I came here from South Africa in January 2013 seeking Asylum, I had political differences with the rulers in my province and I had to go into hiding in a church for three weeks in December 2012. I had no choice but to come to Ireland and all I knew about Ireland was the soccer team and when Roy Keane walked away from the national team during a World Cup.
When I arrived in Ireland and sought asylum I was sent to a reception centre in Finglas for three months while my application was being screened and accepted.
“An element of fear was being instilled from the first point of contact with the centre.”
I was then transferred to one of the 34 asylum centres in Ireland, mine was in Cork on the Kinsale Rd and I stayed there for my entire time in direct provision. When we arrived at the centre we were brought into orientation, we were handed a house rule told to go and read it. We were told we could not cook, could not bring food to our rooms, we had to report and sign in everyday, if not our bed would be affected and if we did not comply with this would affect our case. I looked at this as intimidation and an element of fear was being instilled from the first point of contact with the centre.
As time progressed in the centre it became clear that the residents were being treated with disrespect and intimidation. The staff members were bullies and treated especially the women and children with disdain. The staff spoke in a very de- humanising way to the residents, they made you feel small. It was an effective form of control by the staff that had proved successful over the years.
“ We had enough things had to change”
A small group of us initially decided we had enough and we came together to discuss what we can do to change this treatment and address the issues. We wrote down all the concerns people and after a few meetings we called a big meeting of everyone in the centre over 200 people came.
We analysed why people failed to get these issues addressed in the past. The management had been informed before the people presented the issues themselves. The only way they would be taken seriously was if the residents went on strike. Only a small group knew when the strike would begin and these people were put in certain places to carry out signs and then the rest of the residents knew the strike was to begin.
We elected two people to meet with the staff, they politely informed them, we the residents are now taking over the centre and it is time for you to leave. Please carry out your protocols for this type of situation but we the people are taking over. We remained polite calm and smiled at all times, we always remained in control. We did not make it personal this was about the barbaric system not the staff. So they left and we had control of the centre.
The following morning everyone got up early and we went to the gate of the centre. We decided the children will stay home from school for that day as this was their movement also. We waited at the gate for the day staff to arrive, we had a barrier covering the entrance, the staff came and then the manager came. His attitude was very aggressive towards us like a bull and trying to force himself through the crowed and he tried to incite the crowd but we were all prepared for this.
So we peacefully stood and blocked his entrance, one of our demands was for him to go from the centre. He then approached the Gardai at the scene we had already given the Gardai our demands when they first arrived and we chatted to them explaining what we are doing and these are our problems. The Garda asked the manager was he going to resolve the problems for these people and said no and the Gardaí said they could not assist him they have nothing to do here and they left shortly after the manager left also.
“We refused to back down until we were listened too”
We held our strike for ten days; we got massive support from the local people with donations of food. The Dept of Justice came condemning the strike and demanding we stand down. We stood firm and said when you realise our demands and want to negotiate we will talk to you but we are not standing down.
Prior to enacting the strike, we said all agreements were to be in writing nothing less. The first battle was the manager and our demand was he leaves permanently, we said in our negotiations we were not budging on this demand. if the department is afraid of firing him because of labour court rules we understand the procedures and he can be suspended upon investigation . The manager never returned.
We were aware that the authorities would target organisers and send them to another centre to break the unity of the people. Another demand was that no body from this centre will be forcibly removed because of this action; the Dept gave this in writing.
On day nine we demanded the authorities draw up the agreement with a timeline of when all agreements would be put in place. We told them the people would have to meet to discuss and vote on this agreement and on whether the strike will continue or be suspended.
On day 10 we told them we will suspend the strike once the agreement is enacted, we said the strike was not ended only suspended so the authorities know we can start it again straight away if they broke any of the written agreements.
So we let the staff back into the centre, they were nervous because of the abuse they perpetrated on the people living in the centre. We told the staff you have nothing to fear from us, we are fighting the system not you, we know that management were abusing you also and this was passed all the way down so it’s the fault of management and the system.
One of our demands was availability of transport for the children to get to school every day, before there was no bus and a bus was provided. Another demand was the overcrowding in the bedrooms this was also reduced from three adults in a small room to two adults and also an audit of who lives in each room. Prior to this people from different countries with no common language or back ground were sharing and it caused tension.
” Now we had a voice and know body spoke on our behalf”
We asked for the staff and management to work with us, we began having monthly meetings to discuss issues and the needs of the people. There was no play room for the children, it was put in place we got donations of toys TVs and play stations; we got a gym as this addressed the inactivity and health of the residents.
We got a TV with digital stations, we got the internet and computers this enabled people to Skype their families as prior to this people had to use their allowance of 19.10 euro per week to pay for phone cards to call the other side of the world. These small things made a huge difference to people’s lives.
Now we had a voice, we were speaking as a group of residents, it gave us confidence and we felt we regained a little of our autonomy. Prior to this an NGO spoke on our behalf making agreements with management not consulting the residents properly and understanding what the residents needed.
After this NGO’s did not represent us in the Cork center, We then formed our own group called KRAC it then escalated to a more national group called MASI (Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland) we wanted people to realise if people stand together they can have a voice and enact positive change