- 10 Sep 20
The system of direct provision into which asylum seekers are plunged in Ireland has been revealed as deeply oppressive and in many ways unjust and damaging. For those who identify as LGBTQ, like Preet Tahul, it is even worse, prompting some to fall into a deep depression…
Being queer in Ireland in 2020 is an experience of regular visibility – assuming, of course, that one is white, Irish and not poor.
But there are others who, because of economic, cultural or religious pressures, often grapple for visibility and representation. This applies very specifically to members of the LGBTQ+ community who are seeking international protection in this country.
So what does it mean to be queer and lead a communal life in the Irish Direct Provision system?
For Preet Tahul, a gay man living in Athlone Direct Provision Centre, it involves an everyday struggle for acceptance – and for peace.
VICTIM OF RAPE
Preet Tahul is from Mauritius, a small island some 1,200 miles off the south-east coast of the African continent, surrounded by simmering seas. More than half of the population of Mauritius follow some form of Hinduism – so does Tahul.
However, hundreds of years of consecutive colonisation by the Dutch, French and the British combined with the periodic arrival of Indians, Africans and Chinese has left the country culturally, gastronomically and ethnically diverse.
Tahul, 42, is tall and genial and wears small hoop earrings in both ears. He explains that for some Mauritians the practice of ‘voodoo’ or ‘exorcism’ is an accepted form of healing mental maladies. And in some Mauritian families, gay men are not only marginalised but intensely reviled. Homosexuality is deemed to be a mental illness.
Researchers have documented the practice of exorcism in Mauritius as a means to "dispel an evil spirit". In the 1800s,‘witch doctors’ and self-proclaimed ‘sorcerers’ thrived in the country. Today, some people still believe in them, Preet Tahul says, using witchcraft combined with so called ‘conversion therapy’ to alter their children’s sexual identities.
"My parents were thinking that being gay, I was possessed by a spirit,” he explains, “so they were bringing me to an exorcist to make me straight.”
Tahul, who is polite and precise, said that he was also a victim of rape in Mauritius. Later, the truth of his experiences was questioned by members of International Protection Appeals Tribunal in Ireland.
SEIZED HIS PASSPORT
Although Tahul claimed asylum in Ireland on 3 August 2018, he wasn’t always an asylum seeker here. His soft and weary-sounding voice turns vivacious, recalling his time as a student of Accounting in Dublin, in the mid-2000s.
“I was so happy in Dublin as a student,” he says. “Almost everybody accepted me.”
His happiness was short-lived, however.
“I was studying, and just when I was on the verge to take my exams, my parents tricked me into going back. My father said that my mother was very sick," he recalls.
Back in Mauritius, his parents seized his passport. He was pressured to stay and marry a woman.
"I could never do it to any woman. It would be so unfair," he says.
Tahul, who constantly mentions his love of 'productivity' throughout the interview, says that he stayed in Mauritius and spent years working as an accountant there. His yearning for acceptance and love, however, finally prompted him to escape.
He flew to the UK first, where a friend suggested he should seek asylum in his beloved Ireland. It seemed like a plan. Later, his application was rejected, and he is currently awaiting a decision from the appeals tribunal.
A queer asylum seeker's experience, however, vastly differs from that of a student.
Preet Tahul knows that it is a sensitive issue when he says that some asylum seekers, whose religion or culture condemns homosexuality, have verbally or physically harassed him, since he began living within the Irish Direct Provision system.
During a brief stay in a Finglas centre, he says that he was routinely harassed in the bathroom of the accommodation.
“I was sharing the room with two guys who were homophobic,” he remembers, “and on the block where I was staying there were only guys, and the bathrooms and toilets were communal.
“It was very tough for me, because in the morning when I was going to use the shower or toilet, they were making so much fun of me, and you know, I’m very feminine physically.”
Tahul now lives in a caravan home in the direct provision centre in Athlone, anxiously hoping that his next roommate might be a member of the LGBTQ+ community – and therefore accepting of his sexual identity.
He breaks down and cries speaking about his experiences in direct provision. The hostile environment, combined with the nervous cycle of waiting for a final decision on the asylum application, has made him suicidal.
“I take sleeping tablets,” he says, “and anti-depressants. I’m suicidal.”
He shakes a bottle of pills.
Tahul says that he was forced to quit his job as an accountant in Dublin city, as the tiring daily commute proved unsustainable.
“And I can’t stay two nights in Dublin because they say that I have to be back in the centre every night,” he adds.
There are no statistics on the number of LGBTQ+ people seeking asylum in Ireland.
Preet Tahul, however, suggests that the creation of specific centres for LGBTQ+ asylum seekers might make life more tolerable for people, as they play the waiting game.
Bulelani Mfaco, an asylum seeker and spokesperson for Movement of Asylum Seekers Ireland (MASI) is also gay. HE disagrees with the idea of segregation.
“It’s well-documented that LGBTQ+ asylum seekers experience a lot of that including violence in Direct Provision,” he says. “But I’m not supportive of the idea of a centre for LGBTQ+ asylum seekers.”
Mfaco says that, instead, the Government must “assist asylum seekers to live independently in the community, which provides protection against such harm.”
Bulelano advocates making changes like helping asylum seekers secure a room outside the Direct Provision system; or extending the validity of their work permits to 12-months.
Collette O’Regan, Training and Information Coordinator at LGBTQ Ireland, also suggests to Hot Press that educating homophobic residents would be a good start.
“Opinion is divided among LGBTI+ asylum seekers on wanting their own centre or wanting a safe centre where they can be themselves,” she says. “Some feel their own centre will marginalise and segregate them. They feel they want to be in the mainstream DP system but safe to be who they are.
“Personally, I support a safe centre where everyone can be who they are and not a separate centre.”
OSTRACISED AND TRAPPED
Collette O’Regan says that tLGBTQ Ireland regularly receives requests for aid and advice from LGBTQ+ asylum seekers.
“They seek legal advice,” she says, “as well as mental health support, as they slide into depression and anxiety is increasing, and yes, they are living with harassment and ostracism due to being openly who they are.”
When openly queer Direct Provision residents experience harassment, O’Regan adds, “this sends a message to those still in the closet to stay in the closet, and this impacts more and more anxiety, isolation, sadness, fear, etc.”
Tahul, recalls falling into a deep bout of depression which prompted him to withdraw from his friends at the LGBTQ Ireland support group, causing a worried O’Regan to travel to Athlone to meet him.
“We spent the whole day where I cried,” he recalls, “where I expressed myself. From that day on, Colette keeps an eye on me: she boosted my moral support.
"After that, I try to keep in touch with my friends, but you know, deep down I just want to have a routine in my life. I have always been very productive."
O’Regan says that if Tahul – who has mostly been a bastion of hope – is experiencing severe depression, then it's hard to imagine how others are coping.
“So, if someone like him is struggling,” she says, “you can imagine how hard it is on others who are less resilient, less confident on being who they are.
“Covid-19 has made our monthly in-person group meeting impossible. This is a lifeline, which our now bi-monthly zooms are just a whisper of, so the impact of the additional break-off in face to face supports has been very damaging on a number of our group members.”
O’Regan urges the State to quickly execute the new national standards for Direct Provision, set to be implemented from 1 January 2021.
EMPATHY AND UNDERSTANDING
Vulnerability assessment and training staff and managers of Direct Provision centres for responding to possible needs of LGBTQ+ asylum seekers are on the agenda of the new policy.
Assessing the unique accommodation needs of applicants for international protection is also a part of the strategy.
“All of these things which will positively impact all those in international protection will also positively impact on LGBTI+ asylum seekers,” O’Regan says.
Meanwhile, Preet Tahul says that he tries to look life in the eye. Biding his time as best he can, he is collecting a litany of certificates and diplomas in different fields.
“They need to speed up the process, even if people get a positive reply, they have to wait for months just for the Minister to sign a letter,” he says. “The Minister should think that a person’s life depends on a signature.”
The coronavirus pandemic has shed light on the shabby living arrangements and mental health cost of the Irish Direct Provision system.
Last month, an Afghan asylum seeker died by suicide in a Co Monaghan emergency Direct Provision centre following a period of Covid-19-related self-isolation at the centre. He was 30 years old.
It is a sad fact that underlines how important it is to act sooner rather than later to assist LGBTQ+ asylum seekers. A minority within an oppressed minority, they really do need empathy and understanding.
• For support and information, you can reach LGBTQ Ireland’s helpline at 1890 929 539. Suicide prevention helplines are also available to people affected by issues raised in this article. Call Samaritans Freephone 116 123 or email [email protected].