Gay refugee who fled homophobic South Africa says Ireland’s reviled asylum system ‘denies fundamental human rights’

Bulelani Mfaco and Leo Varadkar direct provision

When Bulelani Mfaco sought asylum in Ireland, he hoped a better life was waiting for him.

Back in South Africa, Mfaco was spat on and had stones thrown at him – all for the simple crime of being gay. He had to get out.

Life in Ireland should have given him the freedom to be himself. Instead, he has become one of many asylum seekers forced to live in an archaic and oppressive system known as “direct provision”.

What is direct provision?

Direct provision is Ireland’s system of accommodating asylum seekers. It was initially introduced as an “interim” system in 2000 to provide accommodation to refugees for six months while they waited for the state to make a decision on their claim.

The system was designed as a temporary measure, but it has proven anything but. In 2018, a report found that residents were spending an average of 23 months in direct provision, while 432 had been in the system for five years or more.

Some of these centres, which are scattered throughout the Republic of Ireland, are owned by the Irish state – but the majority are owned and operated by private companies who are paid by the government. According to the Irish Examiner, it is “a billion-euro industry” under which old hotels and B&Bs are co-opted to house refugees.

In these centres, families often live together in tiny rooms, while single people are forced to share bedrooms with complete strangers.

Asylum seekers are given a weekly allowance of just €38.80 per week, while children receive €29.80 – funds that are impossible to live on for many.

Amnesty International has called the system “an ongoing human rights scandal” – yet the Irish government has been slow to react.

Direct provision has proven detrimental to the lives of LGBT+ asylum seekers. In 2018, transgender woman Sylva Tukula died in a direct provision centre after she was housed in a male facility. She was later buried without any of her friends present after a “breakdown in communication” between state departments.

Bulelani Mfaco left South Africa to escape homophobic violence.

Though South African law recognises LGBT+ people – allowing same-sex marriage and adoption, among other things – colonial-era attitudes towards queer people mean that homophobia remains rife in society.

Bulelani Mfaco left his homeland to escape a homophobic environment, but he says that direct provision was not exactly a step up.

“When I heard homophobic slurs and was forced to share a bedroom with a homophobic man, I was forced to relive the trauma of having stones thrown at me and being spat on my face in South Africa for no reason other than my sexual orientation,” he tells PinkNews.

“Survivors of torture and sexual violence are also expected to share intimate living spaces such as bedrooms, bathrooms, and kitchens with strangers,” he adds.

As a sexual assault survivor himself, Mfaco must share a room with a complete stranger in direct provision. To this day, he is unable to fall asleep in the dark.

“The Rape Crisis Network Ireland warned that asylum seekers in direct provision are more vulnerable to sexual violence,” he adds.

“This is because direct provision centres have become mini-ghettos where all the vulnerable people from different parts of the world are expected to exist for years on end while waiting for decisions.”

He says the policy of “warehousing asylum seekers anywhere” ignores their human needs – including the need for safety.

“The Irish state does not expect asylum seekers to live. We are only expected to exist and keep breathing.”

Ireland’s gay Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has defended the system.

People across the world have been taking part in anti-racist demonstrations in response to the brutal killing of George Floyd by white police officer Derek Chauvin in the United States – and in Ireland, it has drawn attention, once again, to direct provision.

In early June, as countless people emailed elected representatives and signed petitions calling for the system to be abolished, Ireland’s outgoing gay Taoiseach Leo Varadkar defended the institution.

Speaking in Dáil Éireann, he said “we need to understand the difference between direct provision and a man who was killed by the police by having somebody step on his neck”.

He continued: “Direct provision is, ultimately, a service offered by the state. It is not compulsory or a form of detention. It involves people being provided with free accommodation, food, heat, lighting, healthcare, education and some spending money.

The Rape Crisis Network Ireland warned that asylum seekers in direct provision are more vulnerable to sexual violence.

“It is not the same thing as a man being killed by the police. There is substandard accommodation in some cases and that needs to change.”

Mfaco says Varadkar’s comments were “shameful”.

“Only a very cold-hearted and cruel person can stand over a system that denies human beings their fundamental human rights,” he says.

“It is a level of barbarity I have only ever experienced through growing up in Apartheid South Africa.”

In response to Varadkar’s comments, Mfaco tells a story of a single mother who died by suicide in a direct provision centre.

“She was not the first or the last asylum seeker to die by suicide in a direct provision centre,” he says. “People who come to Ireland seeking protection have suffered a great deal of trauma back home. Then they are placed in direct provision where that trauma is compounded when they are stripped of personal autonomy and basic rights.”

He continues: “To kill a person is cruel. You are depriving them of their right to life. And to place an asylum seeker in direct provision where people are deprived of their fundamental human rights for no reason other than their nationality and immigration status is cruel and racist. There is no award for the ‘less violent’ racist because racism in all its manifestation is violence against the other.”

Despite years of criticism, the Irish government has been slow to act. On June 14 the programme for the next government was published. The deal, brokered by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party, promises to end direct provision within the life of the next government.

But it will already have been too late for those who have spent years languishing in direct provision.

PinkNews has contacted the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Justice for comment.