On a late August afternoon, the ground-floor apartment was dark, curtains drawn against the sunlight. On the walls hung framed photos of the woman who asked to go by the name Joy. In one shot, she stands proudly in a graduation cap, celebrating the completion of a course in make-up artistry. On the couch in the shadowed room, the 25-year-old mother of three from Nigeria sat deflated between her nine-year-old twins, grinning either side of her in matching dungarees, her son’s legs dangling off the side, not long enough to reach the floor. Her daughter, a warm kid who loves maths, entertained Joy’s seven-month-old rattling a tin of peanuts. The twins were due to start back at school in less than a week, but she wasn’t sure they would have a place to live by then.
Last summer, nine years after she had first arrived in Ireland, Joy received the papers that gave her legal protection in the country. Her eyes were wet as she spoke, her short hair bare of the long tresses she puts on to go out in public, tattooed stars running up her arm. ‘If you end up with papers, that person knows the meaning of freedom,’ she told me. That’s what she had believed.
In the past months, four eviction letters had made their way into the mailbox at Watergate House, a large building with a scrubby front garden right beside the petrol station on Usher’s Quay, where Joy and her children live. The house is one of the few self-catering accommodation centres operated as part of Ireland’s direct-provision system. Compared to the caravan park she had been sent to live in for seven years, or the other centres in the city where residents share rooms with strangers and have no right to cook, Watergate House offered a preferable set-up__, __but it never felt like a home. Residents are answerable to a manager and can be moved at the discretion of the Reception and Integration Agency.
Joy arrived in Ireland at the age of sixteen, pregnant and alone. Her children were all born in this country, but the state still considered them asylum-seekers. She had to fill out their applications for legal protection, at a loss as to what reason to give for their need of protection, when they had been born in the country where she herself was seeking asylum.
‘It’s better than where I am coming from,’ she said of Watergate House. Better than the caravan park and better than her situation back home in Nigeria. In this apartment she had more control over her own life, which made her feel more secure. But the security she came to this country for has been eroded year by year, with each threat of deportation and now each threat of eviction.
Joy was from a rural town and her family had been poor. She was still struggling to recover from the experiences that had driven her from her home. When she was barely more than a child, she had gone to the city, finding sporadic employment as a domestic worker before she ended up turning to prostitution. One day she was violently attacked and raped. Soon after, she discovered she was pregnant.
At the time of the assault, she had been working for a man and his wife in Lagos. They told her they were moving to London and that they wanted to take her with them. Everything would be arranged. She boarded a plane, ready to start a new life. But when she arrived in London, she found herself sleeping on the floor of a cold room near the kitchen in their house. She was told she would have to work for four years without pay to earn back the money they had spent to bring her there. The wife had ripped the visa from Joy’s passport so that she would have no proof she had entered the country legally. She was denied the use of a phone. The wife even suggested that Joy should have an abortion. She worked for the couple, cooked for them, and cared for their children. Finally, while waiting to collect the kids from outside their school, she met another Nigerian woman. Joy asked this woman to help her contact her sister, who was living in Ireland. This woman then helped her flee to Dublin.
The first reception centre Joy was sent to was Balseskin, the entry point for most asylum-seekers to the direct-provision system. It is known by many as the ‘camp’: a maze of Portacabins hidden off a narrow road, near to a sparse expanse of industrial estates in Finglas, close to IKEA and the airport. Most people would only pass near to it to buy furniture or to go on holiday. By mid 2016, the average time a person stayed in the direct-provision system was 38 months and 450 people had been living in the system for more than seven years. A woman I met in Balseskin had lived there with her son for more than five years before getting papers, only to then wait more than a year to find a house to rent.
From Balseskin, Joy and her newly born twins were moved to a caravan park in Athlone. ‘Life in Athlone is not easy,’ she told me. ‘A caravan is for people that go for holiday, but some people are there for ten years, it’s too much.’ The meals were ‘chips today, chips tomorrow.’ While living in the caravan she developed a rash all over her body. She was already struggling with depression from what she had experienced back home and her daughter had developed asthma.
In 2012, still living in the caravan, she was issued with a deportation notice. Her application for asylum had failed and she would have to return to Nigeria along with her two children, who were at the time barely four years old. Her lawyer assured her that she would not be forced to leave because she had ‘a story,’ but she still feared being deported at any time.
In 1999, a constitutional amendment automatically entitled anyone born in Ireland to Irish citizenship. The Refugee Act of 1996 had already established an ‘absolute prohibition’ on asylum-seekers seeking employment in Ireland, but after the 1999 amendment, politicians started warning of non-nationals coming here while pregnant in order to get citizenship for their children. The year of the new millennium, amid Y2K fervor and a rising fear of ‘birth tourism,’ the Irish government established the ‘direct provision’ system. It was originally an emergency ‘interim’ solution to higher numbers of asylum-seekers entering the country and fears over a growing risk of homelessness, given the ban on work.
In 2004, a referendum was held on the issue. The resulting Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act restricted the right to citizenship by birth to those with at least one citizen parent. The ban on work was upheld in the International Protection Act 2015. In May 2017, the Supreme Court ruled the ban unconstitutional, adjourning for six months to allow the government to respond. Soon after the ruling, Taoiseach Varadkar announced a €2.50 increase to the weekly allowance paid to asylum-seekers, bringing it to €21.60 a week for adults, which many felt was a slap in the face. By October, Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan finally announced that asylum-seekers would soon be given the right to work.
Many activists believe that with the right to work, people should no longer be confined to institutionalised living and the direct-provision system should be dismantled. But the court had stated that any asylum-seeker who became employed and wished to remain in direct-provision accommodation might be means tested to determine the contribution they should pay. Asylum-seekers would then essentially be paying rent and contributing to a system that many feel harms and isolates them.
Last year, eight companies were running more than thirty direct-provision centres across Ireland. While awaiting a decision on their applications for protection, in order to receive the weekly allowance, asylum-seekers must live in these centres. They are housed in disused hotels and military barracks, and even a run-down holiday camp, many isolated in obscure nooks of the country.
For nearly a decade, Joy had dreamed of getting her papers. With papers, she thought, everything would be better. The flimsy pieces of paper would be proof that she and her young children could finally live a normal life. But more than a year after being granted legal protection in the country, Joy was still without a home, while under pressure to leave the direct-provision accommodation at Watergate House.
After living for the guts of a decade in the direct-provision system without the right to work, Joy was suddenly handed papers and expected to integrate herself into a society that throughout her time here she had felt deliberately isolated from. In the midst of the worsening housing crisis in Dublin, finding a place to rent is challenging even for high-earning tech workers flocking to the city. Landlords can openly discriminate against applicants relying on housing assistance. The first questions on the lips of most: where are you working and where are you from?
Joy had been searching for a whole year without a single solid lead. Her kids listed off some of the places where they have travelled to by bus to view houses over the last few months, roaming the city from Malahide to Blanchardstown. There was the spark of hope at the beginning, an advertisement for somewhere affordable, scrolling through photos of the rooms that they might live in. Then the skittishness that set in on the way to the viewing, hoping there wouldn’t be a crowd. The kids would explore the bedroom that might be theirs. Then the rush home to email their application, adhering to the carefully folded pieces of paper with the agent’s contact details that listed all the necessary references. Then the waiting game that month in, month out, never once bore fruit. She shook her head when she thought of it, hunching over her knees on the couch, the burden on her shoulders almost palpable. There are only so many more viewings she can go to before she admits defeat and declares her family homeless. She has already searched for shelters in the city.
Signs ‘To Let’ and ‘Sale Agreed’ dotted houses along the sides of the quays as Lucky Khambule, a South African activist who founded the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI), made his way to view a bedsit up for rent a stone’s throw from the banks of the River Liffey.
The day before, he had viewed three apartments in one day. The last one had been in Phibsborough, a studio apartment left fairly neglected and filthy. He had decided he would still fill out an application, desperate for somewhere to live. But the agent renting out the place was asking everyone at the viewing to hand over 500 euro cash for their application to be considered, to be returned if unsuccessful. There were ladders left around the place and tins of paint. Khambule wondered if the agent was some con artist who had just strolled into the place while it was being refurbished and was making fools of all of them. ‘If you didn’t bring cash, go there to that ATM,’ he had been told.
At the bedsit, the agent from Lowe’s confirmed that it was renting for 1,066 euro a month. Khambule had asked the agent if the landlord would accept the Housing Assistance Payment, known as HAP. The young man in the creaseless shirt, eager for a quick turnaround, had smiled and told him ‘that’s no problem.’ He told him to send on his references in an email and flashed Khambule a kind, if not pitying, smile. ‘It’s a rip-off, really,’ Khambule said to me, after we had left.
‘There are about five families here in the same situation, one with three kids,’ he told me as we walked back across the river to Watergate House. ‘She got her papers long before me and she’s been looking all this time.’ He was talking about Joy. Like Joy, Lucky had his papers and had been told he had to leave Watergate House. He would have to find his own accommodation or be moved to another centre, potentially anywhere in the country. But he knew people in the other centres in the same situation as him, being told again and again that they will have to be out soon, though they had nowhere else to go.
‘Everyone who got their papers, they don’t want us here,’ he said. ‘They need to understand there’s a crisis out there created by the government. This is just going to get worse. How do you justify that the place we just viewed is worth one thousand euro?’
Before coming to Dublin, Khambule had been living in a direct-provision hostel in Cork. He never asked to be transferred. He had been involved in a number of high-profile demonstrations protesting the conditions at the centre in Cork and he figured they moved him to Watergate House to keep him quiet. If they put him in the self-catering accommodation in the capital—luxurious compared to the other centres—maybe he would stop his public campaign against the system. The accommodation is usually reserved for people who need medical care, such as a neighbour from Zimbabwe who is receiving cancer treatment, or for vulnerable families.
Ellie Kisyombe has big jars of homemade kombucha in the window of her kitchen upstairs in Watergate House, sunlight streaming through the bright red and lemon yellow brews. An endlessly industrious activist, asylum-seeker and mother of two, Ellie is the entrepreneurial dynamo behind the Open Table initiative, a project to raise awareness of direct provision through pop-up cafés and markets, sharing recipes from all the different cultures represented within the centres with people who may not even know the system exists. On the day of the viewing, as Khambule sent off his application, she had dropped in for a chat and was telling him about a new co-op housing project in Ballymun.
The manager of the house has seen Ellie on TV. She told me he asked her whether she was getting paid for her appearances, as if she was gaming the system somehow. The frustration of having so much energy and willpower but being denied the right to work as an asylum-seeker, with people accusing people like her of being scroungers or beggars, made her furious. ‘It’s depressing,’ she said. “I could work today and make three hundred euro, put two hundred euro aside for my daughter’s education. Eight years, why do you want to keep me [in the system]? I am struggling. Electricity costs and everything leaves only thirty euro.’
Profiting off a crisis
In the midst of the raging housing crisis in Dublin, people like Joy and Khambule, trying to move out of the direct-provision system in which they have been isolated, have been thrown into a housing market where they not only have to compete against those capable of paying high rents but are often politically pitched against the homeless and vulnerable ‘Irish’ families. Unable to find a place to live and thus finding it more difficult to secure a job, people coming out of direct provision__ __have little choice but to apply for assistance from the state and depend on welfare, wards of the state in another guise. They are then accused of being a drain on resources, of coming to this country for a free ride.
In 2016, there was a seventeen percent increase in the number of people deported from Ireland. Out of 4,446 people, 3,951 were refused entry and immediately returned, but 428 of those deported were illegal migrants and asylum-seekers whose applications for protection had failed. How many of these failed asylum-seekers had lived in direct provision for more than a year? How much profit was made by the companies that housed them during their time here?
Asylum-seekers and the crises that have driven them to these shores have been a boon for the handful of firms contracted to run these centres. Last year, eight contractors operating direct-provision centres were paid a total of €43.5 million. Mosney Holidays, which runs the former holiday camp in Meath as a direct-provision centre for 600 asylum-seekers, received nearly €120 million from the state between 2002 and 2016. In the five years between 2010 and 2015, nine companies were paid more than €10 million each to operate direct-provision centres.
East Coast Catering, the company that runs Hatch Hall and Balseskin received fees of €7 million last year, bringing to €115 million the fees the company received from the State between 2000 and 2016. Watergate House, where Joy and her children have been living, now under threat of eviction, was reported in 2014 to be run by a business that is not incorporated and therefore does not have to publish its accounts or profits.
The Irish Housing Network has worked alongside MASI and activists who are in direct provision to advocate for an intersectional approach to protecting the rights of all to have a roof over their heads and improving access for all to affordable housing. ‘It’s not hard to solve the housing crisis,’ Tommy Gavin, who was involved in the occupation of Apollo House and works with the Housing Network, argues.
In the midst of a housing crisis, in the mind’s eye, the city becomes a bulging and cramped space where people compete for ever-shrinking living space. But some tens of thousands of properties are currently lying vacant. Squatters cycle through the city and pick out houses on every street that are empty. The cranes looming over Dublin are not there to build social housing, they are dragging up luxury apartments and offices. Where he comes from, Khambule says, people take vacant land and they build homes.
On a sticky, overcast day in the first week of August, I passed under the ornate, green copper spires of Hatch Hall. After signing in at the door with the security guard, I met Agnes, a young woman from Zimbabwe, sitting in a patch of sunshine in the courtyard. Her eighteen-month-old daughter blew kisses in the air and waddled back and forth to the bench bearing little treasures to place in our palms—a handful of dusty pebbles, a discarded crisp packet, a leaf. Agnes had been living in direct provision for eight years before she got her papers. Her daughter was born in the Coombe. She named her Aisling, the Irish word for ‘dream,’ because she is a woman who sticks to her ambitions and wants her daughter to do the same. But her daughter hasn’t been given legal protection in this country yet, even though Agnes now has subsidiary protection.
I had last been in Hatch Hall five years ago, picking at a tray of stodgy stew in the clinically lit canteen with a Syrian man who had just got his papers. That man is now housed, but I remember waiting at the top of a creaky staircase with him during his search for a home, a rough-mouthed landlord taking each person down one by one to a mildewed room, asking first where they were from.
Agnes—crimson streaks in her hair and a soft sheen of silver on her eyelids—came to Hatch Hall in 2014 from the Montague Hotel in County Laois, a direct-provision centre in the back end of nowhere, surrounded by farms. She was heavily pregnant at the time. ‘I got sick there,’ she said. Not only was she physically ill while living in the centre, Agnes struggled with depression. Back home, something had happened to her that made her leave the country. I asked her to explain, but she was not comfortable discussing it. In Ireland, after years of living in direct provision, she had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. She is convinced her condition deteriorated in part due to the experience of living as an asylum-seeker here.
In Hatch Hall, when she was pregnant, a woman called Janet who worked in the canteen would sometimes make her fried eggs in the morning to help sate her cravings. Otherwise, she ate nothing but greasy chips and stews along with everyone else. After her daughter was born, she was faced with raising a child in the system, with no family around her and unable to even cook a meal. She was still coming to terms with her diagnosis, which was made more difficult by the sense of isolation. She was always waiting, the threat of deportation hanging over her head, unable to plan a future for herself.
‘They were rejecting me,’ she said, referring to the asylum system. ‘I was living in direct provision without hope.’ She would pray to God for an answer. ‘When am I going to get out of here?’ she begged. Her thoughts were haunted by what had happened to her at home and what would happen to her if she was sent back.
She kept her mind focused on small victories. She studied for the Leaving Certificate and passed. She moulded a tentative future in her mind, one in which she would go on to become a nurse or a carer. When she had received her papers, months before our meeting, she had thought the door to that future was about to suddenly swing open. But the rug was being pulled out from beneath her feet again. How would there be a future if she couldn’t find a place to live?
Visitors are not officially allowed into people’s rooms at Hatch Hall, but Agnes snuck me up the wooden staircase. She led me along a dim corridor and past the old chapel to the door of her one-room home for the past few years. It’s cold in the winter, she said, but others have told her that if she gets her own place, it will be even colder. The bills for heating run so high.
After visiting Agnes, I walked back into the city from Hatch Hall with Lucky. He told me the agent we had met never replied to his application. That morning, he had viewed a cramped one-bedroom apartment in Dublin 7, queuing along the street along with a long line of other people. Hundreds, he told me, had come to see it. ‘This thing is getting worse, there is no hope’ he said. ‘The rate at which the country is growing, it’s not prepared. You are pleading for a home.’
What irked him most was the fact that during the economic downturn, people had taken vacant hotels and buildings and used them to create a business out of housing asylum-seekers. ‘If you take out the asylum-seekers from these areas, your building will be a white elephant—no one will be going,’ he said. ‘In the middle of nowhere, someone is milking the state every day, profiting off the misery of people.’