Lesley Mkoko, a second-year sociology and social policy student in University College Dublin (UCD), is sick and tired of living in direct provision. Coronavirus has worsened his fatigue.
“The situation is so bad I can’t wait for the time when direct provision is ended – the whole system is toxic”, he tells me.
“You want to believe that the Minister for Justice is a human being. You want to believe that the system of governance is considerate. But unfortunately, it is not like that. Not for asylum seekers – and it’s even worse for asylum-seeking students.”
Mkoko studies under the University of Sanctuary scheme. He is one of the 1,700 people living in direct provision in Ireland and one of the countless students who have been forced to cope with the stress of exams and deadlines in an already stressful pandemic – all with the added stress of living in a dangerous home environment where social distancing is impossible and testing is minimal.
Despite a myriad of human-rights scandals in the system, it is really only now with the coronavirus and lockdown that direct provision has hit the headlines – most notably when asylum seekers with suspected cases of coronavirus were transported to Skellig Star Hotel in Cahersiveen, Co Kerry from Dublin in early May.
Since the temporary centre opened at Skellig Star, migrant rights groups and asylum seekers living there have called for the centre to be closed, after more than 20 people tested positive for the virus. But Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan hasn’t budged.
Many students aren’t able to move around too much at the moment – but not many are trapped in a hotel room
As of May 20th, there have been 171 cases of the coronavirus in direct provision centres.
Despite the volatile situation, Mkoko, who was forced to travel three hours each way on his college commute from Waterford to Dublin before the lockdown, is now “locked” in his centre. In fact, since early March when the coronavirus-era started, he has not stepped outside of the room he shares with two strangers.
“Why?”, I ask. His response is troubling.
“But where do you go? And how? You’re scared because people don’t even recognise the social distancing within the centre. I sit in here and listen by the door and make sure I don’t hear any footsteps so I can run down to the kitchen to look for something to eat and quickly rush back to the room in case I get infected.”
Many students aren’t able to move around too much at the moment – but not many are trapped in a hotel room. Many feel isolated, but most have been able to decide where to spend lockdown – at a friend’s, in their own flat, at a family home. But students in direct provision cannot say the same. They are trapped and alone.
Lucky Khambule is a founding member of the Movement of Asylum Seekers of Ireland (MASI) and is campaigning to move people and students like Mkoko – who are under constant lockdown, coronavirus or no coronavirus – out of direct provision. For students, especially those sitting their exams, Khambule says the current situation spells “doomsday”.
Remote learning has presented unprecedented obstacles for many students. Poor broadband connection, strained family relationships, flailing motivation and concentration levels. But for students living in direct provision, the challenges increase tenfold.
Over the phone, I speak with Ibrahim Sorie Kabba, who has almost finished his master’s in environmental policy in UCD and is currently on an internship in the UK exploring the response of coronavirus in the UK. It’s ironic: according to the Irish Refugee Council, direct provision is the most “disturbing” aspect of Ireland’s response to coronavirus.
It is easy to see why.
Kabba is staying in Newbridge, in a hostel, along with 100 other asylum seekers, mostly families. The wifi is very unreliable, he tells me – even on the first floor – so for online lectures, he has to hotspot his laptop.
Although the hostel has a study room where he can work – a luxury in comparison to Mkoko’s centre, where management even failed to provide him with a table in his room – it is usually occupied by restless children, leaving Kabba in a fix.
“I really had to plan myself because during the day the kids are around … playing or shouting in the corridor”, he says. “The noise is too much and I find it hard to concentrate so I had to stay in my room.”
Ola Mustapha is in a similar boat. One solution, she’s found, is to work from her “makeshift office” in the middle of the night, waking up at 3am or 4am in the morning and sleeping at 4am or 5am, until her own children wake up at 7am.
Mustapha came to Ireland from Nigeria six years ago and has been living in Ballyhaunis direct provision centre ever since. She is currently studying business enterprise in community development in Athlone Institute of Technology, while homeschooling and looking after her three children under lockdown, one of whom has ADHD and learning disabilities.
Ask any parent with young children and they will tell you that child caring under lockdown is difficult. But for Mustapha, it has proven detrimental to her wellbeing and studies.
“It has been hard, working side by side with the kids”, she says. “I have an assignment now that I was supposed to submit on the 17th of March but fortunately I got an extension for the first week of June. But I am yet to even start doing anything – I can’t think of anything right now. I feel like my head is empty.”
It is clear that completing exams and meeting deadlines has been a real struggle for students in direct provision – in some cases, to the point where they are putting their lives at risk. One student from Galway – who declined to speak to me for this piece given the potential danger that doing so would pose to their safety – was infected while helping another study for their exams.
Meanwhile, Mkoko has work that is months late. Worse still, he had to miss an exam because he couldn’t connect to the centre’s wifi.
I got relief from that every time I went to class. So being stuck here during COVID-19 has been really – it’s been a mental battle
However, the only godsend in all of this appears to be the support extended to the students by their colleges.
Mkoko – like Mustapha – was able to apply for extraordinary circumstances when he encountered difficulties with his exams, and if it wasn’t for travel restrictions, he would be now living in UCD’s student accommodation.
“I am so [fortunate],” he tells me, “that I went to UCD, whose hands are always open to us asylum seekers at any time and they will do anything to assist the terrible situation”.
Indeed, as the students describe their colleges’ understanding and generosity during these turbulent times, I hear a palpable sense of loss in their words – not about missing out on parties or lectures or the college experience, but of losing out on their freedom.
For Kabba, this means everything: “In UCD, it was the one place I felt free … being on campus gave me that freedom, not thinking about what people are saying [about me]. Being stuck in the hostel, it is depressing because you have to deal with the hostel, with your roommates, the hostel management, the atmosphere – it’s depressing.”
“I got relief from that every time I went to class. So being stuck here during COVID-19 has been really – it’s been a mental battle.”
In many ways, none of this is new. It is not a battle that was borne out of a pandemic – Khambule is adamant in this. If anything, the coronavirus has only given him, and other activists, more ammunition.
“We have been fighting before COVID and COVID gave us another fight to fight with the lack of care. COVID has exposed [the government]. It exposed the system that they have been defending all this while.”
Will the new government dismantle the system, then? I ask.
Khambule sighs. “They are in a corner now,” he says. “They have to. They have to.”