It was around 10.30am on 16 March when the phone rang, as the Iranian man remembers it.
He’d just flicked on the kettle to make tea. A couple of slices of toast and porridge were laid out ready for breakfast, collected from the kitchen below. His son sat on the sofa, eyes fixed on cartoons on television.
At first, the man couldn’t take in what his solicitor said. For a few long seconds, he was silent.
“Are you sure?” he asked. His voice grew louder and his son looked startled.
He asked his solicitor to check again. She read his name. His wife’s name. His son’s name. His age. Until he started to believe that it wasn’t a mistake. More than five years after he had arrived in Ireland from Iran after fleeing, as he tells it, the government crackdown that followed the 2009 elections, he had finally been told he and his family could stay here.
When he got off the phone, he picked up his son and hugged him tight and cried and told him it was good news, and that their papers were coming.
Just a toddler, his son might not have known the intricacies of the Irish asylum system and the shades of status. But he knew the word “papers” and he knew they were important.
The word would echo around the asylum centre in Clonakilty, and all conversations seemed to furrow towards it. Did you get your papers? Neighbours would ask one another. Are your papers coming? Sometimes, letters would slide under the door of the Iranian family’s room and they would joke, “Oh! Our papers are coming.”
So after the phone call, when the Iranian man turned to his son and said, “Look, our papers are coming,” he felt like his son understood. This was big.
The wash of emotions was complicated. On the one hand, the future seemed to exist again and he could start to think of a move to Dublin. “The door is open to you,” he said later.
But then there was the worry about the next steps, the fear and stress at the thought of making it on the outside, the sadness at leaving behind friends who had been in it together with him.
“You feel,” he said, “that you are alone.”
A Rise in the Right to Stay?
On Tuesday, the government published plans to reform the asylum system after a sustained campaign by NGOs and asylum seekers.
Among the recommendations: the right to work after nine months, final decisions within 12 months, and a fast-track procedure to grant residency to those who have been stuck in direct provision for five years or more.
Even before these recommendations, there were hints that the government had changed tack. It seemed that more people were being handed their papers – whether full-blown refugee status, or other forms of permission such as subsidiary protection or leave to remain. (Others have been deported.)
Early last year, the Irish Refugee Council began to notice an increase in people with papers arriving at its drop-in centre.
That trend has continued, which is good because it means some people and families are finally able to move on with their lives, said Caroline Reid, communications officer at the Irish Refugee Council, on Monday. But there are issues with how the government has gone about it so far, she said.
Many families are opting for “leave to remain” – a status that comes with fewer rights – and dropping their applications for full refugee status or subsidiary protection even if they have strong cases. They hope to get their children out of direct provision sooner.
“It is an act of desperation for their children’s sake. People are losing out on the protection and rights they deserve,” she said.
At the appeals level, too, there have been signs that a greater percentage of people who were turned down when they first applied are being accepted as refugees.
Between 2009 and 2012, for “substantive appeals”, around 90 percent or more of rejections were upheld by the Refugee Appeals Tribunal. In 2013, that number was 89 percent. In 2014, after changes at the tribunal, there was a sharp fall in the number of rejections in this category that were upheld, to just 54 percent.
But as more families leave direct provision – with years out of work and being treated as children – they face a looming question: what next?
The issue for many is how to move on.
Where to Start
The Iranian man didn’t know where to start.
He asked around to work out what to do. The social welfare office was asking for a bank statement. The bank wanted proof of address. How can I get proof of address? he wondered. “This is a really complicated system, and there is no organisation to help people like this.”
For the few weeks after he got the call, he sat on his sofa with his laptop in front of him on the coffee table.
From 9am until late in the evening – with short breaks for lunch and dinner – he monitored Daft.ie and Rent.ie, looking for new listings so he’d be top of the pile. There were a few reasons he’d honed in on Dublin.
His family was used to big-city living; it takes an hour on the motorway to cross their home city, Shiraz, from north to south. But more importantly, he wanted to go back to university and build on his Iranian biomedical degree, get a decent job.
He had been 30 when he arrived in Ireland. He was now 35. He wanted to get going again.
He soon hit a hurdle.
“The biggest problem people are facing is, once they have their papers, actually trying to get out of the hostel,” says Rory O’Neill, a PhD researcher at the Centre for Transcultural Research and Media Practice at Dublin Institute of Technology.
Once an asylum seeker has been given the right to stay and live in Ireland, they get a letter from the Reception and Integration Agency, which oversees the hostels, telling them that they should plan to move out in a month.
Not all are able. They need landlord references. They need job references. They need money for a deposit and a month’s rent – a cost that continues to climb. Asylum seekers live in direct provision hostels. They aren’t allowed to work. Adults gets €19.10 a week in pocket money; not enough to save up.
“Even if you have a reference, you were living in a place where you were taken care of, you were not managing a house,” says Reuben Hambakachere, who dropped his subsidiary protection claim in favour of a faster leave-to-remain case, and got his status in November 2013. “That’s a problem with most landlords.”
The Iranian man decided there was one way forward: he would put himself out there, explain his past. So he typed up a short story about himself, he said later. “My name is this. I’m from this originally. I’m living in this situation. I don’t have nothing. I wrote these things.”
And he copied it and pasted it and sent it into the black-hole of the internet, into the inboxes of landlords and agencies. And he copied out the addresses and details of all of the homes he had enquired about, until he had as many as 10 pages, front and back, of properties. And he waited for somebody to call.
As of 21 June, there were 4,574 residents scattered among the 34 direct-provision centres in Ireland, according to the Department of Justice. Of those, more than 480 have permission to live in the country but are stuck in centres. That’s more than 10 percent.
It’s a number that the Department of Justice expects to fall over the summer months, as residents who have waited for the end of the school year begin the search for private accommodation outside.
But others say it could grow, as more get papers but lack resources to get set up elsewhere, and it’s not enough to just send people on their way.
“You go from having to queue up for your food, to getting no support from the system,” says Olive Walsh, a friend of the Iranian man’s from Clonakilty, who works to help asylum seekers there.
“The Government isn’t going about it the right way,” agrees Reid from the Irish Refugee Council. “They are not putting in place any support to help them move on.”
The Need for Luck
One Friday, as he sent another round of enquiries, the Iranian man got a phone call from a landlord, asking if he could come visit the apartment the next day.
“Yes, of course. But did you read my story? I don’t have anything,” he recalls blurting out. The landlord said he understood; as long as he could pay, it was okay.
Later, he learnt that the landlord’s wife was from Iran. It was “pure luck,” he said. “Just pure luck.”
Where can asylum seekers find the money to move out?
The Iranian man was lucky and turned to friends. Others say they did the same. “From €19, how much can you save? I borrowed money. I only finished paying it off three months ago,” said Reuben Hambakachere. Another asylum seeker I spoke to relied on an Irish girlfriend to help him get set up.
It takes time to access social welfare and it’s complicated. It seems to vary across centres, but some people have been told you can’t access social welfare until you have moved out, said Walsh from Clonakilty.
Migrants also face issues with high rates of incorrect refusals, difficulty communicating with social welfare officials, misinformation, and rudeness and racism, according to a 2014 report by a coalition of rights NGOs, including Free Legal Advice Centres (FLAC) and NASC, the Irish Immigration Support Centre.
Ideally, they would walk out straight into jobs. But after years out of employment, that’s tough. Putting together a CV with a big gap and trying to access back-to-work courses is a challenge, said O’Neill, the Phd researcher at DIT. “People have been deskilled.”
On a recent Monday, the Iranian man told me: “I don’t want to depend on social welfare and all these things.” We’re sat on benches in the Garden of Remembrance and its cloudy but warm out. A kid with blonde fly-away curls dangles her fingers in the water feature in the middle of the monument.
At the Iranian man’s feet is a blue bag full of documents. If he loses the bag, he’ll be sent back to Iran, he jokes.
He’s just been back to the social welfare office on Parnell Street to try, yet again, to sort out his social-welfare payments. This time, the man at the counter took his documents but said he needs to come back with his wife and son. (The next time he goes, they say that wasn’t necessary.)
As he tells it, in Shiraz, he had his own apartment, his own car. He worked two jobs, at two different hospitals. At one job, he prepared blood in a laboratory for people with cancer and anaemia. He’d finish up, run home for a rest, have a bite to eat, and then dash out again to his second job, this time working the night shift, overseeing patients with blood-circulation issues.
“When I came here, the system just trained me to be lazy,” he said. Each day was the same: getting up for breakfast if you could be bothered, lying in if not, watching television, queuing for lunch, watching television, chatting to neighbours, watching television, queuing for dinner, going to bed.
Each year, he’d feel a little more stunted, like his chances at a full life were shrinking.
“Now, it’s hard. Start from zero. For the first time,” he says.
Right now, he’s at another fork in the road. He wants to get to university as quick as possible but missed the deadline this year. You have to be on job-seekers allowance for 78 days to get the back-to-education allowance; he missed the cut.
For Walsh, that’s another illogical condition. “There are terrible contradictions,” she said. “There’s encouragement not to apply for employment straight away, if you want further education.”
So, for now, the university plan is on hold, and he’s looking for work until he can apply to study again.
“But I’m happy. I was waiting for this time. I don’t want to depend on social money and these things,” he says. “I’ll try to get my future very good.”
A Reckoning and an Obligation to Help
Asylum seekers live with uncertainty for years. They don’t know whether they’ll be deported or told they’re allowed to stay. “People are damaged,” said Mike Fitzgibbon, lecturer at University College Cork. But he doesn’t think there’s been a reckoning with that yet.
It’s all very well to look forward and talk about the supports we need, but first, the government needs to acknowledge past wrongs, he said; the effect on children, the high rejection rates compared to other countries, the restrictions people have lived under.
“I don’t think there’s really any cognisance taken of the fact that people might find it difficult to move over from an institutional setting to a so-called normal setting,” he said.
Some might question why people moving out of the asylum system should get extra assistance in getting set up. They can, after all, access the same social supports as Irish people. Why give them any extra leg up?
Everybody needs to have adequate support, said Fitzgibbon, but these are people who are trying to integrate into society in a whole variety of different ways, with issues piled on top of each other.
For those who move out of direct provision, there are so many legacy issues, says Walsh from Clonakilty.
She has seen adults who for a couple of years would be cheerful, then become withdrawn, then desperately depressed.
She has seen toddlers at first unaware of the differences between their lives and their peers’ lives, grow into subdued kids, and then ashamed teenagers.
She has seen one girl wait at the bus stop outside school and pretend to be going out of town, rather than walk to the direct-provision centre.
“I’ve seen the energy, the joy, being sucked out of people,” she said.
“As an Irish state, we have institutionalised them,” says Jacqui O’Riordan, a lecturer in Applied Social Studies at University College Cork. “And it’s not the first people we have done this to. And we need to take responsibility.”