Afri is an Irish justice and peace organisation based in Dublin. Afri’s goal is the promotion of global justice and peace, and the reduction of poverty; this includes, but is not limited to, the progressive reduction of global militarisation, and responding to the threat of climate change, corporate control of resources and water, and interference with food sovereignty.
As part of our promotion of global justice, we have in recent years focused on the shortcomings and failures of the Irish state’s system of receiving international protection applications. To this end, we have raised awareness of Direct Provision through our work in schools as part of the Global Citizenship initiative of Irish Aid.
In April 2017 Afri attended a presentation by MASI in the AV Room of Leinster House to members of the Oireachtas about the sudden introduction of a new 60-page questionnaire by the IPO (International Protection Office) sent simultaneously to thousands of asylum seekers in the Direct Provision system with a 20-day deadline to complete it – with legal advice. As this was clearly impossible for the vast majority, if not all, of the international protection applicants in Ireland issued with this deadline, it spread panic and dread among people already under stress from the strictures of living in the Direct Provision system that ties them to food and shelter in conditions over which they are given absolutely no say. After this presentation, we asked Donnah Vuma from Zimbabwe, who spoke movingly at that AV Room presentation, to be one of the leaders of our annual Afri Mayo Famine Walk from Louisburgh to Doolough, May 2017. This is what she said:-
“I feel humbled and yet honoured to be here today. I have found it a challenge to say a few words. But I remember those who walked this path before, the people who sacrificed their lives to seek relief for the masses of their village. They did not second-guess themselves, they took the challenge with swiftness, in the worst of weather and on empty stomachs with nothing but the will to survive.
In whatever part of the world we may be, we need to remember those that are treated with injustice and inequality for the sake of their political opinions, religion, race and gender. We also need to remember the thousands of families – including infants and the elderly fleeing war and violence in Syria who have to walk more than 1400 miles to get to Serbia’s border with Hungary in the hope of finding peace and a future. Above all, we need to remember those who sacrificed their lives fleeing on coffin ships or those who were condemned to workhouses during the great Irish Famine – An Gorta Mór.
People fleeing their homes, whether during the Famine in Ireland or the war in Syria have brought to mind the words of poet Warson Shire “No-one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark”. Amongst us are those who I am here to represent. They have travelled from countries afar to seek refuge among us.
No-one puts their children on a boat unless the water is safer than the land. I stand in deep solidarity and respect with those that have made such courageous journeys in the past, present and unfortunately in the future, in the hopes of finding safety.
Unfortunately, Ireland has delegated the questionable system of Direct Provision to take care of those seeking asylum. Seeking asylum is by no means criminal, no one should be punished nor condemned for seeking asylum in another country, no one should serve what seems to be an unending sentence for a crime unknown to one.
It is not acceptable to have a safety net yet to live in constant fear and uncertainty of your future. It is painful to live a life in limbo, not to be able to prepare a meal for your children, to be denied the right to work to be able to provide even the bare necessities for your family .. to have your dignity taken away and to be restricted from contributing positively to a society or community that has welcomed you and shown you love.
Till this day, I pray for a better way. I can’t help but feel hopeless and heartbroken. In my heart, surrounded by masses of people, often in the same predicament, I feel all alone. I close my eyes and picture home. I can’t help but wonder and ask the questions:- is Direct Provision doing enough to address the needs of asylum seekers? Whom is the new International Protection Act intended to protect? Need this country of plenty witness yet another catastrophe? How many more people under Direct Provision should we see lose their sanity or spiral down into chronic illnesses before we say enough is enough”
It is to be noted with alarm that many international protection applicants who submitted their cases around that time – May-June-July 2017 – without getting legal advice in order to comply with the 20-day deadline printed emphatically in bold on the official letter they received, are about now or in the near future, if they’ve suffered rejection of their application, grappling with threats of deportation.
This historical violation of applicants’ UN-guaranteed rights has never been satisfactorily dealt with by the IPO (International Protection Office). The injustice inflicted on many hundreds of asylum seekers at that time when the International Protection Act regulations were being introduced has never been owned up to nor have any measures been put in place to restore those people’s international rights to protection, which includes transparent process. It was not a transparent process for people trying to meet an impossible deadline, and declining to take legal advice in order to “do the right thing”. It would be a serious dereliction of Ireland’s international duty were anyone to suffer deportation on account of the botched introduction of IPO procedures in spring-summer 2017.
On the issue of deportations, Afri notes with horror that many people have been summarily and forcibly deported without reference to their relatives, including their children. One such case, Vahmra Haratyunyan, having been in Direct Provision for years, and subsequently lived in Galway, was summarily rendered incommunicado and deported to Armenia in August 2018, and his three-year-old daughter Aline and partner Viktoria left to face life without him. Their case was highlighted in the Jimmys’ Hall Today event Afri supported in the Town Hall Theatre Galway in September 2018 during the run of the Abbey Theatre’s Jimmy’s Hall, about Leitrim man Jimmy Gralton, deported for his political beliefs as “an undesirable alien” in 1933. Afri has deep concerns that the issue of wrongful deportation is an institutional phenomenon in Ireland today, as much as in 1933.
In July 2018, Afri was co-convenor with MASI and Anti-Racism Ireland of an event hosted by the Abbey Theatre Dublin, Ireland’s national theatre, called Jimmy’s Hall Today, during the run of the play Jimmy’s Hall there. First Lady Sabina Higgins participated by reading an extract from Edna O’Brien’s novel The Red Chairs prescribed by the author herself, a refugee of sorts from Ireland once upon a time.
The contributions, as well as speakers of testimony enduring DP and extracts from Jimmy’s Hall, also included a dance piece, It Takes A Village, devised by choreographer Catherine Young, that included thirty dancers from Direct Provision centres in Kerry, Longford and elsewhere. Among them was a Pakistani nurse, Vekhash Khokhar, four years in DP, who was under threat of a deportation order deadline that very date. He spoke from the Abbey Theatre stage about how he would fly out that evening, and hoped to return soon, and asked all present to do all in their power to spare others on stage the fate he was enduring. Despite verbal assurances from several official sources of easing his way back to Ireland once he left the state before the deportation order took effect, once out of sight he has never been given any assistance, and is struggling to continue his life in Pakistan, despite all the issues of danger that drove him to apply for asylum in the first place.
In February 2019 Afri were partners in an event organised by Rose Kelly in Moville, Inishowen, Co. Donegal, where a hotel was designated for use as a Direct Provision centre, with first-hand testimony of Direct Provision from Donnah Vuma and from Fathi Mohamed of Somalia, living with her baby daughter in Ballyhaunis Direct Provision centre for two years.
“It would be amazing to see more of this around the different towns in Ireland, because then we can start to really show the government how unsuitable the system of Direct Provision is, and how we don’t need reform of the system, we need the system to be totally abolished. But it’s also important that people can easily integrate into their communities, and easily pick up where they left off their lives at home, to be able to come into this community, carry on with their lives, and be able to contribute” – Donnah Vuma in Moville, February 2019.
Afri considers that the increasing dispersal of Direct Provision centres to remote regions makes it impossible for people to take up whatever drastically-limited work opportunities might present themselves, as travel is often an enormous problem, and they are not allowed to acquire driving licences while in Direct Provision, a bizarre regulation that defies logic and seems purely punitive.
The IPO interview that every applicant faces for refugee status, possibly the most important of their lives, with their and their childrens’ future depending on it, takes place in the IPO offices in Dublin’s Mount Street. That is a long journey from many DP centres, especially one like Moville, where the shortest travel time, using public transport, would take between 12 and 15 hours each way. How can one be expected to function with alertness in those circumstances? It’s a dereliction of international protection responsibilities that seems almost designed to inflict punishment rather than offer a process of protection.