Thandi has some good things to say about the new supermarket brought in at Mosney Accommodation Centre, where she lives.
It means asylum seekers can finally choose and cook their own food. It “is much better than the previous system of cooking meals for residents”, she said. Some, after all, have lived without that freedom for years.
But she and others also question the new arrangement by which asylum seekers are given a certain number of points each week that they can use in the on-site shop.
Why not just give people money to go and shop where they want? they ask.
The supermarket at Mosney has a range of suppliers: FX Buckley supply meats, Rosie & Jim and Manor Farm provide a variety of chicken cuts, and Total Produce offers fresh vegetables and fruits.
But “we are being told where to shop and what to shop, we are still not deciding for ourselves,” says Thandi, who didn’t want to give her full name.
Sometimes, the points they allocate are not enough to get a week’s food, and there’s a limit to what’s available, she said. It doesn’t seem fair to her.
“A family of two adults and two children gets 126 points but you will find another family with the same number of family members is getting less or else more,” she says.
People living in Mosney cannot understand how points are allocated, says Lucky Khambule, of the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI).
“There is no transparency around the allocation of the points,” he says.
As he sees it, it shows what those who brought in the system think of asylum seekers. “Because they don’t regard us as valuable human beings that can contribute a thing over our lives,” he said.
Jody Clarke, a spokesperson for the UNHCR, says that staff from his agency regularly meet with people living in the asylum centres known as “direct provision”, and have received positive feedback about the pilot programme.
“The provision of food is something that is frequently brought up and for many residents, particularly families, the facilities to cook for oneself are highly valued,” he says.
The switch to allow for self-catering comes following recommendations in the McMahon report, that found some children had never seen their parents cook a meal.
In response to a number of parliamentary questions, Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality David Stanton said that the new system was brought in after a lengthy analysis by staff at the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) and the management team at the centre.
“This involved a number of residents volunteering to participate in live shopping expeditions,” he said. They also carried out surveys of residents to see what kind of products they wanted, he said.
Khambule says that the new system was introduced “without any consultation with asylum seekers”.
Because of the points-based system, it is hard to know how much the government is paying for the food in the supermarket. It is also hard to know how the points are awarded to people, or families, to purchase the food.
Stanton failed to answer those questions in a parliamentary query last month. The Department of Justice Press Office failed to respond to a number of queries about how the supermarket has been set up, and why.
Stanton, in his response, did say that “A recent EU decision indicated that protection applicants throughout the Union should have their needs provided for under a benefit in kind system such as this points system.”
The EU guidance that outlines standards for looking after asylum seekers doesn’t seem to take a position on whether food should be provided to, or should be purchased by, asylum seekers.
Clarke of UNHCR said that the two decisions referred to by Stanton relate to something else. “They relate to the EU relocation scheme only, rather than asylum seekers who make their own way to Ireland,” says Clarke. The decision is not legally binding.
As Khambule sees it, “This is another way of keeping money within the same individuals who have benefited in direct provision out of the misery of asylum seekers.”
Chris Long, of DC Poultry, which sells Rosie & Jim chicken products to the centre, said he couldn’t shed much light on the process either.
Mosney is a regular customer for a variety of chicken products, but he cannot confirm the price that they pay for different products as it is commercially sensitive, he said.
He says he has no idea how they distribute the products after purchase but he did confirm that Mosney, like all big customers, would receive a discount for bulk buying.
Despite the criticism from some quarters, though, the system of segregated supermarkets may soon be expanded to other hostels where asylum seekers live.
“This pilot project has been a great success and it is intended that variations of the scheme will be rolled out to other centres throughout the country,” said Stanton, in his parliamentary response.