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'Our friend was badly let down by the State': Calls for transparency around deaths in Direct Provision one year after Sylva Tukula's burial

The CSO is aiming to collect data on Direct Provision deaths but the Justice Department says it has no role in collecting this.

Image: Shutterstock/NKM999

THE CENTRAL STATISTICS Office is trying to source data on deaths in Direct Provision over the past five years as part of the State’s response to Covid-19 yet the Department of Justice & Equality no longer holds this information. 

There is no centralised record of names, dates, nationalities or cause of death for people who have applied for International Protection in Ireland, and who die while living in Direct Provision centres. 

The CSO is looking to examine – in the context of Covid-19 – what procedures are in place for those asylum seekers who die in Direct Provision, how many deaths have occurred since 2015 and what burial proceedings took place. 

As the CSO seeks to undertake this work, a lack of information could prevent it from accurately capturing mortality in Ireland’s Direct Provision centres, said Irish Refugee Council CEO Nick Henderson. 

“A baseline data of all deaths in Direct Provision unfortunately does not exist. At least publicly,” he said.

The Refugee Council was recently contacted by the CSO looking for this information. It asked what the procedure around the registration of these deaths is, who registers them and whether or not embassies abroad are consulted.

It said the queries were part of a broader plan to capture mortality during Covid-19 for those whose deaths may not be registered with the General Register Office or whose death notices may not be published on RIP.ie.

The Department of Justice & Equality, however does not collect, document or make public – where necessary – this information. 

‘Reluctance’

Social Democrat TD Cian O’Callaghan says that is “not acceptable” for it be withheld by the Department. 

“It emerged previously that the cause of death of people living in Direct Provision wasn’t established in a number of cases,” he said. “Without this information it is impossible to tell if their death was related to their living conditions in Direct Provision.”

Deaths occurring in Direct Provision Centres – and the State’s response – have been under scrutiny since May 2019 when Sylva Tukula, a transgender woman, died at Great Western Direct Provision centre and was later buried alone on the orders of the State without her friends being told. 

Tukula’s case was described as “an insensitivity at the heart of the State” after it emerged that – despite her friends in Galway asking to be informed when her body was to be released for burial – she was buried alone in Bohermore Cemetery. 

One year later, Galway LGBT group Amach, members of which had known Tukula since June 2017, say questions remain over how deaths in Direct Provision are treated. Their friend, they said, was “badly let down by the State”. 

The group is calling for the Department to implement additional policies arising from deaths – and burials – for those who die while living in Direct Provision. 

The Department’s International Protection Accommodation Service (IPAS) has already implemented two new policies arising from deaths occurring in its centres since Tukula’s case came to light. 

It says it now makes “formal requests” to coroners in the event of death to ensure a case like Tukula’s is “never repeated”. It has also implemented a “Critical Incident Policy” in its centres when a person dies. 

‘Obligations’

Since the policy was enacted in November, four more asylum seekers living in Direct Provision have died.

More recently, NGOs and TDs have questioned the registration and transparency around deaths in the system.  

O’Callaghan has called for greater clarity. 

“We need to know how many people seeking asylum die while in the care of the State and what are the causes of death,” O’Callaghan told TheJournal.ie.

TheJournal.ie previously reported that information about deaths in Direct Provision is no longer released by the Department. 

Records were released each year about the number and nature of deaths of people seeking international protection in Ireland but the Department stopped providing the details three years ago. 

The Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI) said legislative requirements should be in place for people who die Ireland’s protection process, regardless of whether they live in Direct Provision. 

“The Department has never been transparent about deaths in the Asylum Reception System,” MASI spokesperson Bulelani Mfaco said. “Many asylum seekers are not familiar with procedures to be followed, especially when they wish to have remains repatriated.”

Between 2007 and 2017, 44 people died in Direct Provision, including three stillborn babies and one ‘neonatal death’.

In 15 of the cases IPAS recorded the suspected cause of death as “unknown”, or simply “died”.

Among the causes of death listed as “unknown” was a 41-year-old man who was “found in room by roommate” in 2008 and a 53-year-old man who was “found dead in his bed at 9am”.

Since it stopped releasing this information, the Department said, as recently as last week, that it has “no official role” in collating statistics for deaths in Direct Provision.

IPAS “may have not always be informed of a death” if it occurs in hospital either, former Minister of State David Stanton said in response to a Parliamentary Question. 

Deaths which occur in Direct Provision centres, said Stanton, are referred to Gardaí and then to coroners. IPAS, however, “is not privy” to information regarding investigations carried out by Gardaí. 

‘Ensure Transparency’ 

In recent months, the Department and IPAS have come under pressure following controversy at its Emergency Accommodation centres, including the former Skellig Star Hotel in Caherciveen, Co Kerry.

Responsibility for Direct Provision centres is now set to transfer to the newly established Department of Children, Disability, Equality and Integration and Minister Roderic O’Gorman.

In December, the UN’s Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination called on Ireland to “ensure transparency” around deaths in the system and to “publish data on deaths in Direct Provision centres”. 

Irish Refugee Council CEO Nick Henderson said that the Committee’s recommendation shows the need to ensure transparency. 

“It is particularly important that there is an open investigation by an Independent Inspectorate to identify the facts and circumstances surrounding a death [in Direct Provision] and to identify any shortcomings or failings which may arise,” said Henderson. 

“This could be modelled on how the Inspector of Prisons investigates deaths in custody,” he said. 

‘Not Urgent’

Meanwhile, correspondence obtained by TheJournal.ie shows how Ireland’s State bodies communicated internally following the death of Sylva Tukula. 

It was reported last June that, failing to contact Tukula’s next of kin, she was buried alone on the orders of the State. 

The Department at the time said it regretted the “unintended obvious distress” caused by the breakdown in communication. 

Justice officials had made it known to Gardaí that her body should be released to friends for burial but nine months later, An Garda Síochána told the coroner they had exhausted all options to find her next of kin.

The County Coroner then authorised the release of her remains for burial and neither the Gardaí nor Department Officials were privy to this information nor to the subsequent HSE-approved burial.

TheJournal.ie twice tried to have this correspondence between the Department, Gardaí and HSE released under Freedom of Information but was refused. 

The Office of The Information Commissioner earlier this year ruled in favour of releasing the correspondence relating to Tukula’s burial. 

It contained the following exchanges:

On 25 March 2019, seven months after her death, a Justice Department official contacted Gardaí in Galway asking could it make contact regarding Tukula’s burial. 

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The local Garda Sergeant replied saying he was otherwise occupied but to call if it was an “urgent matter”.  The Department of Justice official replied saying it was “not urgent”. 

Ten days later, the Department official emailed Gardaí in Galway again. “We understand that [Sylva's] remains have still not been released for burial,” the official said. “I have been asked by Minister of State David Stanton to enquire if it is possible to progress the release of the body in order to provide closure for residents and staff of the centre.”

Two weeks later, the Department had not received a reply from Gardaí. 

“Further to my query below, would appreciate an urgent response to this query,” the Department official wrote on 17 April.

Over one month later, on 21 May, a Community Engagement Officer at Galway Garda Station confirmed in an email to the Justice Department that “all efforts to notify the next of kin in this matter have been exhausted by An Garda Síochána”.

“The decision regarding the release of this body + burial of the deceased now rests with the Coroner’s Officer,” they said. 

The following day, the Department wrote to the Galway Coroner asking if there were any developments regarding the release of Tukula’s remains. The official said the manager of Great Western Direct Provision Centre was “getting questions” from residents about Sylva’s burial. 

Later that day, the Coroner replied: “Body not claimed by any relatives. Buried by my authority by HSE.”

‘Hurt & Disgust’ 

One year on from Tukula’s burial, her friends in Amach says they have worked with the Department to proceed with a dignified burial and service for their friend.

“We have also met with their representatives to give feedback on our community’s upset, hurt and disgust by the way Sylva’s case was handled,” they said.

“We feel very strongly that many more co-ordinated policies and supports need to be implemented to cope with any deaths arising within the Direct Provision system. 

“Our friend was let down badly by the State and those who were trusted to care for her in those final days. Such disregard for human dignity and respect has caused immense hurt for those who knew and loved Sylva.” 

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