05 Jul 2022

Covid-19 compels us to end cruel, failed costly system for refugees to Ireland

Fr Paddy Byrne writes about what people face in Direct Provision and how the pandemic highlights its failings

direct provision

Entering the Montague Hotel Emo Direct Provision Centre in 2017 were Msgr John Byrne, Fr Paddy Byrne, the then Senator John Whelan and the then Minister of State for Communities, Culture and Equality

Direct Provision has been a cruel and harsh system that has failed utterly in terms of how we as a country evaluate Asylum Seekers request to live among us.

Whilst regulation and assessment are important, a system that has left men, women and children restricted for up to 10 years in cases in a limbo situation is outrageous. The recent reports concerning Mother and Baby homes of the past has rightly evoked great anger, hurt and pain.

I have no doubt future generations will read reports of our shameful Direct Provision System. I wholeheartedly welcome the Programme of Government decision to end this system and I, like many taxpayers, are greatly concerned by last week's details in this paper of the huge cost to provide these centres and how individuals have profited millions over the past 15 years.

Covid- 19 has a great attraction for the most vulnerable, the elderly, members of ethnic communities including Travellers, meat factory workers and especially residents in cramped and crowded Direct Provision Centres. During the third wave of this dreadful virus, locally here in Abbeyleix, 17 residents of the Hibernian became Covid positive. It's impossible to social distance when a family of two parents and three children live and sleep in a tiny room sharing very basic toilet and washing facilities with all their families.

Half of the people living in direct provision have been unable to social distance from other residents during the Covid-19 pandemic, while more than 40 per cent continue to share a room with a non-family member, according to new research seen by The Irish Times.

The Irish Refugee Council’s (IRC) Powerless report, which examines the experiences of direct provision residents during the pandemic, says asylum seekers are suffering “fear and trepidation” because of their “inability to control” their health and safety during the pandemic.

The call to end direct provision has become “more compelling than ever” in the context of the pandemic, the council says. This Government has committed to ending the system.

Two levels of safety standards have been created during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to IRC chief executive Nick Henderson. “One for the general public, where social distancing is encouraged, and another for people in residential settings such as direct provision, where sharing of intimate space is implicitly accepted.”

The study was carried out through an online survey made available to residents during 2020. Some 418 people – 5.4 per cent of people living in direct provision – from 38 direct provision centres and 22 emergency accommodation centres took part.

The IRC found 55 per cent of people surveyed felt unsafe due to the pandemic, while 50 per cent were unable to social distance themselves from other residents. Some 42 per cent said they were sharing a room with a non-family member.

More than 15 per cent shared a room with three people and 5 per cent shared with four people. One respondent said they were sharing a room with 11 others.

More than half of respondents said they shared a bathroom with non-family members and 53 per cent said they continued to eat in a communal dining area. Nearly one-quarter said they did not have regular access to soap and hand sanitiser in their centre.

Respondents expressed concern about overcrowded living conditions. One remarked: “We are powerless, just sitting ducks waiting to die.” A pregnant woman said she lived in “constant fear of being infected” as she shared a kitchen with more than 100 people.

Some participants said they were concerned about the behaviour of fellow residents as some were acting irresponsibly.

Many complained about a lack of communication from managers about the spread of the virus, saying there was “no visibility” about the number of cases at their centre. However, in a small number of cases, respondents said managers had been a source of support in recent months. Respondents said some local communities presumed residents had Covid-19 because they lived in direct provision, while one respondent recalled having been described as “Covid people”.

Parents who took part in the survey said the closure of schools meant their children had to learn in overcrowded conditions and were left without a “sense of normalcy” in their lives, according to the report.

On a more positive conclusion, a local family here who reside in the Direct Provision Centre, recently shared to me how they and the other residents enjoy great support and appreciate the warm welcome they have received from our local community.

Matthew 25:35-36

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

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