Most refugees arriving in Ireland visit 11 Mount Street in Dublin to lodge their asylum applications and seek help in finding accommodation. Over the past few weeks, these people have found themselves, without any choice, being put on buses and `dispersed' to occupy `bed spaces' around the country.
Should refugees wish to move back to Dublin or go to another region, the Department of Family Affairs and the health boards will cut off their welfare payments, and they will not be entitled to assistance to cover deposits or rent on alternative accommodation which they may find.
In effect, they are detainees. They have neither a choice about where they go nor about whether they stay there. Last week, a Nigerian dispersed to the Midlands found himself obliged to return to accommodation to which he had been `dispersed', which he had found unbearable, or face starving on the streets. The constitutionality of this measure is highly questionable.
Bernie O'Neill of the Immigration Section of the Department of Justice and Declan O'Boyle of the Justice Department both confirm that refugees who have been `dispersed' to accommodation are not technically `in need' and therefore do not qualify for the normal survival payments which destitute indigenous people normally receive - Social Welfare payments.
Most of the accommodation which refugees are dispersed to is full board, though about one-third, on figures supplied to An Phoblacht this week by the Department of Justice, are `self-catering'. Payments refugees get are discretionary to their local health board, but in the case of full board a refugee may receive £15 per week, and perhaps £30 a week for self catering, out of which the refugee is expected to meet all needs. This includes nappies, toiletries, supplementary food, clothing, transport, and all activities which allow them to mix as human beings in the community they have been foisted on without any prior consultation with local councillors, local people, or the refugees themselves.
The `bed spaces' were offered to the Department of Justice, which advertised last December for help to meet the emergency at Mount Street. According to a spokesperson for the Justice Department, 9,000 `bed spaces' were offered, and the places were then checked out by the respective local authorities for suitability.
The Department, however, is anxious to stress that this is not a policy but a response to an emergency. Policy is to come later, when the newly established inter-departmental committee and the Directorate of Asylum Seekers (DASS) have had a chance to prepare one.
Last Friday, NGOs were called to a meeting at the Justice Department by Bernie O'Neill. The impression was that finally the Department was looking for consultation with and advice on policy which is in the process of formulation. But representatives from NGOs were amazed to find themselves directed into pre-arranged workshops, with prearranged topics for discussion, which presupposed dispersal and direct provision. They were only to be consulted on methods of implementing this emergency response.
The majority of NGOs represented at the meeting, which included Comhlámh, the ICCL, ARASSI, ARC, The Refugee Council, and many others, were enraged that they had been invited to discuss implementation of a policy with which they entirely disagreed - the forced dispersal of refugees and direct provision.
However, very scant information was provided by the Department at last Friday's meeting. Even figures for dispersal are hard to come by and are conflicting. Reports last Friday said 758 refugees had been dispersed to the eight health board regions, but figures released by the Department on Tuesday omit three health board areas and add up to 634 places so far.
When asked how long refugees will stay in this accommodation, the Department replies that it has negotiated varying contract lengths of three to nine months. As to where the refugees will go then, the Department talks vaguely of negotiations with the Office of Public Works (OPW) for properties. Are these the empty army barracks?
The `consultation' session in the Department took place last Friday. On Monday, the minister announced a £1 million scheme to combat racism in Ireland, but he failed to tell the NGOs of this at the Friday meeting. ``There was no consultation. The meeting was only window dressing'', reports Donncha O'Connell of the ICCL.
All day Tuesday, Sky News showed footage relating to the 70,000 refugees who have sought refuge in England, some of whom are now being held in prisons, with a commentary that the government `had achieved about the right balance between harsh conditions and letting England be seen as a soft touch for refugees'.
Dublin's Department of Justice has no policy here except to ensure that conditions are at least as unpleasant for refugees in Ireland as they are in England, so Ireland should not be seen either as a soft touch. The only policy is to keep them out.
What about providing for the integration and acceptance of refugees into local communities, welcoming and disseminating cultural diversity? What about translators, interpreters, legal assistance, learning English, educational programmes? These are the business of the other departments, Health, Education, Family Affairs, says the Justice Department. What about the appeals tribunal from which senior counsel Peter Findlay courageously resigned last week because it made a travesty of justice, or the 18 month delay for decisions on refugees' applications for asylum?
Above all, why is the Department of Enterprise advertising for and inviting workers from Eastern Europe to come here to fill jobs and yet at the same time is refusing the right to people who seek asylum here, whose spirit is broken by enforced idleness, who yearn to work here.
There is no other explanation except the colour of their skin.
``£1 million to combat racism in Ireland - they should start in the departments of government,'' a spokesperson for one of the NGOs remarked.