Living in Direct Provision: Resident Voices
2010 marks the tenth anniversary of the introduction of the policies of Direct Provision and Dispersal.
Direct provision is a scheme for individuals and families seeking asylum or other forms of protection, which provides accommodation on a full board basis and aims to directly provide all basic daily needs of asylum applicants. Dispersal is a policy whereby asylum applicants, after an initial short stay in Dublin to process their asylum application, are sent to one of 51 state provided accommodation centres located throughout 19 counties. While awaiting a decision on their asylum claim applicants are not eligible for child benefit, do not have a right to work and have limited education rights.
Last year the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) worked with over 90 families living in Direct Provision in five locations in Dublin and three in Limerick. The work of JRS Ireland with people seeking asylum is principally in the areas of outreach, psychosocial support, sports, education and training.
Among the activities that JRS organises are a Homework Club in a direct provision centre for 15- 20 children two afternoons per week; an intensive Summer Programme of activities during July and August, in which over 60 families participated last year; providing regular language classes and training courses in centres; and sharing the journey of many individuals and families seeking asylum through weekly outreach.
In their Own Words: Experiences of Direct Provision
In the work of JRS worldwide advocating for more just and humane asylum systems, forcibly displaced persons are placed at the centre – as ‘the subject not the objects of change’.
An important dimension of our advocacy work is that people’s story is heard. The case studies in this section tell the stories of young people and families in the direct provision system in their own words.
Case Study 1
Djamila is a 16 year old girl from Afghanistan who has been living in Direct Provision for four years. She shares a room with her mother and 19 year old sister:
I want to get a real home. Here you don’t go out of the room all day. You can’t go downstairs. Here there used to be kids in the pool room but kids aren’t supposed to be there, because there’s other people there. There are men there.
She got in trouble before and was reported by the centre management.
I got a letter from the Department [Reception Integration Agency] once. They said ‘one more time and you’re thrown out of the hotels’. They put you far from here. A family that caused lots of trouble they put them in Galway
Djamila tries to hide from school friends the fact that her family are seeking asylum and spends most of her time outside school with other children from the Centre.
I’m mostly friends with hostel people more than school kids. I don’t like to bring people back here. I don’t tell them [at school] I’m an asylum seeker, I say I’m foreign and that’s all, they can talk whatever they want. If they ask any more I say my father was in the war and now I’m here. They say ‘oh you’re so lucky... you live in a hotel’ and I say ‘yeah, it’s great I know’. They don’t understand.
She does not have any money so relies on friends to get her lunch at school:
I have a few friends in school. Every day my friends buy me lunch. They have ten Euros each, without them I’d have nothing.
Djamila looks forward to having her own home and says that arguments regularly break out in the Centre:
When we move into our own house you can get food whenever you want.
You can get up whenever you want and have your own food. … Here you always hear people fighting. Two years ago a woman tried to stab another woman with a bread knife and two weeks ago there was a big fight in the laundry room. One time a woman pushed my mum. I was so angry with her!
Case Study 2
Abbo is a 12 year old girl from Nigeria. She has been living in Direct Provision for three years with her mother, three sisters and one brother. She shares a room with her older sister and her mother, two younger sisters and her brother share another room. She feels that the children in school do not understand her situation and spends more time with other children from the centre:
Some of them think it’s really good [living in a hotel], but they don’t have a clue. Sometimes some of them laugh at me. They say ‘why you don’t go back to your country’ and I say ’we don’t want to live there [in the hostel] my mum is making me, but we can’t go back to our country’. One or two of them used to laugh at me – they thought living in a hostel is weird.
She feels that life is difficult for her mother. For her the worst part of living in the Centre is that she has nothing to do and spends most of her time after school in her room because there is nowhere to go:
It’s bad for my mum ‘cos I have two small sisters. She gets tired of going up and down to the top of the hotel. I have to get up early to do things for her. My mum doesn’t like me going downstairs. I stay in my room most of the time. Downstairs you mix with people [mum is afraid] they might be a bad influence. I have DVDs and the internet.
Abbo is very aware that resources and money are scarce for her family. She says she does not get any money from her mum and the family struggles to survive on the direct provision weekly allowance of €19.10 per adult and €9.60 per child.
I need money for school now and she has nothing. In May my class are going to Clare. I need 20 Euros deposit. My Mum doesn’t have it though. My brother can’t go on a trip with his team also. We can’t afford it. He wants to go so much. It’s too much for my Mum. The teacher doesn’t know. It’s really hard
Case Study 3
Namono is from Uganda and has a one year old daughter called Sarah. She lived in two different direct provision centres; in the first she had a more positive experience however in the second centre life was more difficult. Subsequently she received refugee status and now lives in Lucan.
You want your child to eat healthy food but you don’t have a choice you can’t do anything. In [the first centre] you ask for something and they try to get it for you. In [the second centre] on the other hand it was impossible. It’s up to you to use your 28 euros to buy the food you want to eat. I don’t want her to eat that food that is very fried and not healthy.
For her the most difficult part was the attitude of the managers in the second hostel she lived in. She gets very emotional talking about how she was treated and how she was made to feel:
Definitely the management was the most difficult part [in particular] the constant shouting. If they’re not shouting at you they’re shouting at someone else. They make you feel so small. Sometimes the people there would talk back and the manager says ‘well go back to your own country if you’re not happy with it’. They write in a book about you every day. They are looking at you. You can’t express what you want to say. If you answer back they transfer you to a bad place so people learn to shut up.
She thinks it’s important for people to remember the situation asylum seekers could be escaping from:
They don’t know my life. People have no idea how bad my life has been.
She understands that the situation is difficult but feels it is not being handled in the best way possible:
I know the state is trying and I know it’s difficult. But they don’t know what it is like. Oh my god the things that go through your head. The way the people treat you and the way they think about you…Some places are self-catering this could be better. If you have a child you share with other people with a child. At least you can cook what you want for your child.
Policy Concerns: Children and Families in Direct Provision
Direct Provision was introduced by the government as a pilot scheme in 1999 and became official Irish government policy in 2000. Three meals per day are provided to residents at specific times, together with a weekly social welfare allowance of €19.10 per adult and €9.60 per child.1 Residents are not allowed to cook their own food and are usually required to share bedrooms and bathrooms.2 Families get their own room(s) to live in, which in some centres includes a bathroom and in others they must share.3
Residents must stay in the direct provision address in order to receive their weekly direct provision payments. This is also the address for correspondence relating to their asylum claim. Failure to respond to certain official correspondence relating to outcomes at different stages of their asylum application may invalidate their claim.
Reflecting on the case studies above and the JRS experience of working with children and families living in direct provision centres, a number of important concerns relating to the underlying policies have been identified:
Parenting can be very difficult in the setting of the centres. Parents can feel that they have little control because ultimately the centre management make key decisions concerning their families’ lives. As highlighted in the previous case studies this arises in relation to decisions about food, where the children can play, whether a child/teenager can have their own room etc.
Many parents are also concerned about child protection. One mother described herself as ‘paranoid’ about her daughter’s safety. She could not let her out of her sight because there were ‘random men around the hostel’.4 Mothers worry about their children mixing with strangers and in particular with single men. This mother also worried about her ten year old son mixing with teenagers and older children who might be engaging in discussions and behaviour unsuitable for a younger child.
The Reception and Integration Agency’s (RIA’s) Child Protection Policy for Accommodation Centres states, ‘Parents/guardians have responsibility for the welfare of their child(ren). However, all those working in Accommodation Centres have a duty to care for residents.’ A number of child welfare issues are effectively beyond the resident’s control, dictated by the ways in which the centre is managed.5 However, staff members are not care workers and may not have the skills or received the training necessary for some of the daily decisions they are required to make about child welfare.
A key concern raised in respect of the Direct Provision residents is that the meagre weekly allowance of €19.10 per adult and €9.60 per child places families and individuals in a situation of quasi-destitution. It is worth emphasising in the 10 year period since its introduction it is the only social welfare payment not to have increased.
In Beyond the Pale: Asylum Seeking Children and Social Exclusion, it is contended that children dependent upon direct provision experience extreme income poverty as a result of public policy.6 The researchers of this report called for it to be abolished. Research carried out in one direct provision centre in Waterford found that 90% of the residents who responded felt that the direct provision allowance did not meet their needs.7
In two of the case studies above children reported being short of money and missing out on things peers were doing as a result. After school activities are not possible for most of the asylum seeking children we have contact with because their parents do not have the means.
3. Social Exclusion
Djamila and Abbo both felt that the other children in their class didn’t understand what it was like to live in a ‘hotel’ and this was a barrier to socialising with them. Sometimes children thought it was great to be living in a hotel and other times classmates thought it was strange and mocked the children.
A father residing in a centre outside Dublin noted that his children and others from the centre were known as the ‘hostel kids’ in school.8 He feels there is a stigma in the community and in school about the children. There is no place in the centre to invite his sons’ classmates to come and play so they tend to get excluded when parents arrange trips for their children to each others’ houses. These experiences are consistent with the findings of the Hidden Cork9 report by NASC, which found that outside of school, the children of asylum seekers have little or no interaction with other children.
4. Education and Life Skills
All asylum seeker and refugee children aged between four and eighteen have a right to the same primary and post-primary education as the rest of the Irish population. However the additional costs of schooling can be hard for asylum seeking parents to manage, particularly if a parent has more than one child in school. Since all asylum seekers are no longer entitled to Child Benefit, they must meet any extra expenses for their children from their weekly payments of €19.10, and €9.60 for each child. At present, asylum seeking parents can apply for the Back to School Clothing and Footwear Allowance for their children, but can struggle when such expenses arise outside of this payment period. There remains a constant concern that their eligibility to receive these benefits might be changed or removed.
A longer term issue of concern for parents is tied into the absence of a right to work and the example this sets for their children. Children are growing up without ever having seen a parent go out to work or indeed cook a meal. In addition residents find themselves increasingly institutionalised in the direct provision system relying on the centre management to mediate their education, health and social welfare needs. There are concerns about the longitudinal impacts on children reared in a direct provision setting.
In 2008 the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe visited Kinsale Road accommodation centre near Cork airport and spoke to staff members and residents in private. He concluded that the facility was, in general, of a good standard, however was concerned about the current state of accommodation for families. The Commissioner was concerned that there were no apartments available for families with children; each family shared one room, which resulted in very limited private space. NGOs and other civil society representatives informed the Commissioner that this is a general problem in Irish reception centres. The Commissioner was also concerned about the ‘low degree of personal autonomy asylum-seekers may retain throughout the process, knowing that it can take three to five years to have an asylum application determined’.10
The negative side of direct provision accommodation was highlighted in the case studies. The interviewed were aware of and witnessed regular and sometimes violent arguments. Their parents confined them to their own rooms to protect them from other negative or inappropriate influences in the centre. Parents interviewed have raised concerns about the inadequate living space and the obvious problems that arise from children and parents having to share a bedroom over a long period.11
A Children’s Research Centre report found that young people’s experience of Direct Provision was that the accommodation was very poor quality, meals were unhealthy and the atmosphere was stressful.12 There can be a strong link between the quality of housing and a person’s health. Overcrowding and enforced passivity have negative effects on the mental health of asylum seekers, which in turn may lead to poorer physical health.
6. Child Services and Supports
Asylum seekers in this country are often here on their own and so can not avail of the extended family network to support them and their children. In some hostels there are limited or no facilities to play. The UN Declaration on Rights of the Child principle 7 states that:
The child shall have full opportunity for play and recreation, which should be directed to the same purposes as education; society and the public authorities shall endeavour to promote the enjoyment of this right.
Children have to be supervised at all times and so in practice children spend the large majority of time in their bedroom. Children end up spending much of their free time indoors in their bedroom. Many children have to share one room with their parent(s) and siblings. This is not only the family’s bedroom but it is often their recreational space as well. While some hostels do have recreational facilities, many have little or inappropriate space.
Living in direct provision has a certain impact on both physical and mental health. Especially when there is no self-catering the question of access to a nutritionally adequate diet is important. JRS regularly receive complaints about food in the centers. In her case study Namono believed the food provided in the centre was not healthy for her child and set aside money from her allowance to buy specific foods she thought necessary. The Health Service Executive (HSE) has raised concerns that Direct Provision Centres do not offer quality, culturally appropriate food.13 For many organisations working in direct provision centres food is one of the most commonly raised complaints by residents.
8. Mental Health
Research conducted by the Children’s Research Centre at Trinity College Dublin in 2005 found that life in direct provision accommodation had been detrimental to residents’ psychosocial wellbeing.14 As one asylum seeker has put it: ‘coming out of the centre you need counselling’. Parents feel this is having an impact on their children as well. One mother suspects that children living in the centre have less confidence and lower self esteem when they leave. She worries that her son is becoming withdrawn.
Sometimes there may be aggressive and violent incidents in centres. Arguments often break out. As highlighted in the first case study and from speaking to other children regularly fights break out between residents in the hostels. Tensions may run high between residents, sometimes over issues like laundry which may seem minor but in the stressful environment can take on greater significance.
A concern of residents is that their children are regularly surrounded by people who may be depressed or have a mental illness:
People have so many problems in the centre, you can see people getting crazy and our children always see this, they say what’s wrong with that person who’s talking to themselves, or what’s wrong with that person who’s crying?’.15
Direct Provision: Recommendations
The challenge to the State in providing suitable and, in these difficult economic times, cost effective reception policies and accommodation for individuals and families seeking asylum are considerable. Based on the testimony of residents and the findings of numerous pieces of research over the last ten years on the direct provision system it can be concluded:
- The Direct Provision System should be radically reformed or replaced by a scheme that ensures any person awaiting a decision on their application for protection can be allowed to do so with dignity and full respect for their fundamental rights. This is especially urgent in the case of children and families living and growing up in direct provision.
In the light of current budgetary constraints it is likely Direct Provision will remain in place for the foreseeable future. Speedier decision times and falling applicant numbers will lead to savings. A revenue neutral approach would allow these savings to be directed to measures which could greatly improve the conditions for residents living in direct provision, including:
Shorter decision times: Introducing the Single Procedure and Front Loading of Legal Assistance, achieved by a more effective use and configuration of existing Refugee Legal Service (RLS) resources, would hopefully lead to speedier and better quality adjudication of protection claims.
- Additional family space: Provide larger and more rooms for families with children.
- Increased family supports: Consider an increase in the provision of childcare, supports and services for families seeking asylum.
- Appropriate training: Ensure direct provision centre staff and management receive training that will ensure high standards of child protection and welfare are implemented.
- Expanded self-catering options: Provide all residents even a limited opportunity to prepare some of their own meals, would make life in direct provision more bearable. Utilise existing self-catering facilities to maximum capacity.
- Independent complaints mechanism: Introduce an independent complaints procedure in all centres, which would ensure that residents concerns can be voiced without fear of summary transfer.
- Parliamentary oversight: At a recent Joint Committee on Health and Children following visits by TDs to two direct provision centres, Committee members committed to making follow up visits to accommodation centres. In assessing the effectiveness of direct provision policies oversight by parliamentary committees has an important role to play in ensuring the rights and dignity of all persons seeking asylum is respected.16
1. These weekly allowance have remained unchanged since 2000.
2. 6,238 people were living in Direct Provision at the end of October 2010. 32% of residents are children under 18 and 50% of all residents in direct provision are families. These statistics are available at http://www.ria.gov.ie/filestore/publications/RIAOct(A4)2010.pdf
3. Full description of Direct Provision conditions is available at http://www.ria.gov.ie/the_asylum_process/reception_and_dispersal/
4. JRS Direct Provision Interview 1.
5. AkiDwa, ‘Am Only Saying It Now’: Experiences of asylum Seeking Women in Ireland, Dublin: AkiDwA, 2010, p.15.
6. B. Fanning, A. Veale, D. O’ Connor, Beyond the Pale: Asylum Seeker Children and Social Exclusion in Ireland, Dublin: Irish Refugee Council, 2010.
7. Waterford Area Partnership, The Needs of Asylum Seeker Men Living in Viking House Direct Provision Centre Waterford, The Men’s Development Network and RAPID, 2006, http://www.wap.ie/Publications/Viking%20House%20Research%20Report%20Nov%2006.pdf (accessed 2 December 2010).
8. JRS Direct Provision Interview 2.
9. NASC, The Perspectives of Asylum Seekers on Direct Provision and the Asylum Legal System, Cork: NASC, 2008.
10. Report by the Commissioner on Human Rights Mr Thomas Hammarberg on his visit to Ireland, available at https://wcd.coe.int/wcd/com.instranet.InstraServlet?Index=no&command=com.instranet.CmdBlobGet&InstranetImage=1441147&SecMode=1&DocId=1272888&Usage=2 (accessed 2 December 2010).
11. JRS Direct Provision Interview 3.
12. Whyte, J., Smyth, K, Making a New Life in Ireland: Lone Refugee and Asylum-Seeking Mothers and their Children, Dublin: Children’s Research Centre, Trinity College, 2005, pp 75-6.
13. Health Service Executive (HSE), National Intercultural Health Strategy 2007 – 2012, Dublin: HSE, 2008, p. 42.
14. Whyte, J., Smyth, K, op. cit , p.51.
15. JRS Direct Provision Interview 4.
16. Available at http://debates.oireachtas.ie/DDebate.aspx?F=HEJ20101012.xml&Node=H4#H4 (accessed 2 December 2010).
Elizabeth O’Rourke is Integration Officer for Jesuit Refugee Service Ireland