Moving out of lockdown – Seeds of hope for asylum seekers
“Everything will be ok now… I get to meet my grandchild.” The words of an asylum seeker looking forward to the easing of Covid restrictions, expressing sentiments shared by many in Ireland who have endured months of isolation during the pandemic. As Ireland moves out of lockdown, Eugene Quinn, Jesuit Refugee Service Ireland National Director, reflects on the cause for renewed hope among asylum seekers, refugees and forced migrants here.
Ending of Direct Provision
Hope for asylum seekers for a better future springs from the recent White Paper on Ending Direct Provision, which aims to honour the Government’s commitment to end Direct Provision within its lifetime. After years of international and local criticism, systemic failings that were further exposed during the Covid-19 pandemic, Direct Provision is officially recognised as ‘not fit for purpose’.
The White Paper proposes a new model of independent ‘own door’ accommodation for asylum seekers that is not for profit, not in a congregated institutional setting and respects the rights of applicants. The new accommodation system will be phased in over the next three years and an end date for Direct Provision of 31 December 2024 has been set.
We welcome the ambitious and comprehensive vision for receiving and accommodating asylum seekers envisaged in the White Paper. And JRS Ireland will sustain its proactive engagement with the Government and its agencies, supporting the implementation of the White Paper ending Direct Provision and establishing a system of accommodation that will ensure all asylum seekers can live with dignity while awaiting a final determination of their protection claims.
While the policy battle has been won, there are significant implementation challenges especially in relation to housing supply. It will require political will and courage to ensure this vision for transformative change becomes a reality for persons seeking protection in Ireland. The White Paper offers hope that after 21 years Ireland will finally put in place a system of receiving and supporting international protection applicants that we can be proud of and which is ‘fit for purpose’.
Surviving Lockdown: The Human Reality
Asylum seekers, like so many other vulnerable members of society, have been severely impacted by the pandemic. JRS Ireland witnessed a significant increase in mental health difficulties and challenges presenting among individuals, children and families living in the high-risk congregated setting of Direct Provision.
One JRS service user described the reality he faced: “It’s not easy with the lockdown. I get stressed and depressed. The asylum process has also slowed down due to Covid-19. It hurts me mentally every time I think about it. I am scared.”
In response and throughout Level 5 restrictions, JRS continued to deliver vital outreach and face-to-face support services directly to vulnerable residents in centres nationwide. Two beneficiaries of this accompaniment during Covid-19 restrictions, who demonstrated considerable resilience during the pandemic, highlighted how JRS had supported them during this difficult time: “We do not have the words to say how grateful we are to you [JRS staff] for helping us. We were both in very dark places when we met and you brought a light to our cause. We are now not only friends, but sisters. We will never forget what you have done for us.”
One consequence of the pandemic was that delivery of education and many other mainstream services and supports largely moved online in Ireland. Many asylum seekers struggled to participate or sustain their engagement due to inadequate access to technology. JRS Ireland has sought to address this need through the provision of laptops and other IT supports.
For example, the JRS Link Project 2020-2021 has been supporting residents in Direct Provision to overcome barriers to integration, that were exacerbated during Covid-19 restrictions, by facilitating remote access to education and psychosocial supports and through the provision of sponsorship to take part in further education and vocational training.
One Link Project beneficiary explained:“I was having difficulties before. I’ve been using my phone for school and this [the Link Project] has really helped me. Now I can see classmates and I have a laptop to do my assignments.”
Finally, to coincide with the easing of restrictions, JRS Ireland has just launched a new laptop rental scheme in the national reception centre, Balseskin. Supported by the Mitigating Against Educational Disadvantage Fund, residents onsite will be able to access 30 fully refurbished laptops to pursue online education and training options in Ireland during their initial orientation after arrival in Ireland.
Beyond the Pandemic
The national vaccination programme offers real and tangible hope for us all to a future beyond the pandemic, but especially to individuals, children and families living in the higher risk congregated settings of Direct Provision.
JRS Ireland welcomes the decision to include asylum seekers as a priority vulnerable category in the national vaccination strategy. As the end of lockdown approaches, we look forward to vaccines being rolled out and delivered to vulnerable residents in Direct Provision centres nationwide.
Covid 19 amplified the challenges and difficulties experienced by asylum seekers living in Direct Provision. Thanks to the support and generosity of many, JRS has been able to work throughout the pandemic to be ‘hospitality in action’ and to offer some hope for a better future for those who have arrived on our shores in search of refuge and protection.