- 18 Sep 19
While third-level education offers a precious outlet for a small number of people in direct provision, as the case of Lesley Mkoko starkly illustrates, they are routinely expected to study under appalling conditions. [pictured above, Lissywollen Accommodation Centre, Athlone courtesy of Vukasin Nedeljovic/ asylumarchive.com]
“When I walk into those gates, I feel for the first time, like a human being. It is the only place where you are not discriminated against, where you are not segregated. Where you have friends, genuine friends. Where you become a student.”
Lesley Mkoko is a mature student in his second year studying Sociology in UCD. He is also living under direct provision in Waterford. Every morning, he wakes up at 4.30am in order to make the 6am bus up to Dublin, so he can be in class by 10am.
“Waterford area partnership assists with only €150 a semester,” explains Lesley. “A semester is 10 weeks. €150 euro is only nine trips to Dublin.”
Lesley’s direct provision centre doesn’t allow him to prepare his own food, so he misses breakfast, and more often than not, dinner too. UCD offers assistance in the form of a lunch voucher, which is often the only meal he will get all day.
He is often forced to stay on campus until he can get the last bus. The crowded conditions of his accommodation and lack of wi-fi make doing course work there next to impossible.
“In direct provision, there is no space to live,” he says. “No student has the space to even sit and write homework.”
He Is The Jailer
I’m speaking to Lesley over the phone on a Friday afternoon. He has just stepped off the bus to return to his crowded accommodation, a former hotel room he shares with three other people. Crowding on this scale doesn’t happen in the prison system. “Prisoners do not share their spaces,” Lesley says.
Direct provision was introduced in 1999 as an emergency measure intended – allegedly – to speed up asylum seeker applications. Twenty years later, direct provision centres have become little more than human storage, with many migrants languishing in squalid conditions for years. The majority of direct provision sites are run by private businesses such as Mosney PLC and Aramark, the latter of which also owns upper-class lifestyle brand Avoca.
These private corporations receive tens-of-millions in payment every year. As the refugee crisis worsened, and more people were displaced from their homes and forced to travel to Ireland and enter direct provision, these corporations’ profits grew. In contrast, those living under direct provision receive a derisory weekly allowance of €38. Their misery, it seems, has been turned into an asset for others.
The Department of Justice and Equality oversees the running of direct provision centres. However, they have singularly failed to stop conditions from deteriorating to the point where human rights activists, nationally and internationally, have condemned the centres as inhumane and degrading.
“People think that you’re sponging on the nation,” says Lesley. “That you’re sponging on taxes, sponging off the Irish people. In actual fact, you’re in jail – you’re literally in prison.”
Lesley’s centre manager understands the difficulty of studying under direct provision, but he is unable to help due to the structure of the system.
“He’s employed to do a job,” says Lesley. “He’s employed to look after prisoners and he is the jailer. Look after these prisoners, make sure they don’t live well, make sure they don’t live like human beings. They are prisoners.”
The direct provision system is crowded. This means that third-level students living under it have little chance of getting a transfer to a centre closer to their place of study. Some, like Lesley, have to commute for hours a day. Others have to resort to even more severe measures.
“We have a student who often sleeps at the airport,” he says, “because it doesn’t close and it’s warmer. It’s easier for him to move between the airport and school than it is for him to travel from the direct provision centre.”
Blinded By Ideology
If an asylum seeker lives under direct provision for at least three years, they may apply for third level education, but college fees make this option impossible for anyone applying through conventional channels. Fiona Hurley of Nasc, a refugee rights non-profit, explains that accessing any form of education is beyond the financial means of students living under direct provision.
“A student could end up being asked to pay €4,000 for a one-year PLC course, which is only FETAC level 5,” she says. “Organisations like ourselves and the Irish Refugee Council try to do fundraisers, but that’s not a systemic solution. It can help a couple of individuals, but it won’t fix the issue of actually accessing education.”
To address this issue, some universities offer sanctuary scholarships. These are administered under the auspices of Universities of Sanctuary Ireland, a non-profit that seeks to foster a more welcoming culture towards asylum seekers and refugees in higher education. Participating universities are awarded the title of ‘University of Sanctuary’.
“One of the key parts of being a University of Sanctuary is that you offer some form of access to higher education,” says Veronica Crosbie of UoSI.
Six out of the eight universities in Ireland have earned the UoS designation.
“There’s 100, maybe 110 universities in the UK, and 11 of them are universities of sanctuary. So by comparison Ireland is doing phenomenally well.”
Organisations like Nasc and UoSI offer a ray of hope to asylum seekers, but it is not enough. Direct provision is by definition a state of limbo. Residents’ entire existence shrinks to a state of waiting, often for years, for their applications and appeals to be reviewed by the State. Access to education can often be the only escape from feelings of alienation.
Scholarships are a fantastic boon, but don’t address the reality of systemic exclusion. Even if a student manages to earn a scholarship, they still have to overcome all the other hurdles faced under direct provision. The government does little to assist.
“It isn’t part of their remit,” Fiona Hurley says. “They look at the basic reception needs and the provision of food. They wouldn’t see themselves as being responsible for adults reaching education.”
More and more, direct provision seems to be a way for the government to pay private businesses to house people that they would rather forget. Intended as a temporary measure, direct provision is virtually unchanged from its inception.
“I would be a lot more free homeless than I am in direct provision,” says Lesley Mkoko. It is a shocking statement. The government has utterly failed the 10,000 people that are homeless, and yet to Lesley, their situation is preferable to his own. It’s as if the government is blinded by ideology, relying on the private sector to solve the problem of housing and caring for our most vulnerable people. The result is a proven failure, yet nothing seems to change.
I Get Very Emotional
Direct provision is, I believe, beyond salvaging – there have been small reforms over the years, but these are tokenistic, and do nothing to address the rot at the core of the system. When Lesley hears people praising the incremental concessions, he can only react with frustration.
“I hear them say, ‘You’ve been given the opportunity to cook’, as if cooking – COOKING for god’s sake – is freedom. You’ve done absolutely nothing; you can’t tell me you’ve given me freedom because you allow me to cook.”
In general, living in direct provision shuts people like Lesley away from the community around them. College serves as much more than a simple opportunity to learn. To Lesley, it is a place where he can find community, friendship, and dignity.
“It’s home to me,” he says.
College holds challenges for all students, but compared to the brutal quagmire of direct provision, they are trivial. Lesley and people like him have to summon heroic levels of perseverance. Naturally, when Lesley sees a fellow asylum seeker graduate despite all the challenges, he is overwhelmed.
“I salute them,” he says. “I get very emotional when I see them graduate. I don’t understand how it happens, but by God’s grace it does.”