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A State of Silence

Photos by Hazel Coonagh.

Direct Provision began in Ireland in 2000 as a temporary, emergency measure for accommodating asylum applicants. Even at the time of its implementation, the system was not designed to appropriately and permanently meet Ireland’s obligations under international human rights law, nor was it intended to accommodate people seeking asylum for extended periods.

The human rights violations perpetrated by Direct Provision are well documented, with many residents living without access to basic privacy, dignity and freedoms.

This year, after two decades of organised resistance by asylum seekers and allies, the government released a White Paper outlining a plan to replace Direct Provision with a more human rights compliant approach. The White Paper is a pivotal moment for asylum policy in Ireland, however reactions to its publication have been mixed. Many have praised what is being seen as an end to Direct Provision, with others arguing the new system retains many of the same problems as the old. It remains to be seen whether the government’s plans will be implemented on schedule, whether the changes will be sufficient to protect current and future applicants and whether the Irish state will ever compensate for the injustices that have dominated our asylum system for so long.

Though there may now be an opportunity for positive change going forward, the scars left by the last 21 years of Ireland’s asylum policy cannot be forgotten. Because the system is privatised, conditions in Direct Provision centres vary quite drastically, however major failings in the accommodation system have been exposed in several centres throughout the country. Poverty, institutionalisation, a lack of privacy, inadequate food, overcrowded, unclean conditions and abuse and mistreatment from management are among the many issues that have been highlighted through the testimony of asylum seekers.

At times, the extent of these violations has led residents to take extreme measures in the fight for their rights. Just last year, several residents at the since-closed Skellig Star Direct Provision Centre in Kerry went on hunger strike, demanding to be moved to a centre with adequate facilities. There have already been at least two other hunger strikes by asylum seekers since then, one by a single resident in the Mosney Direct Provision Centre and another by an estimated 90 residents at Ashbourne House centre in Cork.

These strikes are a harrowing reminder of the suffering that has so often been swept under the rug in Irish society. They force us to consider not only how things can be improved in the future, but also how we can ever amend for the past. The Movement for Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI) have commented that while the government’s “route of travel is to end Direct Provision, there seems to be no appreciation of the harm caused by Direct Provision on the 60,000 plus people who have gone through it over the years, hence the need for a tribunal to investigate breaches of fundamental human rights in Direct Provision for appropriate redress.”

In looking back at the failings of Direct Provision since 2000, it is important to recognise that the system has often placed a disproportionate burden on minority groups, including the LGBTQ+ community. I spoke to Preet, a refugee who has been in Direct Provision for three years and who explained to us how queer asylum seekers are at particular risk. Preet’s country of origin is Mauritius where, she explained, LGBTQ+ people are not accepted at all and are often seen as being possessed. Having endured intense social pressure, homophobic abuse and death threats in Mauritius, Preet fled to Ireland for safety. However, she soon found herself enduring similar homophobic abuse in Direct Provision.

After staying in the reception centre in Balseskin, Preet was moved to the Hazel Hotel centre in Kildare, where she shared a communal room and bathroom with eight other people, all of whom were homophobic. Preet explained how homophobic abuse compounded the existing pressure of the asylum process; “You’re already so, so stressed about IPO [International Protection Office], if you’re going to get a positive result or not, what’s in store for you, and now this”.

She reached out to the International Protection Accommodation Service (IPAS) several times, explaining her situation and requesting to be moved to another centre, but her pleas fell on deaf ears. She explained, “IPAS really need to sympathise with LGBT people because when we are requesting them to give us an LGBT roommate, to be honest, they don’t care”. Preet also highlighted how the isolated rural settings of many Direct Provision centres mean that LGBTQ+ asylum seekers do not have access to necessary support services; “I’m currently in Athlone, there’s no LGBT counselling, there’s nothing for LGBT people, there’s no LGBT network compared to Dublin”.

As well as inequalities in accommodation, queer asylum seekers are also disproportionately harmed by failings in the assessment process. The Irish Refugee Council have highlighted that there is a “culture of disbelief” among refugee status decision-makers in Ireland who have demonstrated a repeated failure to acknowledge the applicant’s testimony as evidence in and of itself.

LGBTQ+ people are at particular risk of falling victim to this culture of disbelief as there is often no evidence of a person’s sexuality or gender identity beyond their word. Early this year, it was exposed that in the asylum case of a bisexual Nigerian man, it was asserted that “it is simply not credible that a young man having being raised in …a restrictive environment would engage in behaviour both unacceptable and outlawed in the society in which he lives.” This conclusion disregarded not only the lived experience of the applicant himself, but also perpetuated the erasure of Ireland’s own queer history, for years of which LGBTQ+ experiences existed outside of the law.

Given the particular damage caused to LGBTQ+ people by Ireland’s international protection process, it is no surprise that the fight for the rights of asylum-seekers has often held an important space in queer movements. Preet noted the strong bonds between these two intersecting communities, describing how queer organisations “fight for LGBT asylum seekers and the LGBT Irish community… they are always here for everyone”. She explained how her involvement in Outhouse and LGBT Ireland have been a source of comfort and empowerment throughout her journey, particularly in peer support groups for queer asylum seekers. She said that even if it is just once a month, these meetings make her life easier and boost her morale.

This empowerment is ultimately a two-way street. The involvement and contribution of queer asylum seekers, many of whom have overcome extreme forms of bigotry, is invaluable to the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights. Preet explained that because of her openness and selfexpression she is often called on to be a spokesperson within queer organisations and described it as a “privilege” to be able to make this contribution. As Ireland moves towards a new international protection model, this kind of mutual solidarity between queer and asylum seeker movements is arguably more important than ever before.

An essential step in building solidarity is understanding Ireland’s asylum policy, how it is progressing and how the LGBTQ+ community can help shape it. The White Paper to End Direct Provision was published in February this year by the Department of Children and Equality and outlines plans to move from Direct Provision to a new international protection support service by the end of 2024. Under the new system, congregated accommodation would still be used for single people, however, all centres would be stateowned and all applicants would be entitled to own-door accommodation after four months. The new system would also be time-bound, with all applicants receiving their final decision within 12 months.

If implemented, these changes could end the legal limbo many asylum seekers find themselves in for years and raise the standard of accommodation in line with the basic human rights of applicants. However, there are no plans to put maximum stays in reception centres or limits on processing times on a statutory footing, meaning that asylum seekers may still face lengthy stays in congregated settings. Because there would be no means to legally hold the government to account in such cases, some have been sceptical of whether the model set out in the White Paper would truly represent an end to Direct Provision.

Furthermore, many have highlighted that four years is too long a wait to end a system in which extensive human rights abuses have already been acknowledged.

In its favour, the White Paper does recognise the specific risks facing marginalised groups in the international protection system, including LGBTQ+ people. It is planned that the new model will use vulnerability assessments to take account of the needs of queer applicants, particularly transgender people and LGBTQ+ youth. Caseworkers are to be appropriately trained to recognise the risks of homophobia and transphobia in reception centres and the accessibility of LGBTQ+ support services will be considered in sourcing own-door accommodation for queer applicants. However, as is the case with several issues raised in the White Paper, the specific policies for accommodating LGBTQ+ asylum seekers have yet to be fleshed out. It is stated that engagement with LGBTQ+ NGO’s will inform the development of policy, however ensuring that queer rights are on the agenda over the next four years of implementation will likely require pressure from the community.

Ultimately, while the guiding principles and some specific details of the new system have been laid out in the White Paper, the coming months and years will determine exactly how this outline is interpreted and implemented. The voice of asylum seekers, particularly those of marginalised identities, must be front and centre in the development of the new system. However, this is not guaranteed. The implementation of the new model will be overseen by a programme board chaired by the Department of Children and Equality which will include “at least one person who has transited through the Direct Provision system”. Due to a lack of standardisation, the experience of Direct Provision is extremely diverse and is greatly impacted by factors such as gender, sexuality, age, disability and race. For this reason, many have argued that one individual cannot possibly represent the lived reality of Direct Provision or the many different groups who go through the system.

Speaking on the progression of the White Paper, Preet emphasised that meaningful participation of those in Direct Provision is essential and that the government must now “ask the asylum seekers, speak to the asylum seekers and hear what we have to suggest.” Preet argues that while Direct Provision may be ending, LGBTQ+ protection applicants cannot wait four years for their voices to be heard and their needs to be met. She believes that in the interim, the government should provide specific accommodation for LGBTQ+ people and that this should be located in Dublin where there is access to necessary services and support networks; “I’m not saying that if only LGBT people live together life will be a bed of roses, but if there was an LGBT Centre, at least you could breathe .There would be freedom and you wouldn’t have to be scared of other people.”

Queer asylum seekers are, like everyone else, a diverse group with a wide range of perspectives. Some have argued that rather than fighting for an LGBT centre, the focus should remain on the abolition of Direct Provision altogether. The lack of consensus seen on some of these issues further highlights how having just one individual represent the voice of asylum seekers is not sufficient. If we really are to see liberation for international protection applicants in Ireland, it will be through raising a collective voice, and all the nuance and compromise that entails.

Ultimately, asylum seekers have always made themselves heard collectively, through actions of solidarity and through pressure on governments that have otherwise looked the other way. When asked what we can do to fight for the rights of asylum seekers going forward, Preet answered “it’s already happening”. She explained that LGBTQ+ activists have been fighting for asylum seekers for 20 years and that this is just one small sub-group of a much bigger movement. She highlighted how throughout the history of Direct Provision, groups have communicated and come together in this broader struggle, taking needed actions from simply signing petitions to protesting deportations.

The movement “is already existing and it’s going to be here until Direct Provision is abolished”.

This article appears in the 367 Issue of GCN

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This article appears in the 367 Issue of GCN