- 12 Aug 20
The emergency accommodation Direct Provision centre ha been a centre of controversy because of poor conditions, as highlighted by Hot Press. Now, the Department of Justice has confirmed that the centre is to be shot down.
The Department of Justice has told Hot Press that it is shutting down an emergency accommodation centre for asylum seekers in a small Co. Clare town.
Earlier in June, we had reported on the shabby living arrangements prevailing in the Central Hotel, a makeshift Direct Provision Centre in Miltown Malbay. Residents were also very unhappy with other aspects of the circumstances at this particular centre.
Last week, we caught up with the remaining residents of the centre to find out if the situation had improved. The answer was a resounding no.
In response to a fresh query, however, the Department of Justice has now revealed that the “transfers of all residents from Miltown Malbay will be completed by the end of the week.
“Following the completion of transfers, the Department does not intend to continue its use of this emergency location,” a spokesperson added.
Locals had been calling on the Government to move the residents for months, penning open letters and contacting politicians. The decision to close the centre can therefore be seen as a victory for common sense – and indeed for the right kind of campaigning on what is a vital human rights issue.
While locals and the residents of Central Hotel welcome the Department's new announcement, asylum seekers told us that the traumatic memory of living there would linger with them for. long time.
HOW LONG IS SHORT?
The Department of Justice had previously told Hot Press that it is running 33 ‘emergency accommodation centres’ for asylum seekers across Ireland.
Hot Press also asked the Department of Justice about the standard of, and the acceptable length of stay in, these makeshift centres. The Department did not say, but it is commonly understood that centres of this kind are intended – and equipped – only for very brief sojourns. Their temporary nature inevitably makes for a distressing living experience if they become semi-permanent.
Residents at Miltown Malbay’s Direct Provision centre told us that some individuals had lived there for over a year. They were transferred to the Co. Clare town against their will and were largely forgotten until people began to make their concerns known.
The first group of residents arrived in May 2019. Many of them were moved in December 2019, to be replaced by a fresh batch of asylum seekers.
The Clare-based centre is currently home to seven men. This number was 12 in June – but residents say that five of them couldn't stand what they considered a horrible environment anymore, and left.
They are reportedly staying with friends now, while looking for job opportunities in Dublin. The International Protection Accommodation Services (IPAS) which is part of the Department of Justice, know of their whereabouts, the residents said.
Originally, their requests to be transferred out of Miltown Malbay had been rejected, seemingly due to concerns about the risk of spreading the coronavirus.
The Department of Justice has told Hot Press that the social curbs, introduced to combat the spread of coronavirus, had impeded refugee transfers, adding that IPAS’s “ability to respond to transfer requests is contingent on public health advice and subject to availability within the accommodation system.”
“However, the sourcing and provision of suitable accommodation to facilitate independent living for residents remains a priority,” a spokesperson said.
Speaking to Hot Press, one former resident of Central Hotel, recalled a painful experience of being publicly shamed for playing music in town.
"Before the lockdown, I was teaching dance to people in Miltown Malbay," the resident, who teaches Kizomba – a type of dance that originated in Angola – said. "I was hoping to get an opportunity to be a dance teacher before Covid happened.”
However, he was shouted at by someone in authority for playing songs.
"He said, we were making noise,” the former resident said. “He shouted at me, and I started crying because I was sad, you know? And I always try to be happy.”
The man said he now lives in Dublin hoping to get a job in a ‘warehouse'.
The residents said that there was a paternalistic approach to residents and that condescending remarks always took a psychological toll.
“We are treated like we’re children,” another man said.
Áine Ryan who organises a Welcome Group, which was set up to assist and help asylum seekers in Miltown Malbay to integrate into the community, also rejected the paternalistic approach.
"We love the music and the vibrancy that these guys bring to the town,” she said.
A threatening letter was delivered to Ryan’s house after she spoke on the radio about the plight of the Central Hotel's residents.
STALE RICE AND CHIPS
Another man said that the manager at the centre has told him that he eats ‘too much’.
“He said, ‘you’re getting fat, you’re eating too much’,’” the man recalled.
The residents also said that the food quality at the centre was notoriously low, but with the weekly allowance for those in Direct Provision set at less than €40, they couldn't afford to cook for themselves.
“I have lost five kilograms since I came to Miltown Malbay because of the food,” another man said. “I cannot eat that food. I won't say the food is ‘bad', but I cannot eat it.”
While opinions about the quality or appropriateness of food can vary, residents insisted that the centre's chef was not to blame, pointing instead at the ingredients provided. To maximise profit, private firms running Direct Provision centres often opt to use the cheapest products available in the making of the food at the centres they run.
The issue of cost-cutting was seen at its starkest after it was revealed that the staff at Skellig Star Hotel – the infamous Direct Provision Centre in Cahersiveen that is also set to shutter – used Mr Price white-vinegar-based cleaning products to 'deep-clean' the centre at the time it was battling a severe coronavirus outbreak.
Residents in Miltown Malbay, said that they often have to eat chips and what they describe as stale rice. Cooked vegetables are also sometimes served at the centre.
The food issue at the centre became toxic – and prompted bewilderment and fury in the town – when the centre’s manager stopped locals from donating food or ingredients to asylum seekers.
One man recalled having his bag examined for outside food. He was told that it was because of concerns about the spread of coronavirus.
Pauline Fitzgerald, a Miltown Malbay local, spoke with astonishment when recounting that the centre's manager had disposed of food she had purchased for asylum seekers, the stated rationale being ‘to protect them’.
“Over €30 worth of beef,” she said.
HELL IN HEAVEN
Residents also lived in damp, cramped rooms and slept on bunker beds under leaking roofs: as highlighted in a report in Hot Press, they had been given power tools to deal with maintenance problems on their own.
Access to hot water was sometimes limited, and broken heaters made winter nights challenging to endure.
Ryan said the community in Miltown Malbay enjoyed having the new members as they brought a different kind of culture and kindness to the town.
"They always volunteered and helped with community projects," Ryan said.
She said, however, that they deserved to live in humane conditions while waiting for a decision on their asylum-seeking applications.
The men said that they adored Miltown Malbay and the people there – yet the difficulties of living in a makeshift centre had made life unbearable for them.
Finding a job in the small town – the population is about 2,000 – had also proved impossible.
"No jobs are going, only in restaurants and cafes, and they all go to the youth as summer jobs," Pauline Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald added that finding a job, even as a builder, is not easy as no major construction projects are ongoing in Miltown Malbay.
Residents of Central Hotel are now waiting their turn to leave, with hopes for the future higher than in many months. But there is also fear: the system has not treated them well so far. Will it change now?.
Miltown Malbay will always bring to mind two contrasting visions, one resident said.
“Miltown Malbay is a paradise,” he told Hot Press, “but inside the centre, it’s hell. I was going crazy there.”
Hopefully that much at least will change as the residents move on to a new phase in their lives.
In a statement issued today, Miltown Malbay locals expressed the hope that the Department of Justice will continue to reform its approach to accommodating asylum seekers:
“We strongly feel that the practice of using any available accommodation, with untrained staff and management for the provision of services to those who come here seeking protection without any assessment of vulnerability or particular needs is a dangerous dereliction of duty by the Department of Justice and Equality and we hope that the closure of the Central Hostel is just the first step in ensuring Ireland begins to comply with its obligations under the Reception Conditions Regulation,” the statement said.
They also commended the pragmatic approach of the new Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee.
“We want to thank Minister Helen McEntee for acknowledging our calls that the centre should be closed and we note that her quick action contrasts strongly with the inaction and obfuscation of her predecessor.”