Bullying of a child by staff, unauthorised searches of bags and belongings, infestations of vermin, and rooms with no heating and broken windows … just another day in the life of Ireland’s direct provision system.
Copies of letters of complaint by asylum-seekers, all of which were upheld after investigation, paint a grim portrait of life inside the network of former B&Bs, hotels, accommodation centres and caravan parks that almost 5,000 people are now forced to call home.
The letters obtained by Village under the Freedom of Information Act are being made public for the first time.
However, they represent just a small fraction of the issues within the direct provision system, with asylum-seekers increasingly less likely to engage in a formal complaint mechanism that offered them very little protection or anonymity.
At a centre in Dublin, a mother wrote of how her six-year-old son had been bullied by a member of staff at her accommodation centre.
“My son has a speech problem”, she said, “and he finds it hard to pronounce words … this has been a worry for me and he gets mocked by his peers but I always assure him that nothing is wrong with him”.
The woman described how one evening she had asked her son to get a laundry tablet from a member of staff.
“I was walking behind my son and heard the security man … mocking … with the way he speak. This is so humiliating for [a] six-year-old boy and I was so upset and disappointed. I asked why on earth he was doing that to my son and all he could say was ‘I was joking with him’.
I noticed then whenever I send [my son to] get things from the office, he is always reluctant as that must have been happening for a while.
I find it so offensive for an adult such as [redacted] to bully my six-year-old son because he has a speech problem. It is hard for me to even imagine that would ever happen in this world from a grown man to a little boy”.
In a handwritten note on her letter, the incident was described as a “misunderstanding” but the resident’s complaint was upheld.
At another centre, a mother wrote to complain of how her child had been physically assaulted by a resident after a row between two kids.
“The mother draw [sic] my son upstairs with his ear and his ear was so red and my son was greatly terrified and was so scared to go outside afterwards”, she wrote.
“Every child [is] supposed to feel safe in his or her environment, this is the only hostel that some women think they have the right to beat or threaten other people’s children; they have done it to my kids about twice or three times and I have seen them do it to other kids”.
In a centre in the Mid-West, a group of residents wrote about repeated gross invasions of their privacy.
“The manager get in any room and search our private bags and take our stuff”, they wrote.
They explained how CCTV was installed to watch the windows of their room, which were locked so that they would not open more than a centimetre.
The residents also described how they were made to sign in daily and, if they did not, a letter was sent to social welfare officers seeking cuts to the tiny weekly payment of €19 that they receive.
In response, the Reception and Integration Agency said rooms were checked to ensure there was nothing causing a safety or fire hazard.
They said under contract, the accommodation providers were obliged to return a weekly register saying if residents were still there and that unauthorised people were not allowed in rooms. At the same centre, a disabled asylum-seeker had pleaded to be allowed to share a room with his Afghan friends because he needed help in every “aspect of life”.
“They treat us the way like we are in prison”, he wrote: “They don’t care about your health, your condition, [and] depression and will make your head burst out and become crazy. Our condition is even worse than prisoners because they have some respect inside the jail but we don’t have that at all”.
The complaint was investigated and it was discovered that there were fourteen vacancies at the centre and the request to stay together could easily have been facilitated.
Another complaint at that centre was also upheld, about freezing conditions in one of its rooms.
The asylum-seeker wrote: “I am sharing a room with two other gentlemen. The room is very small, and I am studying almost full time, and I don’t even have room to put my books in place. There is no heating in the room and the window is broken. It is very cold these nights”.
In the West of Ireland, the amount of food being provided had almost caused a “serious fight” between residents and kitchen staff.
The letter of complaint explained how residents were asking about some food that was being cooked, only to be told it would not be served until the following day.
“The shortage of food in the dining [area] is a recurring event”, a letter said, saying residents were left “starving” and parents left to manage without sufficient food for their children.
An investigator’s report said: “I am fully satisfied that the residents had a complaint and were justified in sending it on to the Reception and Integration Agency”.
A year later, the problems did not appear to have been resolved and another letter was received about the quality of food.
Residents said that some of what they were served was “rotten” and “smelling”.
“This is not the first time we are experiencing this problem. The residents have been complaining of taking their children or themselves to the hospital for food poisoning, and no change has been done. We have been served rice that has been rotting for days”, it said.
At one centre in the North of the country, a woman wrote about how she had begun suffering from chest pains but management would not move her from her room on the upper floor of the complex.
At one stage, she fell in a washroom because she was so weak.
She also wrote of the unsanitary conditions at the centre, and how she was fearful her children would become ill from filthy toilet and washing facilities.
“The area where I have to share a common bathroom with other residents is often unclean with water and urine on the floor and not to mention the … toilets that are often dirty and not cleaned up as well as unflushable after use”, she wrote.
“The bathrooms are dirty and unsafe to use especially when I need to bath the kids. I have complained to management about this but again nothing has been done”.
In a direct appeal, she pleaded for the neglect of her family to end:
“This treatment is unbelievable to us seeing we came to seek refuge in this country that is believed to be a safe haven. I am scared for my health and my life”.
In a centre in Dublin, a resident told how over four nights in a single week there was constant noise from the room above.
A response said: “[The manager] has informed me that she has spoken to the person in this room regarding this on more than one occasion. The manager has also confirmed that this lady has been asked to relocate to another room but will not do so. I have asked the manager to monitor this and keep me informed of the situation”.
At another centre near Dublin, residents had complained en masse about the quality of food and hygiene at their centre.
A response to them said that the environmental health officer had visited and “certified that the centre is clear of live pest activity”. A “deep clean” of the accommodation centre also had to be undertaken.
The letters were all sent under a system introduced by the Department of Justice in 2011 where asylum-seekers could make formal written complaints about the centres they lived in.
There were 20 complaints that year – two of which were upheld – but the volume of complaints has fallen in every year since.
By 2012, there were 13 complaints with 8 upheld and the following year, there were just six complaints, four of which were upheld.
In 2014, the number of complaints fell to four as asylum-seekers rapidly lost faith in the system, according to rights groups.
Jennifer DeWan of NASC Ireland said the complaints process was now in limbo as a final formal decision on having the Ombudsman investigate problems still needs to be clarified:
“We have had a lot of the concerns in the past around the complaints process, particularly people fearing repercussions [from speaking up]. But a lot of the people coming to us, we would try and ask them to make complaints – except it just didn’t feel worthwhile for them.
Even when complaints were made and upheld, there was no follow-up. There are no clear standards for the centres and inspections that currently happen and they are more about safety and much less about the fact that these are centres that house families.
Even in cases where the Ombudsman has got involved and upheld complaints last year, there’s not a huge amount of resolution in those cases.
The structures are still very much the same; there’s no real independent oversight until the Ombudsman gets involved. And there’s no real bite to any ruling that is made in terms of what happens afterwards.
The Reception and Integration Agency have also said that the first stage of the complaints system has to be at a local centre level yet they don’t even keep an official log of that. You also need independent oversight afterwards in case the internal process does not work out.
The number of complaints has been falling yet we are still hearing about all the same issues. People just don’t see the benefit of complaining – because even when they do, nothing changes. The mechanisms need to be safe for asylum seekers to use and there must be a positive result when they use them”.
In a statement, the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) said:
“[We] have no comment to make other than to say that all complaints are investigated and, where issues raised need to be addressed, they are addressed. This is a standard practice for complaints mechanisms.
Furthermore, each centre is subject to three separate quality-control unannounced inspections each year. Two of these are carried out by RIA staff and one by a specialised firm contracted by RIA for that purpose… these are in addition to inspections from the local Environmental Health Officer, which also can occur at any time”.
By Ken Foxe