“As soon as you get into Direct Provision, you become a number” - Life as a student in Direct Provision

A UCD student has come forward to describe his experience of living under direct provision as “nothing better than what was happening with the Magdalene laundries.” Liam Harrison*, a first year sociology and social policy student, has spoken to The University Observer about his experience over the past two and a half years, attending UCD whilst living in a direct provision centre.

Having first come to Ireland as an asylum seeker, Harrison described the initial procedure upon entering the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) in Balseskin, Dublin. “There they get all your information, your particulars, your private information, they get them through medicals and everything. After a while, at least three weeks, you are then transferred to a centre out of Dublin, where you are then going to start your new life in a prison set-up.”

Asylum seekers entering direct provision are provided with a bed, food, access to a GP and €21.60 per week for all their expenses including transportation, toiletries and “meals for the day” if they are not in the centre at the set meal times. Harrison spoke of the restrictions he faced once he had settled into the centre, “you’re not allowed to work, you can’t open a bank account. You basically are stuck in there. You have got to adhere to all the meal times. Out of meal times, if you missed your meal, you missed your meal, that’s it.”

As of 29th June 2018, the Irish Government’s decision to opt-in to the EU reception conditions directive took effect and allowed asylum seekers who have been waiting nine months for a first instance decision to seek employment in Ireland. Permission for seeking employment is for 6 months at a time and applicants must re-apply in advance for permission to work, according to the Irish Refugee Council. This was later confirmed by a spokesperson from the Department of Justice, who added “the regulations provide access to both employment and self-employment in all sectors and categories of employment with the exception of the Civil and Public Service, An Garda Síochána and the Irish Defence Forces.”

“The Department of Justice does not take that lightly and remember we’re not even allowed to leave the state, because all our documentation is taken and we are given an identity by the department, which is not an ID, just to say you are an asylum seeker. That has a number so you lose your name instantly. As soon as you get into direct provision you become a number.”

Within the centre, Harrison has said that the living conditions operate under a “prison set-up”. “I feel [management] are all taught and told that ‘these are the prisoners, you are jailors, you look after them.’” Describing the health services available to the centre’s residents, Hanley said, “mental health is the order of the day in all direct provision centres and no one bothers. We’ve got people that we just avoid because they are violent. Yes, we do have our medical cards. You get a GP as of when you need, but the GP has to be there or you have to leave [the centre], so medically you are covered like all other Irish people I suppose.” When asked by the University Observer for comment, a spokesperson from the Department of Justice said “any residents with complex medical conditions or identified vulnerabilities are transferred to RIA’s Reception Centre at Balseskin so that their needs can be addressed. RIA also holds on-site clinics to address any health issues with residents. A resident can apply for a transfer to another accommodation centre. This may be facilitated in exceptional circumstances, for example, a medical reason.”

Hanley entered UCD through an access course, before enrolling as an undergraduate in sociology and social policy. “It’s good studying, at least it brings a bit of sanity back to me, as opposed to living in Direct Provision where you sit all day, wait for your meal times, wait to go to the toilet, sleep, wake up and that is the routine.”

UCD was awarded University of Sanctuary status in March 2018, which permitted refugees and asylum seekers access free fees under the new policy. University College Cork, University of Limerick and Dublin City University are the only other universities in Ireland to have been awarded University of Sanctuary status. “Coming to UCD has been a change, it has been a daybreaker for me. It’s been everything for me, I regained my sanity, I consider myself as a human being again.”

Despite not paying college fees, transportation is still a concern for Harrison on a day-to-day basis. “I started my first year, I moved to Waterford. In Tramore, I had to wake up at 3:30am and walk for an hour to catch my 5am bus in the city centre. Travelling has been a killer and going through the day without a meal. Going back to try and catch my supper, which was never possible, because I would get back to the centre after 8pm. When I get there, there’s nothing left.” When asked if he could apply to transfer to a direct provision centre closer to the Belfield campus, Harrison replied, “I wouldn’t get a transfer because the Department of Justice will always tell you that it is not their priority for any asylum seeker to be attending college, it is a choice.”

This situation has led to many problems both academically and socially while he attends UCD. “I’m behind in everything because I can’t do classes late in the afternoon...or I have to go without a meal.” When he is unable to attend lectures in the afternoon, Harrison has received help from some of his lecturers who “understand something about Direct Provision...and they will be very accommodating, that will want to assist out of lecture times and out of tutorial times. I am very grateful for those that do understand and they offer support and assistance.”

Harrison spoke of how UCDSU has helped him in attending college,“there is an arrangement with the Students’ Union in UCD where they will provide lunch vouchers.”

A strong advocate for the end of direct provision, Harrison believes that the centre of the problem is that “people don’t know anything about it. They don’t know the kind of life, they are not exposed to it. Direct provision is there, it’s being spoken about but no one says the truth.” Speaking about how direct provision will be perceived in the future, Harrison said that “I know in the future, this will haunt the government, this will haunt the state.”

“I am very pitiful of the children that live in direct provision because they don’t have a life that children should have. I would also plead with whoever is in power to at least get the children and single mothers accommodated in a decent manner if they still want to keep the system, because it just doesn’t work for the children. It’s a disgrace.”

“I just believe that [the Irish Government] must end Direct Provision, they must stop deportations, they must give the full and unhindered right to work. People must be allowed to get driver’s licenses and drive to work. People must be allowed to open bank accounts. The people must get back their lives and just be treated like human beings. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”

Information received under the Freedom of Information Act 2014 shows the total number of people living in direct provision centres in Ireland is 5,938, as of 2nd December 2018. The University Observer has learned that there are 26 registered students currently living under direct provision, according to UCDSU.

The University Observer approached the Department of Justice for comment, to which a spokesperson replied “It is important to stress that in general, the majority of those living in RIA accommodation centres, have either made claims for international protection that have not yet been positively determined or their claim has not been successful and they are challenging a decision through the Courts. Applicants who have been granted status or a permission to remain – either because their claim for international protection has been accepted or on other discretionary grounds – should no longer be residing in accommodation centres as they have the same housing, social welfare and other rights as everyone else.”

*Name has been changed.