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Opinion: Ireland warehouses asylum-seekers, institutionalises them and leaves them in limbo

Haven’t we learned that cramming ‘inconvenient’ people into institutions has serious consequences?

Donal O'Keeffe

“WELL I THINK I am Irish, but I am not Irish.”

“Deborah” (not her real name) is seven. She’s very bright and loves going to school, where she has loads of friends. Her best friend is Lucy. Deborah loves maths. She also loves going to the zoo, where her favourite animals are giraffes, baby tigers and penguins. She’s not a big fan of peacocks, though, because the noise they make is a bit weird.

Deborah is shy and cheeky in equal measure and, when she grows up, she wants to be a lawyer because lawyers help people who are in trouble.

Deborah doesn’t like where she lives. She’d like her own room, like Lucy has, rather than having to share with her brother and sister. She’d like her own swimming pool too but admits she’s pushing her luck there.

Deborah has lived in Direct Provision her entire life.

Direct Provision gives asylum-seekers bed and board and prohibits them from working. They are given €19.10 a week. Children get €9.60. We currently have 4,353 people in the system. A third of those are children; 60% have been here for five years, 20% of that for seven years or more.

‘People are just deteriorating’

Deborah’s father, “Joseph”, is an asylum-seeker from Nigeria, where he was attacked as the son of an opposition politician. For the past seven years, he and his wife “Sandra” have lived in two small rooms in a converted hotel. They share those rooms with their three children, all of whom were born in Ireland. Joseph reckons there are over a hundred people living in the same building.

Joseph and Sandra were denied asylum here in 2009. They applied to appeal this decision and, three years later, were told they would be allowed to do so. They have heard nothing since mid-2012.

Sandra is 34 now. She was healthy when she came to Ireland but living in Direct Provision has left her obese and suffering with high blood pressure, severe depression and cardiac problems. “Eating cheese and chicken and no way to burn it off?” asks Joseph. “This is no way to live. People are just deteriorating. Are people living in hostels animals? Who does not have basic rights like privacy?”

Joseph says he does not want to be a burden on Ireland. Rather, he says he wants to work and pay tax and have pride in himself and his new country.

Warehousing asylum-seekers

Ireland has been warehousing asylum-seekers in Direct Provision since 2000. This was introduced as a temporary, six-month, solution at a time when asylum applications were 10,938. Applications peaked in 2002 at 11,600.

Nothing happens in isolation. Everything has a context and consequence. It’s worth remembering that in 2002, Fianna Fáil TD Noel O’Flynn topped the poll in Cork North-Central after denouncing asylum-seekers as “spongers, freeloaders and conmen”.

In 2004, exactly ten years ago, we had the 27th Referendum.

Babies born in Ireland

Then-Justice Minister, Michael McDowell, facing into the European and Local Elections, decided the greatest crisis afflicting Ireland was babies being born in Ireland. He proposed a Constitutional amendment to deny automatic Irish citizenship to children born here.

We turned out to vote at an unusually high rate of 60% and we voted to be mean-spirited by a resounding 80%. Fair enough, Ireland. Those kids were still born here and many of them are still here now.

To give an idea of how things have changed since 2000′s 10,938 asylum applications, in 2013 we had 946 new applicants.

Sue Conlan of the Irish Refugee Council has called on the Government to replace Direct Provision with a humane reception system. As matters stand, asylum-seekers are in limbo. They are not considered legally resident and are not considered refugees until such time as they are granted that status, a process which can take years.

Infantilising adults and sexualising children

Parents are not allowed to cook for their children and have lost their own sense of independence and autonomy. In some cases children, crammed into close proximity with adults (and not just their parents) are seeing things they should not see and are replicating behaviour they should not understand. In a land of unintended consequences, we have made a long-term problem from a short-term solution and created a system which infantilises adults and sexualises children.

It’s a faint hope but maybe, just maybe, someone in Government has started doing some joined-up thinking. Fine Gael TD Regina Doherty last week asked the Minister for Justice precisely how much Direct Provision has cost us and how much the judicial review appeal process costs and whether she would consider an amnesty for asylum-seekers currently in Direct Provision.

Doherty was told there were no plans for such an amnesty, but the Minister did say:

…legislating to establish a single protection procedure is a priority in that it will provide the legislative framework for removing the structural delays which are a feature of our existing protection system. I am particularly anxious, therefore, to ensure that legislation in this area is brought forward this year .

What next?

“Well I think I am Irish, but I am not Irish,” Deborah told me.

I reacted with (only slightly) exaggerated outrage. “What?! You were born here, you live here and you go to school here! Of course you’re Irish!”

That earned me a huge smile. As one of the 20% of voters who believe she’s Irish, I really wish I hadn’t been lying to her.

Donal O’Keeffe is a writer and artist who sometimes contributes to the Evening Echo. He tweets as @Donal_OKeeffe

Read: Politicians are not allowed to talk to people seeking asylum in Ireland

Read: More than half of Ireland’s asylum seekers in ‘reception system’ for over 3 years

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