I first met Mohammed, a thirty-year-old Syrian asylum-seeker, at Bewley’s café on Grafton Street in late October last year. During our first conversation he spoke quietly, in nervous bursts, seemingly on the verge of tears, especially when the subject was his family back home. I asked if I could record the conversation; he said he would rather I didn’t. When he saw me taking notes he hesitated to speak.
Mohammed came to Ireland in 2008, fearing for his safety in Syria. Friends of his had been arrested and beaten, he told me, owing to their opposition to the regime; they had on occasion challenged security forces and government representatives in public. His initial application for refugee status was refused and his subsequent appeal was denied almost a year later. Since then, he had been waiting to find out whether he would be deported back to Syria or granted a form of ‘subsidiary protection’ in Ireland.
‘They took me to the camp first,’ he told me. For a moment I was confused, wondering whether he meant a refugee camp in Syria or elsewhere; but it turned out that he was referring to Balseskin Reception Centre, in Finglas. The centre is hidden away off a narrow lane near the M50. The bleak rows of prefabs have capacity for 380 residents. Under Ireland’s system of ‘direct provision’, Balseskin is usually the first place asylum-seekers are sent to; most are transferred elsewhere within a year. Mohammed spent six months in Balseskin before being transferred to a centre in Newbridge, Co. Kildare, and then, in 2010, at his own request, to Hatch Hall in the centre of Dublin.
After our second meeting in Bewley’s, during which he allowed me to record the conversation, Mohammed took me to see Hatch Hall, an imposing old red-brick building on Hatch Street Lower, near St Stephen’s Green. At the security desk I signed my name and logged the name of the resident I was visiting and the time. Inside, the building was a warren of clinical, utilitarian spaces. There were communal rooms sparsely furnished with church pews and shabby couches. Residents wandered along the corridors without making eye contact – a woman hurrying her kid along, a man hurrying from communal shower rooms, wrapped in a towel and carrying a bucket.
Mohammed’s room consisted of a wardrobe and a rickety metal-framed bunk bed; the other bunk was occupied by a young Sudanese man. He showed me the communal bathroom next door, from where there came a smell of piss. Mohammed was left with the choice of staying warm and living with the smell, or leaving the window open in cold weather.
As an asylum-seeker, Mohammed was living on a weekly state allowance of €19.10. He was provided three daily meals at Hatch Hall. For five years, from the age of twenty-five, he had not been allowed to work or study. If he were to leave his assigned accommodation for more than three nights his bed would be considered abandoned and he would lose his weekly allowance. He described his life as a ‘limbo’. He felt unable to integrate properly into society, frustrated and angered at seeing five years of his life pass while waiting for a decision on his application, having to share his room with strangers and not even allowed to cook his own meals. Outside the three set meal times, the door of the kitchen in Hatch Hall is locked.
‘Sometimes I feel like I want to kill myself,’ Mohammed told me. ‘I feel like I’m not a human being. I have no home.’ He was embarrassed to tell people he met that he lived in an asylum hostel, that he had no job, not even his own room. He wanted to settle down, have a family, but he admitted that if he was a father he wouldn’t want a daughter of his to become involved with a man in his situation.
Under the UN Refugee Convention, to qualify for refugee status an applicant must prove a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality or ‘membership of a particular social group or political opinion’. The Convention does not define how states should determine whether an individual meets the definition of a refugee, so each country has developed its own procedures. When applicants claim asylum in Ireland, they undergo an initial interview in which they must substantiate their fear of persecution. The initial interview is the basis for all future assessments of their case, despite often being conducted while an applicant is under emotional stress and lacking legal advice and adequate translation. Asylum-seekers in Ireland who do not meet the criteria for refugee status can be granted ‘subsidiary protection’ by the Minister for Justice and Equality if it is judged that, for reasons other than those that define a refugee, they face real risk of serious harm in returning to their country of origin. The Minister can also grant humanitarian leave to remain.
The system of ‘direct provision’ for asylum-seekers was established in 2000 as a response to a rapid increase in the number of asylum applications in Ireland. It is operated by the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA), which is part of the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (INIS), overseen by the Department of Justice. Between 2000 and 2010 the state paid €655 million to the private contractors that run most of the direct-provision centres. According to the RIA figures for May 2013, there are thirty-four direct-provision centres across Ireland, with capacity for 4,700 people. On its website the RIA describes these centres as ‘former hotels, guesthouses (B&B), hostels, former convents / nursing homes, a holiday camp and a mobile home site.’
The Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, has acknowledged that this system of institutionalized living, and the denial to applicants of the right to work or study, is intended to discourage people from seeking asylum in Ireland. By this criterion, the system has been effective. In 2000, there were 10,938 applications for asylum in Ireland. In 2011 the number was 1,250.
In March of this year, Ireland and Denmark were the only two member states to opt out of an EU directive on Reception Conditions, part of the Common European Asylum System which was completed under the Irish EU Presidency. The new directive provides that member states must give asylum-seekers permission to work if their case has not been decided after one year. Ireland abstained on the principle that the directive conflicted with Article 8 of the Constitution, which prevents asylum-seekers from entering employment. Denmark, for its part, has provided asylum-seekers the right to work through separate legislation, and many other EU member states already allowed asylum-seekers to work or study after a set period of time. Shatter warned that giving asylum-seekers the right to work in Ireland would lead to a dramatic rise in the number of asylum applications, citing a threefold increase in the average number of applications per month in Ireland after July 1999, when a work-permit scheme for asylum-seekers was briefly introduced.
Despite the dramatic drop in the number of applications, Ireland has one of the lowest acceptance rates for asylum in the EU. In 2011, only 5 per cent of applications adjudicated by the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner or the Refugee Appeals Tribunal were successful. The EU average for the same year was 11.6 per cent.
In all other EU member states, there is a single procedure by which asylum-seekers can present their claims and be granted the appropriate protection. In Ireland, the assessment procedures are separate and sequential. An applicant who might not meet the criteria for refugee status but who does qualify for subsidiary protection must first apply for refugee status and go through an exhaustive asylum appeals process, facing a number of refusals, before applying for subsidiary protection. This is one of the reasons why such a high proportion of people who seek asylum in Ireland end up in a protracted limbo like Mohammed’s. In April, the Irish Times reported that 36 per cent of the 4,755 people living in direct provision at the time had been waiting for more than five years; only 12 per cent had been waiting for under a year. In October of last year the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Gutteres, visited Ireland and emphasized the pressing need for a single assessment procedure to be introduced here.
After years of waiting for a decision and now with the added trauma of watching from afar as his country disintegrated into civil war, Mohammed told me more than once that he would prefer to return to Syria and die than remain in the limbo of direct provision in Ireland.
‘When I went to ask about my case they sent me a form for voluntary return,’ he said, remembering the time last year when he went to the INIS office in Dublin to ask if there had been any progress with his application. ‘That means shut your mouth, don’t talk.’ He had asked if he could at least have his Syrian passport returned. Applicants are required to surrender their national passports when seeking asylum in Ireland, and since entering the system his only official document of identity had been the Temporary Residence Certificate, a credit-card-sized piece of plastic issued to all asylum-seekers which bears their name and photo. On the back it says that the card ‘indicates that an individual claiming to be the person named on this Certificate has applied to be recognised as a refugee of the State’. One line later the small print reiterates that the card ‘does not certify or guarantee the identity of the person named’.
Mohammad was frustrated and disturbed by the daily news of rising death counts and further violence in Syria, and when the office offered him a form for voluntary return it felt like a threat. For months he was unable to contact his family. His doctor had advised him to stop following the news, which was keeping him awake through the night and making him feel helpless and desperate during the day. He didn’t know if his family had fled Syria as refugees, or even if they were still alive.
‘Sometimes I cry, I can’t do anything, I can’t go back, I don’t know about my family, I don’t know if they are alive, even my mum,’ he told me, his voice shaking, turning his face away. ‘They thought I was lying when I came here, but they can see what is happening in Syria now.’
When I contacted the UNHCR in October regarding the situation of Syrians applying for asylum in Ireland, they told me that during his visit to Dublin the High Commissioner had met with an individual from Syria who for a number of years had been awaiting a decision on his application for subsidiary protection. Coincidentally, that individual turned out to be Mohammed. During our first meeting, he laughed despairingly about how the UNHCR had invited him and other asylum-seekers to the lunch they were holding for the High Commissioner’s visit. Mohammed had previously contacted them for help with his case but says they told him there was nothing they could do. ‘Then they call saying we have a lunch; I said I don’t need food! When I got there I realized they need my help, I’m like a number for them to use.’
One day in November Mohammed called me, excitement in his voice for the first time. Alan Shatter had visited Hatch Hall and Mohammed had managed to speak to him personally. He had told him about his case, about the situation in Syria and the fact that the INIS had given him an application for voluntary return. Shatter, Mohammed said, had told him he would help, and had taken the letter the INIS had sent him advising him of the process of voluntary return. Mohammed was confident that his case would now be taken care of. A few weeks later he received a letter from the Minister’s office, a few sentences merely confirming that it was understood the applicant did not want to apply for voluntary return.
On St Patrick’s Day weekend I took the bus to Limerick to meet with Haider Altegani, an archaeologist from Darfur who has been living in direct provision since 2007. Haider had emailed me an article he hoped to publish about his experience as an asylum-seeker in Ireland.
‘People passed by me, no one asked me who I am or what I am doing here,’ Haider had written about his first impression of Ireland. ‘No police, no terror, no fight of horses and camels, no air craft and bombs from above, no weeping, no crying of children, just ordinary people minding their own business and having their ordinary problems.’
As Haider, a tall wiry man with dark skin, dressed in jeans and a jumper, walked towards the bus stop to meet me, a blue van with three men inside passed him. One of the men leaned out the passenger window and spat at him, shouting ‘blackie’ as the van drove away.
As we made our way to a nearby café he joked that he had seen more of Ireland than many Irish people. After an initial stay in Balseskin, Haider had lived in a hostel in Ennis for two years. He was transferred to Killarney in 2010, and after he issued a complaint to the management about the food there he was transferred to Cobh. ‘I’ve lost nearly five years of my life waiting,’ he said. ‘If you ask once about your rights they just transfer you.’
Haider was thirty years old when he arrived in Ireland; now he is thirty-six. He used to be the director of an archaeological museum in his home city of Nyala, the capital of South Darfur. In the summer of 2007 he travelled to London to take part in the British Museum’s international curatorial training programme. He visited Dublin that August. While he was here his family called with news that the person left in charge of the museum in Nyala had been detained and that his own name was now on a government blacklist. Haider’s relatives are leaders in the Justice and Equality Movement, an opposition group in Darfur that Haider was also active in. His wife and family urged him not to return to Sudan, saying nowhere in the country was safe for him. In a panic, he informed the Irish authorities of his situation and applied for asylum.
As evening fell we walked along the old Limerick docklands, piles of waste and scrap metal looming behind the brick walls. He told me how Limerick used to be ‘Dell city’ before the company left Ireland. He spoke of a recent anti-austerity march in Limerick and pointed out the castle where English troops retreated when an Irish rebel army took the city in 1642. He said he has tried his best to contribute, to learn about Ireland’s culture and history, even some words of Irish. During the week he volunteers at the Hunt Museum. There is not much difference, he told me, between the human remnants of the Mesolithic Age whether in the bogs of Ireland or by the Nile in Sudan.
We sat and talked in his single room in the male-only accommodation centre. There was a bed, a desk, a photo of his wife dressed for their wedding. Haider brought a plate of chips and fish fingers from the canteen, sprinkled with some chilli powder. He said there is hardly any variety in the food served and many people have become sick from eating it. ‘There’s different kind of food outside, you love it, but there isn’t any money to buy it. It’s just a dream to buy it.’
Most of the residents eat alone in their rooms. When they talk the focus is on the difficulties they have in common. ‘We just think about the same situation, we talk about it, depression grows again,’ Haider said.
Allan, a thirty-seven-year-old with a smooth voice who studied hospitality before the war broke out in southern Sudan, joined us in the single room. He sat with Haider on the bed facing me at the small desk. In 2001, as the violence of the Second Sudanese Civil War continued, Allan told me, he felt forced to abandon his studies and flee. He paid an agent to help him travel abroad to seek asylum and was sent to Ireland, not knowing anything about the country. After his application for refugee status was denied in 2001, Allan left the system, ‘working and surviving’, as he puts it, for around six years, out of a fear of being deported to Sudan. Cash-in-hand jobs were easier to find back then. As work became scarce, Allan was left living illegally with no income, ending up in a homeless shelter for two months before reapplying for asylum in 2009.
‘If I knew what I know now I wouldn’t have bothered leaving. It is terrible here, the system, they want to make sure that you give up and go home,’ he said. ‘You’re trapped in, they’re waiting for you to make a mistake so you can get a deportation or go to jail.’
When he lived in direct-provision accommodation in Cobh, which he described as a ‘small town full of lots of racists’, people would throw eggs at the building, and sometimes spat at him in the street. In an all-male hostel in Foynes, he told me, there were daily fights between residents and management. Once he tried to complain to the chef about the lack of vegetables with dinner, and the management called the gardaí. ‘Eating the same thing every day, it’s like a psychological torture. You get angry, you confront them, before you know it the gardaí are called,’ he laughed.
Haider told me about a train ride he took from Ennis to Dublin. An Irish woman who ran a café in Ennis sat opposite him and said she recognized him from around town. She asked him about Sudan, told him she planned to go to Zimbabwe in the summer. They spoke about historical sites and scenic places in Ireland. She asked for his number and they exchanged contact details, having talked for almost three hours. When they reached Dublin she suggested meeting the next day for a coffee. At the last moment, as he went to take the Luas and she a taxi, she asked him where in Ennis he was living.
‘I say that I’m living in Clare Lodge, asylum accommodation,’ Haider said. ‘Then she opened her eyes. The name of that place is famous because they know it’s a place in the city centre, black people, with bad habits. That’s the mentality.’ He never heard from her again.
On 23 April, as part of a ‘day of action’ organized by the Irish Refugee Council, an NGO, a few hundred people gathered at Leinster House and walked around St Stephen’s Green to the steps of the Department of Justice to demand an end to the direct provision system. A group of school children living in direct provision gathered around the former Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness, a patron of the IRC since 2011. McGuinness spoke of ‘the abuses and harms inflicted on vulnerable people in Ireland’s past in unregulated, poorly monitored institutions where profit was valued over humanity’ and said direct provision was continuing that legacy.
As an alternative to the current system, the IRC is proposing a reception system which supports asylum-seekers in their first months and would move applicants to self-catered accommodation with the right to work after six months if their application was still being processed. It is also calling on the government to sign the EU directive on reception conditions.
Minah, a slight but outspoken thirteen-year-old, told me she has lived in Ireland for seven years, after coming here from Pakistan with her family. They live in a mobile home in the Lissywollen accommodation centre in Athlone. ‘It’s terrible – it’s really cramped together and I can’t play,’ she said.
Beatrice, a young woman from Kenya living in direct provision in Ireland for five years, married with a one-year-old child, said what is unbearable is the waiting. ‘People are just sitting in a camp waiting for years. Even a criminal knows my sentence is for seven years and after good behaviour I’ll be out before – we don’t even have that. How can we wait for a simple answer yes or no for years and years?’ She said conditions in the hostels were often cramped and unsanitary and the whole system was shrouded in secrecy.
She spoke warmly of Anti-Deportation Ireland, which she called ‘our own organization’. At an ADI meeting earlier in the month at the Dublin Central Mission Church on Abbey Street, the organization’s founder, Luke Bukha, had spoken to me about the great mistrust and fear among many asylum-seekers living in direct provision. Members of ADI were afraid to have meetings openly in the accommodation centres; one woman suggested that night that they pretend to be a drama group so as to avoid suspicion.
The bus from Parnell Street drops you at the Mosney Cross junction, pulling over on a grassy verge on the main road just off the M1 before speeding off towards Bettystown. I followed a woman and her young daughter down a road lined with large detached houses and cows mulling over summer grass. Judging from the colour of their skin and where they’d disembarked, I guessed the mother and daughter were residents of the old Butlins Holiday Centre, now home to seven hundred asylum-seekers, the biggest direct-provision centre in the country. I followed them there.
After I signed in at the security office, Yamina met me with her three young sons at her side. Yamina’s long hair was covered by a simple black hijab; she spoke warmly and with a slight Dublin accent. We walked to the end of the tree-lined road which runs between the rows of two-storey cottages. Children played in the grass between the road and the houses, riding on tricycles and bicycles. Yamina’s cottage was one of the last. The kids stayed outside to play while we went inside to talk in the small living room, Yamina by the window so she could keep an eye on her boys.
She came to Ireland from Oran, Algeria, in 2009, living in Balseskin for six months before being relocated to Mosney. She fled Algeria, where her parents still live, in order to escape her husband, who she says was involved in terrorist activities and transporting drugs. She travelled first to the UK and came to Ireland after an Irish man she knew from Algeria and his family living in Balbriggan encouraged her to take the ferry to Dublin. She knew nothing about the process of seeking asylum at the time.
Her youngest son, Marwane, is two and a half, born here in Ireland. His father is also an asylum-seeker, but Yamina told me she couldn’t sustain the relationship amid the stress of living within the asylum system and caring for three boys. They split up, and the father lives in a different accommodation centre. When Marwane was only a few months old, he contracted an E. coli infection which severely damaged his kidneys, and since then he has been on daily antibiotics, the fever returning if he stops the medication. His older brother Zohir, now four years old, had recently suffered a bacterial infection that damaged his pancreas, causing him to develop type 1 diabetes.
Every weekday Yamina takes Zohir to playschool in Balbriggan. He used to go to the playschool provided in Mosney, but she says the people running the nursery would often give Zohir sweets and not stick to his regimented meal times, despite knowing he is diabetic. In the mornings she gets the Mosney bus to the junction at the main road, but on the way back she walks.
From her €19.10 a week and €9.60 each for her sons, she has to pay for her eldest son, Djamal, to take the bus to Drogheda every day for school; for the playschool for Zohir; for the family’s medication. Even something as basic as nappies is a difficult expense to cover.
She fought the management to send Djamal to a school of her choosing, a Gaelscoil in Drogheda. She wanted him to go to an Irish school or an Educate Together school, she says, so he could integrate with children outside of Mosney.
‘Sometimes Djamal asks me, why do we live in Mosney?’, she said. ‘He asks why we don’t cook, why do we have to go to the canteen? He says his friends today they are going here and there, he says why can’t I go. I want to go to birthday party, I want to do my birthday party. Some questions I can’t answer. I couldn’t even have a birthday party for him … it costs …’ She laughed nervously at the daily struggle.
Down the road from Yamina’s home, Reuben stood outside an almost identical cottage, adding fresh dark soil to a planting box green with the leaves of rapeseed plants. His four-year-old daughter and ten-month-old son played beside him. He told me the tender rapeseed leaves are a delicacy in his native Zimbabwe, cooked like spinach with onions and chicken.
I’d first met Reuben at the meeting of Anti-Deportation Ireland in April. He was proposing a community initiative in the direct-provision hostels to stop unjust deportations through direct action, surrounding the vans holding hands or even lying on the ground in front of the wheels. Recently he had been working with the Irish Refugee Council’s campaign against the direct-provision system, helping gather signatures for a petition to Minister Shatter. Many Irish people have shown great support for the campaign, he said, but those who don’t understand the effects of the system have no interest in understanding. ‘They say just keep them there, the asylum-seekers, we don’t have jobs here now, send them back, send them back to Africa, we don’t need them here in Ireland,’ he told me.
‘Many people say, you lived on less than one dollar a day, you came from a place where you didn’t have a bathroom or a toilet in the house, so you have a better deal here, whatever the situation here,’ he said almost laughing. ‘That’s a lie – because I came from a better situation!’
In his native Zimbabwe, Reuben had been a branch manager in a large retail chain selling computers and mobile phones and had an upmarket three-storey house with a swimming pool. His never had to think about money. Now sometimes he has to choose the more urgent of two medical prescriptions because he can’t afford the extra €1.50 for both.
Political unrest forced him to flee the country eight years ago. He was a trade unionist and had been involved in anti-government protests. ‘I lost my tooth because of that; I was attacked by people who didn’t want people like us. But it wouldn’t stop me talking!’ he laughed.
After eight years living in direct provision he was fed up with the system, feeling it had denied him important years of his life, time in which he could have earned a Master’s or progressed a career. He leaned towards me and looked me in the eye and told me quietly that he wanted to tell the Minister exactly how it feels to be in his shoes. The worst thing about the direct provision system, he said, is the feeling of being powerless. It overwhelms you and you can do nothing to change it. ‘I am in the same boat as my four-year-old daughter,’ he said. ‘All I can do is jump and shout, I can do nothing but wait.’
The impact on his three children is what haunts him most. It hit him particularly hard one day when the family of one of his daughter’s school friends ‘got their papers’ declaring their asylum application accepted. The girl’s mother had been at Reuben’s house helping his wife when the father came to tell her the good news.
The next day at the crèche, the young girl had told Reuben’s daughter how she was leaving to go to a big house and all the things her mummy said she would do when they got their papers were going to come true. On the walk home Reuben’s daughter said to him, ‘Do you know Sharon told me we don’t pray enough and that’s why we don’t get our papers? Daddy, we should pray and pray and pray so that our papers will come.’ She prays every day now that the family will not be deported, that they will get their papers.
When a friend stopped coming to school for three days after her father was deported, Reuben’s eight-year-old daughter asked him why did they take her friend’s father, and would they be next.
Late in the evening on the 25th of June, a Wednesday, I got a call from Mohammed. In an urgent tone he said he had to tell me something but made me promise not to tell anyone for the moment, almost afraid the news was too good to be true. Then he shouted, ‘I got my papers!’ He sounded like a convicted man just proved innocent, stumbling over his words in excitement. ‘Really, I can’t believe it, now I can get a home!’ He had been waiting for this moment for five years.
A month earlier, he had finally been able to contact his brother, who had escaped first to Lebanon, then fled again to Egypt after he was attacked with a knife for being Syrian by a Lebanese co-worker on a building site. His mother and the rest of his family had fled to Turkey but then returned to their homes in Lattakia, unable to face living in a refugee camp. One of his brothers, he found out, had been missing for months. The family feared he was imprisoned or dead.
‘Five years, I can’t believe it. I never thought it would happen. Everything is going to change now, Caelainn,’ he kept repeating when I met him the next day at the Bailey off Grafton Street, sipping his coffee slowly outside under the awning. He was with Hasina, a translator from Algeria; they had met in his first week at Balseskin and had become friends. He showed me the papers they had issued him with his photo printed at the top, advising him that the Minister for Justice and Equality ‘has determined that you are a person eligible for subsidiary protection’. The document did not explain why Mohammed, after five years of waiting, had finally been granted this status, but presumably the catastrophic violence in Syria is the reason.
The document stated that he was allowed to remain in Ireland for another three years. At the end of the three years he will have to apply to renew his status and will be eligible to apply for citizenship. He now had the right to rent a home, to find a job, to further his education. He now had the same rights to social welfare and freedom of movement as any Irish citizen.
We walked to the offices of the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service on Burgh Quay. I sat on a bench along with others waiting for their numbers to be called while Mohammed and Hasina stood at the panelled glass window registering for his new identity card. Most of the men behind the glass wore hoodies and stared idly at their screens. They gave the impression that they summoned people when the mood took them.
Eventually Mohammed was told to come back in half an hour. The three of us strolled down the quays, joking that he could now enjoy the sites of Dublin, learn to enjoy living here. I took a photo of him in the sunshine, with the Samuel Beckett Bridge arching behind him. When we returned to the INIS office Mohammed had his fingerprints taken and was finally issued his official identity card.
Mohammad and I walked back to Hatch Hall along the same route we had taken nine months before, the first time I saw a direct provision centre. The red brick looked warm in the wavering sunshine and kids were playing on the swings in the courtyard. I joined him in the canteen where he had eaten his dinner almost every night for the past few years. The kids’ meal on the chalkboard was ‘beef burger and bun’. We shared a chicken and fish stew with fried potatoes and rice, tinned pears for dessert and a bright pink cordial drink.
He had his new ID card on the table and kept picking it up to look at it. I told him tomorrow would be the first day of a new life, and he smiled nervously. ‘It’s been so long, I don’t know what to do now.’
To read the rest of Dublin Review 52, you may purchase the issue here.