Stand up for the right to cook

Not allowing asylum seekers to cook their natural ethnic foods is cruel and degrading

Asylum seekers queue for their meals in a direct provision facility. Photograph: Frank Miller

Asylum seekers queue for their meals in a direct provision facility. Photograph: Frank Miller

Tue, Apr 29, 2014, 01:00

Human rights ain’t what they used to be, it seems.

When Denis O’Brien, the billionaire chairman of Digicel, was quoted recently in The Irish Times as declaring that access to broadband was a “basic human right”, he called for the international community to facilitate private-sector rollout of high-tech infrastructure.

So, basic human rights in the modern age come courtesy of profit-focused companies allowing you, for example, to chat on Facebook on the Android system on your HTC smartphone via the Digicel network.

As with so many unexpected outcomes, I somehow doubt that this was how the original drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights saw things panning out, when they finally completed their work, after two years of deliberations, back in 1948.

But I rather like the idea that we can declare new basic human rights so, following O’Brien’s lead, I want to argue for the creation of a new basic human right.

That human right is the right to cook.

If that seems somewhat obvious – on a par with Michael Pollan telling us to eat food – the sad fact is that the right to cook is not a right recognised by the Government, at least under the strictures of its direct provision regulations as applied to the thousands of asylum seekers who are housed in dozens of locations around the country.


Direct provision ‘unfair’
Direct provision is the system used by the Government in the many former hotels and hostels and other units in which asylum seekers are housed, and it is applied by private companies who administer the system.

Many people have commented on the unfairness and unsuitability of this system, but it seems to me that while there have been complaints about the quality of food served to the residents – “A steady stream of chicken nuggets, white rice, ketchup, vegetables and chips daily, and a distinct lack of toddler-appropriate foods,” was how Ronit Lentin, of Trinity College, described the fare in 2012 – there is a bigger issue here than simply what is served to the residents three times a day.

Cooking is one of the key ways in which we define ourselves, and recognise the culture we were born into: the bread we eat is not just the staff of life, it is the staff of our personality and our psyche. Cooking the food we love to eat comforts and reassures us.

In this regard, we Irish are, in fact, somewhat exceptional, for our love of the potato and our cooking of it as a daily staple is equal to the Japanese reverence for rice, or the Mexican reverence for corn. Any Irish restaurateur will tell you than if a dish of potatoes doesn’t arrive with the main course, Irish diners will look around anxiously: where are the spuds?

Under the direct provision system, residents are served food three times daily, but they are not allowed to cook their own food. No chapattis for the family from Pakistan. No pounded yam for the Nigerians. No breakfast of tea and canjeero for the Somalis.

Instead of these staple foods that people love and crave, the system gives them chicken nuggets and ketchup, and lots of chips.

How would many Irish people react if every morning they were offered rice, miso and umeboshi pickles instead of their favourite cereal or a boiled egg and a cup of hot tea?

Lunchtime is no better: you crave a bowl of carrot soup and a cheese sandwich, but what lands on the table in front of you is yakhni pilau; an Afghan dish of rice with boiled meat.

Potatoes for dinner with a pork chop and some green beans, surely? Well, no. Tonight it’s bulgar with tomatoes.

Treating people in this way doesn’t just harm their physical health. It has terrible consequences for their mental health as well. How would you feel after a month, and then a year, and then several years, of unrecognisable, unhealthy food, three times a day? It would do your head in.

Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “No one shall be subjected to . . . cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

Forbidding people to cook their own foods for themselves and their families, and then serving them highly processed, unnatural foods, seems to me to be a veritable definition of “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”.

Cooking and eating the foods we know and love is the very foundation of human health, and that’s why the right to cook should be recognised as a basic human right.


John McKenna is author of the forthcoming Where to Eat and Stay on the Wild Atlantic Way . See guides.ie

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