Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 29 May 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality
Direct Provision and the International Protection Application Process: Discussion (Resumed)
The purpose of this meeting is to continue our series of engagements examining the direct provision system and the international protection application process. From the Irish Refugee Council, IRC, we are joined by Mr. Nick Henderson, chief executive officer, and Ms Rosemary Hennigan, who is the policy and advocacy officer. They are both very welcome. Joining us from the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland, MASI, is Mr. Lucky Khambule, the group co-ordinator, as well as Mr. Bulelani Mfaco, Ms Donnah Vuma, Ms Tina Ndlovu, Ms Rosemary Kunene, Mr. Christopher Sibanda and Ms Babs Leonard, all of whom are members. I did my best with the pronunciations and I am sure my name will not prove any easier. All of our guests are very welcome.
I will shortly invite the nominated witnesses to make their opening statements. Before doing that, I first have to advise on privilege for witnesses who come before an Oireachtas committee. I draw the attention of our guests to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. By virtue of the salient rulings of the Chair, members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
Before hearing the first opening statement, I again remind people to switch off their mobile telephones as they interfere with the recording equipment in the committee rooms. I invite Mr. Henderson to make his opening statement.
Mr. Nick Henderson:
I thank the committee for the invitation to make a presentation. The Irish Refugee Council is a charity that helps people seeking asylum. We give information, provide early legal advice, help people to access employment and education, help young people and support people to leave direct provision through our housing project. We also advocate for improvements in the asylum process.
It has been a consistent call of the Irish Refugee Council that direct provision should end. Moreover, politicians across the spectrum, international bodies, other non-governmental organisations, NGOs, and, most importantly, people living in direct provision have called for it to end. There are countless articles, reports and testimonies on what is wrong with this system. The fact that Geoffrey Shannon, the special rapporteur on child protection, has called on Ireland to abolish direct provision and that the Ombudsman, as recently as yesterday, has said it is not a suitable long-term accommodation for those waiting on an asylum claim should alone be enough to bring about wholesale and radical change. Direct provision is already, unfortunately, a chapter in Ireland’s long and dark history of institutional living.
We believe the system has worsened in recent months, particularly in the context of emergency centres. A grave concern we have is that the short-term emergency situation will become entrenched, which will make the implementation of change harder. If direct provision ends, something will have to take its place. The bottom lines of a new system should include own-door accommodation and the opportunities to cook for oneself, live in a community and to work. We believe this model could be agreed upon more easily than others think. On foot of discussions with the Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, I believe it is open to real change. However, the bigger challenge lies in how the new model could be delivered. We are very doubtful that existing providers or the current procurement process being rolled out over 2019 can deliver that model. The system is broken and it is costing too much for too little. We know that it must change, so how do we get to a new system?
First, we should consider the accommodation of people seeking asylum as a housing issue. That is not to draw from existing funds for housing but to take a housing policy approach. The Department of Justice and Equality is not equipped to design that policy and the responsibility should not lie with that Department.
Second, we should use the existing budget more strategically. The Government has built only three accommodation centres in 18 years. The majority of existing centres were originally designed for other purposes. The State should procure fit-for-purpose accommodation to meet particular needs. We believe this will be a cost saver in the long term. Aidan O’Driscoll, Director General of the Department of Justice and Equality, told this committee a few weeks ago that the spend on direct provision in 2019 will likely reach €95 million to €100 million. In 18 years, over €1.2 billion has been paid to private providers of accommodation. Spending money on providing people with asylum is a good thing, but it should be done strategically to the benefit of people in that system and the public.
Third, and linked to this, a fundamental criticism of the system so far has been that it has been reliant on for-profit actors. Private providers are not social workers or public servants. They cannot and are not meeting the complex social needs of the people living in their centres. That is a public obligation on the State. There are many housing bodies in Ireland that are non-profit, work to a particular mission and have strengths and expertise. We believe those bodies could be best placed to provide accommodation. The procurement process has to change for this to happen, with longer lead-in times, longer contracts, funding for capital and conversion costs and a reduction in the number of people a provider must accommodate. Current procurement models require a provider to accommodate 50 or more people. The approved housing bodies, AHBs, tell us that this risks perpetuating the model of congregated living and it is difficult to procure buildings of this size.
Fourth, direct provision is not just about the bricks and mortar. We can reduce delays in the system by giving resources to decision makers and increase legal aid at pre-decision stage so applications are better prepared. The right to work should be broader and we should allow for integration from day one. This model has been developed successfully in Scotland.
Fifth, there must be greater engagement on this issue by all Departments. This was emphasised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, head of office, Enda O'Neill, last week. Moreover, the Department of Justice and Equality could work better internally. The International Protection Office, IPO, the International Protection Appeals Tribunal, IPAT, the Legal Aid Board, the Reception and Integration Agency, the ministerial decisions unit, MDU, of the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INIS, are all under the remit of the Department but they could work better. To give an example, the Legal Aid Board is not supported enough to ensure everyone has a well prepared application to the International Protection Office. This means the International Protection Appeals Tribunal has to deal with more complicated appeals. If somebody is recognised as a refugee, there are long delays in issuing the declaration of refugee status by the ministerial decisions unit. This means that people spend longer in the direct provision system and the system becomes more overcrowded, which puts pressure on the Reception and Integration Agency and leads to people being accommodated in emergency centres. There are not enough appointments issued by the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service for people to get a residency card.
At each step, there are hurdles requiring intensive interventions and supports. It does not have to be this difficult, but systemic change is key. The written submission we will provide to the committee will go into more detail on what I have said.
Mr. Bulelani Mfaco:
I thank the committee for inviting us to the meeting. The Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland is a platform for asylum seekers to join together in unity and purpose. The group is made up of people who are directly affected by the direct provision system. As people who are currently undergoing the international protection application process we, unlike experts and NGOs, are uniquely placed to offer direction to the committee on the many issues on which it has asked us to comment. The content and recommendations in our submission are all directly informed by the experiences of our members, asylum seekers who live every day of their lives under the appalling system of direct provision. The purpose of our submission is to gather together our collective experiences to inform the committee and to make a series of key proposals that would make the Irish asylum system compatible with minimum human rights standards.
We do not view human rights as gifts that governments bestow on people. They are rights and entitlements we all possess by virtue of being human. People cannot be treated as less than others and, indeed, less than human merely because of differences in nationality and citizenship. In May 2017, the Supreme Court told the Department of Justice and Equality that as asylum seekers, we can rely on constitutional protections that affect us as human beings. That simply means fundamental human rights are not reserved for Irish, EU or other legally resident nationals in Ireland and that an asylum seeker child does not have to be Irish for the best interest of the child to prevail. It cannot be in the best interest of the child, therefore, to ban parents from working.
There are children in direct provision forced to grow up in State-sponsored poverty as their parents are unable to provide for their material needs. Many of them are too ashamed to tell their friends in school where they live. In a direct provision centre in Kildare, children dumped their sandwiches underneath their seats on the bus because they were too ashamed of carrying the same sandwich for lunch every day. A mother once told an Irish court that she had to sell sexual favours while living in direct provision centres to support her child.
The asylum system must uphold and vindicate the fundamental human rights of all international protection applicants, including family rights, the right to privacy, the right to education and the right to work. The best interest of the child must prevail. Vulnerable persons must be looked after. LGBT+ rights, women’s rights and the right to religious freedom must be safeguarded. We receive so many texts from distressed asylum seekers. One such text was from a woman who had spent about five years living in direct provision and was ostracised for having HIV. She had no privacy to take medication, and as soon as room mates found out what the pills were for, people began gossiping about her. Another text we received was from a queer woman who was told by the International Protection Office that she was not credible, thus her application for asylum rejected. This means that the IPO believes she is lying about her sexual orientation and wants her to prove it. She is not the only LGBT+ applicant to be treated in such a manner. That dehumanising practice of assuming asylum seekers are lying must stop. The role of the asylum system is to vindicate peoples’ right to seek asylum and to live in safety in Ireland, not to dehumanise people. The rights of the child and the protection of children in the international protection system must be a priority of the asylum system. Undocumented minors who turn 18 before receiving a final decision on their asylum claim must be supported to live independently and not be shipped off to direct provision centres.
Deportations are brutal and dehumanising and can have no part of an ethical and human rights-centred approach to asylum and migration. That is why many people commit suicide in direct provision centres. Some attempt to commit suicide because they fear that they might be deported, especially when they get letters from the Department of Justice and Equality saying their application has been rejected. Many of the people who are taking sleeping pills in direct provision struggle to sleep for fear that the next letter in the post could be a deportation order. We also believe that no child born in Ireland, in the asylum system or undocumented should ever be served with a deportation order. The Minister for Justice and Equality can, should, and must introduce a scheme to regularise undocumented people in Ireland, with long-term residency for all children born in the State to non-EU parents. That is not asking too much. We are not asking the Minister to make them all citizens. It is just regularisation so that people who are already living here can get on with their lives.
People seeking protection in Ireland are entitled to live an independent life with their families in accommodation that upholds the rights to privacy, dignity, and integrity of the person. The warehousing of asylum seekers in direct provision centres throughout the country, without certainty of time for stay, amounts to effective incarceration as many asylum seekers are divorced from the social, economic and political life of the country in the same manner as prisoners in Mountjoy Prison. Among our key recommendations is that the legal process has to be reformed. The process of seeking asylum is first and foremost a legal process so it is essential that people receive all necessary legal advice and that the system is orientated towards vindicating people's right to seek asylum and safety. The right to work must be immediate and unrestricted for all people seeking protection in Ireland. At present, people who are on appeal are excluded from working. People should be accommodated in reception for no longer than three months before moving into housing in the community. We do not believe people should be segregated and living in centres. They should be living in communities along with everybody else in Ireland. Direct provision should be abolished and people seeking asylum in Ireland should have access to the same housing supports via their local authorities as is the case for others. Full and tuition fee free access to education and training at all levels must be available to international protection applicants. If the State keeps a person in direct provision for five years and then gives him or her a letter saying he or she can live in Ireland, where does the State expect the person to start living? These recommendations are not insurmountable for the Government. Uganda has more than 1 million refugees and is one of the poorest countries on earth. We are human beings like all of you. All we ask is that we be treated as such. The very fact that people have to ask the Government to treat them humanely should shame all of you.
I thank both organisations for their excellent presentations and submissions. A model was mentioned for moving from the Department of Justice and Equality to approved housing bodies. It was said that there was a lack of synchronicity in the strategic approach. What would be the State oversight of an approved housing body approach? We have difficulty with the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and the Custom House on a lot of housing policy issues. Where would the funding stream be delivered or what would the oversight mechanism be to deliver that synchronicity? I agree with the witnesses. In excess of €1 billion has been spent over several years and we have nothing to show for it in terms of State spending apart from profit for private providers. How do we deliver a very well thought-out approach?
Mr. Nick Henderson:
We would use the existing budget, which is large. It may be, and I would suspect, that the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government would want nothing to do with this issue. Therefore it may be necessary to take it away from the Reception and Integration Agency and from the Department of Justice and Equality and create a new, independent entity. Alternatively, the Government might create a new body and attach it to the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government but ring-fence the funding so there would be no accusations or suspicion that it was taking anything away from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government's resources or those of the local authorities.
On maintaining oversight, we believe that could be done relatively easily. We are about to produce a piece of work around the public sector duty. We believe the State can maintain and require of private operators of current and future direct provision centres that they embed in human rights protection via the public sector duty which is contained in the Human Rights and Equality Act. The idea would be that these approved housing bodies are experts in housing and in providing care and assistance to vulnerable people. We are already guaranteeing oversight as these organisations would already have a board, a strategic plan and a clear mission. We would be embedding good quality through those mechanisms.
That is a fair point. It is just that when a budget is allocated to an approved housing body, it would have to come through a specific Department. I agree that it would have to be through some agency that manages to ring-fence the funding so there would not be pull from other areas.
Mr. Mfaco's statement was very moving. He has highlighted a contradiction in that people are coming from countries in which there are human rights abuses and we are replacing those abuses with our own, domestic set of difficulties where we are not vindicating human rights. It is a profound contradiction that we need to resolve domestically. I acknowledge that. One issue that was raised last week is important. Perhaps some of the witnesses can give feedback on this. I refer to the right to work and the constitutional precedent that has been set by the Supreme Court. Has there been any improvement or feedback in terms of people being able to work? Will the witnesses give us any update on how things have changed since that judgment? Is it still a difficult threshold to meet?
Mr. Bulelani Mfaco:
It is still difficult for many people who have been in direct provision for a long time. When they introduced the labour market access permit, it was only to be issued to people who had been awaiting a first instance decision for about nine months. That immediately excluded many people who already had decisions and were on appeal. We know that there are people who go through an appeal for years and years. We had one lady who went through an appeal for about eight years before she was granted refugee status. In that time, she was unable to work although she had a legitimate claim to asylum. They botched the initial decision at the IPO. We have many people in that situation in direct provision who are not legally allowed to work and cannot work until they have a final decision under the current arrangements. There are also a lot of restrictions in respect of the permit itself. It is a piece of paper. Ordinarily, when employers in Ireland are hiring people to work for them, especially non-EU nationals, they look for an Irish residency permit card or the old Garda National Immigration Bureau, GNIB, card.
Asylum seekers do not have that and cannot even get a driving licence because they do not have the Irish residency permit card. One of the recommendations we will be making to the committee is that the temporary residency card, the blue card that is issued, should be replaced because it is of no use to an asylum seeker except to inform a police or immigration officer that they have permission to stay in Ireland. They cannot use it for work. If one brings asylum seekers in line with other non-EU nationals resident in Ireland, one is able to immediately inform the potential employer that this person has the right to work. They do not have to go through all the other administrative areas, such as having to submit reports. They are told right on the front page of the permit that it is a criminal offence not to provide this report, if one is required provide a report within ten days. That is a deterrent to any employer.
I have personally gone through that process of having to explain to employers that the permit is renewable, but many employers do not accept that and have informed me that the permit should be valid for at least 11 months, and they will not accept it if it is valid only for six months. People can stay in the asylum system for longer than a year waiting for an interview and for their asylum claim to be assessed. The idea of having the permit valid for only six months does not make much sense for a person who is going to be stuck in the system in any event. It would be better for us to have it valid for at least 12 months because we know it takes longer for the Department of Justice and Equality to make a decision.
By September 2018 the Department had issued over 1,500 permits, and only approximately 330 people were able to find work. When people find work, they have to send their declaration to the Department of Justice and Equality. That highlights the restrictions. I have had the permit since 1 August 2018 and I have only worked for one hour since then. All the employers that I have previously worked for in the Republic under different permits have not hired me because of the restrictions of the permit itself. It is not that I do not meet their requirement, because I have had those three jobs before and I have done them well. I have friends who would substantiate that. It becomes very restrictive for people. It discourages others who are already in the system who qualify for the permits. Many people do not apply for it because they see people who have it who are not working. There are hoops that one has to jump through as to how the permit works which have to be explained to an employer, because many employers do not know how it works. It is different. Everybody else goes in with the Garda National Immigration Bureau, GNIB, or an Irish residency permit card or an EU passport and we do not have any of those things.
It is restrictive in that sense. Many people will still be stuck in direct provision without this right to work and our recommendation to address that is for people to be given immediate access to the labour market when they arrive in the State because it increases the prospects of integration. It means a person is not going to be staying idle in a direct provision centre that is in a remote area like Knockalisheen, or Mount Trenchard in Foynes, where they have no access to public transport, for example. That is another barrier for people who want to work. Once one has a job, it may be actually difficult to get to work if one lives in a direct provision centre that does not have any access to public transport.
My final question concerns how people were relying on sleeping tablets because of the difficulties with accommodation, and having to live a life in a country, that is similar to prisoners in Mountjoy Prison. That is a stark reminder of the ongoing, sheer and shocking level of human rights abuses in our direct provision centres. I am slightly alarmed if our mental health services are providing a sticking plaster approach by way of sleeping tablets. What is the experience of people living in direct provision with regard to mental health services and support? Do our guests have any suggestions on how that can be improved?
Ms Donnah Vuma:
On the sleeping tablets issue that we raised, mental health is a serious issue for people living in direct provision. The biggest problem is that no services at all are being provided to us in the centres. In order for a person to be able to access the help that they need, one would have to attend his or her GP to receive direction to get the help that one needs. The biggest problem with that, as we already know, is that many people coming in to seek asylum are from traumatic backgrounds and have experienced some kind of trauma. It would be crucial and vital to have such a service at the reception centres. The only thing that is there at the moment is one or two posters in the centre signposting a person to places like the Samaritans or to Spirasi, for which one has to get an appointment through referral from one's solicitor or from one's GP. Often, it takes a very long time to receive an appointment to be seen by Spirasi. That is why we find that many people tend to turn to things like sleeping tablets or alcohol. They develop a lot of addictions like gambling because they are trying to find a way to cope with living in that situation.
Perhaps Mr. Khambule might give the recommendation now.
Mr. Lucky Khambule:
The signs and indications are there as to the effects on mental health of being in direct provision. Suicide attempts have increased in the past 18 months. Last year alone, there were approximately five deaths in direct provision, some of which related to the mental health of people who were on these sleeping pills. This is not a qualified opinion but we feel that the provision of the tablets as a means of addressing the mental health issue is the wrong one. The psychological traumas that people face in direct provision are the things that need to be addressed in a very serious way. Otherwise we will see more deaths happening in direct provision because we are ignoring the signs that are there on mental health issues.
A fresh example happened a month or so ago, where a lady had attempted suicide in one of the centres in the country, where she even left a message to be sent to a manager of that centre to take care of the babies in her absence. She had a history of mental health illness and we are not addressing that. Instead we are punishing people for the actions that they take, without understanding what they go through. It is a serious matter and needs to be taken seriously. As my colleague said earlier, people arrive with traumatic experiences already.
The other problem that people face is that they need prescriptions to get depression pills. The fact that some do not have access to medical cards makes it hard for them to even access those pills if they have been prescribed, because it takes time for them to get those medical cards.
Ms Donnah Vuma:
It is also very important for us to remember that there are children as well who are experiencing significant mental health issues. Speaking from my personal experience, I have three children myself. My youngest is nine years old. Over the past few months he has been showing signs of depression, to the point that he has come and said to me that sometimes when he feels sad he feels like killing himself.
This is a nine year old saying it to me. I am already facing personal mental health challenges but now I must face the extra burden of these children seeing me go through this and possibly experiencing their own mental health issues because of our position. It is very important that children are not overlooked and mental health services can be focused on the children as well.
I thank everybody for their contributions. As has been said, it is shocking that we are not providing any wrap-around support or intervention for people in those very difficult positions. It is a total failure by the State. It is why we are examining the matter and I hope we can support the witnesses.
I thank everybody for coming in and for the submissions given to the committee. As Deputy Chambers just mentioned, we must prepare a report and it is good that we are hearing the direct experiences of people who have been involved with direct provision. Are all or many of the witnesses still in direct provision? Are they in the same part of the country?
Ms Tina Ndlovu:
I am in direct provision in Mosney.
Ms Tina Ndlovu:
I am originally from Zimbabwe. I followed the live discussions and comments but if one has not gone through the trauma, one will not understand. People do not understand the events or what happens in direct provision. I have suffered depression. I have three kids. I have migraines and I have almost had a stroke because of what I always face. My kids have been bullied in school. I have been through Tusla social services because my child was bullied at school but it was turned around to seem like my son was in the wrong. There was a point where it seemed my kids would be taken away from me. There was a recent incident with my daughter. She opened someone's top in school and I tried to explain things to the teacher but she could not understand. I have set a meeting so I can discuss this with her. These are kids and when they are at school the teacher is the parent and when they are at home, I am the teacher; we must work hand in hand. There was an incident that I witnessed of a woman who tried to commit suicide. The kids also reacted.
Mr. Lucky Khambule:
I am that person. I left direct provision in 2016 and it is a tough transition. I had that first-hand experience. We first had to look for a house and it is very hard to find one. One must get on with one's life. We do not know which direction we have to take. There was a lack of support while I was in direct provision to set me up to succeed as quickly as possible in Irish society. I did not have a problem with language but if a person has a problem with language, how could he or she stay in direct provision for five years and then move on with no support? There is not much transition support to help people leave. I found a place of my own and although my activities are in Dublin, I had to go all the way to Wicklow to find a place. Fortunately, I work as well. My life is on the positive side but it is a very hard transition.
Mr. Lucky Khambule:
There is such a need. We should remember that there is not much of that in the direct provision system, and the location of the direct provision centre also has an effect. I would not really look at my experience as I had to put myself out there in an active way, so it was easier for me to integrate after direct provision. There is a need to support people moving from direct provision but the support needs to start while people are still in direct provision. It should happen with education and methods of coping in the community. We cannot start building to integrate in a community if a person has lost the will to live because he or she is in direct provision. Life must start from the first day in Ireland and not from the day the person has his or her application approved. That is too late.
Both organisations have recommended that direct provision should be abolished. If the committee is to make a recommendation like that, we must figure out what will replace it. We have an obligation to provide shelter and comfort to people coming to the country seeking protection. Is this a housing problem? Is there a concern because we cannot really sort out the housing problem in the country at present?
Mr. Nick Henderson:
It is not necessarily that it is a housing problem. For 20 years we have considered accommodating asylum seekers as something that should be dealt with via the Department of Justice and Equality through a very narrow remit using private providers and old buildings on the outskirts of towns. That should change. We must provide accommodation for people who come here and the direct provision population is approximately 6,500. If we take away the number of people who cannot leave, backlogs and delays in decision making, it might be possible to get that down to something like 5,500. It is not a large number of people.
Using the existing budget and engaging better providers to provide that accommodation would form the building blocks of a new system. I implore the committee to have a bottom line of own-door accommodation, the right to cook for oneself and one's family and a broader right to work and live in a community. These are the red lines we want to see. We need to design a procurement process that will allow housing bodies or other new entities to provide that accommodation. The current procurement process on eTenders is timetabled to go through the different regions of Ireland in 2019. A crucial problem with this is that it requires a provider to have a property with 50 beds or more. Every housing body with which we have worked and our colleagues from MASI who have lived in the system will say putting 50 people in one building will be problematic sooner or later. We need to redesign the procurement process.
Mr. Nick Henderson:
It may choose to build accommodation, procure and purchase it or engage with approved housing bodies to develop existing accommodation they may have or for those bodies to buy or convert accommodation they have available. The approach may be to have more groups of people in fewer congregations. The smallest centre has 60 or 70 people, which is problematic based on our experience of working with organisations.
Mr. Nick Henderson:
I do not necessarily think private providers are problematic, but the experience in the last 20 years suggests they are. The problem with them is that unlike non-profit bodies, they are probably guided by profit. Non-profit bodies are guided by a mission statement, memorandums and articles, a board, expertise and a desire to help people.
Before calling the next speaker, I would like us to take a group photograph at the conclusion at the meeting which we will include in our report. We will invite back all of the delegates for the launch of the report sometime in autumn. I wanted to flag this to my colleagues in case other business might take them away.
I thank the delegates for coming and their very helpful contributions. It is vital that we hear not only from organisations working with asylum seekers and refugees but also from people with direct experience of the direct provision system. People seeking asylum in Ireland do so with international protection. Sometimes it is lost in the debate that they are here because they are fleeing persecution, conflict and oppression. I presume that applies to all of the persons present from MASI.
I will not put anybody on the spot because obviously I appreciate it could be traumatic. Does any of the delegates wish to share his or her reasons for seeking asylum? If not, does anybody have a story he or she would like to tell of a friend or somebody he or she knows in the direct provision system in order to give the committee an insight into the reasons people flee and are in Ireland seeking international protection?
Mr. Bulelani Mfaco:
I applied for asylum in 2017. I am from Cape Town, South Africa. Most people's reaction when they hear this is that there is no war in South Africa. They expect the person seeking asylum to come from a war-torn country. That is the general misconception. International law has held that one must have a well founded fear of persecution that may arise, for instance, from politics, religion, race or membership of a particular cultural group. I am a queer man, a gay man. In South Africa it becomes very difficult to live openly as a gay man, particularly if he happens to be from a very poor background or a township. Rich people experience the same persecution, but black people in townships experience it much more. There are more targeted killings of queer people. I had stones thrown at me and have been spat at. I have been called all sorts of name. At one point I was held in a shopping centre and humiliated by security guards. They picked me up and made fun of the way I was dressed. I used to be very effeminate; apparently, I am now manly. Gay people go through all of the trauma of having stones thrown at them just because of their sexual orientation. In January 2017 in South Africa I heard about what had happened to a lesbian woman who lived down the road from where I lived. She was the third person on our street who was openly gay; the other was another man. She was abducted and shot dead for no other reason than her sexual orientation. At that point I decided that that was it; I was not going to wait and hang around to be the next one to be killed.
When I got to Ireland, I was placed immediately in Balseskin, just like everybody else who was seeking asylum. We stayed there for about five weeks. What happened in the very first week frightened me because for the first time in my life I was not allowed to work. I had been working since I was ten years old. I used to help my grandmother to sell fruit at the taxi rank back home. Now I am told that I cannot work. What do I do? I sleep, wake up, shower and eat every single day. Days become weeks, weeks become months and months become years. It is very disheartening. One begins to lose hope the place where one has sought sanctuary is actually the compassionate place one thought it was.
I was moved from Balseskin to Knockalisheen where I was placed in a room with a homophobic man. When he heard that I was gay, he said, "I don't like shit in here." I am sorry for my language, but that was how he said it. We still had to share a bedroom and live together. In the first few weeks in Knockalisheen, when I was queuing in the canteen, I heard homophobic slurs from other asylum seekers from the same region, the same homophobic slurs I had heard in South Africa. That created a lot of anxiety that I might be killed. Many people who are murdered because of their sexual orientation will first hear those slurs before they being attacked. When I told the international protection officer in Knockalisheen, they could not be bothered to do anything about it. One then begins to lose a sense of hope. I did not trust anybody and still do not trust anybody in Knockalisheen. When having food in the canteen, I often sit on my own with my back against the wall. I will not sit there with somebody behind me because I do not feel comfortable being in that space. However, I have no choice because I have to queue for food in the canteen. It becomes very difficult to go through life when one has live in such a situation and I do not control when I will be out of it. I had my first interview only this year to assess my claim for asylum. For all of that time I was sitting there and my file was gathering dust in the international protection office. I was finally called for an interview in March, but I am still waiting for a recommendation. I am told that if it is positive, I might even have to wait longer for a declaration from the Minister in order that I can get out and live independently.
We are subjected to petty bureaucratic processes in direct provision centres. Recently a notice was put up indicating that we were required to produce an ID card if we needed to receive our post. I have been in Knockalisheen for over a year and receiving my post without having to produce an ID card. No asylum seeker in this country is issued with an ID card. No Irish person has an ID card, but I am being asked to produce one. They use the permission to stay in Ireland card as an ID card. That card was issued for the purposes of showing a police officer or an immigration officer that I had permission to stay in Ireland.
Yet, every single day that I need an ironing board or need to check my post or get a tissue or any petty everyday thing that people use in their houses when they are living their lives, I have to produce all kinds of things. It becomes disheartening.
One of the issues is privacy because we do not have much privacy. We may be forced to share a bedroom with someone who may happen to be homophobic. For a person who is gay and seeking asylum because he has been persecuted on the basis of his sexual orientation to be subjected to the same kind of treatment is cruel from the State side. We have staff members in direct provision who undermine the right to privacy for individuals too. I was sitting in my room one day and someone knocked once and then opened the door. It was a lady who worked Knockalisheen direct provision centre. She knocked once and opened the door. I was sitting in my room getting ready to have a shower, so I only had my underwear on. The next time it happened because a manager in Knockalisheen walked into the male showers in the men's block. We have a block specifically for single men. There are several of them. She opened the door to the male showers. She looked and then closed the door and said she was sorry as she walked away. It was the men's shower - what did she expect to see? Privacy means nothing to them. We have had similar incidents in Hatch Hall accommodation centre, where a staff member and another resident have walked into a room where a person was naked. We have heard the experiences of children who feel unsafe because of the creepy way that men look at them. It has been reported in the news that direct provision centres have women who feel unsafe sharing intimate living spaces with other people. Some of the women would have suffered torture or sexual violence. For such a person to be placed in a position where she feels unsafe again is very cruel. It shows we are not really responding to the person's call. When a person comes here and declares that he is seeking protection, he needs protection. To place such a person in a position where he feels unsafe is very cruel on the part of the Government.
We have had these experiences along with many other lived experiences from people who live in direct provision. I am not the only gay person who has experienced homophobia in direct provision; there are many others. It is apparent across the board. One woman locked herself in the gym in Knockalisheen because she felt unsafe sharing the gym with men. Now, they have decided to reserve certain hours for women only in the gym. The problem is that the woman will still have to share other intimate spaces with everyone else. That minor tweak does not really change the situation when it comes to personal safety very much, especially for people who have had traumatic experiences.
Ms Tina Ndlovu:
I will say something to correct you, Chairman. It is not a story. When I hear the word "story" it is like a tale that is simply being told. These are serious cases. We have been through a great deal. I will talk in a neutral matter and not specifically about my case. The reason women are fleeing Zimbabwe is child marriages. The issue is still active, as I speak. Committee members can check the BBC interviews in which young girls are being interviewed about why they had a child when they were 13 or 14 years of age. These girls come here and tell their case. The officers tell the girls they are lying. How can they say I am lying when they were not there when the incident happened? I am telling my case because it happened to me. I am seeking protection and the officers are telling me that I am lying. It upsets me because I have been trying to prove to the officers for the past three and a half years that I have been through this. Then, at the end of the day, the officers are telling me that I can go back home and that I cannot live here. They say a certain part of my country is okay and that it is better for me to live there and that I cannot live in another country. That is my experience.
Mr. Bulelani Mfaco:
One of the issues I can speak about is the exploitation of people who live in direct provision centres. It comes in the form of sexual exploitation and in terms of work. When people are not allowed to work legally, it creates and openness for whoever wants to exploit them. We have had people coming to Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland who have worked from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. and were only paid between €25 and €27. It becomes very difficult for such a person to live a normal life because they do not have a sense of what their rights are once they are given permission to live. They might continue with that exploitation.
We also have people in direct provision being offered money for sex because people know that there were people getting paid €21.60 per week. The figure is now €38.80. People have to live. I have been offered money for sex. There are children and women who have been offered money for sex. We do not know the extent to which the exploitation is happening but we have had reports from our work and from other people. RTÉ produced a programme called "Taken Down". The producers were doing research because the show is set in a direct provision centre. One of the things they came across was that people were being offered money for sex. People know where the direct provision centres are. People know that there are people there who are vulnerable. Then we have sex pests coming around trying to exploit people. That needs to be highlighted as well.
I wish to thank Mr. Bulelani Mfaco and Ms Tina Ndlovu. I am grateful to them for sharing the reasons they sought asylum. I think it is important because sometimes the debate around this issue neglects the fact that people have come here after fleeing persecution, oppression and violence. It can be forgotten that people have suffered from trauma that most of us present can only begin to imagine. Yet, the system is retraumatising people by putting them through what I believe to be a traumatic system. I agree with Mr. Henderson and the representatives from Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland that this system is failing the human rights of people and it needs to be replaced.
I want to put the question to the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland and the Irish Refugee Council representatives. Last week Mr. Justice Bryan MacMahon said to us that in his view, while it was far from perfect, the direct provision system had improved. I want to get the response of the representatives to that. Can they tell us about their experience of the Garda National Immigration Bureau and how that office conducts itself as well as the Garda generally? I am putting that question to both groups. I will have a final set of questions following that.
Mr. Nick Henderson:
As I said in our opening address, we have a real concern that the system has worsened. The primary manifestation is emergency centres. There are a little over 500 people in emergency centres. These are hotels or bed and breakfast accommodation that the State has procured or contracted to provide accommodation on an emergency basis. We have used the phrase "off-grid". We do not really know where those centres are located. Fundamentally, the people in those centres, hotels or bed and breakfast accommodation do not know where the external services that could help them are located.
There have also been issues with people not going through Balseskin reception centre. If that were to happen, the people affected should have received a medical card. People have not been getting medical cards. They have been located in areas where the general practitioner list may be full. A significant number of children are in emergency centres - 88 children. Like children in homeless bed and breakfast accommodation, they have struggled to get education. Indeed, I do not know if they get any education at all.
We are gravely concerned about that situation.
On wider improvements, as we understand it, there has been a narrowing of the gap between capacity and occupancy rates in the direct provision system in the last two years. There are fewer beds and centres are now simply overcrowded. That has meant that reforms envisaged by the Government arising from the McMahon process have had to be curtailed or limited to an extent.
On the third point, we refer the Deputy to Nasc, an NGO in Cork, from which the committee will be hearing in June. It has produced an important report which analyses the extent to which the recommendations have been implemented. The picture is less clear than what may have been suggested by the Government. The emergency centres are of real concern and we do not see this changing over the course of 2019 owing to the numbers within and existing capacity within the traditional direct provision estate being full.
Ms Rosemary Hennigan:
Last year we opted in to the reception conditions regulations, under which there is a set of requirements which the State should follow. For example, regulation 3 requires that people be given information when they first arrive on their rights and entitlements and organisations that may be able to help them. In our experience that is not happening. People are arriving in, particularly from the emergency centres, who do not know where they should be going, how to make an application for asylum, how to get legal aid, how to apply for a PPS number or a GP card, or how to gain basic access to medicines and prescriptions. They are arriving and it is simply a case of fire-fighting. This means that the benefits of reforms which may have been introduced or which are under way following the McMahon report are not being felt in practice. There is a fire-fighting exercise under way in the Department of Justice and Equality, alongside which we need to see a commitment being given to medium to long-term reform of the system overall because conditions are just unacceptable.
Mr. Lucky Khambule:
I thank the Deputy for his questions. It is nice to see him here. During the many years I spent in Cork he was always making himself known in the direct provision centre. Everyone there knows of his work, which we appreciate. I remember that he arranged for lines to be drawn around a bus stop opposite the centre as there was a danger to the children.
A comment was made to the effect that the situation had improved. From MASI's day-to-day interaction with the people involved, things have got worse. I repeat things have got worse. The situation in which the Government finds itself in having to provide emergency accommodation should not have arisen. There should have been a better plan to allow us to respond to the large increase in the number of people coming here. There has been an immigration crisis since 2015. If we are now only thinking about what we need to do, it shows that we did not think hard enough before.
Some of the things that came from the work of the working group include the single application procedure and the introduction of the International Protection Act 2015. We were told that it would cut all waiting periods to nine months. We were also told that the system would be capable of getting through everything within nine months. That meant that one would be out of the direct provision system within nine months, but that did not happen. There is an 18-month backlog of people who have not been called for their first interview. There are people who have not been a chance to present their case for refugee status. Some do not even know when they will be called, which is a problem.
To give an indication of how bad things are, I can point to two centres where action was taken. Two months ago in west Cork the residents had had enough and demonstrated. There was also a demonstration in Mosney. That indicates that there is something wrong. What is also alarming is the squeezing of residents by local management to discourage people from speaking up or making complaints. I know that some complaints have been recorded by the Ombudsman, but the numbers are low. That is because people are being told that if they complain, their cases and applications will be affected. Fear is stopping them from saying what is not happening.
Management in some centres has so much power that it can issue notices that disrupt everybody. I will give two examples. In one of the centres a notice was issued indicating that people were not allowed to use their phones, laptops or iPads at certain times. For no reason, a curfew was imposed which prevented people from communicating with others. Some people are studying and use their time to study. Others have families in different time zones. How can someone wake up and have it in mind to impose such a rule? In another centre residents have what we call counter fridges. Sometimes fridges are donated to people with kids or who need to store medications in order that they will be able to store them in their room. The centre in question made a rule that residents were no longer allowed to have fridges in their room. Management actually confiscated fridges from people's rooms, usually when they were not there. It just came into someone's room and ransacked it. A lady might have come back to her room to find that her wardrobe had been turned upside down. That is the kind of life people are living in direct provision centres. That is a big problem because things will explode. When people are treated in that way, the time will come when they will say enough is enough. We can avoid this just by being compassionate and dealing with people as human beings. That is all that we request, even from the people who are there. Hotel managers have no reason to treat people who have suffered torture in that way. They are only interested in the bottom line. Some have even gone to the extent of having residents in a centre volunteer because of downsizing. Why are they doing this? They are maximising profits. They want to replace people who are salaried with others who are vulnerable and will agree to anything. They want to use them to provide the services and do work that is supposed to be done by the State. That needs to stop. The issue needs to be highlighted in order that people can be held accountable.
The Deputy spoke about the Garda National Immigration Bureau, GNIB. Our experience of the GNIB relates mainly to the length of time it takes people to receive their GNIB card.
Once someone has been granted the right to stay in Ireland, be that on a refugee, subsidiary protection or leave-to-remain basis, the GNIB is key. Without the GNIB card, one has nowhere to go. In our interactions with the GNIB, delays are a problem. We do not really have much contact with the rest of the Garda unless officers are called because of a complaint against someone in the centre.
Before going back to members, I would like to offer an opportunity to Ms Kunene, Mr. Sibanda and Ms Leonard to contribute. There are not two tiers here. It is just that we could not put everyone sitting together. Our guests are all equally welcome. Would they like to offer their perspectives or make any points?
Ms Rosemary Kunene:
I will discuss the process of the interview. It was recommended that there should be a single application process, but I am not sure if it is being applied. I had to apply again for the single procedure process in 2016. I received a refusal, which I then had to appeal. That was refused and I had to go to the High Court, which said that my case should be heard again. I went for my interview two months ago, but I am still waiting. My experience there was dehumanising. They stopped looking at why I had come here to seek asylum and went into my personal life. When I explained something, they told me that I was lying. It was dehumanising.
If I am going for an interview, the tribunal members should be more knowledgeable about what is going on in my country. They kept pressurising me and saying that I had been a refugee in Swaziland because I had a travel document. That is how it is in our country, though. We have travel documents that we use in the southern part of Africa. There is more to be done in respect of the tribunal members.
It is mental torture for someone to keep on repeating what he or she has gone through. When someone asks me why I am in the country, I do not say anymore because I am tired of crying. I cannot keep on saying what happened to me. For how long would I be saying that? I need to move on. It is dehumanising to make someone sit there and do that. This is not a story - it is something that we are going through. A mother tells people what her children are going through, but the response is "You are lying." How can one lie about one's children suffering?
Mr. Christopher Sibanda:
Yes, please. I promise I will not take long. I will touch specifically on many issues that have been mentioned, particularly single mothers and children in direct provision. After the Ombudsman for Children stated that such environments were not fit for human habitation, let alone raising children, I do not understand how mothers with children are still in direct provision. I do not believe that the Department of Justice and Equality or the IPO considers asylum seeker mothers and children as human beings.
Men are giving children creepy looks in small passages that actually serve as the children's playgrounds. Naked men walk down those passages to the bathrooms. Let there be sense. Let this become a normal human situation. I am a father. My youngest is 21 years old. I have to walk in that passage with my towel tied around my waist to go to the bathroom. There are children, from three years old to 16 years old, boys and girls, playing there because there are no playgrounds. The system is just not fit for any purpose. When we say that direct provision should be abolished, we do so because it is not an environment for human beings. I could invite committee members to spend a night with me in direct provision in Viking House where I sleep with three other people in the same room. I have measured it - it is 4 m by 4 m. There are four of us in the room. Within that area, we have our wardrobes and a bathroom. We are all men.
There is no area in the centre where, if members came to visit me, they could sit to talk to or greet me. That is not human living. The jailer-prisoner attitude that prevails is not for human beings either. When I go to sleep in Viking House tonight, I will tell people that I am going home, but is it really home? When I get there, anyone who wants to see me has to sign in. If that person is lucky, someone will call me so that we can go outside. There is no reception or anywhere people can just sit down and talk. I do not know what training RIA has put in place for the people who work in the centres, but they feel that they are jailers and we are prisoners and that they are doing favours for us. Kitchen staff throw people plates of food. Sometimes those plates fall and people laugh. This is happening to adults, who are in a queue. They will then beg for food. If someone happens to miss a meal, he or she knows that it will stay missed even though the food will not have been served. Obviously, if I miss my meal, there will be leftovers, but they cannot be served to me because I have returned outside the meal time. That is not human living. I have to wake up at 8 a.m. to ensure that I have breakfast before 9 a.m. because if I get there at 9.02 a.m., the door will be closed. I call this place "home", and I have been there for the past three years, but I still cannot get that meal.
I attend school in Dublin. I understand the problem with accommodation here. I live in Waterford and travel to UCD and back. That is six hours on the road every day. I am a full-time student. I cannot get a packed lunch from the centre. I must use the €38 that I get to pay for the travel and food that I need to go to school. That is well and good with the RIA and the IPO, but it is not natural. A country of Ireland's status should not be doing this to people.
I do not believe it should be done.
We have spoken about improvements. I disagree completely with the suggestion made by Mr. Justice McMahon a week ago that this is improving. I wonder how he considers it to be improving when people are running direct provision for profit and to become even more rich. Can that still be called an improvement? The centres that have moved slightly by providing cooking facilities have also set up shops that are still owned by these people. Why does this segregation exist? When it was decided to stop requiring residents to queue for food, why was it decided to require them to buy their food in a shop owned by these people if they want to cook in the kitchen? There is a Centra shop at the gate. I could buy what I want there if it were not for the voucher system. We are told to report what we want to buy so that the authorities can order what they need. We have to tell them in advance what we want to buy the following week when we bring in our vouchers. That is not on. That is not life.
I would like to speak about education and work permits. I suggest that giving people the right to work has actually put them in the negative, rather than giving them better opportunities. If one wants to get schooling or training or do anything, one is required to have a work permit. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, which is responsible for this area, will not approve any training if one does not have a work permit. Unfortunately, the people who do not have work permits are in the majority. They tend to be the people who have been in the system for the longest periods of time. This means they are being deprived of the opportunity to study. I am studying at third level. When one is in direct provision, one is not supposed to be studying above level 4. Monaghan Institute will not take one for training into any course above level 4, even if one is prepared to pay international fees. I do not see that as an improvement - I see it as getting worse.
I will conclude by speaking about the amount of time that people who have received refugee status have to wait. Two gentlemen in direct provision in Tramore who have been given refugee status have been waiting eight months for the Minister to send them a letter on moving out of direct provision, which will enable them to go to the GNIB to get a GNIB card. They have been told that their refugee applications have been approved, but they have had to wait eight months for this letter. It is really not on.
I thank Mr. Sibanda. On a light note, I knew the minute he said he would be brief that he would be like all my colleagues here. He is definitely part of all of this now. I will bring in Ms Kunene before going back to the members of the committee.
Ms Rosemary Kunene:
I ask the Chairman to trust me when I say I will be brief. Mr. Sibanda referred to the suggestion that being given the right to cook represents an improvement. A food hall has been introduced in my centre. When I go there, I mostly get water and fruit because I cannot eat the food that is there. I wonder whether it would be possible for people to get vouchers to go into shops to get what they want. The food is being bought in SuperValu. If I were given a voucher, I could avail of the wider selection in that shop to get what I want. We are told we can write down what we want, but because I am a difficult person, they do not bring what I want regardless of what I write down. I understand that not too many people might want to buy what I look for. I ask the committee to consider my suggestion that we be given vouchers that we can use ourselves. In the case of people who spend all their time in direct provision, the vouchers are not sufficient for the whole week. We are given 45 points to use for seven days. If we want to get a meal, such as a lunch, it costs four points. If we used ten points a day, we would need 70 points a week, but we get just 45 points. Toiletries are not included. We still have to get toiletries and all that by ourselves. I do not know how the points are weighted. Many parents have told me that the points they get do not suffice for the entire week. Children are living on bread. When we talk about improvement, all I can say is that it has not really happened.
Absolutely. I thank our guests for their helpful and thought-provoking contributions. I had intended to ask a number of questions, but I will let them be for now because some of the witnesses' observations have clarified matters. I agree that direct provision is not fit for purpose. It is not a fit place to raise children. It is not a fit place for anyone to live. During previous discussions, comparisons have been made with institutions of the past. Some people have debated that. As far as I am concerned, this institutionalisation of people is a form of warehousing. This system reflects very poorly on Ireland as a country and needs to be replaced. It is clear from what has been said here today that far too often, the system is unfortunately adversarial. I am not sure it needs to be like that. I will leave it at that. I have no further questions. I thank the representatives of MASI and the Irish Refugee Council. I hope we can produce a report at the end of this process that does justice to these hearings.
I thank our guests for their presentations. My head is spinning. I am blown away by the reality of the situation. I knew it was bad, but I was not aware of how horrendous it is. It is important that I repeat something Mr. Mfaco said at the end of his presentation. I hope it is okay for me to do so. He stated:
We are human beings like all of you. All we ask is that we be treated as such. The very fact that people have to ask the Government to treat them humanely should shame all of you.
I feel absolutely devastated by what I have heard. I am ashamed that I live in this country. I am ashamed by the way our Government is treating people in direct provision. There is no representation here today from our Government. It is probably too hard from them to hear what the reality is. We do not know. I am grateful that the witnesses are here today because we need to hear the reality of what it is like to live in direct provision. I am shaking with anger. I am saddened to hear that in this day and age, people are going through the experiences that have been described. When we talk about the Magdalen laundries, we say it was terrible and ask how these things happened. It is going on here today. That is the reality. When I spoke last week to a man from the US, he thanked God that the abuses which happened years ago in the Magdalen laundries have come to an end, but I told him that abuses are continuing. I informed him about the case of a woman who was living in a direct provision centre in the midlands. When she was nine months' pregnant she went into labour, but she had no money to get a taxi so she had to walk to the hospital. That is what is going on in our country today. The man to whom I was speaking burst into tears and cried when he heard this story. What the hell is going on?
In this country, we do not treat animals in the way people in direct provision are being treated.
I have taken down many notes here and I want to touch on a couple of points, if that is all right with the Chairman. A story was told here last week on the right to work and it had an impact on me. A man in direct provision, with his wife and three children, was asked by one of those who presented here last week about how he was getting on with his legal status. He replied that he did not care about his legal status at this time and that all he wants to do is work. He stated that all he wants to do is get up in the morning, go out to work, come back and tell his children that he went to work that day. Moreover, he said that he does not even want to get paid for it. He just asked to be given his dignity. Deputies Jack Chambers and O'Callaghan touched on it today but that is why we need to see an effective right to work. It is vital.
There is no doubt but that we need to get rid of direct provision. This report is so important. My recommendation would be to get rid of direct provision and treat people with respect and dignity. I cannot even imagine what it is like for those children. These people are coming from trauma. I work in an area of trauma in a different field but I know what trauma does to people. I see its impact. As for them coming here from a traumatic situation where people are being tortured, sexually violated and sexually abused, only to be treated with such disrespect and absence of dignity, I do not know to where our humanity has gone.
I am sorry, but I need to be able to say this because what I am hearing today is so upsetting. Even though I was aware it was bad, I did not realise it was so bad. One must present a card for an ironing board. The point that private companies operate these centres frustrates me. Last year, we paid more than €70 million to private firms operating direct provision centres and yet, where one wants to cook one's own food, which is a basic human right, one has to go to a shop to buy it.
I seek the witnesses' thoughts on the integration piece. I apologise, as I am upset by hearing everything, but I wish to hear their thoughts on efforts to help asylum seekers integrate into Irish society. There are a few points I wrote down; I hope this is okay. First, although we have an official Government migrant integration strategy, asylum seekers are excluded from it. They simply are not mentioned. This suggests that while the State will actively try to help integrate migrant EU workers, for example, I gather I would be right in stating this is not the case with asylum seekers.
Second, from reading about the design of the direct provision system, it seems that there is almost a fear of genuine integration running through the heart of the rules. The logic seems to be that if we let people put down roots to work and embed into the committee, it would be harder were their application to be ultimately refused and, therefore, many in the centres live at a physical and social distance from local communities. Can we hear about those experiences?
I also want to hear about their experiences on the right to work because that is really important, and a little more on the importance of having cooking facilities, which is a basic human right. Many direct provision centres still do not have those facilities.
Mr. Bulelani Mfaco:
Knockalisheen is a mixed accommodation centre. There are several families living there and there are a lot of single men. Four out of the six blocks are occupied by single men. There are single ladies as well and many of them find it difficult to share communal spaces with men. When Donnah must go and queue in the canteen with children to get food, we queue with the children. One day one child went in to ask for a doughnut and was told that they had given him one already. The child wanted another doughnut. It is just a doughnut. Sometimes people do not even take those doughnuts and they serve them the following day, but they did not give it to the child. It is a child. It becomes difficult for parents. Donnah is a parent. I am sure she will speak about the difficulties parenting in direct provision.
From an integration point of view, the Reception and Integration Agency forgets what "Integration" in its name means. I do not think the people there even know that the word is in the agency's name because all they do is receive people. They take people's forms. What they give a person when he or she arrives in a direct provision centre is the house rules. They will tell a person when his or her meal times are. These varies from centre to centre. One will be told in the morning one will have breakfast, in the afternoon one will have lunch, and the time in the evening one will have dinner. In most of the centres where there are no cooking facilities, one is also told what to eat and when to eat it. One does not get to decide what to eat.
The strangest aspect for many people is that one goes into the centre and sees people eating and enjoying their food. Then one finds a friend sitting and asking, "How on earth are they enjoying this? This is terrible.", because tastes vary. We do not all like the same food. For example, we do not all like the same spices. When one walks into a canteen and smells the same spices, it almost smells the same every day. It is a canteen. If one goes into a hospital canteen or a prison canteen, it will have its own smell. When one lives in a direct provision centre, one recognises that every single day. When I leave here, I will go back to Knockalisheen. The moment I see the sign "Knockalisheen", I will be dreading it because I know the experience of having to live through waking up in the morning, a shower, going to eat and having no sense of purpose.
Meaning in life is lost when one is not allowed to work. One sees people coming in to do their work. Irish people who work in direct provision centres go in and report for duty every morning and one is reminded every day that one is not allowed to work. They are living life and one gets to sit and watch people live their lives. It is even worse in centres that are in the centre of cities. For example, those who live in the direct provision in Limerick city centre must watch people go about their daily lives and they are reminded every day that they are not allowed to go and do ordinary things that people do every day.
It becomes difficult to talk about integration when one is warehoused in a direct provision centre, such as Knockalisheen, where one has not access to public transport and one cannot go anywhere. Where one is given €38 a week without public transport, how will one socialise? What kind of social life will one live? As humans, we are social beings. If any Deputy or Senator in the room has a dog, he or she will know that one needs to take a dog out for walks, etc. If one only kept a dog in one room and gave it shelter and food, that dog would not be satisfied with life. In fact, it would be cruel not to take the dog out for a walk and let it do what dogs do, but we allow that to happen to people in the asylum system, to take away all the things that make us human, that is, all that human beings do. For instance, one cannot work. Since the beginning of time, if one studies the history of mankind, one will know that human beings have always worked to provide for themselves, for their loved ones and to improve the human experience on earth. Here, however, one takes a person, because he or she applied for asylum, and says that person is not allowed to work. Then it becomes difficult for the person to integrate into the community while he or she is in direct provision.
One cannot speak to me about integration while I am still segregated. I am using a segregated bus. When we get off the bus in Limerick city centre, we see all these brown people. One actually sees Irish people staring at us, as if to ask, "Where did this bus come from? Look at those brown people." They do not look like the committee members. They look different. It only hurts them. Everybody knows the bus is from a direct provision centre. When the bus shows up in a school, some of the schoolchildren are ashamed that their friends might know where they live but everybody knows that school bus will take them to a direct provision centre.
Every Thursday, we get a cheque from social welfare.
To claim that €38 per week allowance, one queues at the post office and produces one's PPSN card and cheque. Everybody in the queue in that post office then knows that one lives in a direct provision centre. It is written on the cheque receipt itself that it is a direct provision allowance. One is constantly reminded how bad one's life is and that one is not considered part of Irish society. One is divorced from social life. One cannot really socialise on €38.80 while living in Mount Trenchard.
There is no public transport in Knockalisheen or other direct provision centres. I had a hospital appointment, for example, which was at 9 a.m. I explained that to the community social welfare officer at Knockalisheen and asked if a supplementary allowance could be paid to cover travel. It was outside the normal bus schedule at Knockalisheen where there are three services a day. The first leaves at 10 a.m., the next is at 1 p.m. and the last is at 5 p.m. If one misses that, one is stuffed because one must then walk for over an hour. I needed to get to the hospital at 9 a.m. The officer said regional travel was not covered. The regional hospital is approximately 9 km from Knockalisheen. I had to Google that when I was wondering how to get there. I had to sit and argue with her over why I needed assistance to get to the hospital. I needed to go to hospital and see a doctor yet she simply said "We do not cover regional travel". It is dehumanising for a person to have to explain a very basic need for medical assistance. One needs to get to a hospital. It is almost as if they want us to get on our knees and beg for these things.
If I was not in a direct provision centre, I would have provided for my own medical expenses. The Department of Justice and Equality knows that. Where I come from, I worked and was studying and was able to provide for these very basic things. Now, however, we have to go and argue with bureaucrats and managers in the centre over the basic everyday things that people go through. It became very difficult for me to sit there and look at her to say "I have to get to a hospital". In the end, she said they would call a taxi. I was checking the metre. She stopped herself before suggesting I should walk there. At 9 km, I would probably have had to leave at 6 a.m. It is dehumanising for me to have to go through the process of explaining the need. It is self-explanatory that I have to get to hospital and receive the treatment I need. When that happened, I felt discouraged. It becomes very difficult to go through the same process again with the welfare officer. If I have another appointment, I will still have to go to see her. When the RIA says it is providing X or Y, it can tick a box. It says it has done this and that and that one is entitled to a medical card. While I have a medical card, I cannot put it under my feet and fly to the hospital.
That basic things are not there for people makes it very difficult to even hear the word "integration". It sickens me to hear it even from NGOs who come to direct provision centres and say they want to help integrate people. It is not helping to integrate a person if that person goes back at the end of the day to sleep in a direct provision centre. That alone should tell one that they are segregated from the communities in which those who say that live themselves. Residents do not live among communities, they live among people like themselves. That is where the fundamental problem is. We cannot begin to talk about integration while we still have direct provision. One cannot talk about integrating asylum seekers when a person can be removed from the State at any point. There is no integration there. If one wants to integrate people, one integrates them into the social life of the country so that they can socialise and one integrates them into political life. We have seen people run for election. One integrates them into the economic life of the country so that they can work and become productive and contributing members of society, thereby ending the profiteering. I talk a lot but before I stop I refer to one direct provision centre in Cork which had three bunk beds in one tiny room. There were six asylum seekers in that tiny room. That tiny room earns the company €6,300 per month. No one looking for a house to rent in Ireland would have to pay that much for a room. We allow it to happen here because it is happening to people who are not from here. It is happening to asylum seekers because the view is that they should be grateful that they are here and that they are given a bed and food. That is what we are told.
We are called welfare scroungers and in the recent election campaign we were called freeloaders. No asylum seeker has ever asked the Government for a plate of food. No one arrives at Dublin Airport and says "I would like to have food please". I am told I am being provided with food and a bed, but I never asked for any of that. I asked for protection. It becomes very difficult to even begin to talk about integration for us when we have been warehoused in direct provision centres without access to very basic everyday things and are being treated inhumanely by managers who can waltz into one's room without any consideration for one's privacy and without considering that people have suffered traumatic experiences. The State is warehousing vulnerable people with children, including women who feel unsafe in direct provision centres. We have had reports of sexual violence from AkiDwA and of the experiences of women feeling unsafe in direct provision centres. I said in response to a member earlier that people come here with fear already. When one puts them in a direct provision centre where they will experience the same fear, that alone tells one the system is not fit for purpose.
Ms Donnah Vuma:
I find it shocking that people have said there have been improvements or that the recommendations have been implemented when people continue to live in a state of forced poverty. One of my biggest issues with the working group report is that no one came here looking for comfort, as Mr. Mfaco said. We are not looking to be comfortable in direct provision. We do not want the direct provision system reformed or made comfortable. Many of us came here to seek protection. We did not unpack our experiences, skills or expertise in the countries we left. We came here with them. That means we are able to work. We are capable and qualified to do so. All we want is to be allowed to work so that we can provide for our families. As I have already mentioned, I am a mother of three. Unfortunately, I have been living in this system for five years and it was only yesterday that I received a decision on my case. It is finally out of the High Court to which I appealed the decision that was made on my original application for refugee status. It is still unclear what is happening there because I have no contact with my solicitor. I have not been updated as to what it means that the case was successful in the High Court. That is a major problem which many of us face. We do not have proper legal advice. While legal aid is available in principle, one may only get to see one's solicitor once on the day before an interview.
It is a great challenge to raise a children in direct provision on an allowance, which used to be just €19.10. I cannot begin to explain to the committee the challenge of having to save money from a €19 payment to meet the expenses associated with raising children. My eldest child is in her third year of secondary school but I take the committee back two years to when she started in first year. The initial cost of starting school was approximately €900. I had no idea where that €900 was going to come from when I was on an allowance of €19.10. To try to meet that €900 expense, let alone the expenses for my two other children, I had to save money from that €19.10 to supplement the €150 back-to-school payment the State gives everyone. My greatest problem with that is the limitations it imposes on the development of children. They cannot participate in extracurricular activities. Since my children have been in the school system here, they have never been able to take part in extracurricular activities.
I would not be able to pay for my children to do so in any case out of the €38.80 allowance to which I am restricted because I do not have the right to work.
The same issue arises for children in secondary school. As an example, my daughter will be going into transition year in September, which includes a school trip next January with an option to go either on an exchange programme to the United States or to Austria on a ski trip. This is a trip in which everybody in her class is partaking. She knows she has a passport because we got it when we came to Ireland, although we had to give up those documents at our point of arrival when we sought asylum. How do I go about explaining to my child that she cannot take part in an activity that might have a huge impact on the rest of her life and in which all her peers will be able to participate? This is one of the restrictions and barriers we face as parents. It is only a miracle that will allow my child to go on the trip given that it costs €960. While I do not have the right to work, how am I supposed to be able to meet that type of expense?
I am taking the opportunity to highlight the most serious issues, but I also want to give the committee examples of the simple oppression we face in the centres on a daily basis. I had a recent incident where I needed an extra roll of tissue. We are given basic toiletries, including tissue, toothpaste and shower gel, at our centre in Knockalisheen, but it happened on this day that we ran out of tissue. As embarrassing and humiliating as it is to have say this at the committee, I was in the bathroom when I realised there was no tissue. I called my 12 year old daughter and asked her to run down to reception to get a new roll. She did so and was mocked by the two security staff members on duty who told her to go back and get her mother to come out of the bathroom and fetch the tissue herself. Apparently the manager had told them they were not allowed to give tissue to children. What is wrong with giving a toilet roll to a 12 year old?
Another incident I wish to highlight is one of which members may already be aware. My son was sick one night and needed a simple slice of bread and some milk. I am not allowed to cook for my children or have food in my room. Previously, I was able to access these things but on this particular day, the manager had decided to impose a new rule. I went to reception at 1 a.m. in desperate need of a slice of bread and milk to help my sickly child, but I was denied it. The Minister subsequently requested that an inquiry to be made into what happened, as a result of which some sort of apology was given. I do not know whether it was directed to me, but some kind of apology happened and the staff were supposed to receive training on the issue. I am not sure whether that training was about how to treat people humanely and with more respect but, as I said, I have now had a situation where my child was denied tissue and I was told to come out of the bathroom and fetch it myself.
That raises a serious question about the type of people, communities and society the direct provision system is shaping for the future. If I am put in that centre on an allowance of €38.80 per week, I am being taught how to be dependent on the system, and I am teaching my children the same. I am teaching them how to be helpless. By the time I move out of that centre and am on a social welfare payment of €180 per week, there is no way I will want to move myself out and find work. It will be a promotion for me to go from €38.80 to €180 per week. The process is automatically teaching my children the same system of dependency. It is a very dangerous situation that is being created.
Children in direct provision are not even allowed to attend a school of their choice but are instead confined either to the schools in the local area or a school to which they are referred by the centre manager. My child goes to a school that is a bit out of the way for where we live, being some 20 km away, but it is the school to which her peers from primary school chose to go and so she wanted to go there. The bus that takes her to school stops less than 1 km from the centre. The first bus out of the centre to take children to school is at 8 a.m. but my daughter needs to be at the bus stop at 7.45 a.m. I have asked the centre management many times to make an adjustment, which would not be solely for my child but also for the few other children who need an earlier bus service. Our request has been denied repeatedly. This means that from my €38.80 allowance, I have to pay a lady €40 every week to take my daughter to the bus stop in the morning and bring her back to the centre in the afternoon. I do not know how we are expected to survive under those conditions.
The same teenaged daughter has no idea how to boil an egg. For the five years that I have lived in direct provision, my children have not known the taste of my cooking and are subjected only to what is served in the canteen. My nine year old eats rice and gravy on a daily basis, as Mr. Mfaco, who sees him in the canteen, would be able to confirm. I am sure my son is the one who asked for a second doughnut and was refused. It is the one thing he likes. Otherwise he is on a diet of rice and gravy endlessly because it is the only thing he can stand to eat. That is not a normal situation and not the way that any child should be growing up. It would not be acceptable to Irish people, Irish communities or Irish society to take an Irish child and put him or her in that situation and subject him or her to growing up in those types of conditions.
We and others have stated over and over again that direct provision is not fit for purpose. We are not looking for comfort, as I said. We are just looking to live as normal human beings and to be able to contribute to the communities that have welcomed us in many situations. We are looking for the opportunity to give our children a better life than what they have experienced here and in our countries of origin. We just want that opportunity to have sanctuary and safety and to be able to live normal lives.
Ms Tina Ndlovu:
In terms of the food halls, there is a perspective that Mosney, where I live, is the best direct provision centre in the country. That argument can be made because everybody there cooks for themselves and there are playgrounds for the children. Whenever direction provision is discussed, there is a concentration on Mosney but no mention of Monaghan, for instance, where the playgrounds have been closed, or Kinsale, where residents are not allowed to cook. We are asking for focus to be placed on those other centres rather than just advertising Mosney as the good place out of the whole system.
I take Ms Ndlovu's point and assure her that in the course of this examination and before producing our report, we will take a direct look at the contrasts between Mosney and other locations. It is part of what we intend to do. Does Senator Black have any further questions?
I have one final question for Mr. Henderson on the system of oversight to prevent abuse.
As can be seen here today we are dealing with vulnerable people, some of whom arrive into this country and cannot speak the language, and no financial resources are available to them. The system has recently been brought under the remit of the Ombudsman. There have been 148 complaints this year. Does the IRC feel there are adequate safeguards in place in every centre to ensure that the residents' rights are respected, particularly in respect of sexual abuse and even mental health issues that arise?
Mr. Nick Henderson:
Those are serious problems and the testimony of everybody today has spelled that out plainly and clearly to all of us, ourselves included. The simple remoteness of some centres may make it difficult to access mainstream services, as has been well explained. Let us not forget that existing mental health services in Ireland are already stretched. GP lists may be full and one may have to travel to a GP. As Mr. Khambule explained, there have been several incidents of suicide and I can think of three within the past three years.
There are clearly deep problems and there is a framework for that to change. The law that was passed in June of last year states that the Minister for Health shall ensure that a recipient has access to emergency healthcare and such healthcare as is necessary for the treatment of serious illnesses and mental disorders. There is, therefore, a framework and a clear legal obligation on the State to ensure that people with such mental health problems are given proper assistance.
The two organisations here today and six other organisations released a statement last Sunday highlighting the fact that there is no vulnerability assessment procedure as required by that law in Ireland. In June, it will be 12 months since that law was passed. If there was a vulnerability assessment procedure, that would mean that if people were to arrive, they would be assessed and a determination would be made on what special reception needs they have such as if they have children and all the issues around children that Ms Vuma has explained, if they have health needs and if it is appropriate that they are accommodated in somewhere such as Knockalisheen. That has not happened and that is a clear absence of, gap in or non-implementation of law and that is seriously problematic.
I want to thank the witnesses all so much. I hope they never give up the fight to abolish direct provision centres. We will do everything and by the way we have a great Chairman to whom I want to pay credit. We will do our best to highlight the issues that the witnesses have given us information on. I appreciate their honesty. It has been an unbelievable eye-opener for me and I thought I had a fair idea of the injustice that is going on here but the detail the witnesses have given us is important and I thank them so much.
I reiterate everyone's gratitude for the presentation. It has been a tough meeting. I have been a member of this committee for almost three years and Mr. Sibanda made probably one of the most insightful and thoughtful contributions I have heard to it. To then see him in the condition he is in now and to hear some of these stories is a bit of a wake-up call and a dose of reality for us. My view on direct provision is not much good to the witnesses because they are living it and they articulated the experience of that vividly today.
I am not as kind as my colleague, Senator Black. The Government party is not represented here today because it does not care. It knows full well what the situation is in direct provision because this is not the first meeting about this. These meetings, presentations and engagements have happened consistently over a long number of years and, therefore, we need to consider a dose of unfortunate reality as we move forward collectively. There are people in society and in government who think it is okay to lock people away in direct provision, who put the interests of private companies ahead of human beings and who think the culture that prevailed, as Senator Black said, during the period of the Magdalen laundries is okay now because we are not doing this to Irish people, even though the same Government oversees children who are born here sleeping in hotel rooms.
That is a culture we have to acknowledge before we hopefully get to the stage where direct provision is abolished. That is a sad and unfortunate fact of Irish life that we need to challenge. The committee's report could and probably should comprise the transcript of this meeting. That is not to take away from any other contributors but the most important people in all of this who need to be heard are those living in direct provision.
The Chairman, whom Senator Black rightly acknowledged we are lucky to have in this regard, will lead a delegation from the committee to visit a number of direct provision centres next month. I do not mean to be facetious about this but I remember when inspectors visited my school we were told to buck up our ideas, tidy up and put on a good show, so I ask the witnesses to be as frank as they can and to tell us what we should look out for and what questions we should ask. I am sure their contributions will inform those of us who are going on that trip. If there are any specifics that we should look out for and ask about on the day then the witnesses can be sure and certain that we will ask them but if there is anything beyond what they have said this morning, please let us know.
I do not want to come across as too negative. I always go in hope. One of the staff in my office always says to light a candle as opposed to curse the dark. We can get to a point where we get rid of this stain on society. This is how we are treating people as a nation of emigrants for generations, who went all over the world seeking refuge and seeking support. It is a great shame and the message from this meeting is that when people are trying to exploit fear, ignorance and hatred, we are duty bound to help to inform people about what our fellow human beings are going through and to shine a light on what is happening in direct provision.
I am grateful to the witnesses for taking the opportunity to come here. I wish we could do more and I wish I could give them the answer today. Members will do their best. We are up against it and the witnesses are up against it to address a political culture that thinks it is okay to do this. That is the greatest shame.
I reiterate the point that Senator Ó Donnghaile has made. Subsequent to this engagement with the IRC or MASI, I would like to submit some suggested points that we should look out for or that we should raise. The contributions of the witnesses have been significant and informative and they have helped greatly in the preparation of what we intend to do but something else may occur subsequently.
I am opening up the opportunity, through the clerk, for the delegates to furnish us with particular points. We would welcome that. Senator Lawless is very welcome this morning.
Mr. Lucky Khambule:
On Senator Ó Donnghaile's comment, I am glad he has this idea of visiting the centres, which is very important. He said some people are obviously happy with the status quo. If I had a hotel standing for two years and I was not getting any money from it, and if, with the arrival of people seeking protection, the Department of Justice and Equality gives me the opportunity to use that hotel and suddenly my account is on the plus side and going, I would be very happy.
Unfortunately, that is not the way it will unfold but we will keep our eyes wide open and be conscious. As is the case for a school inspector, everything will be bright and shiny on the day-----
Ms Rosemary Kunene:
-----or members of the local community working with the residents. The manager of the centre I am in will say everything is perfect and well, but things are not okay. One will be shown the kitchen and people cooking but, in the centre I am in, mothers are struggling to cook their meals because they have got small babies they cannot bring into the kitchen. By the time they find someone to mind their babies, the kitchen is closed. If one visits during the day, one finds the kitchen is functional and one will have the impression that everyone is cooking.
If one visits, one will be told the centre provides transport, but our transport is being provided by the private sector also. Therefore, we have to beg. We try to keep active as much as we can. I tried to register a couple of people for the upcoming local elections. The vote is one of the only rights we have and we need to use it. We register the people and ask for a bus to take us to vote. I was told the bus would pick people up at 10 a.m., leave them at the polling station and pick them up at 11 a.m. The polling station is less than ten minutes away. Emo is not a busy place so one can vote quickly and come out within five minutes. Therefore, people have to wait for 40 minutes. I asked one of the employers why the bus was not sent at about 11 a.m. and sent again to pick people up around 11.30 a.m. The response is that the centre is not obliged to provide the transport and is just doing people a favour. I was upset and made a point about treatment. I said that if transport is provided as it was, no one will want to get on a bus, and the staff will say people do not want to be active.
Asylum seekers cannot be integrated because they are not legal in the country, but they are staying in the system for five years. It would make sense if they were in it for only a year.
I thank Ms Kunene. It leaves me with nothing further to do this afternoon but to thank very sincerely Mr. Henderson and Ms Hennigan from the Irish Refugee Council. They have been with us before. I thank Mr. Khambule, Mr. Mfaco, Ms Vuma, Ms Ndlovu, Ms Kunene, Mr. Sibanda and Ms Leonard. Ms Leonard had an opportunity to be quiet this morning but she was well represented in all the contributions we heard. We thank the witnesses and wish them peace and success in their lives. Those of us here are very much part of what we are proud to describe as "Ireland of the welcomes". We believe it, and we want to live that with the witnesses.
I thank my committee colleagues for their participation today. I invite all the delegates for a group photograph outside as a record of our morning's work. We hope to have them back when we finally publish our report some time in the autumn.