- 29 May 20
They are among the most marginalised and mistreated communities in this country. But with an escalating number of cases of Covid-19 being confirmed and the unsuitable nature of accommodation in which they are housed coming under increasingly tough scrutiny, a better deal may be on the way for asylum seekers.
On a sunny afternoon, on March 18 2020, three asylum seeker families were told to pack up their belongings.
Until that day, the families had lived in Ciúin House Direct Provision Centre in Leitrim. The previous night, they had received a ‘transfer letter’, informing them of an imminent move to Skellig Star Hotel, a new Direct Provision Centre in the village of Cahersiveen, Co. Kerry.
“The letter said that we would be leaving next day,” one former resident of Ciúin House recalled.
The coronavirus crisis was just expanding its petrifying reach across the country, and two of the families had been especially concerned.
The dining room in the Leitrim centre is small, but residents would still convene there in the evenings to eat collectively. Even before the onset of the virus crisis, living in Ciúin House wasn’t easy. In some ways, they were glad to move.
“I was sent to Leitrim as a single parent with my two children in August 2019 until March 2020,” one former resident said. “It was a very difficult time for me and the kids. Living in one bedroom, inside a house of 16 families which is confining for a family, was hard. A person lacks freedom or privacy or even control of things like when and what to eat.”
This asylum seeker – and resident in Ciúin House – recalled arriving late to the dining room with his children. Staff, he says, refused to serve them.
“If you weren’t there on the hour that food was served, for any reason, you would’ve been automatically deprived of your daily ration. I thought this was a totally unjustified punishment,” the resident continued.
On the last day before the move, at about 10:10 in the morning, Gardaí arrived in the centre.
Management had apparently called the Gardaí, after the residents had demanded a meeting to address health and safety concerns. They wanted to know what could be done to keep them safe from the coronavirus.
“Just two families spoke to the guards when they came visiting,” a former resident said. “Others were frightened, so they kept quiet.”
A GOOD RESIDENT
The departing families lined up, waiting for two buses, each one headed for a different county. The waiting time stretched to three hours. “It was very emotional to say goodbye to other residents,” Hot Press was told.
The two most outspoken families, ten people in total, stepped on board the bus, which was headed for Kerry. “Long journey,” one migrant recalled laconically.
The third family was sent to a centre in Limerick. Later, another group headed to Mosney Direct Provision Centre, in Co. Meath.
“We tried to talk to the management, about eating together in a small dining room,” one current resident of Ciúin House told Hot Press.”But the manager refused, and suddenly people were being transferred. What we heard said was that they had been causing problems.”
Residents at different direct provision centres have raised this issue over and over again, with Hot Press. There is a concern that if you make a complaint, you become the enemy of the owner or the manager. This, of course, may not be true of particular centres. However, the group who were sent to Kerry still feel that the transfer was a form of punishment.
“Freedom is nothing but a chance to be better,” the French-Algerian author and journalist, Albert Camus, suggested. For asylum seekers in Direct Provision Centres in Ireland, grabbing that chance may also equate to losing it.
“When they examine your asylum case,” Hot Press has been told, “they always call your centre to check if you were a good resident. That’s why asylum seekers don’t complain.”
The asylum seekers, who until then had been based in Co. Leitrim, were not the only ones being moved to Kerry that afternoon. A larger group of refugees, living in various hotels in Dublin, also got on a bus in March. In total, about 105 people were shunted in the direction of Cahersiveen.
According to reports, one group departed Dublin from Travelodge, a hotel whose proximity to Dublin Airport makes it popular among international visitors flying into the capital. One guest at the hotel had arrived from Italy, and became ill very quickly, precipitating an outbreak in the hotel.
In the Dáil last week, the Minister for Justice, Charles Flanagan TD, was asked about what had happened at Travelodge. “Neither was I,” he stated, “or anybody in the Department of Justice aware of any guests in any of those hotels who was either a suspect or a confirmed case.”
In response, the Social Democrat TD for Kildare-North, Catherine Murphy expressed incredulity.
“The HSE,” she insisted, “must have known that there was somebody in the hotel that tested positive. Did the HSE not tell you? Is that what happened?”
To which the Minister replied simply that he did not know about the outbreak.
WELCOME TO SKELLIG STAR HOTEL
“You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave…”
t is a line from The Eagles’ timeless classic ‘Hotel California’. The song articulates the claustrophobic notion of being stuck in a kind of parallel universe. That feeling is being widely shared across the world, during the current Covid-19 inspired lockdown.
However, being stuck at home, in order to hide from a disease that is marauding outside, is very different from being confined in a strange guesthouse – with the disease inside the four walls of the building.
Thus, the lyrics seem particularly in tune with the situation that began to unfold in the Skellig Star Hotel, soon after the arrival of the new guests.
In April, about 20 people became ill with Covid-19 – the disease caused by the coronavirus – at the Cahersiveen hotel. This month, so far the number has increased to over 24.
As a result, while the gates at the centre are unlocked, no one is allowed – or dares – to walk past them. Once it is confirmed that a resident has contracted the coronavirus, he or she is transferred to offsite self-isolation facilities, in Cork or Dublin, in a minivan. It has been happening too often for residents to accept.
“Once we see the minivan, we know that people have tested positive,” one resident told Hot Press.
In a letter sent to Nick Henderson, the CEO of Irish Refugee Council, which Hot Press has seen, the Department of Justice says that it is of particular significance for the public to note that “no one is being prevented from leaving the centre.
“Centre management has confirmed that the main entrance door is on a thumb lock and residents have access to leave freely if they wish to do so,” the letter continues. “However, the guidance from the HSE at this time is that residents should self-isolate and staff to remind residents of this public health advice.”
Minister Flanagan delivered a variation of the same response in the Dáil last week. However, opposition TDs informed the minister about the “do not leave” signs – which Hot Press had written about – on the Skellig Star Hotel’s door.
STRANGE DAYS INDEED
As residents at Skellig Star Hotel fretted over their health and worried desperately about picking up the virus, at just after 7am on May 8, a letter was delivered by management, to residents’ doors. Claiming to come from the HSE, it strongly implied that the residents were to blame for the restrictions imposed on their movements.
“This is clear evidence that some residents are not following the Public Health recommendations,” the letter said. “Because social-distancing is not being followed by everybody, the period of self-isolation has to be extended for a further 14 days until May 20.”
There was no HSE letterhead, or signature, on the document, and the tone raised suspicions about its authenticity. The health authority did not verify its source to Hot Press, fuelling concerns that some anti-migrant group might have been responsible. However, it was later confirmed to joe.ie. that it was indeed an HSE communication.
Hot Press had known that a pregnant woman at the Cahersiveen centre felt especially vulnerable and fearful. When she went into labour, the report of her condition on hotpress.com brought the issue to the attention of Julie O’Leary, a human rights lawyer and legal service manager at the Cork-based Migrant and Refugee Rights Centre (NASC).
O’Leary contacted the International Protection Office (IPAS) at the Department of Justice, to make sure that the woman would not be going back to Skellig Star Hotel.
“She had been very concerned about where she was going to be sent after the baby arrived,” one Cahersiveen local told me.
Over a week later, Hot Press understands that the single mother and her baby have been sent to another facility, away from Kerry.
“Our social worker is going to touch base with her next week,” Julie O’Leary said.
Meanwhile, the situation at Skellig Star Hotel remained contentious. The building has narrow corridors, and residents still share rooms with non-family members, contrary to the advice of Dr Tony Holohan, the country’s chief medical officer.
There is only one vacuum cleaner at the centre, which is shared by about 70 residents, including nine children. But the residents’ appeal to be moved to a larger, self-contained facility continues to fall on deaf ears at the Department of Justice.
Since its establishment in 1999, the Direct Provision system has turned into a lucrative business for private contractors and investors.
Some firms receive up to €50 million a year to run refugee accommodation centres across the State. It is a highly profitable business.
Remcoll Capital Ltd, an investment company in Swords, Co Dublin, is one of those firms. It runs several Direct Provision Centres in Ireland. Developer Paul Collins, the company’s director, owns Skellig Star Hotel. Residents describe him as tall and fit. He is ‘stern’, they say, and appears ‘business-minded’.
“Always trying to check on the operation,” one resident said.
Collins often pays surprise visits to the centre. In recent days, those visits seem to have grown in frequency.
“Before the media coverage of the outbreak here, he was calm, but now he looks more concerned,” one resident told Hot Press.
In Skellig Star Hotel, the asylum seekers and staff alike refer to Collins as ‘the boss’.
Following one of his recent visits, residents began to receive gifts: goody bags containing soft drinks, chocolates, Tayto crisps, and a phone credit slip worth €50. Meal sizes also grew.
Many of the residents were unimpressed. They viewed the move through a lens of mistrust, declining the gifts, and vowing to continue their campaign to be transferred away from the centre.
For the most part, Paul Collins has remained silent about the controversy. He did participate in a video-call with several local TDs, during which he is said to have blamed the Government for giving him limited time to prepare the hotel for the arrival of over 105 residents.
It was also suggested in the Dáil by the independent Kerry TD, Danny Healy-Rae, that the HSE was either against the use of the Skellig Star Hotel, or had been left unaware of the Justice Department’s plans until it was too late. No official comment was forthcoming.
But the pressure is mounting. A photo sent to Hot Press, depicts a group of women from Georgia, pressing signs against the window of the centre that say ‘move us out’ in their native tongue. In response to criticisms in the Dáil, the Taoiseach admitted that it should be a priority of the incoming government to end the system of direct provision. “I don’t know anyone who thinks it is a good system,” he said.
Meanwhile, Hot Press has seen a letter in which the office of the Ombudsman promises to carry out a detailed examination of the issues in Cahersiveen by visiting the centre, once the pandemic lets up. Residents, however, want a Zoom meeting now, before it is too late. Above all, they want to avoid Covid-19 deaths among the community of asylum seekers.
Meanwhile, Cahersiveen locals remain impressively united in supporting the refugees.
“The residents and the wider community are working together to bring this debacle – and hopefully Direct Provision – to an end,” Lucy Henehan-Gavin, an artist and a Cahersiveen local told me. “I have never seen a community so united.”
Maybe the end of direct provision really is nigh.