When Donnah Vuma and her three children arrived in Dublin Airport on an August afternoon in 2014 they were dressed in light summer clothes. The family had travelled from South Africa via Dubai and were exhausted. The children were hungry, confused and cold.
When the immigration official at Dublin Airport asked for the family’s documents, Vuma handed over the fake South African passports she had purchased to get out of the country quickly. When asked how long she planned to stay in Ireland, she honestly answered, “I don’t know, I’m hoping you can help me, we need protection.
“It was horrific from that moment,” Vuma recalls. “He banged the four passports down on the counter and said ‘For God’s sake, not you people again.’ They were his exact words, I was totally taken aback. I explained we were from Zimbabwe and that we were under threat but said I wasn’t comfortable discussing the details at the immigration counter.
I just needed to get very far from there so we could feel safe
“He told me ‘that’s the problem with you people, you come here and try to confuse the system’.” Vuma and her children were then referred on to a different official who calmly took the family’s details. About five hours later, they were brought to the Balseskin Reception Centre in Fingal.
“I still have a lot of pain thinking about that day, I feel shame and embarrassment. My children shouldn’t have experienced that. I kept trying to shield them from hearing what was going on and seeing this man in a position of authority be so aggressive.”
Vuma is speaking to me via Zoom from her home in Limerick. Her eldest daughter is nearly 18 and will be sitting the Leaving Cert this year. The next two are 13 and 12 and the youngest is 20 months old. The family was granted leave to remain in 2021 after seven years in the international protection system, most of which was spent living in the Knockalisheen Direct Provision Centre in Co Clare.
“There was the option of going to a neighbouring country but it felt too close to home. I just needed to get very far from there so we could feel safe.” Vuma started researching the next available international flights out of South Africa and chose to travel with her children to Dublin via Dubai. Within a few hours they had packed their belongings, taken a bus to Durban and boarded their flight.
The family spent their first two months in the Balseskin centre before being transferred to Knockalisheen. “We were grateful to have a place to stay but the food wasn’t good, I couldn’t work, at that time you weren’t even allowed to clean your own room. You had to wait for staff to come in and do it.”
As the months passed, Vuma started making contact with residents in other direct provision centres around Ireland including Lucky Khambule, who was leading protests over conditions at a centre in Cork. In early 2015, Vuma, Khambule and a group of other activists set up the Movement for Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI).
“For me it was hearing people in Knockalisheen say they’d been there for seven or 10 years. I kept looking at them and thinking, this cannot be my fate. I can’t just live in these two rooms for years and not work, that’s what triggered me to speak out.”
Vuma started making contact with NGOs like the Irish Refugee Council telling them about conditions in centres. She also volunteered with the Doras refugee support charity in Limerick. She recalls how many people she met in Limerick had never heard of direct provision.
In 2018, she made national headlines after posting on Facebook that her sick son had been refused food by the night staff at the Knockalisheen centre. She subsequently set up a campaign to raise awareness about children in direct provision.
“When I shared what happened, people related because it was a sick child. Before that no one wanted to talk about the 2,000 plus children in these centres. It showed how much control the system had over people’s lives in DP [direct provision]. Your whole existence is controlled by the contractor of that centre. All of it was stripping me of my dignity – as a mother, as a parent, as a human being.”
In 2019, the year after asylum seekers were given the right to work, Vuma started working full-time for Doras as a policy officer and, soon after, she moved her family into an apartment in Limerick. “I was finally financially independent. We weren’t getting our papers any time soon but I could sustain my family; it was time for me to take control of my life.”
Two years later, in the summer of 2021, Vuma and her children were given leave to remain in Ireland.
Vuma is sceptical about the Government’s plans to end direct provision by 2024 and says there is a “lack of drive” among policymakers to really change the system. The Department of Justice’s new regularisation scheme, which allows asylum seekers waiting at least two years for international protection to apply for permission to live and work here, gave Vuma some hope. However, she’s worried delays in processing recent arrivals will continue to block up the system.
Vuma is glad to see the huge support for Ukrainian refugees but admits feeling frustrated and angry that asylum seekers in direct provision centres are treated so differently. It’s like, because these people are similar to us, from a territory close to us, we’ll treat them better. You can’t tell me if someone fleeing war in Afghanistan is less important than someone fleeing war in Ukraine.
“I feel the State is now demonstrating there’s so much more they could have been doing all these years. It makes me feel sad there’s a value being placed on human life depending on which country you’re from or the colour of your skin.”
Despite the years she spent in direct provision, Vuma feels very connected to Ireland and is happy to call this country her home. “When we criticise the DP system, we’re not criticising the people of Ireland, we’re not criticising the communities. It’s the structures the Government has put in place to keep us isolated and segregated, that’s the problem. But the people themselves are so welcoming.”