.
I asked the Department of Justice – which is ultimately responsible for RIA – for a comment. I was told:
“RIA has a complaints procedure.. which resolves to deal with problems quickly and efficiently.
“RIA oversees a comprehensive and detailed inspections system of asylum seeker accommodation. Inspections are carried out by an in-house inspectorate within RIA and also by an independent company with expertise in fire and food safety.”
The problem is that people in Direct Provision have deportation orders hanging over their heads and most are terrified to complain.
Katherine’s friend “Jennifer” tells me to call her that, “like Jennifer Aniston”. She’s a young Muslim woman from Pakistan who fled her home because she married outside of her caste.
She and her husband fled under threat of a so-called “honour killing”. Jennifer has two boys. A three-year-old and a newborn.
Jennifer and Katherine are both Muslim and say that Islam doesn’t celebrate Christmas. However, they say they live in a country that has Christmas and they’d like their kids to enjoy that. “We want to belong in Ireland,” says Katherine.
“I have to ask,” I say, “because if I don’t, someone else will say I should have, but how did you both end up on an island that’s the last stop before America?”
“America?” says Katherine, misunderstanding my point. “We would not go to America!”
“Oh no,” says Jennifer, eyes wide with horror. “Not with what is happening there now!”
As they realise their misunderstanding, the three of us crack up laughing. It’s a rare moment of levity in grim surroundings. (Jennifer says she and her husband were smuggled here. Katherine and her husband came here from South Africa.)
“At the end of November there were 1,098 children in Direct Provision. The average length of stay in Direct Provision is around 2 years 9 months,” says Nick Henderson of the Irish Refugee Council.
“The Irish Refugee Council, along with various different organisations and individuals including the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, the Special Rapporteur for Children, Geoffrey Shannon, and most recently Minister Katherine Zappone have called for an end to Direct Provision. In the interim, living conditions should be improved.
“We need a system that embodies the best interests of the child, allows for self-determination and privacy, is based on care and not profit, identifies and supports individuals with special needs and vulnerabilities, allows for independent complaints mechanisms and provides for the right to work.
“Saturday 10th of December, International Human Rights Day, was the anniversary of the direct provision allowance being introduced in 1999,” notes Henderson. “That allowance, €19.10, hasn’t changed since, despite inflation and the considerable increase in living costs. The Christmas bonus for people in Direct Provision was just €16.23 for adults and €13.26 for their children. Christmas can expose existing poverty in our society, not least for people living in Direct Provision.”
‘Temporary shelter’ is damaging people
Direct Provision was originally planned as a temporary solution to provide shelter for asylum-seekers for approximately six months but many people spend years in conditions which have been condemned by the United Nations and international human rights groups.
Direct Provision gives asylum-seekers their bed and board and it prohibits them from working. Asylum-seekers get €19.10 a week. Children get €15.50. Asylum-seekers are not eligible for free third-level education.
Currently we have 4,300 people in 34 Direct Provision centres across the State. A third of them are children; 55% have been here for five years, 20% of that for seven years or more.
Direct Provision centres, which include former hotels, hostels and a mobile home park, are run by private contractors who receive about €50 million per year in State funding.
Until now, parents have not been allowed to cook for their children and many say they have lost their sense of independence. Sue Conlon, formerly of the Irish Refugee Council, notes that some children in Direct Provision – crammed into close proximity with adults (and not just their parents) – are seeing things they should not see and are replicating behaviour they should not understand.
“We have created a system which infantilises adults and sexualises children,” she says. “This is a recipe for horrors.”
Ireland has warehoused asylum-seekers in Direct Provision centres since 1999. Direct Provision was introduced as a temporary, six-month, solution at a time when annual asylum applications were 10,938. Applications peaked in 2002 at 11,600.
Last year we had 1,448 asylum applications.
In EU terms, Ireland has a lower than average number of asylum applications per head of capita. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Ireland received 1.4 asylum seekers per 1,000 population between 2010 and 2014. The EU average is 3.5 per 1,000 and, over the same period, Sweden received 24 applications per 1,000 population.
Ireland only accepts approximately 5% to 6% of asylum applicants upon first application. The European average is somewhere between 26% and 28%.
Ireland remains the only country in the EU, other than Lithuania, that does not allow asylum applicants access to the labour market at any stage during the asylum process.
A number of prominent figures, including the former Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness, have predicted that a future Taoiseach will end up standing in the Dáil and publicly apologising for damage done by the Direct Provision system.
We should demand dignity, kindness and respect for all
In August of this year, an asylum-seeker from Korea, a woman in her thirties, took her own life in the Kinsale Road Direct Provision centre, which houses 200 or so people. She was the mother of a six-year-old boy.
“She lived in the same block as me,” one woman, a fellow asylum-seeker, told RTÉ’s Brian O’Connell in the wake of the tragedy. “Lovely lady, very private, and didn’t choose to mingle with people. It was obvious that she had issues, but she chose to remain private about them.
“Lively. A real live wire,” she says of her late neighbour’s son. “He interacted very, very well with other children. Very sweet and loved his mum dearly. And she loved him as well. You could see. When it came to her son, you could see how much she loved him.”
That little boy is now an orphan and in the care of Túsla.
“Depression, sometimes, is within and you carry it wherever you go. Certainly your circumstances can and might exacerbate a situation you already have,” the dead woman’s neighbour told Brian O’Connell.
Brian O’Connell points out that 90% of asylum-seekers will have suffered from some form of depression. O’Connell notes that sixty-one asylum seekers, including sixteen children under the age of 6, have died in Direct Provision centres between 2002 and 2014. That is, he says, out of an asylum-seeker population during those years of just over 50,000.
If, like many of us, you don’t know the Kinsale Road Direct Provision centre, it is – as you drive out to Cork Airport – on the left-hand corner immediately before, and beside, the Bull McCabe’s Bar. If – as an Irish citizen – you are interested in meeting our guests, the men, women and children living in Direct Provision, the residents on Kinsale Road are always delighted to get visitors.
All you need to do is call to the gate and talk to the security guards. Tell them that you’d like to meet some of the people who are living in our country as our guests. If they turn you down – and they almost certainly will turn you down – then ask to make an appointment.
(The usual excuse is “privacy concerns”, which is an interesting line of argument when some asylum-seekers are forced to share bedrooms with total strangers.)
Please think about bringing gifts of toys or books when you call. Santa will always do his best for the kids in there, but Santa never turned down a kindness either.
As Irish citizens, as tax-payers, we all pay for the Direct Provision system and – as we are responsible for it – we surely have a duty to make sure that our guests are treated with dignity, kindness and respect.
Originally published in the Evening Echo 28th December 2016