A cruel and shameful system

Fri, Jul 25, 2014, 01:36

A punitive Direct Provision and Dispersal system, deliberately designed to discourage asylum seekers from coming here, brings shame on us all. The unfortunate inhabitants of these holding centres, who are denied the right to work and who receive a weekly allowance of €19.10 (€9.60 for children), are isolated from society and can wait for up to nine years before their applications are processed. Twelve years ago, a previous government promised that all new applications would be dealt with within six months. Legislation is still awaited.

As a society, we have a great propensity for hand-wringing, for bewailing past social failures and for engaging in communal amnesia. In this instance, the lament – “if only we had known” – will not serve. The treatment of these asylum-seekers and their children has been well documented by the Irish Refugee Council and publicly categorised as inhumane and discriminatory. Families live in one room; are not allowed to cook for themselves; are prevented from working and are isolated from society. The Council of Europe identified mental health issues and depression as consequences arising from such long-stay accommodation.

Successive governments have found it necessary to issue formal apologies because of State failures to protect Irish children and vulnerable women from institutional abuse in a cold and browbeaten society. Comparisons can be drawn between the treatment of those citizens and what is going on today in dispersal centres. Retired Supreme Court Judge Catherine McGuinness believes a future government may have to apologise for the manner in which children, in particular, are being treated.

Recently appointed Minister of State for Justice with responsibility for equality and new communities Aodhán O Riordáin has identified reform of the direct provision system as his top priority. That is a welcome development. A reduction in the waiting time for processing applications is driven by his concern for children. As a former teacher, he finds it unacceptable that a child should spend half their lives in a direct provision centre, in poverty, marginalised and stigmatised. So it is.

The plight of asylum seekers was largely ignored until local and international criticism and changes to EU laws brought the introduction of an Immigrant, Residence and Protection Bill. That Bill fell with the last government. A revised version of the legislation, which was heavily criticised at the time, will now be prepared following consultation between Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald and Mr O Riordáin. Its content should be informed by humanitarian considerations and a generosity of spirit. Ireland’s record in responding to the needs of individuals and families fleeing war and persecution has been deeply disappointing. This Government must do better.

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