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Dublin: 16 °C Friday 31 October, 2014

Aaron McKenna: Asylum seekers are our new institutional home victims

The principals of basic human compassion and decency would lead anybody to disgust at the conditions asylum seekers endure in Direct Provision hostels – and the warning signs clearly point to future scandal, writes Aaron McKenna.

Aaron McKenna

FOR A COUNTRY prone to reacting with such shock and revulsion at the scandals of state run or supported institutions in the past, we seem to have an oddly deep indifference to doing anything about comparable troubles today. From Victorian mental health facilities to juvenile prisons, our society and government is slow to change clearly objectionable institutions designed to shelter the vulnerable.

For asylum seekers living in state-provided Direct Provision hostels, the warning signs are all clearly there that there is a future scandal in this: elderly individuals packed into the visitors gallery of the Dail to hear an apology from some future Taoiseach on their mistreatment and also the indifference of the authorities to their plight.

Another Irish example of throwing unwanted individuals down a deep, dark hole

The Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, has pointed out that there is a real risk of child abuse in these squalid and sometimes rat-infested hostels, where single parent families are required to share with strangers and where families with teenage children of opposite gender are required to share one room. There have been reports, secret filming and official investigations that have all turned up evidence of conditions most of us wouldn’t house a dog in.

While there aren’t any predatory men of cloth stalking the halls at night for victims in these hostels, it is quite clear that this is another Irish example of throwing unwanted individuals down a deep, dark hole and trying our best to forget about them and their problems for as long as possible. Malcontent children and fallen women might have asylum seekers to join them in the Irish Pantheon of the (Regrettably) Neglected in the future, when the benefit of hindsight allows us to feel remorse for all those terrible things a now bygone society allowed happen in plain sight.

Mind you, this isn’t an argument for allowing more (or fewer) asylum seekers remain in Ireland, nor is it a call for a massively greater expenditure of treasure on asylum seekers in general. Two thirds of asylum seekers have been kept in these hostels for over three years whilst awaiting the famous go-getting Irish bureaucracy to come to a final decision about their case. If we just sped up the process we could get people moving up or out sooner, freeing resources to provide better accommodation in the near term.

Ireland is no soft touch when it comes to accepting applications

If I were an asylum seeker fleeing some African tinpot or the war in Syria, or if I was simply an opportunistic economic migrant posing as such, Ireland wouldn’t be my first pick. We’re three times less likely to grant positive protection to asylum seekers than the European average. Some 25.2 per cent of asylum seekers get protection on average across Europe, while it’s 8.6 per cent in Ireland. Of the 1,625 asylum cases ruled on here last year, only 140 were granted positive protection.

I have very little comment to make on the acceptance rate. It is the right of a country to decide what path it wants to take on asylum and immigration, and Ireland is not a soft touch when it comes to accepting asylum seekers in the way countries like Sweden have been. What I do not believe we have a right to do is treat people like animals while they are undergoing the asylum process, which is an international legal norm that we are obligated to participate in due to our adherence to the small principal of human rights.

If a person shows up here and requests asylum, they are entitled to a process that is enshrined in the same legal framework concerning human rights that entitles you and I to our freedoms. It just happens that they’d be more likely to be successful somewhere other than Ireland. In the meantime however, we have an obligation to hear their case.

This will come back to haunt us

During this elongated process, Ireland has chosen to throw people into a squalid existence. This is wrong, if for nothing other than the concern of common human decency.

It also has the potential to open the State up to unnecessary costs in future. It doesn’t take a great mental leap to see people kept in hostels where reports of vermin infestation are rife and our own Ombudsman has been commenting on the dangers of sexual abuse coming back to haunt us. Even people we reject and deport could come back on the Irish State in years to come, pointing to the precedents set by our prior institutional scandals.

Perhaps most worrying for us as a society, I think, is our plain indifference to the matter. Direct provision isn’t new. We’ve been seeing reports from inside these places for years. We’ve probably all wondered at what sort of a society could allow the likes of the laundries and the institutional care homes to carry on in plain sight; or at best, be wilfully blind to them. It is, clearly, not that difficult.

Principals of basic human compassion and decency

What does that say about us, I wonder? Of course you can rationalise it all you want: we’re broke, we need to look after our own first, sure didn’t they choose to come here, or the classic “I’m not a racist, but…”

I don’t care if it’s a mental patient left to stare at a blank wall all day; a child being left to die in the supposed safety of state care; or an African asylum seeker left with their family for years in a dingy and perhaps dangerous hostel – the principals of basic human compassion and decency leads me to be disgusted by all that I hear from these places.

For the sake of our national conscience, so buffeted by scandals of neglect and mistreatment in the past, I suggest that we take more of an interest in improving the lot of asylum seekers currently left blowing in the wind. Even if we just speed up our 90 per cent rejection rate and send them on their way, we can say that we fulfilled our obligations under law and we can tell ourselves that we treated others as we would hope to be treated.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

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