Alessandro Zagato & Luke Kasuwanga
Asylum seekers agitations are firing up in Ireland. After last year’s events in Mosney, two new stories were recently reported from Galway by the mainstream media. On the 17th of May at Lisbrook House, formerly the Ibis hotel, residents protested over living conditions including food and overcrowded accommodation. Two weeks later 100 residents of the Great Western Hostel walked out of their accommodation at 6am after the State’s Reception and Integration Agency issued notice to quit to several residents. They said that there had been a build-up of frustration in the hostel – where many residents have waited up to 10 years seeking refugee status – for reasons ranging from lack of hot water in showers, to restrictions at night-time to access to television, to the self-catering kitchen and the pool room.
Sadly enough both events were followed up by episodes of hostility from Irish people living in the area. After the first protest many locals were irritated. They asked why asylum seekers should be angry. So many people are suffering the consequences of the economic downturn. According to them, migrants should be grateful for the support they get and adapt to the situation. After the second protest some asylum seekers were verbally threatened by State Officials who told them to shut up.
In Ireland many people argue optimistically that there is no racism because there are no racist organisations. We believe that if there are no such groups in this country – or they are extremely week – it is just because progressive movements are themselves inexistent or very weak. But as soon as a bunch of migrants are brave enough to do what Irish people are not doing – i.e. to rebel and to challenge the status quo – conservative and racist reactions are quick to come up.
However, asylum seekers were not frightened by these threats; since then other direct provision centres have become theatres of protest. This document is a report produced by Anti-Racist Network Ireland (ARN) on a protest that took place in early June in Ballyhaunis direct provision centre, Co. Mayo. It presents some of the ideas that emerged during the 5 hours long encounter that a number of ARN members had with the residents committee in Ballyhaunis.
2. Agitation in Ballyhaunis
The Ballyhaunis direct provision centre is privately managed by the same company who is in charge of Lisbrook House in Galway. It was this coincidence that first pushed some residents in Ballyhaunis to advance a number of demands, after they had seen on the news what was happening in Galway.
Whereas in Galway demands were limited to basic goods such as food, cleaning powder, toilet paper and so on, in Ballyhaunis claims were extended to general living conditions including ‘immaterial’ instances such as respect from management and recognition of every resident as a human being – i.e. as a thinking person and not just as a living body to be kept alive by the system.
Indeed on one hand the enterprise was not respecting the terms of the contract that it had stipulated with the state and with asylum seekers themselves. According to the residents, food was not enough and it was also badly cooked; they did not have access to sufficient toilet paper and cleaning products, each time having to go and ask the managers for extra rations. They were finding this humiliating: managers were having a patronising attitude, suspicious that some of the residents might be collecting goods in order to sell them outside the centre. “For what? For one Euro each piece?” commented one of the residents ironically.
On the other hand managers were showing no interest in constructing any form of reciprocity with residents; spending most of the time in their offices doing bureaucratic work, not talking to the people and not really listening to what they had to say about the situation. Furthermore, each resident in order to resolve her (and her family’s) problems had to deal with the management individually. This was a source of fragmentation amongst the asylum seekers, with the administrators each time having the power to decide who to please and who not. A mother told us that she was recently refused a box of orange juice for her baby. How humiliating is it to insist for such a small thing? “It feels like we are constantly playing the game of Tom and Jerry” argued a resident.
The situation escalated after the general manager accused the residents of throwing food into the bins. “Why – he argued – do you ask for more food if then you dump it? In recession times this is something that people should not be allowed to do”. The fact that the management had taken the initiative to check what people were throwing into the bins was taken by them as an evident violation of their privacy. Moreover the residents argued that if there is food in the bins, managers should ask people why before condemning them.
After this episode some residents took the initiative of calling for a meeting where collective action was planned. As a form of protest it was decided that each and every family should show up in the canteen at an agreed time. Indeed people knew that the canteen could only accommodate a small amount of people; it had never happened before that the residents were all in the canteen at once. The plan was that some people would sit and eat, while the others would stay there waiting and chatting. This was to be repeated three times each day (for breakfast, lunch and dinner) for three 3 consecutive days. All the (approximately) 300 residents agreed to participate. The following morning they gathered in the canteen. Overwhelmed by the amount of people waiting to be served the staff did not know what to do – to the point that they had to call extra staff who were off duty that morning. In a short time the place was full of children and parents queuing for breakfast while chatting with each other in good humour and spirit. No demands or complaints were raised at that point; and no body informed the staff why everyone had shown up at same time. This single action was enough for the management to respond. Before lunch time they sent a letter to each household requesting to meet them that evening. Residents were also asked, in case they had grievances, to write them down.
So far the protest had been organised spontaneously. Residents now agreed that the time had come to appoint a spokesperson and to formulate specific demands and complaints. After the meeting the administration agreed to honour each demand. A week after the protest the Ballyhanis Residents Committee was formed. The committee is self-organised by ordinary people with no previous political experience. Some members even confessed that previously they used to dismiss independent organisations, thinking that they did not work. After they started agitating for rights in Ballyhaunis they became the most outspoken members of the Committee.
3. Debate, exchange and reciprocal learning
After the residents told us the full story of what happened in the centre, a passionate debate on asylum seekers in Ireland and strategies for action took place – with asylum seekers and ARN members (some of whom had already experienced direct provision) engaging in a process of reciprocal exchange and learning.
It is important to highlight that this encounter was quite different from those which asylum seeker are used to. Normally state bureaucrats and NGO or party officials come to them with their agenda and basically instruct them on what should be done. Indeed these professionals and the organisations they work for conceive themselves as having a representational power over people. Therefore they act as the ones who are in charge to ‘objectively’ describe the situation and take decisions on how to organise. In their view, ordinary people such as Asylum Seekers just need to let themselves be represented: their capacity to think, as well as their capacity to independently organise is dismissed – it is not part of the game. When intervening in people’s struggles it generally happens that these bureaucrats take over the valuable things people had previously fought for in order to give them back to them as ‘delivery’. It is like this that many politicians and NGO leaders build up their career.
However, ARN is itself composed by ordinary people who have no ambition to represent anybody but ourselves. Our idea of emancipation is that no one can do it on behalf of anyone else. No one can emancipate people on their behalf! This is why we find these self-organised protests in direct provision centres so precious. They are the result of the spontaneous creativity and courage of people like us – like you who are reading this report and like anybody else in this country.
So we approached the situation as people who intend to both learn something and share their experience in independent organisation, in order to provide what was taking place in Ballyhaunis with a greater consistency.
During the assembly two main perspectives emerged on how to conceive the on-going struggle and how to take it to another level. Some of us perceived it as something localised and shaped by very specific conditions (bad management, food, disrespect and so on) which make this situation different from any other. Others, by emphasising the fact that protest in Ballyhaunis was inspired by actions that were taken elsewhere, suggested that this specific case could also inspire other asylum seekers, since at the end of the day problems on the ground go beyond any specific local circumstance.
A meeting attendee who had already passed through the direct provision experience argued that internal struggles might be important, but people should not develop a strong dependency on the direct provision system. According to her there is a danger of getting used to the situation. To formulate demands on conditions – she argued – is a double edged sword. On one hand you can improve your living standards, on the other hand, by always demanding, you make yourself vulnerable, reproducing a condition of dependency, submission and humiliation. She also suggested that in direct provision centres, when everyone is openly protesting and speaking, the management is pleased because this allows them to control people – through the amount of toilet paper they use, through the 19.10€ that they receive every week, and so on. It is when you actually stop asking –she said – that they start being concerned about you, about how you organise your life, about where you get your goods if you are not even allowed to work. You have got no toilet paper? – She asked smiling – then you should take it from the guest room, so that their important friends will be the ones having to demand it. You have to make them understand that you don’t care, that you don’t want to stay there.
The debate radicalised when someone asked the question of why people are in direct provision service: what should be their ultimate goal as asylum seekers. Her answer was: to get out, to obtain full recognition as citizens as soon as possible – “you did not come to Ireland to spend your life in direct provision”. Indeed, according to her, life in direct provision can create dangerous forms of dependency and affect people’s future in many negative ways. The time you spend in this limbo (which for many people can last for years) gives you few possibilities to, for example, train and improve your skills. Moreover, the fact that you are not allowed to work for many years can condemn you to future unemployment.
At this point of the discussion the two lines of thought (‘local’ specificity of the struggle / ‘global’ meaning of it) started to merge. Everyone came to the agreement that while it was important to fight for better living conditions and dignity within the direct provision system, the ultimate goal was to live and get residency. There was consensus on the idea that on one hand it is important to organise local committees in order to create forms of collective strength and solidarity amongst residents. On the other hand people should avoid focusing too much on local problems because the risk is to keep the struggle fragmented.
It is important to make the struggle resonate at a national level. In order to achieve this, people need to be ready to get out of their comfort zone: they should meet with asylum seekers living in other centres and organise coordinated, large scale forms of protest.
The upcoming international refugee day was pinpointed as a great opportunity to articulate the two named approaches. A demonstration was called for the 22nd of June. In preparation for the upcoming event, we received encouraging news from Cork. Here the residents of Mill Street’s direct provision centre, after knowing what was happening in Galway and Ballyhaunis organised their own committee. They arranged to meet with the hostel management and all their demands were met.
The rally of the 22nd of June was finally the result of asylum seekers’ self-organisation, an opportunity for them to take the initiative and ask NGOs to support them unconditionally –without bureaucrats trying to impose their line, as they normally do in these situations. Since the main obstacle was the financing of transport to Dublin, all NGOs working with migrants were approached in order for them to hire buses on the day. More than 300 asylum seekers took part to the demonstration. Their main demand was the extension to Ireland of the Zambrano verdict, according to which not just the children of EU citizens can get residency but all children living in the country. For this sake children were leading the demonstration with banners saying “who lives here belongs here – with no discrimination! – stop deportations now!”