Irish girl comes second in JRS competition

April 19, 2006 in General, News

The life of aged-out minors seeking asylum in Ireland
by Hélène Hofman

At 2pm on April the 18th 2006 at a prize-giving ceremony at the European Parliament, the Jesuit Refugee Service announced the winners of the competition for student journalists they have run across Europe.

The winners, decided by a panel of professional journalists, are Kasper Tveden Jensen, studying in Denmark, for his article ‘Suicidal Silence’; Hélène Hofman, studying in Ireland, for her article ‘Waiting to Check Out’; and Kirsty Whalley, studying in the United Kingdom, for her article ‘Destitute Zimbabwean Asylum Seekers Stuck in Limbo in the United Kingdom’.

Here is the essay of Hélène Hofman, who is studying at the Dublin Institute of Technology.

Waiting to Check Out

There are 46 direct-provision centres in Ireland. Together, this mismatch of hostels, commercial hotels and guesthouses is home to 4,858 asylum seekers. The Viking Lodge is just one of these establishments. With a capacity of 78, the hotel is used to accommodate single asylum seekers. Amongst these are several former separated children seeking asylum, known as aged-out minors.

When Simret arrived in Dublin in June 2003 it was raining. After a long journey, which had taken her from her mother’s house in Eritrea to Sudan, where she paid a trafficker to take her to “a safe, Christian country”, and now to the steps of the Irish Department of Justice, she was both tired and emotional. “I thought I was going to London or America,” she says. “I had never even heard of Ireland. And I didn’t know anything about asylum seekers. What’s an asylum seeker? I didn’t know.”

The trafficker promised that he would stay with her until she had settled. He took her to the Department of Justice to apply for asylum and told her to wait outside while he went to get a bag for her. Simret waited for over an hour before she realised that he wasn’t coming back. “I was crying. I knew nothing but to wait for him there. That day is very difficult for me. I will never forget that day.”

As she was only 17 she was taken to a hostel for separated children seeking asylum. “The first night in that hostel I just locked the door. I didn’t go outside for nearly 24 hours. I was really suffering and depressed.” Three weeks later she started school.

Simret is now 20 years old. She has moved hostel twice since her arrival and has been living in the Viking Lodge for over a year. She was interviewed twice by authorities and refused refugee status on both occasions. Her only hope now is to get humanitarian leave to remain and she may have to wait up to three years for her request to be processed. She doesn’t know how she can wait that long without papers, and more importantly, without a work permit. In the meantime she is studying for her Leaving Certificate examinations in June. She says she finds it difficult to concentrate. “I am all the time thinking,” she explains. “Maybe they will send me a deportation notice tomorrow. I don’t know what’s going to happen in future. And I’m thinking about the hostel. You never get enough of anything here.”

Situated in the Liberties, the oldest part of Dublin, the Viking Lodge still looks like a commercial hotel. Painted panels in the reception advertise the Guinness Brewery tour. But now the bar is empty and tables and chairs are lined up for mealtimes in what was once the hotel’s function room. There are two, three or four people per room and nowhere for the young occupants to study. With a weekly payment of just €19.10, they rely entirely on the hostel for food. “It’s very hard to stay in the hostel,” says Simret. “You can’t find what you need, like food. This evening I came home from school, I didn’t eat anything in school because I don’t have enough money. With €19.10 I will buy shampoo, I will buy cream. Even toilet cleaner – I will buy it myself. They don’t give us that even – imagine.”

There are many hostels throughout the country. When things go wrong, the asylum seekers are often reluctant to speak out. “They’re afraid that if they complain they might be moved from one hostel to another,” explains Anne O’Callaghan, who works with the aged-out minors through the PLUS (Please Let Us Stay) campaign. PLUS is run by a mixture of asylum seekers and Irish volunteers and supported by the Dun Laoghaire Refugee Project. 150 aged-out minors are registered with the campaign and an estimated 100 more are living outside the system. “One of the big problems facing the aged-out minors is that they don’t have a support system,” says Anne. “They’re completely on their own, so they’re very vulnerable.”

Since its inception last June, PLUS has been working to get leave to remain for the group. It has also fought the cases of four or five of its members on an individual basis. When Carlos, a young Angolan, found himself in jail waiting to be deported, PLUS paid for a private lawyer to take on his case. He spent 10 days behind bars sharing a cell with criminals, before being released and given a new interview and a fresh chance at getting refugee status.

Like most of the aged-out minors, Carlos arrived in Dublin in 2002. At the time, the numbers seeking asylum had reached an all-time high of 11,624. Neither the Department of Justice nor the Health Service Executive had the resources to deal with the demand and many of the separated children slipped through the cracks. That is why, four and five years later, many like Carlos are still waiting in hostels for a decision to be made on their case.

Carlos was 16 when he fled his home. After the death of his father he was recruited by the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC), a rebel group fighting for independence from Angola. He was 13 at the time and trained with the FLEC until the day Angolan troops stormed one of their underground meetings. “They were shooting and beating people. Some could escape, and the others . . . well, I guess they died.” Carlos ran for his life and made it to the Democratic Republic Congo. From there he was taken to Ireland. By whom, he is hesitant to say.

He spent his first year in Ireland living in Morehampton House, a hostel in Donnybrook – one of Dublin’s most affluent areas. He had never cooked for himself and admits that at first it was hard to adapt. “It was really difficult, really stressful. I had headaches all the time from thinking. The nightmares were with me – different country, different people. I didn’t know anybody.”

He has been living in the Viking Lodge for almost two years. “You feel like you can give something to yourself and to the country,” Carlos says. “And it’s difficult because they don’t give you a work permit to go out and make your own money so that you don’t depend on their payment – which is nothing. You can’t buy anything with that. You can’t be living with that,” he says. “People ask me, ‘how can you survive in Dublin?’ and sometimes you’re like ‘oh, let me go out tonight’ or ‘let me go shop tonight’ and you just can’t do that.”

For many of the aged-out minors, the prospect of several years waiting in the hostel without a work permit is a distressing one. “Some people, they finish their Leaving Cert then just sit around for two years. If that happens to me I will lose my mind,” Simret says. “People want to work. I want to work.” College for the aged-out minors is an expensive dream, and a job, their only chance at a better future. “But I have big hopes.” says Simret. “I hope that things will change, but until its changes, life is sometimes so difficult for us.”

This article belongs to the Jesuit Refugee Service Europe. Please acknowledge this in any publication. The ‘Writing about Refugees’ Competition saw the Jesuit Refugee Service inviting aspiring journalists across Europe to investigate the reality behind the headlines by asking them to write an article of no more than 1200 words on the theme ‘Refugees in Europe’. The competition was open to all matriculated students of higher education in a member state of the council of Europe.