Ireland’s system of Direct Provision for asylum seekers was only ever meant to be temporary in the lives of the people who are housed within it but many people find themselves trapped there for years. Twenty years after its inception, the Irish Times is running an informative series of articles about Direct Provision. The series comes against a backdrop of recent arson attacks on hotels that were scheduled to house asylum seekers in Donegal and Roscommon and protests against DP centres being set up in Oughterard and on Achill Island. Some of those protests are against the system itself, which is seen as inhumane, damaging and counterproductive but some are simply against asylum seekers moving into new areas. Meanwhile, other parts of the country have welcomed the new arrivals. While the debates rage on, I interviewed Donnah Vuma, who is originally from Zimbabwe. Donnah won the Clare Woman of the Year award in 2017 for her work in raising awareness of the effects of living in DP for extended periods of time and reaching out to local groups for friendship. A member of MASI, the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland, she has been involved with Now We’re Cooking (with Rev. Vicki Lynch) and set up the Every Child is Your Child community group in Limerick.
Donnah is currently studying for a joint honours degree in Politics and International Relations with Sociology, having won a scholarship on the University of Limerick Place of Sanctuary programme (UL is a University of Sanctuary). She took part in a recent “Writing Human Rights” panel at the Red Line Book Festival run by South Dublin County Council in October, which also featured contributors to the Front Line Defenders and Fighting Words’ book Yes, We Still Drink Coffee! available from Fighting Words.
How does living in DP affect family life?
Living in direct provision has a huge impact on family life. Families are often forced to share a single room meaning that there is no privacy between children and parents, this can easily affect the mental health of all individuals and causes a lot of frustration. Because most centres are not self-catering, it means that families are not able to prepare their own meals, or actually sit down and have a meal together. Families are not able to observe or practice family traditions or elements of their culture due to limitations such as space. Parents don’t have the opportunity to transfer important life skills to their children, simple tasks such as being able to clean home, cook or do laundry.
Could you talk about the reality of living on €38.80 per week?
It is an almost impossible task. Every single task, need and want has to be set out on a list in order of priority. It’s very difficult as new items are constantly popping up. You have to try and save up for emergencies that may arise from that €38.80. You can’t afford to even take the kids out to something like a movie or dinner. It’s especially difficult during the holiday seasons when there is so much going on, the children have an expectation that they will be getting the same things or similar to their peers, it’s so hard to often have to explain to them that you cannot afford it or why you cannot afford it. At times holidays just go by and you do your best to ignore them and not even expose the children to them by keeping them in the centre and not visiting town for example. Having daughters adds extra pressure, there are items you cannot compromise on, sanitary products, laundry products, toiletry items, that all has to come out of that allowance. You still have to consider getting lunch pack items for the week – if you have school going aged children (I have 3), the bills just pile up.
In September, Leo Varadkar was widely quoted as saying that Direct Provision is not compulsory. Has that been your experience?
I feel that it is very irresponsible for them to keep referring to DP as voluntary. When you arrive in Ireland seeking refugee there are certain things that happen that have to be kept in mind:
- You have to give up all identity documents upon entry into the country.
- You probably have no friends or relatives in the country
- You do not have the right to work
- You have no entitlement to any social welfare payment, Housing assistance payments, rental allowance etc, you only get the €38.80 per week allowance.
Therefore, it is actually impossible to be able to live independently. Once you get the work permit, it is only valid for 6 months at a time, renewable depending on the progress of your protection application. It would not make any sense for a person to move out of DP for the duration of employment (which is usually 6 months because of the permit) only to apply to go back into the system once employment ceases.
You have succeeded in making a life outside the Direct Provision system or maybe I should say in parallel with it – you are a student at UL, you’re an active member of MASI, you set up your own community group, Every Child is Your Child. How did you achieve so much? Was it difficult?
This hasn’t come easy at all. It has been a result of unnecessary resilience and resistance. My biggest motivation for making it to this point has been my children. I have not had the opportunity to “not do anything” because I feel like I have to be a positive role model for them. I have always engaged in voluntary work and education, through that involvement I have made many friends and connections that I have been able to call on in times of need or in search of opportunities. ECIYC was set up through experiencing financial challenges, specifically school-associated costs. I had seen other parents going through the same challenges and felt that we needed to find a way to come up with temporary solutions, hence ECIYC was born. I was one of the 1st students awarded the University of Sanctuary scholarship when it was set up in UL, really great moment in my life as I had tried to enrol into third level education before. I was expected to pay non EU fees which would have been impossible for me. I think all these achievements have been results of building good relationships within the community and proving that one can be an asset if and when given the opportunity. It was also a way to show that although most people come here seeking refuge, they don’t leave their skills, hopes and dreams and aspirations behind. We bring the expertise and knowledge with us, all we really need is the platform to be able to showcase those skills and be able to make positive contributions to the community.
If you could change only one thing about Direct Provision, what would it be?
I wouldn’t reform DP at all, I would want to see the system totally abolished. Reception centres, which are absolutely necessary, should be run on a not-for-profit basis, should respect the rights of the individual and most importantly have vulnerability assessment mechanisms in place.
Given current crisis levels of homelessness in Ireland, can you see a workable alternative to Direct Provision?
Very easy, give people a meaningful right to work with no restrictions. Once people are allowed to access the labour market fully, they will be able to provide adequately for their needs and for those of their families. No one would prefer to live in Direct Provision if they could afford to sustain themselves.
It makes better financial/economic sense to give people access to rent-allowance schemes or HAP than paying for people to live in DP, it is much cheaper. The millions being used to house people in DP can be invested in providing affordable housing in communities, it can be invested in reviving and repopulating rural towns for example.
Are there supports in place for people when they leave Direct Provision?
No, from the time you are granted your status you are on your own; it would be up to you to try and find NGO’s that could be of assistance to you and your specific needs.
If people want to help, what would you advise them to do?
I would advise people to get involved in the campaigns, support grassroots organisations like MASI and ECIYC. Challenge the rise of the far right rhetoric, dispel the myths and rumours associated with refugees and asylum seekers. It Is important for people to ask their politicians what they are doing about Direct Provision, what humane solutions they are proposing etc. its is important to remember that at the end of the day, we are all human, people living in DP are just ordinary people seeking asylum, fleeing persecution from wherever they came from, this is a natural survival instinct of any human being. No one’s safety should come at the price of their freedom.