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'We've been firefighting': Inside the State's response to Covid-19 in Direct Provision

There are now 149 cases of Covid-19 in Direct Provision.

Mosney Direct Provision Centre.
Mosney Direct Provision Centre.
Image: Shutterstock/Irish Drone Photography

“WE’VE BEEN FIREFIGHTING,” says one Department of Justice official, describing its response to Covid-19 in Direct Provision.

Amid calls to end Ireland’s system of accommodating asylum seekers, staff at The International Protection Accommodation Service (IPAS) – which oversees Direct Provision – operate within a framework few believe ever worked. 

Yet Covid-19 presents an unprecedented task across every sector, section and sub-section of Government. 

IPAS held its first Covid-19 meeting at Balseskin Reception Centre in Dublin on 6 March -  one week after Health Officials confirmed Ireland’s first case of Covid-19.

IPAS knew it had to act quick. Did it move quick enough? 

* * *

Across a network of 78 centres – both permanent and ‘Emergency Accommodation’, hotels and B&Bs – IPAS had to “thin out” its accommodation system in which 7,700 people live, one Justice Official said. 

IPAS said “weak structures” in its Emergency Accommodation network, in which over 1,600 people have been placed since September 2018, including over 250 children, could not continue. 

TheJournal.ie has highlighted issues placing people in hotels and B&Bs; lack of inspections, transport difficulties, access to basic services, an absence of accountability on business owners, who were paid €14 million between September 2018 and August 2019. 

Communicating Covid-19 risk management to 39 ‘permanent’ Direct Provision centres, IPAS needed Emergency Accommodation – primarily located in rural areas – solely under its remit. Members of the public could no longer stay in these centres alongside asylum seekers. 

Between 6 March and 31 March, IPAS contracted 650 additional beds at newly set up centres in Dublin, Galway and Cork, reducing capacity in existing Direct Provision centres. 

On 31 March, 71 people were confirmed to have died from Covid-19 in Ireland with 3,235 cases in the general population. 

By this stage, the risk of coronavirus spreading in long-term residential care settings had become clear to public health officials. On 10 April, it was confirmed that over half the people who had died from Covid-19 were nursing home residents.

* * *

From 18 March, 100 asylum seekers were gradually moved from Dublin to the Skellig Star Hotel in Caherciveen, Co Kerry as part of efforts to reduce capacity in Direct Provision centres.

A number of residents were transferred to Caherciveen from Travel Lodge Hotel near Dublin Airport – an emergency centre – where one case of Covid-19 was confirmed after a guest who travelled from Italy became ill in early March. 

IPAS became aware of the case in Travel Lodge after it received a letter from Catherine Murphy TD on 6 April informing the Department that there’d been a positive case at one of its emergency centres. 

Justice Officials then contacted hotel management who confirmed the HSE had contacted them regarding a positive case. 

Caherciveen is now a focal point for migrant rights groups who’ve consistently called for an end to Direct Provision.

Bulelani Mfaco, a spokesperson for Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI), said his group is “appalled” by the response to Skellig Star and called for the State to shut down the premises. 

Direct Provision centres are normally opened over a period of weeks and months. Only when a contract is signed with IPAS does the Department commence consultation with local people living in an area. 

Pushback from communities after plans for a new Direct Provision centre are made public has become a familiar theme. It is against this background that IPAS have been operating during Covid-19. 

It did not have that opportunity when opening the Skellig Star Hotel which, as the Irish Examiner reported this week, is in disrepair. 

One Justice Official said Skellig Star had to be “flipped open” as part of its ongoing response. 

* * *

There are now over 20 confirmed Covid-19 cases among asylum seekers at the former Skellig Star Hotel. Residents who tested positive were moved off-site to an isolation facility.

It remains unclear if people who tested positive at the Skellig Star Hotel were among the cohort transferred from Dublin in April. 

Asylum seekers continued their call to be moved out of Skellig Star due to the outbreak there, claiming last weekend that management at the hotel were not allowing them to leave the premises. 

In response, the Department released a statement saying: “We understand that an isolation situation is difficult but we need to clarify that no one is being prevented from leaving the centre at Caherciveen. 

“The HSE have asked all residents in the hotel to isolate, as would be the case for any other person in the country.”

Asked if it considered it appropriate to move people from Skellig Star, a HSE spokesperson said: “No.”

“HSE consider that Covid-19 outbreaks can be managed with advice of local Public Health colleagues and support from Social Inclusion team, DOJ and [Direct Provision] centre management. This is the approach taken in outbreak control and monitored,” they added. 

* * *

Given IPAS operates a network of 85 Direct Provision centres – all of which except Balseskin Reception Centre in Dublin are essentially private enterprises – adding HSE into this mix has proved problematic. 

And, pre-Covid, Direct Provision centre management operated – by and large -without scrutiny beyond issues alerted to IPAS. 

On Friday, asylum seekers at Skellig Star were issued with a letter by centre management which claimed that some residents had not self-isolated, that – as a result – two new cases of Covid-19 had been confirmed at the centre. 

Self-isolation is being extended for 14 days until 20 May as a result, the letter stated. 

Residents were told to stay in the hotel “at all times” and follow centre management arrangements for collection of meals and outdoor exercise. 

The HSE did not respond to queries asking if it – or management at Skellig Star – had issued this letter or the advice contained within. 

IPAS, meanwhile, says it only receives word of a positive Covid-19 case at a Direct Provision centre through centre management, and not HSE officials. 

* * *

The Department – harried in its attempt to temporarily overhaul a complicated asylum system – set up an internal Communications Team in order to liaise with centre management during Covid-19. 

As one Justice official said, IPAS “can’t have eyes and ears” in every centre 24/7.  

It holds meetings twice per week with HSE staff and its Social Inclusion Unit. Three self-isolation units were also put in place for people living in Direct Provision. 

Transport links were set up in order to transfer symptomatic or Covid-positive people out of existing centres to isolation facilities. IPAS estimates a three-hour turnaround between a person leaving a Direct Provision centre and arrival at an isolation facility. 

Yet in its sourcing of accommodation, did IPAS effectively reduce risk of exposure to Coronavirus?

“Multiple occupancy rooms still present a challenge in centres across the country,” Fiona Finn, CEO of NGO Nasc, told TheJournal.ie

In Ireland, 1,700 asylum seekers are still sharing rooms with non-family members, despite Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan stating that is not possible for people living in these circumstances to physically distance during Covid-19. 

“It [also] took several weeks for the Department of Justice to identify the ‘at-risk’ people living in centres,” said Finn. “And to implement basic protective measures such as providing hand sanitiser to centres, or implementing staggered meal and laundry times.”

In Meath, Reuben Hambakachere of Cultúr Migrants Centre, says asylum seekers in Cavan and Monaghan feel they can safely social distance in their accommodation. 

Hambakachere, however, remains concerned. One B&B in Co Meath has 23 men living across seven rooms, he said. 

Hambakachere questions their ability to social distance in these settings. 

“There are 23 men living in this centre,” he said. “The space is not that big. People can’t actually exercise the guidelines.”

* * *

The number of confirmed Covid-19 cases across Direct Provision has risen from 62 last Tuesday to 149 on Friday. This includes 10 clusters and 10 people hospitalised. 

Like nursing homes, hospitals, prisons and factories, public health advice guides policy in preventing spread of Coronavirus. 

Decisions around the transferral and medical treatment for asylum seekers living in Direct Provision is HSE-led.

IPAS are not public health officials. 

This week it became apparent to public health officials, however, the risks associated with communal living in Direct Provision centres, which Irish Refugee Council CEO Nick Henderson has said would be “reduced considerably if people were moved out into appropriate accommodation”. 

In addition to 1,700 people still sharing rooms, “many more will be sharing washing, food and laundry space,” said Henderson. 

Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan said on Thursday that the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) is considering testing everyone living in Direct Provision. 

Dr Holohan was speaking as health officials plan to broaden out the case definition for testing – making testing available to a wider section of the general population. 

* * *

Covid-19 cases in Direct Provision are increasing. 

So far, 1,600 people have been tested, HSE confirmed earlier this week. Yet contracting Coronavirus is a serious risk for people living in congregated living, IRC CEO Henderson said. 

The Refugee Council has called for a clear testing strategy to be set up. 

“While the rest of Irish society starts to lift restrictions and re-open the economy, people in Direct Provision will continue to live in congregated settings making them more exposed to the disease for the foreseeable future,” said Henderson. 

Finn of Nasc says “we won’t have a full picture” of how coronavirus has spread in Direct Provision until testing is ramped up significantly. 

For some, Caherciveen is proof Ireland’s Direct Provision system – as it exists for 7,700 people – is no longer tenable. 

A global pandemic could leave Justice Officials – and Politicians – with no choice but to finally reform Direct Provision in a post-Covid Ireland. 

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