Dialogue for Change - Young Asylum Seekers Project in Ireland
Voluntary Service International’s project “Dialogue for Change” enabled 30 young asylum seekers living in Ireland to meet and enter dialogue with policy makers on issues impacting their lives. The young people prepared the issues they wanted to discuss at a residential weekend workshop, and held a day long dialogue seminar in Dublin.
Interview with Grace Walsh, Teenage Programme Cooordinator at Voluntary Service International
How did this project come about?
VSI have worked with young asylum seekers for years, and we had recently created a film through a Youth Initiative project. We found that the groups were getting more and more confident and wanted to bring things to the next level, which for them was a Youth Democracy project.
Who were the young people involved?
The project was originally aimed at over 18s as they would have left school and be more available to participate, but in the end the participants were mostly aged 16 to 19. A big surprise to us was how committed the under 18s were – they made time for it even while studying for their leaving certs.
The majority were in Dublin and staying either in foster care or in hostels, as it’s very difficult to contact people staying in Direct Provision. As a result of the project though we’ve now established some contact in Limerick, Cork and Galway.
There were 22 participants at the first residential weekend, either those who were seeking asylum or who had just got their papers. We structured the whole project around that residential weekend, where the asylum seekers worked out the issues they wanted to focus on.
What were the main issues that came up?
Access to third level education was a big one because asylum seekers can’t attend college unless they pay non-EU fees, which are astronomical.
Another one was being labelled and stereotyped as an ‘asylum seeker’, rather than just as a young person.
And maybe the main issue was conditions in the Direct Provision centres – the day to day problems of access to food, lack of privacy, lack of safety, and surviving on €19.10 a week (the weekly stipend payable to asylum seekers).
What were the challenges of the project?
There were several actually! Gaining access to the young asylum seekers in the provision centres to get them involved was difficult to begin with. Then it was contacting policy makers – it was particularly hard to get TDs involved and very few of the political parties were represented. But as it was just before the local elections we did get lots of local candidates involved, mostly independents, and some people from state bodies.
For the young people themselves it was such a huge thing to speak on a public platform. Actually one of the participants had told me she was frustrated with all the talking they did at the residential weekend, but on the dialogue day she realised it was because of all that preparation that she was able to articulate her thoughts and feelings.
How did the first dialogue day turn out?
It was a big success. We held it in Smock Alley theatre during the week so that the policy makers were available. Dil Wickremasinghe from Newstalk facilitated it, and ended up doing an interview with two of the asylum seekers and myself on her Global Village programme. That was a huge thing for them and for us, to have two young asylum seekers on national radio talking about their lives.
It was the first time many of the young people had been able to speak directly to the people whose decisions affect them, and I think that was really powerful for both sides. The project gave the young people a safe space to talk openly and a chance to have fun, which they don’t always get.
What’s next for the project?
We’re organising more residential workshops and dialogue days, and the young people are currently developing an activity resource pack which can be used by other young asylum seekers. In the next phase of the project creative facilitators (writers and artists) are getting involved so that they can capture the outcomes in a more exciting, approachable way. Film is a big thing for the young people too, so we’d like to use film to step up the results and spread them to others.
What changes have you seen in the young people since you began the project?
It’s given them a good understanding of campaigning methods. They’ve learned how to use multimedia and social tools so it’s not just them personally making their voice heard, but a group action.
We’ve also seen them become more open to different opportunities. They’ve gotten so much confidence from it, they’re much more passionate and motivated and willing to speak about the issues that affect them. You can see it on our Facebook group – at the beginning it was just me posting, but now they’re all chipping in with news or articles they’ve seen. They’re more politically engaged and it’s shown them they do have a voice even if it’s sometimes muted, and they want to motivate other asylum seekers to get more active and involved.