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State offers 'unreserved apology' for burying asylum seeker without telling friends

Sylva Tukula died at the Great Western House Direct Provision centre in Galway in August 2018.

Sylva Tukula
Sylva Tukula
Image: NiallÓTuathail/Twitter.com

THE STATE HAS offered an “unreserved apology” over the case of a woman who died in Direct Provision and was buried without ceremony or notice given to her friends. 

Sylva Tukula died at the Great Western House Direct Provision centre in Galway in August 2018.

The Department of Justice & Equality 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 a next of kin.

Ms Tukula was buried in a plot at Bohermore cemetery in Galway, yet nobody she knew in Ireland was able to be present.

Minister of State for Equality, Immigration and Integration David Stanton TD has expressed his “deepest sympathies and condolences to that person’s friends and colleagues on their loss”. 

“It is a matter of profound regret to me, and to the Department, that her friends heard of her burial after the event,” Stanton said in response to questions from Catherine Connolly – independent TD for Galway West. 

“This must have been deeply distressing to all involved and I offer my unreserved apology for the breakdown in communication, which led to this unintended event,” he said.

‘Questions to be answered’

Sylva was a transgender woman who was originally from South Africa and was living at the all-male Great Western centre at the time of her death.

Since details of her burial emerged, there have been calls for an independent inquiry into her case. 

After the contacting the gardaí three times to inquire about Sylva’s remains, the department’s Reception & Integration Agency (RIA) was told to contact the Coroner’s office in Galway who then advised RIA to contact the University Hospital in Galway.

Upon contacting the hospital, RIA was informed that the burial of Ms Tukula had taken place on 9 May 2019 on the authority of the Coroner.

In a statement on its Facebook page last week, local LGBT group Amach, members of which had known Sylva since June 2017, said that her friends and colleagues were assured by national and local State representatives following her death that they would be notified once burial arrangements were made.

“Sadly, we were recently informed that our dear friend was buried by the State at the beginning of May,” the statement said.  

Questions have also been raised over a lack of transparency into deaths of people residing in Direct Provision centres. 

The Department of Justice & Equality has said it will work to ensure a case like Ms Tukula’s is “never repeated”. 

Measures to prevent this include implementing a formal request framework so that friends and loved ones are informed through official channels.

Connolly said she was “saddened and deeply concerned” upon hearing of Sylva’s burial and added that “there are a number of questions that have to be answered”. 

Fianna Fáil justice spokesperson Jim O’ Callaghan has said Sylva’s case “reveals an insensitivity at the heart of the state in its dealings with people in Direct Provision.”

Although cases where a deceased person’s remain are unclaimed are “very rare”, Minister Stanton has said, “the Department will take all possible steps to ensure that this outcome is avoided in future and that friends or colleagues who have expressed an interest are properly informed through appropriate communications with the coronial service and by liaising with other agencies involved in this case.”

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