The recent acknowledgement of the horror women and children were subjected to in the Mother and Baby homes across the country for the best part of the century shed light on both the ability of Irish institutions to treat the vulnerable incredibly inhumanly, and our society’s ability to ignore, or even to cooperate with it.
If it were not so depressing, it would almost seem ironic to watch taoiseach Micheál Martin apologise to the victims of the Church and State’s inequity, when it is reasonable to imagine a future taoiseach standing in his place apologising for the cruelty inflicted under the watch of the current government – direct provision.
Direct provision has become an increasingly contentious issue over the last decade, and while this week the long-awaited White Paper announcement promised an end to direct provision in the foreseeable future, elsewhere in the country, asylum seekers went on hunger strike in protest of substandard meals.
I spoke to Lucky Khambule, who lived in direct provision for three years before going on to co-found MASI, the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland, where he is the current coordinator.
We discussed the impact of the pandemic on direct provision, the ongoing hunger strike, and the important moment we are at in deciding the fate of asylum seekers in the future.
The events of the last year have impacted all our lives, not excluding those who live in direct provision.
Social distancing and access to online education are things beyond imagination within the facilities operating currently.
There have been outbreaks in direct provision centres nationwide, like the controversial Skellig Star Hotel, which has since been closed. However, its residents have been relocated to other centres, some experiencing outbreaks in multiple centres.
“[People] are scared and anxious,” Khambule said. The centres are unequipped to face quarantining while still maintaining operations for those who have not been infected.
In the Killarney centre, 25 people had to be moved to a separate isolation facility while they endured the disease.
In terms of education, 1700 children currently live in direct provision, and they are suffering more than most.
Online learning has exposed inequality countrywide, with many Irish students unable to keep up with classmates due to a lack of resources.
Within direct provision, parents unable to work and receiving less than €40 a week are unable to provide children with the laptops, phones or tablets needed to learn online.
“We campaign for the right to education, especially with the tentative education [in place]” Khambule said.
He was critical of the education provided to children in direct provision which he stated could use drastic improvements even before the pandemic.
Almost simultaneous to the announcement of the White Paper, the story broke that people in a direct provision centre in Cork were refusing their meals on the grounds of substandard nutrition, especially for their children.
The residents are complaining that food is being thrown away anyway, due to lack of quality and meals even being served burnt.
“I am dealing with two centres [on hunger strike].” Khambule said.
“They have tried communicating with the management, and the management is not listening to them. And they have decided now to take control. They do not want to be there, they’re tired of that, they want their own space where they can be able to cook their own meals.”
While this campaigning across the country has brought some relief, with a number of centres gaining their own cooking facilities – the sad fact remains that this has not been adopted nationwide.
Most of the residents are using their allowance to purchase different food to cook for children and those with medical conditions, as the meals provided are inadequate.
“Substandard food, they are tired of eating rice and potatoes.” Khambule stated. “Why must cooking their own food be taken away from them? Why must it take a hunger strike to be listened to?”
The residents have compiled a letter of complaint which has been sent to the Department of Children and the International Protection Accommodation Service (IPAS).
“The department takes complaints from residents very seriously.” A spokesperson for the department confirmed to The Irish Times.
Khambule disputes this claim: “When they complain about the food, they are saying that people are complaining too much. You’re sitting in that centre for three years, eating the same food, you are hearing some centres are being able to cook for themselves and you are afraid you are being left behind.”
This has been amplified by the abnormally long waiting times for asylum seekers to be processed in Ireland – something which the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) expressed concern about in 2019 and has not seemed to improve since.
There are widespread stories of sharing rooms for 18 months, and longer, before even getting an initial interview.
Something that we have all learned over the course of the lockdowns is how hard it is to keep yourself occupied.
As well as improving the nutritional value of your meals, cooking can also be a welcome activity for someone who has limited options.
“It would be nice for them to cook in the kitchen, it’s something to do,” Khambule said.
It seems something basic that could be provided by the centres, and under the State’s national standards for accommodation centres, released last month, it is legally binding.
These centres are way behind this standard, but this is not uncommon, and many complaints have been made to the Department of Justice and Equality.
The department originally called for individual contractors, who profit from these centres, to provide evidence that these allegations were false.
Following 33 inspections carried out last year, the Department of Children confirmed the presence of cockroaches found in a direct provision centre in Monaghan, but did not confirm other allegations of mould, rodents and multiple cases of skin disease.
These inspections have ceased since Ireland entered level 5 restrictions in October – with the government reducing the number of inspections for every centre from three times a year to once a year, as a result of the pandemic.
On Tuesday, Minister for Integration Roderic O’Gorman announced that the new IPAS system would completely replace Direct Provision advancing “integration and inclusion”.
This is included as a part of the White Paper on ending direct provision which was due to be released at the end of 2020 but is now to be published next week.
The minister has stated that the paper will inform on the intention to abolish the system and replace it with a new model.
Khambule finds it difficult to accept: “In my opinion, these are empty promises.”
“Okay, yeah they have been backing the White Paper. The government is far apart from the people. They want to make the Irish people believe they are doing a good job. Doing good for asylum seekers and refugees, but they don’t tell you our complaints. The complaints we have every day, it is important we keep on talking about it. When the government makes promises [for change] but we don’t find that they have started.”
Although it is difficult to see a bright future for refugees and asylum seekers, this is not hindering the optimism of the activists striving toward change.
“We will wait, we will see what the White Paper says, it is very important, because our strategy will be based around it.”
The main thing to take from the White Paper is the hope that it will remove private contractors from being able to profit from the centres.
“We need to find a way to remove the people who benefit from the misery. The people who claim to provide service, remove them and let the people breathe, so they can have room to shape their own lives,” Khambule stated.
“Our cry is the way we are treated as we are waiting for our applications, to highlight the issues affecting us as people that seek asylum, for the government to make policies that would seem to make us human,” says Khambule.
As of 2021 there are more than 7000 people living in direct provision across 38 centres, with 30% of them being children. It can only be hoped that this system comes to an end soon and this cycle of repeated history can end with it.