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Fears for refugees well-founded

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic there has been widespread public concern about the safety and welfare of asylum seekers living in Direct Provision, in light of overcrowding and of the fact that centres are congregated settings.

The Jesuit Refugee Service Ireland is particularly concerned about what is going to happen to high-risk vulnerable groups living in state accommodation centres in the event of a Covid-19 outbreak there, including the elderly, immune-compromised, and those with existing health conditions.

Eugene Quinn, Director of JRS Ireland, elaborates below on the plight of refugees at this time and outlines what JRS Ireland is doing to assist them.

JRS Ireland addresses well-founded fears of Covid-19 in Direct Provision

JRS Ireland supports and delivers services to residents in 12 direct provision centres and in 20 emergency locations.

Since 11 March, in line with many frontline services, the pandemic has required JRS Ireland to move a remote model of service as face to face meeting with residents are not permitted other than in exceptional circumstances.

Remote accompaniment is provided through daily calls and contact with residents. The importance of maintaining that personal connection was strikingly highlighted by a resident in a centre in the west who expressed his appreciation that JRS Ireland staff ensured he was “not forgotten” during his 14 days in self-isolation.

 At the present time, there are 80 state accommodation centres for asylum seekers. There are 6,300 persons in DP centres and a further 1,300 persons in emergency accommodation, a total population of 7,600.

Conditions differ greatly between centres, ranging from own door accommodation to cramped rooms with 7-8 persons in bunk beds. The majority of people share bedrooms and in many case toilets and showers, add in communal eating times, these living conditions present significant challenges for social distancing to all. The fears of asylum seeker facing Covid-19 are well-founded.

The Department of Justice and Equality has brought in a number of measures to address concerns for persons in Direct Provision including bringing on board an additional 650 beds to reduce overcrowding in numbers in existing centres; securing off-site self-isolation capacity and identifying and ensuring adequate ‘cocooning’ of the categories of people identified as highly vulnerable

Over the past 10 days, JRS Ireland staff have supported more than 300 residents who have been transferred in a ‘thinning exercise’ to reduce overcrowding and to enable the most vulnerable to cocoon onsite. Information and advice on the duration of moves, impact on welfare and medical supports is provided to residents and their priority concerns are raised with Department officials.

Throughout the crisis, JRS Ireland has been in regular contact with HSE and Department officials advocating for action and changes that can improve the safety and wellbeing of Direct Provision residents in centres. This included a policy submission to the Department of Justice offering a practical approach to identifying and gathering data on the most vulnerable groups and medical needs of residents to inform critical public health decisions concerning their welfare.

I am conscious that this is an extremely difficult and uncertain time for all and especially for forcibly displaced persons JRS works with and serves throughout the world. In the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, we all share in common worry and concern about the health and safety of family members, friends, relatives and loved ones. The thousands across the globe who have died or are critically ill from the virus remain in our thoughts and prayers.

JRS Ireland will remain committed to reaching out to and supporting Direct Provision residents, especially the most vulnerable, to the maximum of our ability for the duration of the crisis and beyond.