Seeking Asylum: What Lies Behind Closed Doors

As Ireland takes in its first refugees from Syria, Grainné Loughran examines the nation’s troubled Direct Provision and asylum systemThough we hear news reports on an almost daily basis about asylum seekers in Ireland and the injustices they live with, it is impossible for many of us to imagine that the problems they face can exist, in what is deemed a modern Irish society. For too long their plight has gone unnoticed and unpublicised by the residents themselves with fear of putting a black mark on their application for asylum. However, as more and more news stories emerge about the poor treatment that asylum seekers receive in Direct Provision Centres, issues such as poor nutrition, mental health problems and lack of opportunities for advancement are revealed as an integral part of the lives of those in Direct Provision rather than an occasional miscarriage of justice. They are not the exception, but the rule.In the wake of Ireland’s acceptance of 90 refugees from Syria, a relatively small number compared to the UK’s five hundred and minuscule in comparison to Germany’s ten thousand, the question of whether the Irish asylum and Direct Provision system can adequately provide for such groups of extremely vulnerable people must be examined. Why is it that residents of the Athlone centre had to go on hunger strike before being given fair attention? Why can’t exceptions be made for students who receive university scholarships to stay in their current Direct Provision Centre instead of denying them advancement? And how is it that the situation has gone unnoticed for so long?Living in the Direct Provision system in Ireland can be described as a life in limbo. Though it was originally put in place to work as a temporary living situation for a maximum of six months for those seeking refugee status, the average length of stay is four years. According to a report by the state’s Reception and Integration Agency, a total of 1,686 people have spent five years or more in Direct Provision, and 604 of these have been in Direct Provision Centres for at least seven years.Unfortunately, in spite of the large numbers of asylum seekers, they have been diminished to an almost invisible presence in Irish society. They are a group of people that are never recognised as being among the most vulnerable and yet extremely capable members of society, prevented as they are from taking part in their own progression. Blocked from obtaining employment and free university fees, young people are left aimless for an unknown amount of time before they either gain refugee status or not.“It’s totally wrong for young people aged 18-25 to be in a situation where they have absolutely nothing to do,” says Anne Walsh, Intercultural and Equality Officer at the National Youth Council. “There are so many courses and PLCs to do where there are spaces available, where it wouldn’t be as costly as a university, and where those seeking asylum should be offered something. It’s cruel, really, that people aren’t given a chance to further their education. Having nothing to do is a terrible thing to do to somebody... and the amount of people that I could talk about, the amount of extraordinary young people and the things they’ve achieved in a limbo situation. They have a real intention to succeed, a real appreciation of what’s being offered.”Jennifer DeWan, Campaigns and Communications Officer for NASC, the Irish Immigrant Support Centre, agrees: “The biggest issue for people that we hear is the lack of ability to engage, the lack of ability to work, the lack of access to training and third level education. And it’s not always that people can’t apply for these things, but that the system prevents them from doing it, it’s the monetary cost. You can’t afford to pay for these things if you’re living on €19.10 a week, it’s just not realistic. You might have a group of young people, Leaving Cert students who have been here for years, who have gone through the education system and who finish their Leaving Cert that might get a transfer to another centre and then can’t do anything with that.”Ireland has one of the lowest rates of acceptance for applications for asylum. According to an EU report, just 8.6% of the 1625 cases ruled on in 2013 were granted any sort of protection by the state, well below the EU average of 25.2%. It is difficult to believe that having been subjected to such poor treatment in the asylum system and such a high refusal rate that there could still be a large number of people who are trying to take advantage of it. A spokesperson for the Department of Justice and Equality says, “Recognition rates can go up and down commensurate with the merits or otherwise of the applications presented. It is important that the protection recognition rate not be perceived as some target to be achieved irrespective of the merits of applications. Our protection system is robust but fair and anybody who presents here seeking asylum and who is entitled to refugee status will get it.”It is easy to forget the definitive fact that asylum seekers have come to Ireland in order to escape from persecution in their own country. Unfortunately asylum seekers seem to be regarded by Irish society, as well as the government authorities, as attempting to take advantage of a system that does not even adequately provide for their welfare, when in fact so many of them have already struggled enough to get here to find escape from horrendous situations abroad.According to DeWan, the notion that many asylum seekers come to Ireland to take advantage of the system just doesn’t add up. “I think that’s a cop out as a government response, we hear a lot of fears around the “pull factor” here. I find even that quite an offensive comment because it’s not looking at the reality of why people seek protection and why all of these countries around the world sign international treaties giving the right to claim asylum. What it’s trying to recognise and what protection is about is the awareness that there are people in situations where they’re being tortured, they’re being killed, and that we have an obligation to provide support and protection for people who are in those situations... I understand what people are saying when they want to keep fraud to a minimum and want to make sure the system is used effectively, but in this case people are coming from highly complex, difficult, violent situations, so the expectation that they’re going to function like economic migrants simply isn’t the case. And that’s the excuse for not providing basic human rights for people? I just don’t think that’s an excuse.”As a result, according to Walsh, the mental health of asylum seekers is a massive problem. “Anyone who’s been in Direct Provision for more than six months will undoubtedly be on medication for mental health issues, it’s so traumatic. It’s an extremely difficult process where people don’t know where they are. They have to live on hope a lot of the time.”DeWan agrees. “It’s the mental, the psychological and the social impact of that limbo, that stasis, of literally just having nothing to fill your day, and having no way to provide for your family, and the stress and the anxiety that that brings on for people is quite intense and really terrible to witness.”Children being brought up in Direct Provision Centres are particularly at risk, according to Walsh. “You’ve got a situation where young people who by and large haven’t come here out of choice are growing up in a system where they’re spending years in institutional care. They can’t invite their friends back to their place. Their parents can never cook for them. You have to imagine growing up in a very abnormal situation, all of the normal, everyday ways in which you’d expect to be socialised while growing up aren’t there.”According to DeWan, media attention on asylum seekers tends to bring such issues to light, prompting better enquiry into the situation at hand. Problems such as the lack of an independent complaints mechanism for Direct Provision Centres are highlighted and more pressure is brought on for something to be done about the situation. “What you can see in the case in Athlone last week is that people had actually made complaints to RIA (Reception and Integration Agency) and still there was no change. I think those kinds of things really highlight the situation.”There is still what DeWan refers to as a “culture of disbelief” surrounding asylum seekers and the difficult situation they find themselves in having arrived in Ireland. The experience of the average asylum seeker is so different to that of the average person living in Ireland that it is difficult for many of us to imagine that this type of institutionalised living still exists. There is also clearly a profound lack of understanding about asylum seekers themselves and their situation. According to Walsh, the information page on the NYCI website, which explains the difference between asylum seekers and refugees and other key terms related to these, is one of the most viewed on the website.Those seeking asylum should not have to be punished for doing so. They should not be blamed for daring to ask for help from a privileged first world country. Almost twenty years after the closure of the last Magdalene laundry, will we allow the institutional abuse of our most vulnerable to continue unheeded? Ireland has become adept at hiding abuse behind closed doors. It is time to open the door on this.Photography: Rory O'Neill; from his project '19.10 & Other Stories'. All work used with permission.