Are we complicit in the damaging system we keep asylum seekers in?
The continued existence of a system which isolates, institutionalises and traumatises families echoes all too familiarly our history of failing to care for those most vulnerable.
Some years ago a new hotel was built opposite the Arts centre on the main street of Newbridge, Co.Kildare. It's sleek modern architecture, and the promise of employment it created, sent ripples of spirited gossip throughout the town.
At the height of the Celtic Tiger the hotel was a proud symbol of the ever changing landscape on a main street populated by small businesses. However, overnight, the spirited chatter stopped. As a teenager watching at the time the positivity seemed to be replaced by an uncomfortable and complex mixture of anger, frustration and pity.
Some people were aggressive about it, others lamented the loss of the new business and many were just sympathetic to the situation and went on about their lives. It was the early noughties and the promising hotel had been converted into one of Ireland's many privately run Direct Provision centres.
The hotel was now being used to house asylum seekers and refugees who were waiting to have their status determined. While there was great kindness in the town, in some places, the undercurrent of disgruntlement showed. Looking back if it was visible to us it must have been tremendously difficult for the people who had just begun living in the centre.
It was explained by parents and teachers alike that these people had to leave their homes because something bad was happening in their own countries. Imagine if that was you, they would say, think of leaving everything you know in search of shelter from unimaginable threats. We tried to understand.
Occasionally young people who lived in the converted hotel joined our open youth theatre and we worked together on exercises in breaking down cultural barriers and examining the xenophobia they encountered daily in town. We realised quickly the reality behind the hotels shiny modern facade. In direct provision there was little personal space or privacy. Meal times were set and if you missed one then you didn't get another.
We learned that some rooms and bathrooms were shared between families and non relatives from different countries. People lived together with different beliefs and numerous traumatic experiences. The arts centre was the only real place of creativity available for our new friends.
In theatre workshops we dealt with the complexities of having power and authority over someone else's life and conversely how it makes you feel individually and collectively when you have no control over your own. Most days we went home exhausted. But, we went home.
There are currently over 4,500 people in Ireland in direct provision and one third of these are children.
'There is no particular system looking at the vulnerabilities of children or adults who may be housed with other people where their may be a conflict of religion or language or anything', says Sue Caonlan, CEO for the Refugee Council of Ireland .
'The space in which children live is often sharing with older children and parents. Sometimes children demonstrate sexualised behaviour often at an early age because of what they are exposed to', she said. “People are effectively living in one room, it's not a house,therefore they are exposed to behaviour that should be kept private'.
She says one of the biggest challenges is the sense of inferiority children feel. 'Particularly when they go to school. The system affects children's development and when people do get out it has a detrimental effect on them and the can be unable to adjust'.
Education is only provided up until the leaving certificate and even then books and school trips must be provided for by a weekly allowance of €19.10 per parent and €9.60 per child. The psychological, social and physical impossibilities this lifestyle inflicts are obvious.
It's 14 years since Direct Provision was set up as a temporary response to an acute housing shortage. Rent allowance and normal social welfare levels were phased out for asylum seekers forcing Direct Provision as the only solution. In 2003 the right to work became no longer an option. Therefore the conditions are augmented by the lack of ability to have any control over life. Basic freedoms are taken away by the system.
The mental toll of the system was emphasised in a blogpost on HumanRights.ie last week. It's written by a father whose family are from Pakistan and are living seven years in Direct Provision although not in Newbridge.
'The main problem with direct provision is the length of time that people spend without knowing when they will have their own freedom. When their children can invite their friends to their birthday parties and when they can say to their friends that we are also the same like you.'
He says he is so grateful to Ireland for our help. He has been in the system seven years and has had mental health problems for which he has been receiving medication the past three years.
'Our mobile homes are very old. So due to the poor quality we have to keep the mobile home warm by using the heaters most of the time. The children’s bodies are getting so much used to the heated atmosphere inside the mobile homes that if they go out in the cold, they get sick. It has a negative effect. Mould and dampness is another problem. Noise is yet another problem. We can’t sleep properly due to the rain or the wind blowing outside, because our mobile homes are shaken by the wind and rain falling on the mobile homes makes noise.'
Families wait on average up to three years to have their case heard but some like this family are marking their seventh year in the Irish system.
Last year campaigners in Ireland were given a glimmer of hope when a High Court in Northern Ireland ruled in favour of a family who were seeking asylum in Northern Ireland. Under EU law the UK border agency sought to return them to Ireland where they had originally sought asylum but the applicants challenged the decision.
While the presiding judge ruled that it was not a 'systemic failure' on Ireland's part, he did find that in Northern Ireland the children in question could 'develop their own sense of belonging and separate identity', but that this would not be the case in direct provision centers in the Republic. The family would also have their own accommodation and budget with the ability to cook meals living across the border. The judge also ruled there are significant physical and mental health issues among asylum seekers Ireland's system due to the significant amount of time they spend in the system.
The ruling speaks volumes on Ireland's attitude towards populations and minorities perceived as problematic. As a country we continue to deal with many of our problems by ignoring them. The continued existence of a system which isolates, institutionalises and traumatises families echoes all too familiarly our history of failing to care for those most vulnerable.
In bustling towns around Ireland direct provision centres are quietly ongoing some on the outskirts away from everyday life. The issues are evident and we are doing little to change the system that created them. Unless there is a dedication to reform the system, it is possible in years to come we will look back remembering the inhumane and damaging system we were complicit to.