Over 3,000 students will walk through Front Square during Fresher’s Week and feel the mix of excitement and anxiety that college life brings for the first time. Friends will be made and library fines will add up, but there is one woman who should be getting ready for third year that the state has forgotten.
The woman’s name has been changed for her protection, and she will hereafter be referred to as ‘Naomi’ – she is 20 and has been in the direct provision (DP) in Ireland for five years now. Trinity News recently reported that the Department of Education and Skills have decided to allow asylum seekers access to third level grants, but this token measure only extends to those who have had their applications accepted.
For Naomi and countless other young people in DP, their application feels as if it will be forever pending. The complexity and duration of this process are but a small sample of the many problems persons in DP in this country encounter on a day-to-day basis, as I learned on my recent trip to Mosney Accommodation Centre, County Meath.
“The blocks are given syrupy sweet names like ‘SeaView’, evoking the Butlins’ legacy – Butlins used to run a holiday camp from the same site.”
My journey to the Mosney centre began when I was dropped off at the side of a regional road in heavy rain. As the bus drove off I rang Naomi’s mother. She told me I would have to walk down this road for about 20 minutes before I reached the entrance to the centre. The rain persisted as I walked past mansion after mansion. When I arrived at the entrance the sense of isolation only worsened.
At the end of the long, winding driveway lay a field of caravans meticulously lined up. They were caged in by a high metal fence with a security desk at the top checking everyone who came and went. When I signed in, I wasn’t asked who I was visiting; I was told instead to give their apartment number, not their name as I had expected. Their identity was reduced to mere digits. Soon after, a man who declared he was the manager took Naomi’s mother to the side, announcing that the centre’s staff will meet with the residents in half an hour’s time. I told her that I was beginning to feel uncomfortable — like I was being watched. In a grave tone, she turned to me and whispered, “You are.”
In various locations in the centre they have murals painted in bright, pop colours, surrounded by large areas of freshly cut grass. The blocks are given syrupy sweet names like ‘SeaView’, evoking the Butlins’ legacy – as Butlins used to run a holiday camp from the same site. The purpose of the site has totally changed since these days, as is clear from the wire-fencing and dilapidated buildings. The Mosney site is no longer owned by Butlins, it has passed hands to another corporate body. It belongs to businessman and contractor Phelim McCluskey, who has a private contract with the government to provide asylum accommodation.
Life in Direct Provision
“The son and daughter drive around the lot all day, entering people’s accommodation without consent and displaying threatening behaviour..”
Naomi was waiting for us in their sitting room, which consisted of a square foot for walking space, a couch, and an armchair. When I first saw her I assumed she was younger than I with her small frame, but the system appears to keep one young by restricting the nutrition in one’s diet. They insist that I have a cup of tea with them, that it’s “the Irish way”. The water is boiled in a secondhand pot on a hob, the kettle her mother saved for and bought in Argos having broken a week before.
Naomi sat her Leaving Certificate at an all-girls school in Killarney two years ago, the third and favourite of the four DP centres she has been to since arriving in Ireland from South Africa with her mother five years ago. For these two years, she has been continuously accepted into courses ranging from Process and Chemical Engineering in UCC to most recently Computer Applications in DCU.
However, with her application still pending she cannot access third level education without paying Non-EU fees, an infeasible option for someone fleeing for their lives. She stressed that she does not want the college to cover the fees for her, but to at least reduce it to EU level so that she has some chance of crowdfunding the money herself. Her modesty and resigned attitude to this mistreatment reminded me of something an angry resident had said to me while I was walking around with Naomi’s mother:
“These children, they know nothing but here. They have no motivation to go out and do something because they are forced and trained by the system to suffer in silence.”
The resignation with her educational predicament subsided once we got on to the topic of Mosney itself. When Naomi and her mother arrived in Mosney two years ago it was considered by the Reception and Integration Agency to be one of the best centres in Ireland, but the residents’ committee believes otherwise. The centre has recently taken on new management in McClusky’s children – neither of whom have any prior training or experience. The son and daughter are said to drive around the lot all day, entering people’s accommodation without consent and displaying threatening behaviour with phrases such as: “No one is the boss of me” frequently rolling off the tongue of the daughter.
The unease in the room at the mention of her name is palpable. Naomi’s mother turns to me with an exasperated sigh and asks “What do we do now?”, before leaving to attend the aforementioned meeting between residents and staff.
“Due to these restrictive conditions most of the residents make only one trip per week, and this is to go to the Post Office in Drogheda to collect their weekly allowance of €19.10”
One of Naomi’s main ways to pass the time is to go to the library in Drogheda, but the last bus is back for 4.30pm, and it only leaves three times a day. With it being one of the most populated of the centres in Ireland, having just the one 55-seater bus means that there is no choice but to spend most of one’s time wandering aimlessly around the lot. Due to these restrictive conditions, most of the residents make only one trip per week, and this is to go to the Post Office in Drogheda to collect their weekly allowance of €19.10. The bus service changes direction to Dublin once a month, but if the residents wish to travel on a different date they must pay €15 for a return fare from Matthews Coach, leaving them with €4.10 to save for the future
Our presence alone proved to be enough to frustrate the staff, as I noticed when I went with Naomi to the launderette. Giving it such a title feels like an overstatement – it is merely an abandoned warehouse with washing machines and dryers stacked on top of each other, as a radio attempts to contrast the surroundings by blasting jarringly upbeat pop music. She led me to the back, past happy toddlers wrestling on the carpet and laughing, to a washing machine with a bright blue post-it note on it. The apartment number was scrawled on designating it as theirs, along with her allotted times of usage, 9.30am and 12.30pm.
Due to there being over 600 people and only 40 washing machines, the centre has to rather regimental in its approach. She spoke in low tones as she poured the plastic cup of Lidl brand powdered detergent into the machine. Fabric softener isn’t provided; It’s common for young children in DP to develop rashes and eczema as a result unless residents can buy it themselves.
Treatment in Mosney
A woman in a blue apron, mid-thirties, crept up behind us as I discreetly took some photos – all forms of media are prohibited on the premises – and proceeded to didactically instruct Naomi on how to use a washing machine she has been using for years. We left the launderette with a mixture of humiliation and frustration. Her mother joined us in the apartment an hour later, having returned from witnessing management refuse entry to three visitors who also happened to be known anti-racism activists.McClusky was there, a fact that she herself could not believe, and he was shaken. As an attempt to appeal to his business-oriented mentality, she approached him and said:
“We are your customers, and you are treating us badly.” The lack of irony or metaphor in his response was chilling: “I know, and I don’t want to lose this business.”
I was constantly reminded by passing residents by to record everything, to tell everyone what it was really like to live a day in their shoes, to prove that they are just normal people. I could say that all Naomi wants is to live a normal life, to do what we are allowed to do indiscriminately, but it is clear to me that she deserved much more than that. She is an intelligent young woman who should have the world at her fingertips, and yet it seems to mean that we treat her like a criminal for being born in the wrong country.
In a time where there are more people displaced across the world than after World War II, Ireland has set itself with a meagre target of 4,000. The government claims their hands are tied when it comes to water charges by the European Union, yet it’s worth noting that when the UN Human Rights Committee criticise our disastrous human rights record (based on restrictive policies on reproductive rights and discriminatory practices in legislation including policies concerning refugees) it does not seem to hold as much leverage with the criticism falling on deaf ears.
The morning after my visit I found out that a friend and activist in MASI (Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland) Lucky Khambule, also from South Africa, was given his official status and full residency in Ireland. Countless others, however, are not so fortunate. The situation in Mosney is not unique within the DP system in Ireland, it is but one example of the deprived, isolated existence put upon refugees in this country. Naomi has received her welcome pack from DCU, but her dreams of walking through those front doors during Freshers’ Week still seem impossible to become a reality with the current situation.