Comment & Analysis

Cause of one in three deaths in direct provision system is unknown
Lissywollen direct provision centre for asylum seekers in Athlone, Co. Westmeath.

The Government does not know the cause of death of the majority of the asylum seekers who have died in State care in the last 10 years. While two people are recorded as dying as a result of suicide and one resident was stabbed to death, the “suspected cause of death” of over one third of the people who have died while resident in the direct provision accommodation system is unknown.

In response to a Freedom of Information request from The Irish Catholic, the Department of Justice released figures which show that 44 people have died in the direct provision system between 2007 and 2017, including three stillborn babies and one “neonatal death”.

In 15 of the cases the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) record the suspected cause of death as “unknown” or simply “died”. Among those listed as unknown was a 41-year-old man who was “found in room by roommate” in 2008, a 53-year-old man who was “found dead in his bed at 9am” by his roommate in 2012, a 35-year-old man “found unconscious in room and died in hospital” in 2014 and another man in 2015 “found unconscious in room and died in hospital”.

Residents

Fr Paddy Byrne, a curate in Portlaoise parish who ministers to the residents of the Montague Hotel, told The Irish Catholic he recently presided at a funeral of a person living in direct provision. “I can only call it a horror story of a young woman who was forgotten by this society, who never felt hospitality or welcome, who was imprisoned because of her identity and died ‘unknown’,” he said. 

In a statement the Department of Justice said that in some cases the RIA will have general knowledge of the suspected cause of death – either as a result of specified medical needs of a resident or if information is provided by a centre manager – but it does not “seek information on protection applicants outside its remit”.

It said that neither the HSE nor a coroner “have ever raised an issue relating to the accommodation in which a deceased person lived prior to their death”. If this were to happen it said, the RIA “would respond accordingly”.

Leonie Kerins, Director of Doras Luimní – an NGO supporting migrants’ rights – said it “doesn’t surprise me that the RIA say their responsibilities are limited, and not anything beyond food and accommodation”. “That’s how they see their role, bricks and mortar and the particular needs of asylum seekers are not taken into consideration in terms of separation from family, post-traumatic stress and survival of torture,” she said.

“Direct provision is detrimental to the residents’ wellbeing psychologically and it has a long-term impact beyond direct provision. I would be interested to track those who have died soon after leaving direct provision as well.”

Eugene Quinn, Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS Ireland) National Director, said understanding the cause of death of people who are in the care of the State is “important”. “As RIA have no responsibilities in relation to the retention of information or recording a cause of death, it is necessary that there is a whole system approach to dealing with deaths of direct provision residents. This would ensure deaths are handled sensitively and culturally appropriately and that any learnings for the system are taken on board,” he said. 

Stephen Ng’ang’a, Coordinator of the Core Group of Asylum Seekers, said he was surprised that RIA “don’t keep a record of these things and it just goes to show how careless the State is in terms of dealing with refugee and asylum seeker issues, and their human dignity – whether they died of any cause – has been undermined. That is my worry – if they are treated as numbers or as non-entities or non-nationals or whatever stereotype associated with asylum seekers, I think it is despicable,” he said.

“It has been said that in the future this kind of thing will come to light and it’s going to be a huge issue. I don’t think an apology is going to fix all the issues that were not addressed by the current regime.”

Direct provision was introduced by the Government in 2000 as a means of meeting the basic needs of food and shelter for asylum seekers while their claims for refugee status are being processed. Initially viewed as a short-term arrangement, for about six months, it covers full board accommodation and personal allowances of €19.10 per adult and €15.60 per child per week. The centres, which include former hostels, hotels and a mobile home park, are run by private contractors who receive about €50 million in State funding annually. 

“This is a living injustice, it is a rotten disease, that the vast majority remain silent about,” Fr Byrne said. “We speak about new government, change and new beginning, and yet we have learned nothing from the secrets of the past. 

Populist media have rightly exposed the horrors of mother and baby homes without much filtering, but the reality that is happening in direct provision is that people who are raw and vulnerable are coming to this country and being imprisoned for up to 10 and 12 years. 

“There is no appetite among the Government to deal with this and I call upon the Justice Minister to at least bring credibility to Irish society in relation to how we treat asylum seekers by ending direct provision or closing where they are being held up,” he said.

A Government working group chaired by retired High Court Judge Bryan McMahon and drawing from a range of interests in the international protection area, including JRS Ireland and the Core Group of Asylum Seekers, made 173 recommendations in 2015 to overhaul the direct provision system.

The three key priorities in the report requiring immediate action were: Those living in direct provision for five years or more should be granted protection status or leave to remain; the weekly direct provision allowance should be increased to €38.74 for adults and €29.80 for children; communal catering should be introduced to direct provision centres.

A number of positive steps have been taken, for example the weekly allowance for children was increased from €9.60 in 2016 and direct provision centres were brought within the remit of the Ombudsman for Children Office earlier this year, giving them an independent institution to pursue complaints in relation to their conditions. 

Following the McMahon Report the Government committed to introducing communal or self-catering facilities in family centres and a model has been delivered for the largest family centre in Mosney and other variations are being rolled out in Monaghan, Athlone, Kinsale Road and Clonakilty. 

The Government introduced a new International Protection Procedure at the start of 2017, which aims to streamline the asylum process and produce more speedy decisions. However, at the end June it was reported that at the present time there are more than 4,500 open cases.  

New applicants for protection (unless they fall within a prioritised category) are currently estimated to have to wait 18 months for an interview. 

The Direct Provision population, having fallen in 2016 with the resolution of five year plus cases, is now trending upwards with RIA reporting occupancy at 92% of contracted capacity last month, compared to 78% occupancy in August 2016.