The Direct Provision system in Ireland to accommodate asylum seekers is now 15 years old. Immigration and Refugee Law Solicitor, Carol Sinnott, reveals her own personal experiences of quite shocking and intolerable conditions within the system.

It is a remarkable system and  I have visited almost every hostel at this point over the years in different parts of the country. All of them appear to have the same hallmarks. Direct provision hostels are institutions which are wholly unsuitable for the people and families who reside in them.

The delay experienced by asylum seekers as a result of the State’s inaction in dealing with applications in a timely manner has resulted in severe psychiatric and psychological injuries for many of the residents of those institutions.

At their wits’ end…a story of one particular hostel visit

I remember in 2010 visiting a hostel in the South East which is now closed. Of all the hostels across the country I had even been to, that to mind was one of the worst. The hostel accommodated single men.

I went in to see my client and I was met by a very kind lady who worked in the hostel. She arranged a seat for me to speak to my client in a tiny back office which I welcomed.  It was a sweltering hot day and I spent an hour or so speaking to my client about his case.

When I went to exit the room, I was very surprised to discover that a queue  had formed all  along the hall down to tiny the back office with people lined up to see me.

The queue was literally out the door! I hadn’t expected it and I was anxious to leave as I had spoken to my client about his case. I explained to them that I had just come to speak with my client and that if they wanted to discuss their cases, it would be necessary for them to speak with their solicitors of the Refugee Legal Service or whomever acted for them at that time.

Psychological Damage

In the end I didn’t have the heart to leave without at least having the courtesy to speak to them. Some were there for years. I met one man who had been there for over eight years waiting on the State to deal with his humanitarian leave application.

He was from Sudan. He was extremely agitated and it was clear that he had suffered with psychiatric problems. He was too agitated to speak to me and needed to be accompanied by his friend who told me that the man had  tried to take his own life twice during his tenure at the hostel.

I met others who were at their wits end with their living arrangements. I realised that my very presence gave them a glimmer of hope that I might be able to do something for them that their own legal advisers couldn’t do. They seized the opportunity to speak with me.

The fact of the matter was that there was little or nothing I could do for those people that was not being done already. I explained to them that there were lengthy delays with the State dealing with humanitarian applications but I could not explain to them why some applications were dealt with quickly by the Department of Justice and some were left in limbo for years on end despite numerous reminders to deal with their cases.

It was almost impossible at that time to explain the inconsistency with the time delays and the varying lengths of time that one had to wait for their humanitarian leave applications to be dealt with.

As with most hostels there was little or nothing to do there and most men hung around outside or sat in the television room. It was a Friday afternoon and I remember thinking how boring their existence appeared. It seemed as though one day lead into the next with nothing to differentiate one day from the next.

Upon entering, I immediately picked up on the air of depression which hung around the place. It was outside of the town (as usual) away from the hustle and bustle and the local community. It was the weekend, Friday evening but for them it really didn’t matter what day of the week it was. The fact that their weekly allowance was and still is €19.10 per week wouldn’t exactly make for an enjoyable weekend.

Air of Suspicion

As I had mentioned in a recent Irish Times article on this subject by Karl O’Brien, there appears to be an air of suspicion each time I enter a hostel. On the following Monday, I was back at my desk in Dublin and I received a telephone call from an individual whose name I didn’t recognise. I took the call and individual asked me what the purpose of my attendance was at the particular hostel the previous Friday. I was taken aback by the enquiry so I began to take a careful note of what was said to me.

He told me that the gardener/caretaker had witnessed me entering the hostel and that I had “no business going in there” without permission.

I made some enquiries about the person that phoned me and I discovered that the person who contacted me was a director of a company who owned a number of hostels.

A Very Public ‘privacy’

I have found my experience of visiting direct provision hostels  trying at times.  The vast number of hostels do not have an area available whereby I can speak with my clients and I am precluded from going to their rooms to discuss their cases with them even thought their rooms are effectively their living quarters. Their rooms are the only place where they can spend time on their own with their family as a family unit . Their room is the only place where they have privacy within the entire area of the hostel.

It is very difficult for people having to discuss their private business and details in respect of their cases in common areas in close proximity to the other residents. Imagine going to a nursing home to take instructions to make a will and  imagine a situation where that client is required to discuss their last wishes within earshot of the other residents in the common room because their solicitor is not allowed to attend their room for the purpose of taking instructions!

When Counsel and myself visited another hostel to take instructions from our client, I received a letter at my office with the following extracts:

“You are very welcome to visit any direct provision centre to meet with your clients in the common areas of the centre”.

“ For the avoidance of any doubt and to avoid any unnecessary journeys on your part in future, if you wish to visit and tour any direct provision centre in the course of meeting with your clients resident onsite, you will need to make written/email contact with this Office. This communication  should outline where you wish to visit, the purpose of the visits, the clients you are visiting there and the proposed dated for the visit. This request will then be processed in the normal way….”

“These centres are the homes of those persons who are accommodated there whilst their applications for international protection are being processed. In this regard, residents are entitled to their privacy….” [!!!!]

Each time I have visited a centre and asked to speak with my client in the privacy of their room, that request was refused. I have never made a written request to RIA outlining the purpose of my visit, where I wish to visit, the client that I wish to visit and the purpose of the visit.

If I were going to Cloverhill Prison to taken instructions from a client, I would make arrangements in advance in order to accommodate the prison staff and my client to get him from the cell down to the solicitors meeting area. That’s different. That’s prison. It beggars belief that RIA cite that “residents are entitled to their privacy”. As stated above, this type of regime could not be more intrusive for our clients.

Child Protection reasons have also been cited. If the State were so concerned about Child Protection, they would not allow a situation to develop whereby the duration direction provision children and their families spend in the system is damaging their mental and physical health.

Children Witness Sexual Acts

I have seen cases whereby children have been subjected to and witnessed things that they should not as children be subjected to. For example, a number of our clients have complained that their children have witnessed sexual acts between adults if they are walking down corridors and passing bedroom doors left ajar. They have witnessed fights and arguments between adults, undoubtedly agreements which arose because of the sheer tension of living in such an environment.

The children rely often on the generosity of the public where members of the public drop to the centres used bicycles and toys. The children live in a regime and like the adults, many are now institutionalised having spent most of their lives and in many cases, their entire lives living in these centres. (JRS Ireland also contribute to this cause and have a Christmas Appeal for toys for children in direct provision which I can send you details of.)

Arrested Development

The adults are precluded from giving their children a better life.

  • They are precluded from setting examples for their children such as cooking a family meal.
  • They are generally not allowed to cook or prepare food in their rooms.
  • They are precluded from working so their children can never experience a working ethos from their parents.

The adults express such frustration about this. They sometimes tell us that what children see, children do. What do the children in direct provision centres see in their parents? They see parents who have no work to go to and parents who are now allowed to work thereby by extension they see their parents as being restricted, inferior and unequal.

The fact that their parents are not allowed to do the same things as the parents of their schoolfriends creates the ideology that their parents are lesser beings when compared to other parents on the outside.

They can often see their parents as a source of embarrassment as they experience life outside of the centres and they begin to compare the adults outside to their parents in the centres.

They see parents who have no money to spend on them as their parents receive an allowance of €9.10 per child which is pittance and not enough to survive with an individual child’s needs let alone treat them the odd time.

This leads to a sense of uselessness and despair amongst the adults. Single adults with no children experience the same feelings of uselessness and despair.

It leads to depression in many many cases  it leads to situations where the adults cannot leave the direct provision centres even after their cases have been dealt with because their confidence has been undermined by such an extent as a result of the regime and institutionalisation that they no longer have the self-belief and confidence to seek work.

Many children suffer as a result of living with depressed parents and regardless of the efforts of their parents to avoid affecting their children by their illness, it is inevitable that their well-being will affected by their parents illness.

Teenager and Parent Dynamic

Parents are really struggling when it comes to teenage children. Sometimes when they come to our office, they tell us about their concerns for their teenage children. Some get into trouble and some of the teenagers have serious anger issues and psychological problems.

A huge source of concern for some parents is their extreme worry  that their teenagers activities  could have an effect on their cases particularly if it results in convictions, juvenile liaison officers etc.

Often teenage children resent their parents because they see their parents as being inferior to adults on the outside and they resent the fact that their parents are not able to give them things that other teenagers on the outside get such as holidays, lunch money, runners, school trips, music lessons, etc.

They resent the fact that they live in centres where they are embarrassed to bring their friends. It has often been reported to us that Irish parents do not allow their children to visit their friends at the various centres and that creates a feelings inferiority, anger and frustration on the teenagers part.

When they ask their parents, when they will be out of direct provision, their parents are unable to give them an answer and that creates resentment and anger towards the parent(s).

Teenagers especially find it difficult to live in one room with their parents and other siblings. They complain about that fact that they cannot concentrate on their homework and their studies.

They have no privacy. They often use any excuse to get out of the room and the centre and this can lead to the types of social problems experienced by teenagers who hang around town at night and lack a normal routine. The know that they cannot go on to third level without absurd funding unlike their friends on the outside who take the third level system for granted. That also makes them feel different, excluded, inferior and so on.

I visited Auschwitz in 2006 to pay my respects and like you I remember thinking that it’s layout  looked very like  Lisseywollen Accommodation Centre in Athlone.

There were rows of bleak buildings parallel to one another in a straight line with nothing around them but the high fences and the bleak  clay landscape very like the mobile homes in Lisseywollen which are lined up in parallel rows on a tarmac surface with nothing to distinguish one mobile home from the other. There are no plants or gardens, just a bleak mobile home like all of the others.

Public Attitudes

Because I have worked with Asylum seekers for so long, I often get a silly remark meant of course in a jovial way which I always take in good spirits such as:

“Well are you skill keeping those feckers in the country?”

If I got a euro for every time I have heard a person tell me about asylum seekers costing the country a fortune, getting money for nothing, fiddling the system and so on, I would probably have enough to give up work and  quite comfortably retire  by now.

I often tell them that it is their money and their taxes that are being wasted by the Government and that they should be exercised by the fact that those people are not allowed to work and to earn a living because the Government prefers to keep those people in Direct Provision Centres providing them with a tiny sum to live on in addition to paying private companies millions of euro to accommodate them. That normally raises an eyebrow because people don’t realise what is really going on.

The above is my experience of the system to date. It is an unbiased and truthful reflection of my experience of direct provision and our client’s  experiences of this inhumane system, many of whom are damaged as a result of their unnecessarily lengthy stay.

Image credits: Refugee Art Project