Most of us will spend this Christmas welcoming family members, exchanging extravagant gifts and eating our way through an abundance of freshly-cooked food. However, for some 226 people living in Knockalisheen Accommodation Centre, the holiday season will be very different.
The centre, located near Moyross, was established as part of a system of ‘direct provisioning’ formed in 2000 in response to increased numbers of asylum-seekers entering the country. According to the Department of Justice, the term refers to “a means of meeting the basic needs of food and shelter for asylum seekers directly while their claims for refugee status are being processed rather than through full cash payments.”
Many of the people who live in the centre have been there for years, awaiting a decision on their status, i.e. if they’re allowed to stay or not. Typically, a person claims asylum at the port of entry (usually Dublin airport) and are then accommodated in a reception centre in Baleskin, Dublin, for a period of six weeks to four months, before being ‘dispersed’ to one of the 31 direct provisioning centres in Ireland (there are four in Limerick). The locations are randomly allocated, according to beds available, but residents can request a transfer at a later date.
Migrants in Limerick and the Mid-West region are supported by Doras Luimní, an independent, non-profit organisation. Leonie Kerins, Chief Executive Officer, explained the role of the charity to Limerick Life.
“Initially we provided a welcome to these people,” she said. “Then we began to give English language classes, then we expanded to include a legal service, to assist with asylum applications, family reunification and appeals. If they are granted leave to stay, we help with access to employment, education and housing.”
When asked how long residents stay in these direct provisioning centres, she answered: “The average is four years, but we work with people in the system for up to ten years.”
Who Are the Asylum Seekers?
The duration of the application process can depend on the nature of the claim for asylum. For example, many of those arriving from Syria and Afghanistan are processed relatively quickly, as their cases can be more straightforward. “There is often a direct correlation between applicant numbers or places of origin and world events,” Kerins said. “But there are people from 100 countries currently living in direct provisioning centres.”
The five most common countries of origin this year were Pakistan, Albania, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Syria, but the majority of current residents (53.1%) are from the continent of Africa.
According to the RIA (Reception and Integration Agency), the applications for asylum in 2017 (up to October) totalled 2,323. This is down from a high of 11,634 in 2002.
“We’re currently looking at a refusal rate of approximately 90%,” Kerins explained. “The situation is getting better, though, as there has been a lot of training recently to bring standards up.”
There are 59,406 total residents under the care of the RIA in Ireland, whether in reception, accommodation or self-catering centres. Residents of the centres in Limerick represent 0.11 percent of the county’s population, and nationally, they make up just 0.004 percent of the overall population of Ireland.
The majority of applicants are single, young men aged 26 to 35. Single males make up 34.4 percent of residents in direct provision, compared to 20.3 percent who are women with a child, and single women, who account for 7 percent.
The Day-to-Day Experience
The residents of centres like Knockalisheen receive a small weekly stipend. Prior to this year, the figure hadn’t changed in 16 years, but there was a small increase in 2017. Adults now also receive €21.60 each week, an increase of €2.50. The children’s allowance paid to resident parents was raised in 2017 from €15.60 to €21.60. The cost of this for the full year will be €770,000.
Aside from this, residents receive meals, basic toiletries, laundry, child education, light, heat, tv and medical cards, back to school allowances and a Christmas ‘bonus’. Figures released in 2015 estimated the daily cost of state-owned facilities like as Knockalisheen to be €15.50 per person.
Life in the Knockalisheen is monotonous: residents are not allowed to cook and there are no cooking facilities, despite recommendations that these be installed. Food is normally handled by Aramark. There are currently two self-catering centres, but these are located in Dublin and Louth.
The inability to cook can be a problem, particularly during times of celebration.
“Religious holidays are occasions rooted in many residents’ cultures. Eid is a hugely important food-based celebration [for Muslims] but there are no clear regulations in that respect.” That said, staff do sometimes try to accommodate special occasions. “Some managers go above and beyond for their residents to make a very difficult situation normal,” Kerins said.
Residents are also not allowed to earn money, though the Government recently announced it would opt in to an EU law which will allow asylum seekers to work if they do not receive a decision on their application within nine months.
Primary and secondary education is provided, but third level represents a serious challenge, as residents are liable for full fees, but are still forbidden to work. Often the line stops at the Leaving Cert, and life can be particularly difficult for residents during the years spent outside of education.
A small educational fund is available to assist with course fees. More than 50 people in the last two years have gone to LCFE for further education and training. Small numbers go on to university, but they are entirely reliant on donation and philanthropic efforts.
Last year, Limerick Life spoke to former Knockalisheen resident Anna Kern, who achieved 575 points in her Leaving Cert, despite having only been in the country for two years (she is originally from the Ukraine). She worked extremely hard, studying every evening in the one room allocated to her and mother and sister. Despite these challenges, she gained enough points to gain entry to the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland (RCSI), but then faced tuition fees of €17,000. She was eventually able to attend the RCSI due to generous fee waivers and subsidies.
“Her case is not unusual,” Aideen says. “We see a huge amount of motivation and drive among young asylum seekers. They want to make something of themselves – they’ve given up so much to get here, they are going to succeed.”
Another young woman living in Direct Provisioning achieved similar results the year before, and was eventually supported in her education through donations. What makes these achievements all the more remarkable is that whole families often have to share a room, so these young people “could be doing their homework in the bathroom.”
Refugee issues are no longer hidden, with the international media closely following the current crisis in the Middle East. Advocacy work and campaigns have always existed, but in the past three years, real awareness has grown and there has been an acknowledgement of issues from the government.
Sarah (not her real name) is a mother of two from Zimbabwe. She and her children have lived in direct provisioning in Knockalisheen, Co. Clare for two and a half years, having spent their first month in Ireland housed in Balseskin reception centre.
“It’s been challenging, a big adjustment from a normal life to an institutionalised one. As a grown-up, you’re used to certain freedoms: simple things like choosing your own time to eat or leave your home,” Sarah said. She is one of the luckier ones, as her family have the use of three rooms.
One of the bigger challenges Sarah faces is the legal process: “When you get here, you have to answer a long questionnaire that’ll form the basis of your application. But you have to complete it within two weeks, and usually without legal advice, so it can be a challenge for some people.” With limited access to the state-provided solicitor, she finds the services of Doras Luimní very useful.
When asked how she finds Christmas at the centre, she answered “Gloomy and lonely.” But the centres do make an effort.
“Santa comes early in the day, and the children are allowed to choose their present. That’s the highlight of the day.”
Residents in direct provision receive a small Christmas bonus each year. Sarah has a simple plan for hers: “I’ll buy snacks to supplement the dinner. The canteen staff will probably serve the food early, and if you eat your plate at 4pm, that’s it for the day.”
“We go to the canteen, and then back to our rooms, and then out to the canteen again. That’s the routine for the day, every day.”
“I want to go to university and study psychology,” she says. “My kids love school – it’s their favourite place on earth. It’s represents a normal situation for them, they hate the holidays because they can’t see their friends and be part of a normal situation.”
Some days, Sarah will bring the children into town, but that in itself can be a challenge. “The bus goes to town two or three times a day, so there’s a lot of hanging around in town in between.” Her weekly stipend would barely cover lunch for two with coffees in the city.
When asked how she fills her days, she says “I do a lot of volunteering, trying to get things done. Most people get up for breakfast, then go back to their room. Thursday and Friday are exciting days as the cheques arrive, so we’ll often go into town to pick up the necessities, but mostly we’ll spend the day window-shopping or going to the little café in Doras Luimní – that’s a lifesaver.”
Sarah received an invitation for the holiday season, but there are no buses at Christmas, and a taxi from Knockalisheen is prohibitively expensive, so she’s trying to figure out the logistics. She has made firm friends in the city since her arrival over two years ago.
“Limerick is a welcoming place; everyone has been very warm and supportive. It was intimidating at first, but once people started talking to us and getting to know us, they can see we’re no different to them.” Sarah has family remaining in Zimbabwe, but for her, Ireland is her only home now. “I’m attached to Limerick,” Sarah says. “There’s nowhere else I’d go.”
Doras Luimní has always accepted donations and gifts destined for the residents of the Direct Provisioning centres, but this year they are appealing for donations of mobile phone credit. This is vital for maintaining communication with family members abroad. Doras is asking for €10 phone credit vouchers for 3 Mobile or Lycamobile and is also accepting donations on its website at dorasluimni.org. The appeal runs until 21 December.