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Nthabiseng Phahlane wakes in the middle of the night to go to work and dresses in the dark.
She and her three kids live in a tiny partitioned corner of a chapel on Dundrum Road, sharing the church’s hall with other former and current asylum seekers.
She works as an airplane dispatcher and has to clock in before dawn, she says. But if she turns on the lights, other residents in their cubicles complain.
“I say to them, ‘Don’t be angry at me, be angry at people who put you here,’” said Phahlane on 11 March, sitting inside her car parked in the backyard of the Mount St. Mary’s emergency accommodation centre.
Since she was granted the right to stay in Ireland last August, Phahlane has applied for social housing support and searched for a home to rent. But she hasn’t yet found a place. “I need more time,” she says.
Now, the family is in danger of losing their small space and bunk beds in the chapel.
Phahlane got an eviction letter dated 7 March from the Department of Children and Equality – whose International Protection Accommodation Services (IPAS) office is in charge of housing asylum seekers – saying they had to leave in two weeks.
It says she’s not eligible for accommodation because she has status, and that she had been advised of that before on 3 March. It also accused her of breaching house rules.
A spokesperson for the Department of Children and Equality said it couldn’t comment on individual cases.
Phahlane, who got her status less than a year ago, said she was not offered any alternative accommodation.
She is facing eviction at a time when thousands of renters in the city have been handed notices to quit, and homeless emergency accommodation centres for families are overwhelmed.
The House Rules
The eviction letter handed to Phahlane says that she had broken house rules and caused trouble at the centre, prompting IPAS to withdraw her accommodation.
It accused her of threatening behaviour and of, along with other residents, entering the staff office without permission and taking some keys.
Phahlene says some rooms had become available, and residents, sick of living in church-hall cubicles, wanted to use them. So they all went and got keys, she says.
“We went to the office and said, ‘We see that these upstairs rooms being occupied, why are we here?’” she said.
She says staff had previously told them the rooms were being renovated, and once the revamp work wrapped up, they’d move them from the chapel. Residents were upset that newcomers were being placed there instead of them, she says.
All that, though, Phalane suspects, isn’t the reason she was told she has to leave. Instead, she highlights the difficulties that she has had juggling working and being a mother in a system not set up to enable that.
Phalane says it is her husband’s responsibility to look after the kids while she works. But her husband doesn’t live with her and their three children, despite their efforts to make this happen.
Phahlane’s husband came to Ireland first, and got a bed in a direct provision centre outside Dublin.
When Phahlane and the kids arrived in January 2022, they lived in the Red Cow Moran Hotel, an IPAS pre-reception centre.
She got her status after eight months of living there before being moved to Mount St Mary’s, an emergency centre.
Emergency centres are used for people who have already been through the reception process when the permanent direct provision centres are full.
Just a few months after Phahlane and her kids arrived in Ireland, she and her husband asked IPAS to help the family live under one roof – instead of her living in Red Cow Moran Hotel and him in the direct provision centre outside Dublin.
“I and the children will greatly appreciate if they are able to wake up and see both parents daily,” said Phahlane in an email to IPAS in March 2022.
In August 2022, an email from “IPAS Helpdesk” said it had asked Red Cow Moran Hotel to let them know if space freed up.
That never happened, Phahlane says.
But when she started working at Dublin Airport, her husband would go to the hotel and look after their younger kids in her absence. IPAS and the hotel both gave permission for that.
“I’m the breadwinner,” Phahlane says.
But then, the family were moved.
The trouble with staff at the emergency centre on Dundrum Road started over these kinds of visits, she said on 11 March.
On 13 February, Phahlane filed an official complaint against a staff member to a manager at Allpro Services, the company running Mount St Mary’s accommodation centre.
In the grievance letter, she says, among other things, that her husband had begged a staff member to read IPAS’s permission for him to visit Red Cow Moran Hotel, but the staff member had just asked him to leave.
She complains about lack of privacy and threats of calling the guards when they speak up.
In response to her, the Allpro worker said it couldn’t let non-residents into the centre. “This is due to the safeguarding requirements of all minors and persons in the centre,” the email says.
But Phahlane says that not only did the staff refuse to let her husband come in to look after their kids, but someone also reported her to Tusla and the Gardaí when she left the centre for work one time.
Their father was outside in the car but couldn’t get in, she says.
Phahlane had assumed it was the staff member she had complained about who reported her, she says.
But the Allpro worker who responded to her email said they were the ones who called Tusla and the guards “about children being left unattended”.
“This was done in the company of IPAS representatives who were in attendance of St Marys on the day of the occurrence,” it says. They have a legal obligation to do that, they said.
“Whilst I have made myself available to assist on the matter and asked for additional information, I feel best that we raise this matter with IPAS for investigation,” says the email sent on 23 February.
As Phahlane sees it, her eviction notice is the sign that IPAS has sided with the centre managers. “They are not hearing my side of the story.”
Asylum seekers have said in the past that IPAS mostly accepts centre managers’ version of events whenever there is an argument.
A spokesperson for the Department of Children and Equality said they are always available to deal with residents’ complaints.
If a complaint is significant or a resident is uncomfortable flagging it with a centre manager, they can contact IPAS directly or have someone do that on their behalf, they said.
“IPAS also funds a dedicated NGO run helpline where residents can raise any concerns or issues they may have,” the spokesperson said.
When Allpro reported her to the guards, Phahlane said she got a call from an officer at work. He was kind and understanding, she said.
“He said, ‘You know what? I’m going to talk to you as a police officer, but also as a father,” says Phahalne,
The officer said he had seen the conditions she and her kids lived in at Mount St Mary’s and felt sorry for them, she says.
Phahlane says living in the partitioned chapel leaves her family vulnerable to illness. They fall sick all the time, she says. “Everyone’s coughing.”
Photographs taken by one resident on 11 March in the centre’s bathrooms show dirty toilets at the centre, with what appears to be smears of human excrement on one toilet seat and on the floor next to a mop and a bucket.
Since there is no room in the chapel, families have to store most of their clothes and other belongings in another building on the property and make a trip there whenever they need them, Phahlane said.
Although Allpro runs the centre at Mount St Mary’s, the property is owned by developers Winterbrook Homes Ltd.
Winterbrook has planning permission, granted in August 2021, to demolish buildings on the Mount St Mary’s site and its adjacent properties to build 231 apartments and a childcare facility.
It’s unclear if Winterbrook has a contract with the government to shelter asylum seekers or if Allpro does.
Representatives for the two companies did not respond to queries sent last week.
A spokesperson for the Department of Children and Equality said who it has the contract with amounts to commercially sensitive information. “The Department does not comment on contractual matters,” they said.
They did not respond to queries about the dirty bathrooms.
IPAS accommodations are under constant review “to ensure that available capacity is best used to accommodate all applicant’s needs”, they said.
Phahlane said if she had found a rental and an accepting landlord, she would have welcomed the eviction letter given the centre’s conditions.
“I say it’s a blessing in disguise, but leave here to go where?” she said.
Thanks for reporting.
In Cork we have 2 demonstrations this Saturday against evictions and against racism:
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