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Some kids have lived their whole lives in Direct Provision. It's time to do the right thing.

Ireland has been warehousing asylum-seekers in Direct Provision since 2000. How can we stand by and allow children to live in these conditions?

Donal O'Keeffe

A YEAR AGO, I wrote a column for TheJournal.ie about a little girl called “Deborah”. She was seven at the time and she had lived her entire life in Direct Provision.

Direct Provision gives asylum-seekers bed and board in often dire conditions and prohibits them from working. They are given €19.10 a week. Children get €9.60. We currently have 7,937 people in the system. A third of those are children; 55% have been here for five years, 20% of that for seven years or more.

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.

“The scandal of Direct Provision”

Last year we had 1,448 asylum applications and officials predict that this year may see in the region of 3,000 applications. That’s a significant increase but it’s worth noting that, in EU terms, Ireland has a lower than average number of asylum applications per head of capita. According to the UN refugee agency, the UN-HCR, Ireland received 1.4 asylum seekers per 1,000 population between 2010 and 2014. The EU average is 3.5 per 1,000 and, over the same period, Sweden received 24 applications per 1,000 population.

The Minister for State at the Department of Justice, Aodhán Ó Riordáin, has repeatedly stated that he cannot stand over “the scandal of Direct Provision”. Yesterday saw the publication of the report of the Government’s ‘Working Group on Improvements to the Protection Process, including Direct Provision and Supports to Asylum Seekers’.

Among the report’s key recommendations are that people who have been in the system for five years or more should be “fast tracked” to residency, that children who have been in the system for five years or more be allowed go on to third level education, that the weekly allowance be increased and that new asylum seekers should receive a decision within 12 months and have the right to seek work after nine months.

They’re nice little kids but theirs is not a happy home

“Deborah” is a year older now and recently I called back to see her and her family. She lives with her parents and her brother and sister in two rooms outside Cork. If I’m honest, I felt mortified to be intruding in their home again when absolutely nothing has changed in the last year. A year on and limbo is still limbo.

When I called, Deborah’s dad, “Joseph”, was despairing. He was told last winter that his case would be reviewed “soon”. He said he had heard nothing since. His wife didn’t want to talk to me but he said that’s not personal. Joseph said her depression has deepened in the past year.

I had a great chat with Deborah and her brother about superheroes – we all agreed that Loki definitely deserved to get smashed by the Hulk that time – and their little sister was seriously unimpressed by my sad inability to sing “Let It Go”. They’re nice little kids but theirs is not a happy home.

How could it be?

What would you do for your loved ones?

I like Joseph. He does a sideline – illegally – dispensing soap in nightclub toilets and he laughs when I tell him he’s such a chancer he might as well have been born in Ireland. He says he was attacked as the son of an opposition politician in his native Nigeria and he and his wife fled to Europe, eventually winding up, eight years ago, in Ireland.

Do I believe him?

Well. I hope, for my family, I would do everything – anything – and I would go to the ends of the Earth for those I love. And you know something? You would too. That’s because we’re human. I had a coffee last week with a member of the Government and we argued at some length about the difference between genuine asylum seekers and economic migrants. He’s not a cruel man and I’m not a complete fool. I think, in the end, we all know that the grey area can be very grey indeed when human beings are wandering around in it, looking for the best for their loved ones.

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No child should live this way

I’m not avoiding the question. Do I think Joseph and his wife are genuine refugees? In truth, I don’t know. I’ll take anyone at their word but I can’t help but wonder how they ended up on the western-most island nation from Africa, bar America. I know this much, though: their three children were born here and they have lived all their whole lives in two small rooms outside Cork. They go to school here, their best friends are Irish kids and their own accents are Irish. Yes, we amended the Constitution in 2004 so kids born in Ireland are not necessarily Irish – and I still say we did that shamefully – but you can’t tell me we don’t owe those children something.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Drivetime yesterday evening, Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald would not give a commitment to implement any of the Working Group’s report’s recommendations, beyond saying that she would certainly favour the introduction of a streamlined application process. She would not answer Mary Wilson’s repeated questions as to whether she would commit to raising the weekly allowance to asylum seekers, whether she would commit to allowing children in the system to access third level education, or whether she would even commit to allowing people in Direct Provision the right to boil a kettle for themselves.

I hope we do the right thing

Launching the Working Group’s report this evening, Aodhán Ó Riordáin called Direct Provision “a short-term solution 15 years ago”. He also tweeted that this report was “another #yesequality moment”. I’ll be honest: I cringed at that. But, then again, I hope he’s right. The marriage equality vote was a triumph for kindness, for decency and for love and we all felt ten feet tall at the result.

If “Deborah” and her brother and sister – and all the other kids like them – who have lived their whole lives in Ireland are about to be put on the fast track to citizenship, then I won’t quibble about a hashtag. I hope we do the right thing and prove again what a generous people we are at our best.

Donal O’Keeffe is a writer, artist and columnist for TheJournal.ie. He tweets as @Donal_OKeeffe.

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