OPINION

Direct Provision and the Lasting Impact of COVID-19

Niamh Elliott-Sheridan

23rd June 2020

 

Over the past few months, while immersed in the coronavirus pandemic, Ireland has successfully “flattened the curve”, with daily confirmed cases finally consistently minimal. As wider society marks this triumph with the gradual easing of restrictions, people on the margins continue to suffer greatly, with little recognition or action. Covid-19 infection has increased rapidly in Direct Provision centres around the country. Between May 5th to May 8th, there was a jump from 62 to 149 cases across DP centres, including 10 clusters and 10 hospitalisations. At the beginning of June, there were 175 confirmed cases among asylum-seeking residents. However, inadequate testing and a lack of updates are alluding to inaccurate results.

 

Around 7,000 people are in DP, including 1,778 children – who are 5 times more likely to have mental health problems. At the beginning of May, the Department of Justice and Equality confirmed that 1,700 people living in Direct Provision centres share a bedroom with non-family members. In addition, many more residents share washing, laundry and cooking or canteen spaces, with most centres lacking cooking facilities altogether. On top of privacy and space issues, social distancing is not feasible in this system; therefore, the way it is run makes it impossible for residents to comply with the State’s public health guidelines. A threat to the right to life, the State is letting these vulnerable people down as the centres are run for profit. The underlying issue persists: direct provision needs to be abolished. In the meantime, there needs to be priority testing for people in congregated communities. Challenging times show national leadership’s true colours, from the temporary emergency social welfare payment highlighting the absence of a living wage for thousands of workers, to the care, consideration and action taken to help those in marginalised communities.

 

Asylum seekers living in DP, who had permission to work but lost their jobs due to the health crisis, stopped receiving the €350 emergency unemployment payment after a fortnight. They were put back on a €38.80 weekly allowance. When asked to clarify reasons behind the change, a spokesperson for the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection said the residents have “accommodation and other basic needs met by the State, and the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment is not available to them.” Needs are not being met in any shape, whether physical or emotional. An image of the sub-standard dinner given to a pregnant woman within the system has gone viral, which consisted of meagre bread rolls and an unidentifiable sauce.

 

“Simon Harris publicly thanked the 160 healthcare workers who live in Direct Provision for their contribution. This discourse is loaded with contradiction, as asylum seekers’ right to work has an absolute ban on employment in public bodies, such as the Civil Service, Local Authorities, or Governmental entities

Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan has rejected calls to close the Direct Provision centre at Skellig Star Hotel in Cahersiveen, County Kerry, whilst apologising to the residents for how it was opened – meanwhile, staff were reportedly given one day’s notice that 105 asylum seekers were to be housed there following a Covid-19 outbreak at a Dublin facility. No measures were implemented to protect the residents and the local community from infection transmission, nor was there adequate training for staff on navigating the circumstances, struggles and trauma of a vulnerable group of people. Rooms previously occupied by people who tested positive with Covid-19 were given to people who tested negative; this and overcrowding understandably created ample fear as residents appealed for a transfer. One woman who was moved to Cahersiveen told RTÉ Radio 1 that there was a lock on the gate at one stage, preventing the people leaving the centre.

 

On May 15th, the HSE confirmed that they delivered a letter to the centre, enforcing quarantine for all residents for a further two weeks. The stated cause was due to the apparent failure to follow self-isolation rules. Blame was placed on the residents who, like the rest of the country, are acutely aware of guidelines and hygiene requirements. Circumstance overtly disables correct practise of physical distancing, as confirmed by Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan.

 

Simon Harris publicly thanked the 160 healthcare workers who live in Direct Provision for their contribution. This discourse is loaded with contradiction, as asylum seekers’ right to work has an absolute ban on employment in public bodies, such as the Civil Service, Local Authorities, or Governmental entities. Access to the Irish labour market is only granted after eight months in the system, permission to work continuing under renewable conditions and barriers, yet financial support is minimal. Our political figures thanking them, while allowing the inhumane system to proceed which disables working for an income, feels moot. The HSE has since laid out a direct provision strategy, which agrees on a need for extensive testing for residents and staff in highly congregated centres, though not in the centres less packed. Nick Henderson, CEO of the Irish Refugee Council, said implementation of this strategy is crucial and will be closely monitored. 

 

Henderson (IRC) has warned that people living in congregated settings like Direct Provision “will always be vulnerable to outbreaks even when risk decreases in other parts of society”. This socially accepted lack of equality is a human rights crisis. A pandemic is not a great leveller, a blatant fact seen in the statistics; we must publicly change this narrative for improvement. People in marginalised communities have and will suffer the most. A new draft deal between Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party states that the Direct Provision system will be ended within the lifetime of the next government. Join the thousands who have signed petitions for change – continue to lobby and email TDs and educate yourself through relevant organisations such as Abolish DP Ireland (Instagram) who lay out recommendations for alternatives. The world is sick of empty promises; DP centres were originally deemed temporary, but many people have been stuck in dire circumstances for years. It is time for that to end.

 

 

Featured photo by John Englart

 

 

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