In Ireland, refugees are organising to reform the asylum system

Around 6,000 asylum seekers live in 35 centres and many complain of poor conditions and lengthy delays in the process.

Irish asylum seekers
Bulelani Mfaco, left, and Lucky Khambule, right, are among the refugee-activists trying to reform the system [Ruairi Casey/Al Jazeera]

Dublin, Ireland – On the doorsteps of Stoneybatter, an increasingly gentrified patch of inner-city Dublin, Ellie Kisyombe is making her case to be the neighbourhood’s newest local councillor.

She fields questions on vandalism, public housing and how to fight climate change.

When residents ask if Kisyombe lives in the neighbourhood, she says, “I used to”, but circumstances changed.

Kisyombe is an asylum seeker – the first to receive a party nomination to run for election in Ireland – and lived nearby with her son and daughter for several years until their accommodation centre was shut down and they were moved to another in Dublin’s northwest.

The vote takes place on Friday.

For almost a decade, she has lived under a system called direct provision, in which asylum seekers are placed in centres around the country while their claims are determined, a process which often involves years of waiting and appeals.

“It’s so different to have someone from an asylum background and also a black woman who’s been active in Irish society,” Kisyombe tells Al Jazeera between slipping her bright purple leaflets into every letterbox she passes. “I feel like people are more accepting.”

Kisyombe, a Malawian, is already well-known through OurTable, a pop-up project she established to raise awareness of direct provision through food.

Like her bid for a local council seat, it’s part of a wider attempt to reform the asylum system in Ireland, which has been sharply criticised by the UN and human rights groups, by those within it.

Irish asylum seekers
Ellie Kisyombe in Stoneybatter, Dublin [Ruairi Casey/Al Jazeera]

More than 6,000 asylum seekers, more than 2,000 of them children, live in 35 direct provision centres across Ireland on a stipend of 38 euro ($42.45) a week per adult and 29 euro ($32) for children. 

The state pays tens of millions of euro each year to private contractors, including US multinational Aramark, to run them.

Living conditions and prolonged waiting times – more than 150 people have been waiting over seven years for a decision – have had damaging psychological effects. Several residents have attempted suicide and at least two have killed themselves.

“I’ve been so depressed, I’ve felt not appreciated, not accepted, and I’ve felt alone and even scared,” says Kisyombe. “I’m still in the system and still these emotions are with me but … maybe these fears drive you to bring change.”

She does not believe her election campaign could have happened even a few years ago, but now there is a growing energy.

Lucky Khambule arrived from South Africa in 2013 to seek asylum, and after three months in Dublin, immigration authorities sent him to a direct provision centre on the outskirts of Cork city, where he was to a cramped room to share with two other men. 

He was given a book of rules that would govern his daily life. Food was served at set times in the canteen and residents would not be permitted to make their own. If he didn’t collect toiletries at the allotted time, he forfeited them. 

Khambule grew angry at the staff’s attitude, which he describes as disrespectful.

“We got tired of it and we started talking among ourselves,” Khambule told Al Jazeera. “It was hard but we managed to get it done and we organised ourselves and started forming small committees where we would be discussing things.”

The almost 300 residents arrived at a solution: a strike. 

For 10 days, they took over the centre, locking out staff and issuing a list of demands. Families cooked their own meals, children played without restrictions and residents spoke to journalists who came to see them. Eventually, the management conceded, promising a play area for children, new gym equipment and no more than two people in each bedroom.

“The mood was exceptional,” said Khambule, who has since been granted refugee status and works at an insurance firm. “It changed 180 degrees the attitude of the people and many of the staff … It was the best time in direct provision, those 10 days. There was real freedom.”

The government should start engaging and having dialogue ... They shouldn't ignore the people that are standing up.

by Ellie Kisyombe, local councillor candidate

That strike was the beginning of what would become the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI), which now has members in every centre. 

The group wants to see the end of direct provision and deportations, and supports speeding up the processing of asylum claims and getting full access to work and education.

Grassroots organising has become a lifeline for Bulelani Mfaco, as he waits for the decision on his asylum claim.

Mfaco, who is LGBT+, applied in Ireland in 2017, fearing for his safety after a lesbian was murdered near his home in Cape Town. 

He was led to a centre outside Limerick city, where some residents taunted him with the same homophobic slurs he had heard in South Africa, leaving him socially isolated and worried about being attacked. 

The bureaucracy weighed him down, too: if he wanted coffee, he had to ask a staff member to make it; to use an ironing board, he had to present his immigration card.

“You have no personal time; you have no privacy; there is not much dignity,” says Mfaco. “I feel useless every time I go ask them for food. I’m used to making my own food and paying my own bills and living my life independently. Now, I have to depend on the state.”

Since contacting Khambule through Facebook and becoming active in MASI, he crisscrosses the country on long bus journeys, giving talks or meeting with other activists. 

MASI cannot organise in centres so members use social media or gather in cafes, charity offices or public spaces instead.

Mfaco has degrees in politics and public administration. Despite the government last year lifting a long-standing ban on asylum seekers working, only 15 percent are now in employment as restrictions and bureaucracy limit opportunities.

“I didn’t want to [start campaigning], I want to live my life … but direct provision itself has robbed me of that,” he says.

‘Minor tweaks make very little difference’

The Reception and Integration Agency, which oversees the direct provision system, told Al Jazeera that though it does not have any formal relationship with MASI, it “welcomes the collaborative approach that ensures the needs of applicants in accommodation centres are met” and works with established NGOs. 

It added that accommodation centres are rolling out self-catering facilities to promote autonomy and all are expected to install them by mid-2020.

But Mfaco says much more needs to be done.

“Those minor tweaks make very little difference to the limbo people are facing … You’ll still be waiting there for years and years,” he says.

Khambule agrees it cannot be reformed, and believes the Irish government must come to face reality.

The last major government review of direct provision in 2015 did not include asylum seekers as part of its committee and did not consider the abolition of the system in its terms of reference. MASI is proposing alternatives, he says, but political leaders must listen.

“I think it’s time that now the government should start engaging and having dialogue with people that are more involved asylum seekers themselves,” says Kisyombe. “They shouldn’t ignore the people that are standing up.”

Source: Al Jazeera