- 06 Jun 19
The extraordinary circumstances of the death of Ms. Sylva Tukula, in a Direct Provision centre, have yet to be fully explained. But the Department of Justice and Equality has apologised for the fact that the South African transgender woman was buried without the knowledge of her friends and colleagues.
The Department of Justice and Equality has apologised to the friends and colleagues of Ms. Sylva Tukula (photo above © Amach! LGBT Galway), who was buried recently, without the knowledge of those who had been close to her.
The circumstances of the burial were highly controversial and regarded as an insult by members of the LGBT+ community in Ireland.
Sylva Tukula was a transgender South African woman who had come to Ireland as an asylum seeker. Sylva Tukula took her final breath in the Great Western House Direct Provision Centre in Galway – an all male centre to which she had been confined – on the 2nd of August 2018.
Gardaí kept her body for the required, procedural nine months while attempting to contact her family in South Africa via Interpol. That having failed, in early May 2019, Sylva Tukula was buried without ceremony, alone and almost 15,000km away from her original home. She had never been allowed to make a new home here.
Sylva Tukula is believed to rest in a HSE owned plot in Bohermore cemetery.
“This system (Direct Provision) failed our friend Sylva this last, final time,” the Galway-based LGBT group Amach said. It is a judgement with which it would be impossible to disagree.
Established in 2000, direct provision is the system used to process asylum seekers in Ireland. It was originally intended as an “interim system” to house asylum seekers as their applications were being processed. However, instead of the original, promised six months to process asylum applications, the average asylum seeker spends 23 months in Direct Provision – with many applicants being stuck in the system for five years or more.
As an International Protection Applicant – the official term for an asylum seeker in Ireland – Sylva Tukula was not able to work, cook for herself or seek further education.
Amach posted a press release on their Facebook page on Tuesday. It makes for painful reading, exposing the callousness with which asylum seekers – and those that care about them – seem to be routinely treated here.
“We had the understanding,” the post explained, “that we would be made aware of the funeral arrangements in advance so that our community, Sylva’s Galway family, could be a part of this service, and to ensure that her life was celebrated on the day of her burial. We continually checked with Government representatives for updates, while receiving no new information regarding any arrangements.”
The cause of Sylva Tukula’s death remains unknown. Dr Ciarán Mac Loughlin, Galway City Coroner, told The Irish Times: “We would have informed them but no one said anything to me or the bereavement officer in Galway.”
And he added: “We certainly would be very upset if people thought this was done in any surreptitious or underhand manner. It wasn’t, we had nothing to hide behind. If the interested parties had said they wanted to take custody of the body that would have been fine, we would have released it to them.”
It appears that there was a failure on the part of the Department of Justice and the Garda Síochána to liaise adequately, both between the two organisations and with the friends of Syvla Tukula. The Department of Justice apparently learned of the May 9th burial two weeks after it had taken place.
A spokesperson for the department has now apologised for the “unintended distress” caused.
“The Department of Justice and Equality has expressed its deepest sympathies and condolences to the friends and colleagues of the deceased, Ms. Sylva Tukula,” a statement issued to Hot Press said. “Indeed shortly after her death, officials from the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) attended a memorial for her organised by her friends in the community and centre management and funded by the Department.
“That said, the Department also deeply regrets the unintended obvious distress caused to Ms. Tukula’s friends and colleagues upon hearing of her burial after the event.
“Unfortunately, communication of the release of Ms. Tukula’s remains was only confirmed to RIA after the event, by which time she had unfortunately already been buried. However the Department intends to liaise with her friends and colleagues and to offer to hold an appropriate memorial event in the locality, which they can attend.
“Minister of State David Stanton will write to representatives from Amach LGBT+ today,” the statement added.
“By way of background, where a person dies while they are being provided with accommodation by RIA, RIA works closely with the centre manager to assist the family in accessing the supports provided by the State, and to ensure that any residents affected by the death are assisted in accessing services that can support them. All deaths and serious incidents that occur within accommodation centres provided by the Department are referred to the Gardaí as a matter of course and the Gardaí in turn refer all deaths to the local Coroner’s office. As is the case with all Gardaí/Coroner matters, the Reception and Integration Agency is not privy to information pertaining to individual investigations carried out under their remit.
“Following the death of Ms. Tukula, RIA undertook to assist with her burial and to liaise with her friends through centre management and a local NGO. A member of RIA staff was in contact with An Garda Síochána (AGS) in relation to this matter in late March 2019 to get an update on the release of the remains. AGS advised that a request was to be made to the Superintendent’s office to have Ms Tukula’s remains released for burial. This request was made on 4 April 2019 and RIA sent reminders on 17 April 2019, and 3 May 2019.
“An update from the Superintendent’s office was received by RIA on 21 May, stating that all avenues had been exhausted for contacting Ms Tukula’s next of kin and that the decision to release her remains now rested with the Coroner’s office in Galway West. The following day RIA contacted the Coroner’s office who advised RIA to contact the University Hospital in Galway. Upon contacting the hospital, RIA was informed that the burial of Ms Tukula had taken place on 9 May 2019 on the authority of the Coroner.
“In light of the above, it is clear that there was a breakdown in communication in this particular case, which the Department very much regrets. The Department will take all necessary steps to ensure that this outcome is never repeated.”
The Kildare South Fianna Fáil TD, Fiona O'Loughlin had earlier backed the call by LGBT group Teach Solais for an independent investigation. The Fianna Fáil spokesperson for Equality and Immigration said:
“The friends of Sylva Tukula were denied their right to give her a proper burial ceremony as was their wish. They had kept in touch with the Department of Justice and Equality and requested updates as to when Sylva’s body may be released yet despite this, Sylva was buried by the State at the beginning of May with no ceremony and none of her friends present.”
On direct provision Fiona O’Loughlin had this to say:
“The Direct Provision system is not fit for purpose and requires robust independent oversight. Asylum seekers are spending too long in the system which was designed to be a short-term interim provision and, as a result, integration is impeded.”
Anyone who wishes to be a part of an event commemorate Sylva’s life is encouraged to contact Amach LGBT through email at [email protected]