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Dublin: 22 °C Monday 15 July, 2019
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I feed my children when they're hungry. Parents in direct provision don't have that choice.

Parents in direct provision have so few ways in which they can model healthy, productive adulthood for their children.

Anonymous

SITTING IN MY kitchen watching my toddler play with a saucepan, spoon and some dried pasta as though it was the season’s must-have toy, I feel very privileged. The 1,500 children living in direct provision in this country have no access to a kitchen – the heart of most Irish homes.

I recently visited a direct provision centre, one of a number throughout the country where families and individuals seeking international protection from persecution are placed by the State while awaiting a decision on their case. Children living in direct provision queue for food, along with their parents. They are served three meals a day in a canteen within the centre.

As the name direct provision implies, catering staff prepare the food; residents have no access to the cooking facilities. Parents living in the centre I visited tell me that their children often can’t eat the food served; every meal is spicy they say – too spicy for their children’s young palettes. I ask if there are children’s meals or if any alternative is provided if the children can’t or won’t eat what is offered. I am told there is not.

No recognition of children being children 

There is none of the flexibility that we can offer our children at home. If the rota states that a banana is part of Thursday’s breakfast menu and your child wants a banana on Monday, they’ll just have to wait. As a parent of two small children this seems like an impossibility to me. I often have to resort to plans B, C, and D to ensure my incorrigibly stubborn toddler doesn’t starve. Both have access to fruit and other healthy snacks between meals.

The idea of an active pre-schooler going without food between 8am and 1pm is foreign to me. I feed my children when they are hungry. The idea that I would have to tell my child that he must wait hours for a canteen to open so I can feed him is beyond me.

People living in direct provision are not permitted access to the main kitchen to cook for their children. Their cooking facilities extend only to a kitchenette containing a fridge, kettle and microwave. Children raised in direct provision have no memories of their parents cooking at the stove or serving a home cooked meal to the table. As someone who gets great satisfaction from cooking for and with her children, this is very sad. From a developmental perspective the damage to children’s life skills must be significant. For the parents to whom I spoke, the frustration of being prohibited from providing such basic care to their own children, is palpable.

A child’s most significant milestones go without much celebration

I asked parents raising children in Ireland’s direct provision system how they manage weaning – that exciting time when parents introduce their babies to first foods. Watching your baby’s reactions to new taste experiences – mashed banana, pureed carrot, sweet potato – is wonderful and wasteful. It is very much a hit and miss process (in my experience the carrot hits the floor and the bananas miss their mouth entirely).

I was told that parents are not provided with extra food when weaning a baby. They utilise the piece of fruit that comes with breakfast, usually a banana, apple (hazardous to a weaning baby uncooked) or orange. Parents are provided with baby formula until the child is 1 year old. Even here their ability to make choices for their baby is taken away. When the child turns one formula is no longer provided.

It occurs to me that the mums and dads I am speaking to have never had the opportunity to bake a birthday cake for their child. These most significant milestones go without much celebration anyway – children living in direct provision can never bring their friends home, because of insurance.

The average length of time which people spend in direct provision is four years. I spoke to a mother who has been waiting for a decision on her application for nearly a decade: “If I were in prison at least I would know my sentence “she tells me.

Direct provision denies parents the fundamental role of homemaker

Facing years of restricted access to food, some parents resort to cooking for their children in their bedrooms. Ironically, the health and safety concerns that are used to justify their exclusion from the centre’s kitchen result in far greater dangers as they are forced to supplement their children’s diets by cooking in their rooms. Using kettles and rice cookers next to their children’s beds, they put together simple meals which their children can, at least, eat.

The meals have to be simple, adults in direct provision receive only €19.10 per week from the State (Children receive €9.60 per week, unchanged since 2000). Even in their bedrooms they are subject to regulation, so parents must hide their cookers and kettles during the day for fear they will be removed by centre staff.

Parents in direct provision have so few ways in which they can model healthy, productive adulthood for their children. Frustratingly for these skilled and educated men and women, the State prohibits them from working. If they seek paid work they will face fines or imprisonment. Living on €19 a week, most leisure activities they might have shared with their children are cut off to them. This money is needed to pay for food, basic toiletries and school supplies. They can’t afford to be away from the Centre long enough to need to pay for their children’s lunch, let alone fund activities that they might share together.

Direct provision denies these mums and dads even the fundamental role of homemaker. The centre in which most of these families have spent four years of their lives (and some much longer) is not home. Home is not a place where systems, not parents, decide a child’s access to food, their diet and nutrition. Home is not a place where parents cook in secret.

Let children have a chance of a home

As we approach the 15 year anniversary of the introduction of direct provision in Ireland, my thoughts are with those 1,500 children living in Ireland’s direct provision system, and with their mums and dads.

This is a system which has cost the state €850 million, paid out to property developers and catering companies, to keep people in a manner which denies them and their children any chance of normality. These children, women and men who have come here because we, as an international actor, have offered shelter to those fleeing wars, conflict and human rights abuses, do not deserve unending sentences in what amounts to an open prison.

Let people work. Let parents provide for their children. Let children have a chance of a home.

The author of this piece is a member of an End Direct Provision Group in the Mid-West Region. Their identity is known to TheJournal.ie but is being withheld so as not to identify the Direct Provision centre they describe or its residents.

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