In June 2022, Lucy Dineo Mbasa decided to pack her bags and move out of the Balseskin Reception Centre on St Margaret’s Road in the city’s northern fringes.
“Because of my own personal circumstances, I wanted to leave direct provision,” she said on Monday during a Zoom call.
Mbasa had lived in pre-reception centres, one city hotel to another, for three months straight after arriving in Ireland and applying for asylum in September 2021.
Her subsequent stay in Balseskin – where people are sent to settle into the system and wait to be moved on to a more permanent direct provision centre – rolled on longer than she’d expected. “Six months,” she says.
After she left Balseskin, Mbasa slept on friends’ couches, she says. Her work permit hadn’t come through at that point, so she couldn’t get a job to support herself.
And she couldn’t use free medical care when she got sick, she says. Because she wasn’t living within the direct provision system, she had no access to a medical card, so doctors charged her private fees, she says.
“The GPs wouldn’t understand that I’m an asylum seeker or whatever,” she said.
The International Protection Accommodation Service (IPAS) has said it has been struggling to accommodate asylum seekers and refugees as the numbers seeking sanctuary from wars and persecution continue to climb, forcing it to open temporary and emergency centres.
But asylum seekers who choose not to live within direct provision while their applications are being processed can struggle to establish a safe and decent standard of living. They lose access to all kinds of government support, not just accommodation.
That policy of no support makes no sense, says Bulelani Mfaco, an asylum seeker and activist with the Movement of Asylum-Seekers in Ireland (MASI).
The government should offer incentives for people to leave the system or feel confident that it has their backs if they choose to leave, he says.
It’s not only those without status who face barriers to setting up outside direct provision. There are thousands of people who have status stuck in direct provision with nowhere to go, says Mfaco.
A spokesperson for the Department of Children and Equality didn’t say if it would consider offering financial support to people who choose to wait for decisions on asylum applications outside of the direct provision system.
But they said that IPAS has a transition team working with other government departments and housing charities to support “residents with status, or a permission to remain, to exit IPAS accommodation and access housing options”.
Out and Invisible
The government set up the direct provision system in April 2000 to take care of the basic needs of asylum-seekers, things like accommodation, access to medical care, pocket money and child support as they wait for a final decision on their applications.
But people can opt to live outside of that.
Government departments haven’t been forthcoming with figures for how many asylum seekers are living outside of direct provision centres as they await decisions on their cases.
A spokesperson for the Department of Children and Equality directed the query to the Department of Justice, which hasn’t responded yet.
But the Catherine Day report – a document published in September 2020 by a government advisory group looking into better support for asylum seekers – said that since 2015 more than 80 percent of applicantshave lived in direct provision.
The report briefly mentions the lack of aid for people who choose to live outside the direct provision system, including being cut off from the €38.80 weekly allowance and medical cards.
In a section ironing out details of a new model for housing asylum-seekers, it says that those who find their own accommodation should have equal access to the weekly allowance, just like those reliant on the government for housing.
Yet there is a lack of in-depth research around the living conditions of those who opt not to stay in the direct provision system, says Liam Thornton, a law professor at University College Dublin (UCD).
That gap makes their experiences invisible, he says. “I don’t want to cast aspersions on anyone for not doing this research, but little is known about this cohort.”
Thornton worries, he says, that the lack of support for asylum seekers outside direct provision may force people into a harmful overreliance on family members, friends or romantic partners.
That erodes independence. “What happens if these relationships break down?” he asks. Or if a relationship becomes abusive or exploitative? he asks.
Mbasa, the woman who left direct provision in June 2022, says she could only access medical care once she had her work permit – which asylum seekers are entitled to apply for six months after applying for asylum – and had found a job.
“I couldn’t get medical aid because I didn’t have a salary, payslips, and you know, I was no longer getting the €38,” she says. “It was so challenging.”
Wendy Lyon, partner and solicitor at Abbey Law, says the HSE should grant medical cards to asylum-seekers even if they’re living outside of Direct Provision. “There is no obligation to be living in direct provision but the law is frequently misapplied by the HSE.”
A spokesperson for the HSE hasn’t yet responded to queries sent today about its policy for issuing medical cards in these circumstances.
Nervous to Leave
Mbasa, who has since been granted refugee status, meaning that she has the right to stay in the country and apply for citizenship in the future, says the current policy discourages people from leaving the system and creates enduring reliance on it.
“If I had the support to get a little bit of pocket money, things would’ve been easier, but in direct provision, it’s there for you,” she says.
She says more vulnerable applicants may feel more nervous about leaving the system and face a world of uncertainties in a new country with no government support. “You just have to do everything on your own.”
“For somebody that maybe lacks confidence to try and get those things, it becomes so difficult,” she said.
She fell ill as she was trying to navigate life outside direct provision, Mbasa says.
She reached out to government agencies and support groups, but no one could help her. “They just told me, ‘There is nothing we can do unless you were in direct provision’,” she says.
[UPDATE: This article was updated at 10am on 11 January to include comments from Wendy Lyon about eligibility for medical cards.]
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