Asylum Seekers

Hiding the fact they're gay and being harassed by other residents: People talk about life in Direct Provision

“One of the guys was very annoying and used to harass me, he always tried to touch me.”

shutterstock_567961939 File photo Shutterstock / superoke Shutterstock / superoke / superoke

YOU COULD BE sharing a room with people from very different cultures. You can’t choose who you’re sharing with. You can’t choose who you are. Some people come from backgrounds who have a problem with LGBT people so you have to always hide who you are. It is very difficult.
One of the guys was very annoying and used to harass me, he always tried to touch me … There are other guys who just stand in the corridor and ask me to come to their room.

RESIDENTS AT DIRECT Provision centres often have to live in a confined space, sharing a room with people they do not know or get on with.

Some people living in the centres have experienced intimidation, harassment and threats from other residents.

Asylum seekers living in Clondalkin Towers, which is due to close in June, recently spoke to about their experiences living in the centre.

Hicham felt unsafe in his own country, Morocco, where being gay is a criminal offence. He moved to South Africa, but also experienced homophobia there.

Hicham said some people in Johannesburg, where he managed a B&B, accepted him but others did not. “Some people accepted you, some people didn’t accept you – it depended on the area. When you’re at work they call you names like queer, something like that.”

The 34-year-old hoped to settle in South Africa but, over time, he knew this would not happen. He decided to move after being threatened and robbed at gunpoint twice within weeks. Hicham believes the attackers knew him as they were aware he was gay.

They put a gun to my head, they put a gun to my head twice, they took my car twice, they called me names because of my orientation.

Hicham said he moved to Ireland “for safety”. He has lived at the DP centre in Clondalkin since 2017 and is waiting for a decision about his asylum status.

He didn’t foresee having to hide his sexual orientation here but, when he is at the centre, he said he does.

WhatsApp Image 2019-02-23 at 12.25.04 (5) One of the bedrooms in the Clondalkin DP centre.

He said certain residents are openly homophobic, some of whom become aggressive when they drink alcohol – something that isn’t permitted at the centre. 

“It’s a big change, especially when you’re put with two people from very different cultures. You could be sharing a room with people from very different cultures. You can’t choose who you’re sharing with.

You can’t choose who you are. Some people come from backgrounds who have a problem with LGBT people so you have to always hide who you are.

“It is very difficult. I have to pretend to be somebody else. Most of the time I don’t stay in the room, I do a lot of activities.”

Converting religion 

Aisha*, another resident at the centre in Clondalkin, is also waiting to hear about her status. Originally from Pakistan, she arrived in Ireland nearly four years ago.

She is an only child and when her mother died as a result of complications from Motor Neurone Disease she said her uncle forced her to sign over her mother’s property. She has no relationship with her father.

Aisha has been in Ireland since 2015. She said she chose here as she knew a friend who lived in the country. 

She was raised as a Muslim but converted to Christianity while in Ireland – something that has caused tension with some other residents at the centre, including a former roommate of hers.

Aisha said, for many people, Islam is “more than a religion, it’s a lifestyle, it’s an identity”. She started to attend a local church about two years ago, after doing some research on Christianity. She decided to convert but initially wanted to keep the process private.

I didn’t tell anybody, I was trying to understand myself and what I was going through.

Her former roommate was a Muslim and when Aisha stopped praying with her, she began to ask questions. Eventually she had to tell her the truth during Ramadan, as she was not fasting.

“When I told my roommate she said she was very upset with me, that I had disappointed her and really hurt her. She said to me, ‘Your parents brought you up a certain way, would they be happy about this?’

canteen The canteen area in the Clondalkin DP centre.

“People in the centre came up and asked if I was still a Muslim, they knew something was different.

It was a difficult time for me, some people were staring at me when I was getting meals. It was very uncomfortable, I knew they were gossiping about me.

Aisha said people’s religious beliefs should be respected and they should be free to practice whatever religion they identify with.

‘He always tried to touch me’ 

Aisha said she has been harassed and propositioned by other residents on numerous occasions. She said another of her former roommates used to invite people back to their room late at night. 

They would come anytime of the day or night, without being considerate of my privacy. One of the guys was very annoying and used to harass me, he always tried to touch me and wouldn’t listen.

“My roommate would hardly say anything, I was just forced to leave the room every time. It was very upsetting.”

Aisha said she eventually told the centre’s management about the situation and they facilitated a room change for her. 

Aisha said there have been a number of other instances where she has been harassed. 

There are also few guys who just stand in the corridor and ask me to come to their room. 

“There was this guy in particular, who hated me for some reason. He would stare at me and start cursing whenever he would see me. It got worse, he was verbally abusive and called me names all the time. He would also comment on how I dressed.”

Aisha said she “couldn’t take it” and made a formal complaint to management, noting “then things got better”. She said the man in question eventually left the centre.

House rules on harassment and violence 

When asked about the intimidation and harassment experienced by some people in DP centres, the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) said it “does not tolerate any instances of harassment or intimidation against our residents”.

The spokesperson noted that centres implement “house rules” which include the procedures to be followed where a resident wishes to make a complaint about another resident, adding: 

Any incident of intimidation or harassment which may be an offence should be reported to An Garda Siochana for investigation.

They said requests from residents to move rooms within the centre are “dealt with locally by the centre manager”, noting: “Such requests can be facilitated having regard to the need to make full use of the bed spaces they have available to accommodate protection applicants.”

WhatsApp Image 2019-02-23 at 12.25.05 One of the bedrooms in the Clondalkin DP centre.

The spokesperson stated that RIA has a policy around incidences of domestic, sexual and gender based violence and harassment within its centres, which was developed in conjunction with a number of non-governmental organisations including the Irish Refugee Council, Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and the Domestic Violence Advocacy Service.

The policy established the role of a Reporting Officer in centres and the steps they must follow in the event of an incident of domestic, sexual or gender-based violence or harassment against a resident.

The spokesperson said these rules ensure the resident “can access the services they require, which may include access to medical care, access to An Garda Síochána and information on availing of professional help”.

RIA operates one women-only centre in Killarney, Co Kerry, and said “women who feel particularly vulnerable and wish not to be accommodated with males can request a transfer to this centre”. Forty-three women currently live there. 

The spokesperson said the department does not have statistics on the numbers of requests by residents to move room or centre, and whether or not they were granted.

Where a resident requests a transfer to another centre and the move is being facilitated, they said the timing of the transfer is arranged between the resident, the centre manager and the RIA.

The spokesperson said transfers can take place immediately “in exceptional circumstances following serious incidents of breaches of the Accommodation Centre House Rules which may endanger the safety of other residents and staff”. 

Mental health

Aisha is studying for a master’s degree in UCD, which is a University of Sanctuary. It is one of a number of such universities in Ireland, where refugees and asylum seekers can apply for scholarships.

She said she loves her course but most of her classmates assume she is an international student and do not know she lives in a DP centre. Aisha spends most of her time on campus or in the library as she finds it difficult to study at the centre.

As there are set eating times at the centre, she often misses meals and has to skip breakfast (which is served from 8-10am) to make it to morning lectures on time as she needs to get two buses.

She spends most of her €21.60 weekly allowance on food, but said the students’ union helps her buy meals and puts credit on her Leap card so she can travel to and from college.

shutterstock_1056462500 File photo of University College Dublin. Shutterstock / haireena Shutterstock / haireena / haireena

Aisha said it’s “very important” for asylum seekers and refugees to be able to pursue an education in Ireland so they can integrate and get jobs. 

She said being in university has helped her emotionally, after a difficult period. 

At one point I was seriously depressed and suicidal, I was feeling very useless – it gets to you when you start thinking about it.

“You do the same thing every day – wake up and go downstairs to collect your food then back up to your room, there is nowhere else to go … I know I’m normally not like that, I’m a very positive person. I got myself busy with activities, I put my energy into other situations.”

Hicham has also struggled with mental health issues while living at the centre but is doing better now – something that was partly helped by his involvement in sport. 

He plays with the Dublin Devils (a gay-inclusive football team), is a member of Sanctuary Runners (which aims to help asylum seekers integrate with the wider community) and does volunteer work. He said getting involved in sport is “the best way to integrate into society”.

“Firstly it helps you mentally, then physically, it helps you to integrate quickly, make new friends, learn a new culture – that’s the only way.”

‘You are a number, not a human being’ 

Both Hicham and Aisha, as well as others residents we spoke to, said feelings of isolation and loneliness are common among people living in DP – some of whom may have mental health issues and have experienced traumatic events in their lives. 

“A lot of people shouldn’t be in the hostel because have mental health issues, but they put them there because they don’t care about us,” Hicham said. 

You’re only a number, you’re not a human being. We don’t want to end up in Direct Provision, it’s not a good place to live. It is like an open prison. 

“I like to keep myself busy because it can be very difficult, very difficult,” he said.

Hicham’s mother died in Morocco last year and he didn’t attend her funeral because he would not be able to re-enter Ireland if he left.

“My mother passed away last year, I couldn’t go to her funeral. She had breast cancer. The last time I saw her was when I was in South Africa five years ago. It was very difficult [to not go to the funeral].”

Impact on mental health 

Nasc, the Migrant and Refugee Rights Centre, has consistently highlighted the negative impact living in DP can have on a person’s wellbeing.

A spokesperson said a “significant factor” is “the length of time people wait for asylum applications to be decided, without knowing how long they will be waiting”. They said “living years on end in this limbo” can have “an overwhelming impact on people’s mental health”.

The spokesperson said specific instances of intimation experienced by residents highlight “the inherent unsuitability of an institutionalised system for accommodating asylum seekers, especially when it take so long to process asylum applications”.

“How issues are handled varies very much from centre to centre, and RIA’s role is not a policing one.

Since situations like this continue to arise, and will continue to arise in any setting where strangers are expected to share rooms and facilities for years on end, it is not enough to say the ‘house rules’ are inadequate to responding to these situations as they arise – the whole system is inadequate.

Nasc is among the organisations to call on the government to implement a vulnerability assessment “that will help determine people’s needs in terms of their accommodation and the other services they will need to be able to access to ensure they are getting the supports they need”.

“If people who would be deemed to be vulnerable – for example people experiencing trauma as a result of torture or sexual violence; people who are LGBT; people who are trafficked – are not being supported appropriately in Direct Provision, that is because they are not being assessed for those vulnerabilities and assigned accommodation that suits those identified vulnerabilities,” the spokesperson said.

A vulnerability assessment is a statutory obligation of opting into the EU (Recast) Reception Conditions Directive, which was transposed into Irish legislation last June. However, it is yet to be introduced here.  

hallway A hallway in the Clondalkin DP centre.

The Nasc spokesperson said the specific needs of vulnerable adults and children who may be experiencing trauma or mental health issues are “not necessarily getting the supports they need to overcome these issues that would be specific to the asylum/refugee experience”.

They said a “very significant problem” is the continued lack of a vulnerability assessment for people in the asylum process which can help identify these issues as soon as possible, to ensure people receive appropriate supports.

This is something that is legally required for the State to provide since last June when the Reception Conditions Directive was formalised into Irish legislation and has not yet been put in place by the HSE.

The spokesperson noted that specialised supports are concentrated in urban places and main cities and “it may not be logistically possible for people in remote Direct Provision centres to reach them”.

A spokesperson for the Irish Refugee Council said the organisation has “spoken with several people who feel unsafe in centres for a variety of reasons including their gender or sexual orientation, or due to traumatic past experiences”.

We also have concerns that the vulnerability of some groups may be completely disregarded. Acute needs often go unrecognised or unaddressed and quite often people are accommodated in rural parts of the country with limited to no access to psycho-social or other supports.

“Direct Provision is a form of institutionalised living and what these issues highlight is the fact that accommodating people in their hundreds for protracted periods of time in this manner results in interpersonal issues and conflicts arising.

“This form of accommodation is very stressful and can exacerbate existing traumas. Significant delays in processing applications also mean that people are living in these circumstances with no way of knowing how long it will continue or when they will be able to move on with their lives,” they added.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice and Equality said any health issues of DP residents are addressed by the Health Service Executive and the Department of Health.

They said the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA), which falls under the department’s remit, liaises closely with colleagues in the HSE and other departments and agencies “to address the health needs of residents”.

“Any residents with complex medical conditions are assessed in Balseskin Reception Centre so that their needs can be addressed. Protection applicants have access to all emergency medical services immediately on arrival in the country,” the spokesperson said.

They added that GPs or medical personnel in hospital can refer asylum seekers who have suffered torture or trauma for specialist medical services in Dublin or other centres.

The department did not respond to a request for comment on why a vulnerability assessment has not been introduced to date. 

Information about support services can be read here.

*Names have been changed to protect people’s identities.