Colette Browne: If Irish families were treated this cruelly, there would be outrage
THE constitutionality of the direct provision system for asylum seekers is currently being challenged in the High Court, but regardless of its legality, the indefinite detention of families in institutions is inhumane.
According to the Irish Refugee Council, nearly 4,800 people are housed in centres around the country, in which whole families are accommodated in single rooms, subsisting on a weekly allowance of €19.10 per adult and €9.60 per child.
Two-thirds of these people have been living in these cramped conditions, unable to work or to leave for more than three successive nights at a time, for more than three years.
Some of you may be unconcerned by this, believing that the State is satisfying its duty by providing a roof over their heads and three meals a day. Would you still feel the same way if Irish families were detained in grim institutions, suffering the stigma of segregation from communities?
Imagine, for a moment, a life in which you had no autonomy over anything. Imagine trying to clothe and educate your children, endeavouring to ensure that they were able to take part in school activities on a €9 pittance.
Imagine the boredom, the frustration and the indignity of not even being able to choose what time you'll have dinner.
Imagine having to spend each night in a room surrounded by every other member of your family, with no regard given to the age or sex of those sharing that tiny space.
Imagine a life with no privacy.
Would we be happy for Irish families to live in these conditions for years on end? If not, why are we content to force families from other countries – some of whom are fleeing torture and other human rights abuses – to endure them?
The State itself has acknowledged the damage that is caused by this kind of institutionalisation.
The HSE's National Intercultural Health Strategy 2007-2012 notes that "many asylum seekers suffer from a significant burden of mental health problems" and the "prolonged length of stay of people within the direct provision system may have a direct negative effect on overall well-being".
This finding was backed up by a study published in the 'Irish Psychiatrist' in 2011, which found that 90pc of asylum seekers in one Co Cork centre were suffering from some kind of psychiatric disorder.
It is not just adults who are suffering. According to the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA), in February 2013 there were 1,791 children living in these centres, 1,663 under the age of 12.
Many of these have been born here and are growing up knowing nothing other than their institutionalised living conditions. What chance have they of growing up into well-adjusted adults?
This inconvenient truth makes a mockery of Ireland's solemn commitment to protect the rights of children, most recently reiterated in a referendum that enjoyed cross-party political support. Would a state that cares about the rights of children split up a family after a child has attempted suicide?
Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly (pictured) recently highlighted an appalling case in which a woman who moved out of a provision centre because of concerns for her daughter's deteriorating mental health was left fighting the HSE for over a year for a payment she was entitled to while her daughter remained in foster care.
"The failure to provide the family with an income meant it was not possible for [her] daughter . . . to be reunited with her family," she said.
It is inconceivable that an Irish family would be treated to such callousness – or that a national scandal would not ensue once the State's actions were made public.
The reaction from authorities when asylum seekers complain about their living conditionshas also been criticised.
Last month, 256 asylum seekers living in a particularly remote centre, Drishane, outside Millstreet in Co Cork, elected a committee to raise their concerns – overcrowding, a rat and cockroach infestation and child-safety issues – with management.
The RIA is now transferring many members of that committee to other provision centres around the country.
Joe Moore, of Anti-Deportation Ireland, has met the asylum seekers concerned and said he believes the State is quelling dissent by moving elsewhere those who complain and draw negative media coverage.
The RIA has denied that this is the case and said residents who have "indicated unhappiness with staying in the centre" are being moved on a voluntary basis.
Statistics do not support hysterical claims that the State is inundated with asylum applications, with numbers decreasing from 11,634 in 2002 to just 956 last year.
Of these, 98.5pc will ultimately be rejected.
If we can't offer these people residency, the least we could do is offer some modicum of dignity while their claims are processed.