LIVING AS AN ASYLUM SEEKER OR REFUGEE IN IRELAND

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February 2022 has been designated Refugee Month in the Dublin Unitarian Church, and the proceeds of collections in that month will go to the work of the church’s Unitarian Refugee Welcome Committee (for donations see bank and Go Fund Me details at end of article). Andy Pollak gives some background information on refugees in Ireland (also see note about definitions at the end of the article).

Until the mid-1990s the number of refugees arriving in Ireland was tiny. However, as the Celtic Tiger started to boom in that decade, our new international reputation attracted increasing numbers of asylum seekers. From a base year of 1992 (when there were 39 asylum applications), by 2000 their numbers had grown to nearly 10,400; two years later they would reach 11,634. That was a record year for asylum applications in the Republic over the past 22 years. The figure was down to 3,762 in 2019 and 1,566 in 2020 – the latter figure significantly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.
          The politicians and officials in the Department of Justice in Dublin back in 2000 were spooked, believing they were facing into a flood of people coming to look for work and/or claim social benefits in Europe's fastest growing economy. Something needed to be done fast and they came up with what was to become known (and notorious) as the Direct Provision system. This involved mainly privately-owned and therefore profit-making accommodation centres in unused – and sometimes rundown - hotels, hostels, holiday camps and caravan parks. The intention, said the government, was that this would be a temporary solution. By the end of 2001 there were 62 Direct Provision centres in 21 counties and they were here to stay. In the following 20 years the countries from which the largest numbers of their residents would come were Nigeria, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of Congo, Albania and Georgia.
          Here these unfortunate newcomers were put up on a ‘full board’ basis with canteen meals of basic Irish food served at fixed times and no self-catering kitchen facilities. Families with children would usually have to share a room and single people with strangers. The centres ranged from the truly appalling – for example, Mount Trenchard in Co Limerick, where (before it was closed in recent years) there were six-eight occupants to a room (it was nicknamed Guantanamo by its residents) – to the relatively private and comfortable – for example, the old Mosney holiday camp in Co Meath, where the former holiday chalets allowed for ‘own door’ accommodation.
          For living expenses, adults received a weekly payment of €19.10 and children of €9.60 per week. These tiny amounts of pocket money made it virtually impossible for residents to go out into the surrounding community to mix and socialise in any real way. They have since been increased and now stand at €38.80 for adults and €29.80 for children. For these asylum seekers, many of them already traumatised by war, refugee camps and extremely difficult journeys to Ireland, and some of them stuck in centres in remote villages or countryside, the result of their marginalisation was, not surprisingly, loneliness, depression and mental illness.
          The original plan envisaged that people would have to stay in these centres for only six months. However by 2010 some people had been there for up to 8-10 years. Things have improved considerably in recent years and the waiting times to process asylum applications have shortened. However there are still around 300 asylum seekers waiting five years or more to be processed.
          In 2018, as the number of asylum seekers started to rise again after a decade of relatively low numbers, the Department of Justice began to rely on so-called emergency centres in Bed and Breakfast and hostel accommodation with owners who had little or no experience of asylum seekers. At the end of 2019, there were over 6,000 people living in 39 Direct Provision centres and another 1,500 in usually much smaller and even more ill-equipped emergency centres. 8,700 people – both in such centres and living in the community – were still awaiting a decision on their asylum claims. The Covid emergency has not reduced any of these numbers. The total number of people who have passed through the asylum process in the Republic of Ireland is now over 70,000.
          Public sentiment towards these people has varied. In some of the out-of-the-way places where they have been sent – for example Ballaghaderreen in Co Roscommon and Lisdoonvarna in Co Clare – they have been warmly welcomed and local support groups have been set up. In others – such as Oughterard in Co Galway and Achill Island in Co Mayo – local people have mobilised (sometimes egged on by far-right groups) to oppose their relocation to their villages.
          As you can imagine, life in this strange and faraway country – which until recent years was overwhelmingly white, Catholic and monocultural - is not easy for these people. My daughter Sorcha Pollak, who writes about migration for the Irish Times, contributes a weekly column called ‘New to the Parish’ about people from overseas who come to live in Ireland – among them refugees and asylum seekers.
          In a recent column Sorcha wrote about a young South African woman – a former bank worker – called Tumi Gaonwe who arrived in Ireland with her two young sons and spent six months in emergency accommodation in a hotel in Bray, Co Wicklow. In the hotel they had to eat their evening meal at 5 pm and to use a separate entrance from the hotel's other guests. “To be honest it felt so humiliating,” she said. “It felt like we are not human beings, we are nobodies.”
          With no guidance on where to enrol her sons at school, Gaonwe turned to a local refugee support group for help. However, just days before the boys were due to start, the family was transferred to another emergency accommodation centre, in Courtown, Co Wexford. Here they found they were in a rundown former hotel. The situation became more difficult when Gaonwe argued with the owners – two local farmers - about the centre’s poor living conditions. “My kids could see me crying”, she said. “At some point we were even scared to leave the room. Emergency accommodation is not a good thing. They don’t care about people’s feelings; the only thing they care about is money in their pocket.”
          Until a Supreme Court ruling in 2017 declaring this unconstitutional, asylum seekers did not have the right to work, a situation almost unique in Europe. Even after that ruling, very restrictive government rules limiting the professions open to them, initially meant that few were actually able to find jobs. In recent years these restrictions have been relaxed, so that now they can seek employment in most sectors.
          So-called ‘programme refugees’ are in a more fortunate position. As part of an agreement with other EU countries Ireland agreed in 2015 to take 4,000 Syrian refugees in camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Greece. By 2019 3,800 of these had arrived. After the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan last August, Ireland issued visas for 530 Afghan refugees to come here; another 500 who are relatives of Afghans who are already living here will be allowed in under a separate programme. To put this in context, neighbouring Iran has 780,000 registered Afghan refugees.
          Programme refugees are relocated to reception centres in places like Roscommon and Laois, and eventually are helped – more by local people than by any government agency – to integrate into their Irish communities. For example in Laois, community groups and churches organised a wide range of integration initiatives: a drop-in clinic, cafe befriending, language and children’s homework support, an intercultural women's group, job skills training, family advocacy, and the local people and the newcomers celebrating key Muslim festivals together.
          Another initiative to support such programme refugees is the Community Sponsorship Scheme, based on a successful Canadian model, which sees community and church groups, including this church, pledging to support incoming refugees for two years, including finding them accommodation, schools for their children and help in accessing government welfare and other services. Our Community Sponsorship group – the Unitarian Refugee Welcome Committee - have found a house for a family from South Sudan and are currently sponsoring a young woman refugee from Afghanistan.
          Now there is some hope that the wretched Direct Provision system may be on the way out. A year ago the Green Minister in charge of children and integration, Roderick O'Gorman, unveiled a White Paper which proposed a transition to a two stage asylum accommodation system, with an initial four month period in one of six state-owned reception centres where asylum seekers would receive assistance with health, education, childcare, and learning English. They would then move to the second stage: social housing to be provided by housing associations or rented accommodation provided by local authorities and private landlords. This praiseworthy if ambitious scheme is supposed to be up and running by December 2024.

There are two terms which need to be defined. When I refer to a refugee, I mean one of two things: a person who is recognised as a refugee under the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees, or (more likely) someone who has come to Ireland from a war zone or other place where they are endangered or persecuted as part of an official UN or EU-sponsored programme.
          An asylum seeker is someone who arrives in Ireland on their own initiative and seeks to be recognised as a refugee in accordance with that 1951 Convention.

Bank details:
Account name: Unitarian Refugee Welcome Committee
Bank of Ireland Montrose
Account number 84435967
IBAN IE71 BOFI 9013 5184 4359 67

Go Fund Me link: https://gofund.me/3aff5804

Andy Pollak
Dublin Unitarian Church


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