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Imagine living in a 20’ x 10’ room, your belongings are in one cupboard and you don't know if you'll be there a year or a decade

The sight of little Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body shamed us all into reluctant action by accepting 4,000 people into Ireland, but now we’re going to put traumatised people into a seriously flawed system, writes Donal O’Keeffe.

Donal O'Keeffe

IMAGINE YOU’RE SINGLE and living in one room. All of your earthly belongings in a cupboard by your bed and in piles on the floor. The room is maybe 20’ x 10’. You could be there a year or a decade.

You’re not allowed cook and you’ll eat when you’re told to eat. You’ll share your room with two other people. They’re the same gender as you but that may well be all you have in common.

They could be from a different country to you and they might not speak the same language. They might be from an ethnicity or a religion that hates you.

All of their belongings are in the room with them too. They have no more privacy from you than you have from them. The day ends when the last person turns off the light and it starts when the first person turns it on again.

The showers and toilets are communal. Try not to let your feet touch the slimy gunk around the broken door sills. Worried mothers stand guard outside as their children use the facilities. You’ll stockpile toilet paper in your room.

Hungary Migrants Source: Associated Press

Fleeing war

Some of the people you might be sharing with have fled war and may have emotional problems. Some may have been hardened by their experiences. Some may not the sort of people with whom you’d choose to share your living space.

You yourself might be vulnerable. If you are, well, sorry for your troubles, but you’re living in Ireland’s Direct Provision system. You have bed and board and €19.10 a week spending money.

You’re not allowed to work. Get used to the boredom. (Of course, you could stop appealing your case and give up. Head back to whatever hell-hole you left. That way, you won’t be our problem anymore.)

Last week I tried to get into Cork’s Kinsale Road Direct Provision centre. The company running it – Aramark – referred me to the Reception and Integration Agency. RIA referred me to the Department of Justice and, eventually, they refused me access, saying they have to protect the identities of asylum-seekers.

I was in that centre during last year’s strike by asylum-seekers protesting their living conditions. The conditions were even grimmer than I describe above because I can’t really do justice to the noise and the sour smell of despondency permeating the entire compound.

A year later, I can’t tell you if conditions have improved.

Croatia Migrants Source: Associated Press

A flawed system 

Direct Provision was introduced fifteen years ago as a temporary, six-month solution in a year we had 10,938 asylum applications. Last year saw 1,448 applications. We currently have 7,937 people in the system (4,500 in Direct Provision centres). A third are children; 55% have been here for five years, 20% of that for seven years or more.

The application process is cumbersome and the obvious loophole is that if your application is refused, you appeal. (Wouldn’t you?) Lawyers – and owners of Direct Provision centres – have made millions while desperate people behave exactly as you’d expect desperate people to behave.

Ironically, short-term communal living is considered optimal for displaced people. After all, where better to be in a strange land than amongst your own? The problem with Direct Provision is that short-term has long-since drifted to long-term.

Parents are not allowed to cook for their children and have lost their sense of independence. In some cases children, crammed into close proximity with adults (not just their parents) are seeing things they should not see and are replicating behaviour they should not understand. We have created a system which infantilises adults and sexualises children.

The government’s Working Group on Direct Provision published its report four months ago, recommending – among other things – that asylum-seekers be allowed work, that the weekly allowance be increased and that – if nothing else –asylum-seekers be granted the autonomy to cook for themselves.

90376109 LtoR Stephanie Nganga aged 5 and Tatiana Nganga aged 8 taking part in a moment of silence for victims of Direct Provision by asylum seekers. Source: Rollingnews.ie

Slow to implement change 

In the wake of the report, Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald was slow to commit to implementing any of those recommendations; beyond saying she favours the introduction of a streamlined application process.

Direct Provision is especially relevant now that the sight of little Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body has shamed us all into reluctant action and Ireland proposes to help address Europe’s refugee crisis.

If you were half-listening to the news, you might have thought that our government – as advertised - had bowed to a huge wave of public goodwill and agreed to take in 4,000 refugees.

Not quite. Thanks to RTÉ’s Philip Boucher-Hayes, we now know that the first 520 we take in will be refugees. The rest will be asylum-seekers. That’s a crucial distinction and it’s worth pointing out that Ireland rejects roughly nine out of every ten asylum applicants.

Hungary Migrants Source: Associated Press

Putting traumatised people into the Direct Provision system 

We are assured that these new asylum-seekers will be fast-tracked but while they await a decision we plan on putting them into the Direct Provision system.

So now we will place 3,500 traumatised people – traumatised people promised preferential treatment - into a situation where they will be living next to 7,937 traumatised people who have lived for years in a system all-but designed to strip them of hope.

Rather than Ireland for once doing the right thing, the decent thing, the human thing, we will instead have another 3,500 people warehoused in repurposed sheds, eating fried chicken and living in a limbo of misery with no guarantee at all that they will be allowed to stay here. And now we’ll have an added twist of cruelty: rivalry.

It was probably always too big an ask to expect competence from this government, let alone basic compassion.

Shoddiness is Ireland’s national pride 

Welcome to Ireland, where shoddiness is our national pride. No doubt all of this will play out in a commission of inquiry in 2035 or so and the result will be yet another Taoiseach’s tearful apology.

Direct Provision has reared a generation of children on our soil – children with Irish accents – in a system of misery and despair. It is past time we granted an amnesty to those living here. It is past time we imagined a better Ireland, one enriched by new blood and new dreams.

For now, if you’re capable of the requisite empathy to picture yourself in Direct Provision, think about your two room-mates. You’d better pray you get along with them. You have €19.10 a week.

You’ll be spending a lot of time in that room.

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