Saturday 5th October 2019, MASI Conference, Liberty Hall, Dublin

”I have had the pleasure of travelling around Ireland, talking to different people; Irish, ethnic minority, and asylum seeking people.

The key lesson from all my engagements was succinctly summarised by Dr Margaret Wheatley at a recent talk in UCD.

I think she was quoting a friend who said to her all that people want is to earn, learn and belong. We want to earn so that we can look after ourselves. Work has been a defining part of our humanity since the beginning of time. Depriving asylum seekers of the opportunity to work strips us of our dignity. The Burmese man who took the Irish government to court for the right to work told the courts this much.

 We want to learn because human beings are curious, creative and want to contribute to the advancement of humankind. We also want to be part of a community. We have families, friends, neighbours, and acquaintances we meet in social settings. Life on €38.80 per week makes the very idea of socialising impossible, particularly in rural areas. We all want to belong. Think about Stateless people for a second.

And the desire to earn, learn and belong is incredibly restricted in the asylum process. Citizenship and immigration laws are used to confer privileges among people within a territory marked with physical borders, policed by men and women with guns, as if to remind us that this is not our home.  Therefore, we’ll be kept in Direct Provision, on the margins of Irish society because this is not our home.

But home is a site of deep trauma for asylum seekers. Asylum seekers have survived torture, inhumane and degrading treatment, and sexual violence. And yet inherent in many asylum processes is the assumption that asylum seekers are not entitled to the same human rights as citizens. But asylum seekers fled home countries because they we denied their fundamental human rights. Such is the dilemma that brings us together today.

We’ve had the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, his deputy Simon Coveney, and Ministers responsible for Justice and Equality Charlie Flanagan and David Stanton, defending the abhorrent system of Direct Provision.

As a gay man who has had to share a bedroom with a homophobic man in Direct Provision, I am amazed that an openly gay Taoiseach would choose to ignore the many LGBT+ asylum seekers who have had to endure the same.  

At the very core of what these senior cabinet ministers are saying is an attempt to normalise the warehousing of people in Direct Provision. When we accept things as normal, we do not question them. They do not want us to question Direct Provision. Zora tells us that “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

And the remarks by Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney suggest that asylum seekers should not be demanding human rights – human dignity, the right to privacy and private family life, an unrestricted right to work and the like.

 Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney want us to accept the dehumanising treatment that comes with institutionalising free people. They want the 2000+ children forced to grow up in the state-sponsored poverty that is Direct Provision to accept their material deprivation as normal. It’s not. It is deliberate cruelty imposed on them by the Irish State, in favour of enriching the corporations who’ve made millions through Direct Provision. Some of them like Aramark are from overseas. So they take Irish money to treat asylum seekers inhumanely. Over €1 billion spent on Direct Provision to dehumanise asylum seekers.

Leo Varadkar and his cabinet colleagues who defend Direct Provision remind me of one of the architects of Apartheid South Africa, Hendrik Verwoerd, who stood on a podium and said black children should be taught from birth never to expect that they would grow up and live a life of equality with their white counterparts.

Verwoerd was upfront about his intentions. The Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is cunning and cruel when telling asylum seekers (including children) that they chose to live in Direct Provision, and that “they can leave anytime.” I am reminded by Irish friends that women in the Magdalene Laundries were also told that they could leave anytime.

Working from what you have heard from asylum seekers today, I will point out some of the radical and ambitious changes that need to be made by the government to vindicate human rights for all asylum seekers in Ireland. And you will see that it is not rocket science stuff.  

I also hope at the end of this you will see how the current asylum process has some Verwoerdian logic or worse.

When we travel around the country meeting asylum seekers, we encounter some of the same problems we went through in the first few weeks after claiming asylum.

Many of us at MASI would have gone through the Balseskin Reception Centre where we spent a few weeks.

The one thing that was lacking there is information. The Irish government, apart from leaflets (mainly in English), abdicated the responsibility of providing reception and orientation information to NGOs who do outreach work.

All the information sessions done by NGOs in Balseskin when I lived there were all through the English language. Asylum seekers tended to rely on the Diaspora for help. Evgeny Shtorn will tell you how difficult that is for LGBT+ asylum seekers.

In emergency Direct Provision centres we have met asylum seekers who did not know how to access desperately needed services such as solicitors, psychologists, doctors and chronic medication.

That is a breach of EU law because the Irish government has a legal and moral obligation to ensure that asylum seekers have access to those services. The EU Directive on Reception Conditions for asylum seekers requires Ireland to provide psychological supports for survivors of torture, inhumane and degrading treatment, and survivors of sexual violence. I have met such survivors without the much needed psychological support.  

The most heart breaking was meeting asylum seeking children deprived of their material needs such as clothing, nappies and baby formula.

MASI’s proposals for radically transforming the reception services include a maximum statutory period of 90 days spent in Reception Centres that are located in or near major cities and towns in all regions of the State. After this period, people would be assisted into housing in the community through their local authorities and other housing service providers.

 And the reception centres must offer the full supports and services that people need on arrival in the state and in making their application for international protection. Suitably qualified translators, develop some standards for interpreters and translators, very basic stuff.  

There is absolutely no reason why a reception centre should not have an official to process applications for PPS cards, and an official from the Department of Justice and Equality stationed in the reception centres. Without the PPS card, asylum seekers struggle to access health care as it is needed for a medical card application and the petty weekly allowance of €38.80. And importantly, survivors of torture and inhumane and degrading treatment need referral letters from a doctor or lawyer for Spirasi to issue a Medico-Legal report. And we have met people who did not know about such services.

The long journeys to Dublin for interviews to assess asylum claims are cumbersome for many people in the system. Such interviews can, should and must be conducted in the city or town where an asylum seeker lives.  

Early and unrestricted access to legal assistance on asylum claim, with completion of the IPO questionnaire, and preparing for the substantive interview and legal representation must be provided to all asylum seekers timely.  

We have met asylum seekers who submitted their questionnaire without a solicitor. At least one had his interview date before he could even get a solicitor.

Reception centres must be spaces where there is provision of full and expert advice and supports. We have emergency Direct Provision centres today with appalling conditions because of poor planning on the part of government. A properly planned asylum process would ensure that the substantive interview happens while in reception accommodation and within 8 weeks of submitting the IPO questionnaire. That should be the goal and the State must be seen working towards that goal by investing adequate resources into asylum reception conditions and the asylum process. Conducting the interview more than a year after submitting the questionnaire is unhelpful for asylum seekers as the International Protection Office will be asking questions based on what an asylum seeker said a year or so ago.

The living space in reception centres needs to be fit for purpose and must uphold the right to privacy (including private family life), dignity, and integrity of the person of people seeking asylum. A bedroom big enough for one person has 3 people in Balseskin Reception Centre and we have seen worse overcrowding in other centres because operators of these Direct Provision centres are paid for each person in their accommodation, not for physical space. So asylum seekers are crammed into tiny rooms to maximise profit for the owners.

Importantly, the EU Directive on Reception Conditions for asylum seekers requires that accommodation provided for asylum seekers to provide an adequate standard of living.

It cannot be said that the accommodation in many Direct Provision centres that have as many as 8 people in a bedroom provides an adequate standard of living. In fact, if such conditions were not in Direct Provision centres, the overcrowding would be deemed a safety hazard. But it is accepted as normal because only asylum seekers live in Direct Provision.

It also cannot be said that having a teenage girl share a bedroom with her father, mother, and 2 brothers complies with the EU Directive on Reception Conditions which not only requires an adequate standard of living but that such accommodation upholds the right to private family life.

The Irish government must honour its legal obligations when providing accommodation for asylum seekers. Obeying the law should not be optional for the Irish government.

And if MASI says that asylum seekers are to spend a limited period in reception centres and be integrated into the community thereafter as per recommendation by the Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, they must have immediate, unrestricted and effective access to the labour market. Less than a quarter of asylum seekers with permission to work were employed by March this year.

The permit allows some asylum seekers to work and ignores the devastating impact of not working on the asylum seekers who are not allowed to work. They have to watch others go to work.

I can tell you about the mother who had to sell sexual favours to support her child in Direct Provision but that does not matter to the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his cabinet colleagues.

At the start of the school year, MASI was contacted by parents who had run out of money before they could get all the things their children needed. The €150 back to school allowance did not cover even half of the expenses. It’s difficult enough for working Irish parents to meet the material needs of children at the start of the school year so imagine being an asylum seeking parent who is not allowed to work.

MASI calls on the Irish government to allow all asylum seekers to work without restrictions and support us to live independently. It is pathetic of the government to put in cooking facilities in Direct Provision and call that independent living when many asylum seekers in those centres are not allowed to work.

It cannot be called independent living in Direct Provision. The clue is in the name, Direct Provision.

The current permission must be replaced with a temporary Irish Residency Permit (IRP) card indicating that the bearer has permission to work full-time. The new IRP card would replace the Temporary Residency Card (“blue card‟).

This would make the permit instantly recognisable to potential employers and would allow international protection applicants to prove residency for the purpose of obtaining a driving licence and opening a bank account.

Some Direct Provision centres are not accessible by public transport. And if the government is to abolish Direct Provision, then people would have to be allowed to drive

Currently, the right to work is revoked if a person is given a negative final decision at the appeal stage and/or is issued with a deportation order.

 In the Irish asylum system, people are often left for years with a deportation order hanging over them.

 Sometimes this is revoked and people are given permission to remain. The right to work must be given as soon as the asylum process begins; must be valid for a minimum period of 12 months; and it must remain renewable until the person has an alternative Irish Residency Permit or is no longer residing in the State.

And finally, the process of seeking asylum is a legal process. It’s mentally exhausting and torturous to navigate the Irish asylum system and narrate the traumatic experiences we have gone through over and over again. 

The State must actually pay solicitors enough so that they are able to consult with clients and prepare strong submissions so as to avoid the lengthy, costly, and unnecessary appeals.

I have been reading appeal tribunal decisions and my God, I don’t know if its incompetence or misogyny, xenophobia, racism and homophobia or all of that.

I read a case where a woman spent 8 years in Direct Provision. She was raped repeatedly by multiple men in her country, effectively used as a sex slave for the military.  The Department of Justice and Equality said she was lying about everything that happened to her and rejected her asylum claim in the first instance. She was granted refugee status in the appeal tribunal, after 8 long years in the system. She is not the only asylum seeker to spend years in the system because the Department of Justice and Equality said they are lying.

And this year, we were shocked to hear from LGBT+ asylum seekers and some of their legal representatives that the Department of Justice and Equality wants them to prove their sexuality after declaring their sexuality not credible.

I was told that my sexuality is credible so woohoo I am a certified homosexual. 

If we are to end long-term de-facto deprivation of personal liberty through Direct Provision as the Irish Council for Civil Liberties puts it, the Department of Justice and Equality must improve the quality of first instance asylum decisions. Last year, they rejected about 7 in every 10 asylum claims in the first instance. That means that 70% or so asylum seekers had to appeal and spend more time stuck in the limbo that is life in Direct Provision.

MASI supports the call by the Special Rapporteur on Child Protection that people who have been in the system for a long time (6-9 months) without a decision must be assisted to live independently in the community.

To begin phasing-out Direct Provision and address the problematic use of emergency accommodation which is worse than Direct Provision, the Department of Justice and Equality must grant immediate access to the labour market for everyone through leave to remain while the asylum process continues. Give us papers!!!

Many people who are currently working through the labour market access permit cannot leave Direct Provision because the work permit is only valid for 6 months. If people have long-term access to the labour market, they would be able to find long-term work and work towards getting out of Direct Provision. The current permit does not give that confidence.

In a nutshell, the Irish government must start thinking about rights, not beds and 3 meals a day. And start treating asylum seekers with some dignity and respect for fundamental human rights. Let us get on with our lives and stop deportations!!! It pains me that we actually have to say this. But I’ll say it anyway. The simple and easy way to end Direct Provision is to stop treating us differently. We are human beings just like you.

In 1967, Helen Suzman, a white middleclass South Africa politician visited Nelson Mandela in prison. She came out of that visit campaigning for improved prison conditions while black people were campaigning for the release of political prisoners and an end to Apartheid.

If you want to act in solidarity with MASI, you will not campaign for improvements in Direct Provision. You will campaign for asylum seekers to be treated just like you. All Power! Amandla!”

Bulelani Mfaco
Saturday 5th October 2019, MASI Conference, Liberty Hall, Dublin

*For details on our proposals for radically changing the asylum process, see our submission to the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality.

Photo: Avi Ratnayake