For many people around the world, Christmas is a time spent enjoying a feast and exchanging gifts with loved ones. Each household has their thing that makes this time feel special. Displaced people usually find this time difficult as they are often away from loved ones with legal barriers keeping them apart. For me and my mother, Christmas meant we would be at home doing the things we never got around to throughout the year – moving the furniture around and painting and redecorating our rooms.
That was our escape. We would deep clean our home. It helped keep uninvited guests away as they would be greeted by furniture at the gate. We are hospitable but not during the one time in the year that we are finally together and can get things done.
So a typical Christmas day begins with getting my younger siblings their Christmas clothes. It’s the one thing most children looked forward to. The children disappear as soon they put on their new clothes. Mother and I would get to work as soon as the children are gone. And when we are done painting and deep cleaning sometime in the afternoon, we’d prepare a feast with all the Stokvel groceries which were usually accompanied by a Sheep that I’d have slaughtered days before Christmas.
We did not have a tradition of exchanging gifts on Christmas day. Even Christmas trees are new in most Black households in South Africa. Most South Africans could not be bothered about Christmas decorations. The only things that matter are new clothes, lots of food and lil bit of booze followed by a trip to the beach on Boxing Day.
For asylum seekers, Christmas can be dreadful, especially when you are away from your family with no idea if you will ever see them again. It can also be dreadful because of the conditions many asylum seekers have to survive in while away from everything that is familiar to them.
Direct Provision presents a different challenge on Christmas day. Preparing a feast for family can be difficult when you are not allowed to cook. The Irish government often applauds itself for allowing some asylum seekers to cook. Knockalisheen Direct Provision centre, owned by the Irish government and run by US Corporation, Aramark, has forbidden asylum seekers from cooking their own meals.
Built by the Irish government with no self-catering facilities, Knockalisheen Direct Provision centre opened its doors in 2001. Some of the asylum seekers staying in the centre have had to cook in their bedrooms when they need a break from dining in the canteen with over 200 strangers from around the world every day.
The idea of family life becomes just that, an idea, one that is not part of the everyday life experiences of residents. Because protecting the right to privacy for asylum seekers was not part of the design. In fact, the entire place was designed to take away rights and any semblance of normal family life but keep people alive. The ghosts of Hungarian refugees who staged a hunger strike in Knockalisheen in the 1950s protesting conditions in the place probably look on wondering if the Irish State will ever learn to stop treating the foreign other with disdain.
This year marks my fourth Christmas in Knockalisheen. I am not big on Christmas as I spend the day binge-watching a television series. One thing has been a common feature on Christmas day in Knockalisheen. The cold chicken leg served with a spoon of coleslaw and potato salad, a leaf of lettuce, 2 onion rings and a bit of cucumber, served on a paper plate and wrapped in cling film, reminds me that this is not home. It’s an institution that has served the same cold Christmas supper for the past 3 holidays I’ve spent here. It is served at midday so that staff can go home early to spend time with their families.
It is not about the food at all though. No asylum seeker flew to Ireland for plate of food. The cold supper perfectly symbolises the Irish State’s policy of Direct Provision which was designed to deter people from coming to Ireland for the purposes of claiming asylum. The civil servants who designed the system and those who maintained it had no regard for the lives that would languish in Direct Provision for years on end.
The Minister for Justice issuing over 400 deportation orders in the middle of a pandemic to people who have spent years in conditions that have been condemned by numerous domestic and international human rights bodies, shows you just how cruel the Irish State can be. Justice is only in the name of the department. Much harm has been inflicted on vulnerable people by the Department of Justice.
Minister Helen Mc Entee told the Dáil that her department had taken a compassionate approach to deportations during the pandemic. But there is nothing compassionate about getting an expulsion order from a government in the middle of a pandemic even if it cannot be acted upon due to travel restrictions.
There are people in Ireland who will be having Christmas supper wondering if it is their last in the country. Every time there is a knock at the door they wonder if it is the police coming to remove them from Ireland with brute force. Some of them are children who were born here and know no other home but Ireland. And Minister Helen McEntee has discretionary power to revoke the deportation orders and grant long-term residency to any non-EU/EEA national. Use of that discretion would be the compassionate thing to do.
As families gather around the world to prepare a Christmas feast, I hope you will spare a thought for people stuck in Direct Provision, immigration detention centres, prisons, and refugee camps around the world. They also want the same thing. To be free to enjoy all the wonderful things that life offers, and navigate the challenges that come with being human on earth without the threat of violence.
*** Bulelani Mfaco reflects from his room in Direct Provision.