Who lives here belongs here

Rónán Burtenshaw


Painting: Our Place on Earth by Anthony Hackett

Rónán Burtenshaw talks to Anti-Deportation Ireland about the challenges facing asylum seekers in Ireland and their campaign to organise migrants to be at the forefront of the struggle against injustice.

I met the activists from Anti-Deportation Ireland (ADI) at a small art exhibition in south inner-city Dublin. Showcasing the paintings of local artist Anthony Hackett, “Beyond Borders” had a clear and articulate political message. It displayed images that were at once particular and universal – showing diverse faces in scenes that felt as though they could be anywhere.

The exhibit was opened by Luke Bukha, a Zimbabwean anti-racist activist in Ireland who was involved in the establishment of ADI back in January. He spoke to me afterwards with his colleagues Alessandro Zagato, an Italian who lectures in sociology at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, and “John”. John, a close relative of an iconic west-African revolutionary leader assassinated in the late 20th century, is in Ireland on political asylum and spoke to us on the condition of pseudonymity. His concerns about political retribution and persecution by the state in an upcoming asylum hearing provided evidence of the vulnerable position of deportable migrants which was to assume a central position in our conversation.

ADI was officially launched on 3rd October with an event in the offices of the Unite union in Dublin and a report by Dr Elena Moreo of Trinity’s Department of Sociology. The report, discussing the human and economic costs of deportation, said Ireland’s policy in the area “reflect[ed] a wider European trend of treating asylum and migration as a security issue which requires forms of deterrence.”

It went on to describe the conditions of deportation as “inhumane and degrading”, noting that they “often involv[ed] the use of violent methods of restraint and psychological intimidation.” The report detailed how one in five people deported from this country since 2010 have been children, while the overall cost of removing 280 persons from Ireland in 2011 was in excess of €1m.

Containing meticulous scholarship on the state of play regarding deportations in the country, and harrowing testimony from those who have fallen victim to it, the document concluded with the three “specific demands” of ADI: “an immediate end to all deportations; the immediate abolition of the direct provision system; and the right to work for people seeking asylum.”

The first two come up almost immediately during the interview. “We are against deportation. This is a fundamental principle, but this is very abstract,” Zagato explained, “We think that the system as it is now is irrational. The idea that one person can spend six or seven years in a condition of deportability is completely wrong. Our concrete politics focus on the extremes of the system, with direct provision being another example.”

“Deportability” is a term used to refer to the precarious condition in which failed asylum seekers and illegal migrants find themselves in between deportation orders being issued and put into effect. The system of direct provision, which was officially introduced by the Irish government in 2000, requires those seeking asylum to remain in state-designated accommodation centres. Under direct provision, asylum seekers are not allowed to work or study and are dependent on an allowance of €19.10 per week (€9.60 for children).

ADI was set up with a distinct philosophy for groups working in the area, aiming to put migrants “at the forefront of the struggle fighting for their rights and conditions.” “For some of us as immigrants there was something missing,” Bukha explained. “There were a lot of residents and nationals working with NGOs [non-governmental organisations] in the area, but we wanted those in the process of deportation to have a voice. We did not believe, as some others did, that they were too weak or precarious. If you tell people every time ‘You are vulnerable’, then they will be scared. I think what we see in this campaign is that people are ready to speak and act themselves.”

Their critique of NGOs is nuanced but fundamental. “Our aim is to struggle with those facing deportation. NGOs are not political groups, they are people with jobs and don’t do that. I think there is a distinction between doing something for a political reason and a professional one, even if both can provide benefits. NGOs are often funded by government, tied by their red tape and necessitated to listen to them. We don’t suffer from this.”

“I think NGOs open one eye and close another, in some ways,” Bukha added. “They do offer services to migrants but, if they were doing what they say they were doing, there wouldn’t be any space for us. The fact that we are becoming more popular shows that there’s a vacuum. Because when the NGOs clock-off and switch off their phones, there’s nowhere to go. But that’s when things are happening, and that’s when they call us.”

The trauma of the deportation process, often occurring at night and with the use of force, can have serious psychological a
effects. During the interview John brought up the case of Emmanuel Landa, a 62-year-old former diplomat under Mobutu in Zaire who suffered severe physical and mental duress during a protracted deportation process.

After suffering a heart attack when initially seized for deportation in 2011 his plane was turned around over Algeria due to the conflict in Libya, after which he suffered two further heart attacks before being found dead in his apartment last month. According to John he “had been driven mad”.

“People stay in these places for years, waiting for residency or to be deported. They are in a condition which is not free. They can’t work and are frequently in one room with a whole family and under a lot of stress. The hope for something that in many cases is not coming, mixed with the threat of deportation, brings depression. We see this.”

Earlier in the year, the group was witness to another controversy involving a Nigerian family whose deportation, ironically, took place on World Refugee Day in June. The father, convicted of drug dealing, was taken along with his wife and children. The mother, “in desperation” according to Zagato, attempted to self-harm before being pulled out into the road, barely dressed and pepper-sprayed. A wound from a recent surgery opened up during the fracas and she had to be treated in hospital before being deported.

“If people knew exactly what was happening with deportation they would not keep quiet,” according to John, “but stories like this are reported as a single criminal being deported. No one even mentions the family or children.” He argues that there is a lot of ignorance amongst the population in general about deportation, with few able to distinguish between asylum seekers, refugees and migrants.

But the group also highlight significant problems with what they call the “deportation industry”. “Most centres that hold asylum seekers are privately-run, while many hotels now in use were in danger of closing beforehand,” Zagato said, also highlighting the millions made by businessmen like Seamus Gillen of Bridgestock, who has been involved in the provision of accommodation for asylum seekers in both the UK and Ireland.

One Bridgestock facility, Lisbrook House in Galway, faces closure in the coming days after a government decision to “consolidate” accommodation used by the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) nationally. The decision, which leaves 273 residents facing dispersal to different parts of the country, has been met with protests.

On the back of the dispute in the west, thejournal.ie on Saturday published an article revealing that 53 people seeking asylum in Ireland have died while in state care over the past decade. One quarter of those who died were under five years of age, while one third of asylum seekers in Ireland (1,789) are children.

The minister for justice, Alan Shatter, responded to the deaths by saying that, although the deaths were “tragic”, the RIA has provided accommodation for “over 50,000 persons over the course of the twelve years the direct provision policy has been in place, and the numbers of deaths need to be viewed proportionately and against this background.”

These responses are perhaps why ADI explicitly eschew the kind of integration with the government that NGOs working in the area utilise. “We are willing to be pragmatic to make material gains for asylum seekers, we are realistic. But we are working towards the end of deportation and this comes into conflict with some very foundational aspects of the nation-state.”’

“To say that you have to deport someone because they are a criminal doesn’t make any sense. We have prisons here, if necessary,” Bukha argues, “but that’s the thing. Prisons are meant to rehabilitate people and return them to the community, whereas there’s the stat wants to exclude asylum seekers from the community. We take the opposite approach. I think a lot of people would benefit greatly from being able to stay here, much more than the people of this country would from expelling them.”

And, on the broader question, do they believe that deportation in its current form will be transcended in their lifetimes? “It’s good to dream, but it’s better to keep trying. It’s an international struggle and we know that there are other people doing what we are doing all over the world. That’s enough for now.”