One of the saddest and most moving presentations in a very long time was made to members of Clare County Council at their March meeting by members of Ennis & District Soroptimists with regard to people housed at Knockalisheen Reception Centre.
At issue was the system of Direct Provision established in 2000 to accommodate applicants for asylum. Originally intended as an ‘interim’ and ‘short-term’ solution, many adults and children have spent years in residential institutions awaiting a decision on their asylum applications while the system itself has changed very little over the last 18 years.
Overseen by the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA), Direct Provision provides essential services, medical care and accommodation, in 34 centres around the county, most of which are operated by private companies to varying standards.
Pamela Clancy, president of Ennis Soroptimists, explained her organisation’s project, entitled ‘Living in Limbo’ which advocates on behalf of the 226 people housed at Knockalisheen in County Clare.
Ms Clancy said the Soroptimists were motivated by the manner in which Ireland treats a certain category of visitors in such a shabby way which reflects very poorly on our tradition of hospitality.
Across the country, there are 34 ‘reception centres’ in 17 counties housing 5,375 people at the end of December, including 1,428 children.
Ms Clancy said private companies were paid €50 million to operate direct provision centres in 2017. Knockalisheen is contracted to Campbell Catering Ltd, which trades as Aramark Ireland.
Pamela Clancy believes that asylum seekers should be allowed the right to work, to live with their family and to integrate into society.
Sarah Malone is a successful businesswoman and owner of Zest Café who employs 250 people in Clare and Limerick. It was through her involvement in the catering industry that she became aware of Knockalisheen Direct Provision Centre.
Pulling no punches, Sarah told councillors, “Make no mistake, I’m all in favour of people making money, I’m in business myself. But there’s a thing called compassionate commercialism and I don’t see any compassion from the companies operating these centres.”
As a caterer, Sarah is particularly annoyed that families living in Knockalisheen are not allowed to cook for themselves. Describing the regime there, she said, “The menu is repeated every second day, so there are two menus and every second-day residents, some who have been there for 4 or 5 years, will eat exactly the same thing.”
According to Sarah, the Soroptimists group has done practical things to help. This included restoring a disused kitchen at Christ Church in Limerick that is now used by Knockalisheen residents to teach their children in their own authentic styles and for use on social and educational gatherings.
Sarah emphasised that the group is not pursuing a fundraising campaign, instead, this is an advocacy issue concerning the human rights of women and children who came to our country because they believed their lives were in danger.
Sarah then introduced Donnah Vuma, a single mother in her 30s with three children, aged 13, 9 and 7, who has been in Knockalisheen for four years awaiting a decision on her asylum application.
Donnah Vuma graphically illustrated the tedium and frustration of parenting three children in Direct Provision accommodation for the last four years.
Having arrived in Ireland from Zimbabwe via South Africa, Donnah is very grateful to be in a safe country but feels that she is being unduly punished for seeking asylum here.
In her own words Donnah said, “Seeking asylum is not a crime. In the four years I have been here with my three children I’ve only had the opportunity to have my case heard twice and I don’t know when I will be called again. It might be another five years.
“Life in Direct Provision is hard and very monotonous, we do the same things every single day. It feels very much like mental torture.
“You wake up, you go to eat; after you eat you go back to your room where you sit and wait for the next meal. You go back to eat, you go back to your room again. You do this over and over again. The effect on the children is heart-breaking.”
Donnah described how children love attending a local school, which is like a sanctuary where they get to lead a normal life. “But they dread coming back home,” she said.
Her own teenage daughter is beginning to show signs of the negative effects of living in this way. According to Donnah her daughter can’t bring school friends home to visit and she worries that if they find out where she lives they will treat her differently. As a result her daughter is becoming very withdrawn emotionally.
Asylum seekers in Direct Provision are given an allowance of €21 per week and are not entitled to claim social welfare.
“It’s almost impossible to live on this as we have the same needs as other parents,” said Donnah. Just recently her children came home from school with a form for compulsory swimming lessons. These cost €50 per child and had to be paid within two weeks.
Donnah said she is constantly going to the school to explain that she doesn’t have that sort of money and begging to have an exemption for her children to be able to participate.
What concerns her is that this leaves her children subject to bullying and it is absolutely unnecessary.”We should be allowed to work,” said Donnah.
Last year Donnah was awarded a scholarship to study an arts course at UL as a mature student and that has changed her life.
Since then she has founded Every Child is Your Child (ECIYC), a group aiming to improve the lives of children in direct provision.
“All children deserve the chance to live full and happy lives and we want to help them do just that,” said Donnah.
She ended her remarks to councillors by I asking that they help to shorten the time spent in direct provision and lobby to have their cases processed much faster.
In her conclusion, Pamela Clancy said Ennis Soroptimists are writing to the relevant State agencies, including Government Ministers and councillors, seeking support to speed up the system of direct provision.
“Why does it take the system so long to make any progress, surely we can do better than that,” she said.
Commenting on the presentation, Mayor of Clare Cllr Tom McNamara said, “you have brought awareness to us that we have created a situation where we have institutionalised people and spending millions while doing that.
“I honestly believe that over the coming years we will spend more millions unless we change what we are doing. It is very clear that the way people are being treated is totally wrong and we need to do something about it.”