Overcrowding in Direct Provision centers across Ireland has caused alarm  for asylum-seekers during the coronavirus outbreak.

Asylum-seekers in Ireland have expressed alarm over the threat posed to their health by the COVID19 pandemic as a result of overcrowding in Direct Provision centres across the country.

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They say that “physical distancing” and self-isolation guidelines, posted on the walls of all 39 centers, are impossible to achieve for people who are forced to share rooms with up to seven strangers, use shared bathrooms, and eat together in crowded canteens.

On March 26, the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI) issued an urgent appeal for the Irish Government to observe Health Service Executive (HSE) guidelines for those who are aged 60 or over, have pre-existing health conditions, or live in crammed bedrooms with strangers.

MASI says that, like everyone else, asylum-seekers are following the news about coronavirus and anxiety has spread through the community over their inability to practice HSE “physical distancing” guidelines in their bedrooms, bathrooms, or canteens.

By Friday evening, there had been 2,121 confirmed cases of COVID19 in the Republic of Ireland. One resident of a Direct Provision centre was diagnosed with the virus last week, and it has since emerged that he shared a bedroom with two other men.

“Posters on social distancing are useless to an asylum seeker sharing a tiny bedroom with a stranger or as many as seven other strangers, having to use communal bathrooms,and congregate in a canteen for meals three times a day,” said MASI spokesman Bulelani Mfaco on Friday.

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The system known as Direct Provision was introduced as an ‘interim’ solution to the high numbers of asylum seekers entering the Republic of Ireland in search of protection 20 years ago.

Since then, many people have had to wait for up to seven or eight years in privately-run former hotels, hostels, or accommodation centers while their cases are being processed.

There are currently 5,686 refugees and asylum-seekers, including 1,739 children, living in 39 centers across the Republic. Mfaco, from South Africa, says there is a huge disparity between the ways in which different centers have responded to the coronvarius emergency.

“The Government has effectively abandoned asylum seekers and left them at the mercy of greedy operators of Direct Provision centers, a situation that has led to massive disparities in the way each center is responding to the Covid19 pandemic,” said Mfaco.

He said that residents who worked in the health care sector were alarmed by having to return “home” to share bedrooms with strangers. Asylum-seekers in Ireland were given the right to work for the first time last year.

More than 1,000 residents have continued to live in Direct Provision centers even after being granted full rights to stay in Ireland, because rents in the Irish cities have spiraled out of control in recent years. They cannot afford to rent a house or an apartment.

It was never envisaged that children would spend years living within the system or that it would take some people up to seven or eight years to have their cases heard. Awareness of the coronvarius pandemic sweeping the globe has increased anxiety and mental health issues among residents of the centers.

“Can they line us up and shoot us all in Direct Provision and emergency accommodation, it’ll really be quicker and less messy for all of us,” one man told Mfaco recently, summing up how many residents feel about their current situation in Ireland.

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MASI has established that, because they are privately run, different centers have different policies in relation to the COVID19 pandemic. Some are refusing to allow residents congregate in canteens at meal-times, while others are carrying on as normal. Residents are not permitted to cook their own food in the centers.

Mr. Mfaco called on the Irish authorities to source self-contained units for asylum-seekers, just as the Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE) had managed to do for the homeless people in the capital during the current pandemic.

“At present, Irish people are told to observe social distancing in a bid to halt the spread of COVID19. Asylum-seekers are deliberately placed in a situation where such social distancing is impossible to observe,” he said.

Over the past week, groups working with refugees have also expressed alarm that “physical distancing” is impossible in crowded Direct Provision centers, amid warnings that they are likely to become centers of infection.

They have warned that proper hand-washing is a problem in some of the centers, that it’s common for six or seven people to share a bedroom, and that about 20 percent of refugees have pre-existing conditions.

Support groups for asylum-seekers have warned of the “potentially devastating impact” of an outbreak of Covid19 in the Direct Provision centers, claiming that they would not be able to cope with the virus.

Mr. Mfaco also accused the Irish authorities of discriminating against asylum-seekers by excluding them from an emergency unemployment payment for those who lost their jobs as a result of the coronavirus emergency.

“This further entrenches the poverty asylum seekers are forced to endure for years on end while waiting for decisions. Some can barely afford to buy hand sanitizers,” he said.

“We are calling on all elected representatives to take appropriate steps to protect asylum seekers and reverse the cruel decisions that have been taken recently, which effectively endanger all of us as they make it harder to curb the spread of COVID19.”

Read More: Ireland's Minister for Justice responds to Direct Provision criticisms

*A digital journalist based in Galway, Ireland, Ciaran Tierney won the Irish Current Affairs and Politics Blog of the Year award. Find him on Facebook, Twitter, and website CiaranTierney.com.

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