This week’s blog was written by Naoise Murphy. Naoise is a student of English Literature and French at Durham University.
Direct provision (DP), the Irish system of accommodation for asylum seekers, was established in 1999 as a short-term solution. It was intended to provide accommodation for up to 6 months in former hotels, hostels and other units while asylum cases were processed and applicants were either granted refugee status or deported. Yet more than 600 people have spent in excess of 7 years in direct provision, through no fault of their own. And while holding people in legal limbo for over 7 years is obviously unacceptable, it is the conditions in these accommodation centres that urgently need to be addressed.
There are currently 4,300 asylum seekers in DP, housed in 34 accommodation centres across the country. These DP centres are the 21st century equivalent of the Magdalene laundries, places that future generations will remember with shame. Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness, patron of the Irish Refugee Council, has predicted that future governments will end up apologising to those who were forced to go through the system. A brief look at the nature of this system is enough to make one agree wholeheartedly. It has been heavily criticised by the UN and international human rights groups. It is a denial of some of the most fundamental human rights, overseen by a government that shows no compassion or respect for the most vulnerable people in its care.
One of the most pressing issues for people living in direct provision is the absence of an independent complaints mechanism. Residents must raise any issues affecting their health, welfare, security, etc. with the management of the individual centre or with the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) which is responsible for running the centres. Many residents have expressed a fear of speaking out against the system in case this damages their asylum case or relationship with the Department of Justice. As they usually have no idea when they will be allowed to leave the centre or if they will be granted refugee status, residents feel that they are totally at the mercy of an impersonal and changeable system. This uncertainty is torturous.
Many residents report serious mental health problems as a result of their conditions in DP. Rates of depression and other mental health issues are up to five times higher among residents than in the wider community. They identify a number of causes, directly linked to their treatment at the hands of the State; frustration as a result of navigating the asylum system, guilt on the part of parents who are attempting to bring up their children in DP, feelings of boredom and uselessness because of the inability to work. Many asylum seekers are qualified in various professions and would be perfectly capable of providing for themselves and their families if they were allowed to work. The system of DP denies them this, providing instead a meagre allowance of €19.10 per week for an adult and €9.60 for a child. The myth of the lazy, ‘sponging’ asylum seeker has been created, in part, by a set of regulations that force asylum seekers into inactivity.
€19.10 per week is the amount allowed to cover everything except food and accommodation (provided by the centres), including medical expenses. And it seems that many of the medical needs, both physical and mental, experienced by the residents of DP centres are caused by their conditions, most notably, the food. Residents are not permitted to cook for themselves and are provided instead with a diet of highly processed, unnatural food, one which does not, moreover, even attempt to cater for the cultural diversity of residents. People raised on fresh ingredients and unprocessed meals are confronted with an offensive version of our preferred fare; a steady stream of chips, white rice, chicken nuggets and ketchup. Studies have shown that Western diseases such as diabetes are immediately prevalent wherever people give up a more traditional way of eating and adopt a Western diet. Denying people the right to choose what they eat, in the knowledge that this may have negative long-term effects on their health, is simply inhumane.
One final and conclusive proof of the inhumanity of DP can be found in the plight of the 1,600 children trapped in the system. The Irish Refuge Council accurately describes the centres as an ‘unnatural family environment that is not conducive to positive development in children’. The children of asylum seekers did not choose to come here and have absolutely no control over their circumstances. They are denied a childhood. Cramped conditions, with whole families in single rooms, do not allow adequate space for play or study. Education is hampered further by the difficulty of obtaining school books and supplies and integrating properly with other children. A child living in DP cannot have friends over to play. Asylum seekers are also not entitled to free third level education, leaving students unable to continue their education after the Leaving Cert.
Privacy is also a huge problem. Tanya Ward of the Children’s Rights Alliance has pointed out the child protection risks involved when families are forced to live in close proximity with strangers. There have been numerous cases of inappropriate sexual contact between adults and young people in the centres, including one case relating to a 14 year old girl who became pregnant by a male resident. Given these conditions, it’s not surprising, that the Northern Irish High Court, recently made the decision not to send a Sudanese asylum seeker and her three children back to the South, where she had originally sought asylum, on the grounds that ’the wellbeing both emotionally and financially of the primary carer and the importance of that to the wellbeing of the children in her care would point significantly to the best interests of the children being to remain in Northern Ireland’.
Direct provision centres, often located miles away from towns, cities and ordinary residential areas, are sad indications of Ireland’s tendency to push the most vulnerable people to one side, ignoring the problem by keeping it out of sight. As a state, we will come to regret our treatment of asylum seekers, just as we have done with marginalised groups in the past. We urgently need to abolish Direct Provision and come up with a system that treats people like human beings, with unrestricted access to the same rights and freedoms as others dependent on the State for support. With our history of emigration, we seriously need to cultivate some compassion and understanding for those who come to our shores seeking shelter and freedom.