Covid-19 “Incredibly Anxiety Inducing” For Direct Provision Residents

Direct Provision centres were first introduced in Ireland in 2000 as a temporary measure to accommodate people seeking International Protection. However, over 20 years on they are still in operation and the majority are managed on a for-profit basis by private contractors.

According to a spokesperson for the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, there are 73 International Protection Accommodation Service (IPAS) centres across the country. This includes Direct Provision (DP), Emergency Accommodation (EA) and the National Reception Centre (NRC) in Balseskin in Dublin. There are currently 6,984 individuals living in IPAS centres and 2,006 of these are children.

A weekly personal allowance is paid to each person, €38.80 for adults and €29.80 for children, and is administered by the Department of Social Protection. Residents also receive set meals daily.

In January 2021 the Secretariat of the National Economic and Social Council (NESC) published a research paper within its working paper series on Covid-19. It highlighted the effects of Covid-19 on asylum seekers living in Direct Provision in Ireland.

The research paper stated that centres are “not conducive to distancing between residents and avoiding cross-contamination” and that “residents share rooms with non-family members, use shared washing and laundry spaces and canteens cater for all residents at once at mealtimes”. It noted that these practices can be linked to Covid-19 outbreaks in centres.

Mental health issues were also highlighted in the report, stating that restrictions due to the pandemic “triggered feelings of a lack of control, isolation and boredom”. Migrant families have a “lower level of income than Irish families and so are likely to feel the financial effects of the Covid-19 lockdown more strongly”. Direct Provision residents have also struggled with accessing education, due to broadband issues or lack of devices.

The research paper noted that certain provisions have been made in response to the virus in Direct Provision centres, including “additional beds, self-isolation facilities, PPE distribution and staggered mealtimes”. Direct Provision residents are “classified as HSE priority groups for Covid-19 testing”.

FIRST-HAND EXPERIENCE

Cynthia has been living in Direct Provision since Friday 8th February 2019 and is still waiting to hear about the status of her asylum application. She described the Direct Provision system as a “nightmare” and that the past two years have been “traumatising” for her.

She has lived in four IPAS centres since she entered the country: “First when I came into the system, I was pregnant, and I had to share a room and bathroom. There was five of us living under one roof. They used to smoke in the bathroom, and I used to complain a lot to the manager, but nothing was done. They will tell you that there’s nothing they can do. So, it was not easy at all,” she said.

In another centre she lived in, she stated that her room was “so small” and her neighbours in the room next door “used to complain” about her daughter crying. She explained that one day her neighbour came in “kicking the door frame” and “calling us names”.

She now lives in a centre in Wexford with her 22-month-old daughter. They have their own room and bathroom, while the lounge and kitchen are shared with other residents. They both tested positive for Covid-19 in February 2021. Cynthia did not experience any severe symptoms, but she did have “back pain”.

Cynthia believes that if she lived in her own accommodation she would not have contracted the virus: “I have to be in a kitchen where I share a spoon and a plate and if I want to cook I have to use things that other people used and they didn’t properly wash them.”

She explained that she has struggled to cook meals during the pandemic: “If you want to cook and you find the kitchen full, you have to wait for people to finish. By the time you are waiting, some other people have come in to cook. So, it’s really not easy because you deny yourself sleep to go and cook while other people are sleeping. But you can’t live like that. It’s not possible for a mother to live like that.”

Stress has caused her to lose sleep: “I don’t really sleep that much. I get stressed a lot about my living conditions here. I get worried a lot about my child”.

When asked what independent living would mean for her, she said that “it would be better, that would really make a difference”.

IRISH ORGANISATIONS ADVOCATING FOR CHANGE

The Direct Provision system has long been criticised by international and Irish human rights organisations, including Doras and Nasc, two organisations based in Munster.

Doras has been advocating for change to the system since their establishment in 2000, providing free and confidential advice and legal information service on immigration-related issues. Each year, over 1,100 migrants access their service. Doras believe that Direct Provision “creates barriers to integration, contributes to poor mental and physical health and leads to social exclusion”.

Chief Executive Officer (CEO) John Lannon stated that the impact of Covid-19 for people in Direct Provision “cannot be understated” and that living in “congregated communal settings is unsuitable in normal times but is even more unsuitable during a pandemic”.

Like many other businesses, Doras had to take a more “blended approach” to their work since Covid-19 hit last year: working from home when they “need to” and working from the Limerick office when “it is safe to do so”. However, John is hopeful that they will be able to open their office to the public again “as soon as it is safe to”.

Nasc, also founded in 2000, work with migrants and refugees across the country to “advocate and lead for change within Ireland’s immigration and protection systems”. They aim to empower migrants to realise and fulfil their rights through a range of projects which they have been delivering virtually since last year.

Policy and Communications Manager Fiona Hurley believes that “Direct Provision should not exist. We cannot say that it is a positive experience for anything or for anyone. Direct Provision segregates people from the community. No matter how good your centre is, you’re still living in an institutionalised setting, so you have to always look at it through that prism”.

She explained that Covid-19 has been “incredibly anxiety inducing” and that it has “really brought to the fore the deficiencies in the system and how isolated some communities are”.

Fiona also mentioned the issue residents have when accessing education in centres and explained that this has had “a very severe impact on people with children who are school-going age”.

She further explained that residents may not have access to laptops and as a result are “trying to educate their children, maybe two or three of them, from one mobile phone” and that their first language may not be English so “they might themselves struggle to understand the material”.

WHITE PAPER 2021 

On Friday 26th February, the Government announced a new plan to replace the Direct Provision system with an international protection system over the next four years. This plan will be led by the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. A new two-phased approach was set out in the White Paper.

In Phase One, accommodation will be provided in reception and integration centres and residents will receive supports for seeking employment, healthcare and education to help them integrate into Irish society. This is expected to take no longer than four months and after this, Phase Two will see residents moving to accommodation within the community, where a ‘means-tested rent’ will be paid. They will be entitled to seek paid work after six months and will be encouraged and supported to do so.

According to a spokesperson for the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, the preliminary current expenditure cost per year for the new system is estimated at €175 million.

John from Doras said the White Paper is “a complex body of work that will take time and a whole of government approach” and mentioned that Doras would like to see “closure of centres begin this year rather than from 2022 as planned”.

When asked about the White Paper, Fiona from Nasc said that it’s “ambitious” but it also “has to be done and it’s really important that there is a target. It is the time to do it. We’ve had Covid-19 which has shown exactly how problematic these centres are and how dangerous they are in so many ways”.

Both John and Fiona are concerned about the lack of clarity from the Government surrounding the backlog of asylum applications.

John said that they are “calling for leave to remain to be granted to people who have been in the system for two years or more. Many people’s lives have been on hold in the system for several years, and should not be on hold any longer”.

While Fiona added that “there are just over 5000 people waiting at the very first stage for a decision. That’s not acceptable at this stage. In order for the accommodation piece to work that backlog needs to be reduced”.

INDEPENDENT LIVING

What will this new plan mean for asylum seekers? Upon speaking to an office manager at an independent living facility in Tipperary, she stated that this means of living is “definitely the way to go, there is no doubt about that”.

She works in an office on site and there are up to 20 apartments at the facility. Over 80 residents live there, of which more than 50 are children. The main role as office manager is “to look after the needs of the residents and help if they have any problems in the apartment, like any maintenance issues”.

She explained that residents are “completely independent” and that they live in “beautiful apartments”. Residents cook for themselves, some are working, some are completing courses online, others have their own cars and children experience “no issues” accessing schoolwork as they all have “laptops and the internet”.

If they cannot travel to a shop, then the office manager will bring them via a company car: “They come into the office, make an appointment and we look after that”.

The facility had one outbreak of Covid-19 in August 2020 and two families were affected. According to the office manager, they have had no outbreaks since.

Residents are “not mixing, they are abiding by the rules and regulations. They’re very cautious about it. They are well provided with masks, gloves and sanitiser. We sanitise the stairwells every day,” she stated.

When asked if she has had any negative experience working within the facility, the office manager said that she hasn’t: “The company I work for are exceptional. If somebody wants something then if we think it’s the right thing to do we do it. We want to make sure that these people [residents] are comfortable and happy and content where they are”.

Published by Anna Cullen

Substantial experience in radio, digital and print journalism.

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