News Martina Devlin

Thursday 18 September 2014

Structures dealing with asylum seekers make them victims twice over

Published 21/08/2014 | 00:00

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A migrant reacts with relief inside a Spanish seas rescue vessel after being saved off the Strait of Gibraltar, near the coast of Tarifa, southern Spain. Photo credit: AP Photo/Marcos Moreno
A migrant reacts with relief inside a Spanish seas rescue vessel after being saved off the Strait of Gibraltar, near the coast of Tarifa, southern Spain. Photo credit: AP Photo/Marcos Moreno

Are vulnerable people who come to Ireland from other countries being treated like cattle rather than human beings? Herded into state-mandated accommodation, their autonomy limited?

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The truth is, we don't know. Heads are buried in the sand when asylum seekers are mentioned. But two cases in the news raise doubts about whether our refugee systems pass the civilised test.

The suicidal teenager at the centre of the abortion row spotlights a variety of failings, including a communications breakdown among healthcare workers. Perhaps too few people carry too heavy a workload. But a girl who was a victim in her homeland, where she says she was raped as an act of war, became a victim all over again in Ireland when her voice went unheard.

As for the group of male asylum seekers who went on hunger strike in Limerick, with grievances about living conditions and delays in dealing with their applications - these men are right. The structure they find themselves caught up in is unwieldy, and unfit for purpose. It ought to have been reformed long ago. Do we really expect refugees to put up with a Never Never Land of not knowing their fate?

The average wait for applications to be processed is four years. You'd almost suspect officialdom hopes some of them will lose patience and clear off - as, indeed, a number do.

Compared with other European countries, Ireland has relatively few asylum seekers. Yet we appear unable to handle them in a fashion that's either efficient or humane. What that says about us as a society is far from flattering.

Currently, there are some 4,000 asylum seekers, or less than 0.01pc of our population. We are not being swamped. Malta had 21 applications per 1,000 of its citizens in 2012. It has asked for concerted European help in coping. Italy, also looking for assistance, has a stream of refugees - this year so far, some 100,000 have arrived, many from Libya.

The world is at war, with conflicts raging in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine and Gaza, among other territories. And displaced people are turning up in Europe. Some are making their way to Ireland, as did the 18-year-old girl who learned she was pregnant after a health screening when she arrived here.

Asylum seekers are funnelled into direct provision centres countrywide, places originally intended as short-term measures. Some spend considerably more than four years in these hostels - a quarter of asylum seekers can expect to while away six years in an Irish limbo. This is no land of milk and honey for them.

Ireland is one of only two EU countries where they have no right to work. Nor can adults access third-level education. Consider how long the hours in each day must be: no work, no education, sometimes living in remote locations, separated from family members.

Welfare payments are €19.10 for adults each week and €9.60 for children - unchanged for 14 years. That's less than €3 a day to pass the time for an adult not allowed to do anything but wait. It barely buys a coffee. Belts may be tight for many of us, but I suspect we could offer something a little more generous.

They have a roof over their head and meals - although there are complaints about cramped conditions and indifferent food. Asylum seekers are not allowed to cook for themselves. Among the 4,000 are 1,600 children whose parents cannot offer them a normal home life in such tightly controlled circumstances. Some people may argue they chose to leave their homes. However, a better way of life was their goal. This surely falls short.

We cannot remain indifferent to their plight. It's not acceptable to leave them dangling. Let them stay or deport them, but don't take years to make that decision. Ireland ought to be ashamed.

No country can operate an open borders policy, but nor should we dehumanise the few who find their way to us. Just 1,200 came in 2011, and only 61 of them were granted asylum status. That's a 5pc acceptance rate.

Whether Frances Fitzgerald can push through legislation to streamline the application process in the lifetime of this Government remains to be seen.

But it ought to be a priority. Previous justice ministers have considered reforms, but not introduced them. Asylum seekers are voiceless - other priorities clamour and override their needs.

These men, women and children are barely on the public radar because we do not see them arrive, huddled together on boats, as happens at closer entry points.

The two cases making the news emphasise how people on the margins of society don't receive the same attention as the well-connected. Let's not shrug that off. It matters. It must. Because our common humanity matters.

Martina Devlin

Irish Independent

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