Asylum seeker treatment as bad as institutional abuse, says priest

Martin Pender says Congolese asylum seekers left to ‘eat and sleep and walk around’

Fr Martin Pender and  a Congolese asylum seeker:  “It is absolute psychological abuse,” says Fr Martin Pender. He is “ashamed” Irish taxpayers are sponsoring such poor treatment of asylum seekers. Photograph: Dave Meehan

Fr Martin Pender and a Congolese asylum seeker: “It is absolute psychological abuse,” says Fr Martin Pender. He is “ashamed” Irish taxpayers are sponsoring such poor treatment of asylum seekers. Photograph: Dave Meehan

 

The treatment of asylum seekers in Ireland is worse than in South Africa and comparable to institutional abuse throughout this island in the last century, a Catholic priest has said.

“It is absolute psychological abuse,” said Fr Martin Pender and it made him “feel ashamed” that Irish taxpayers were sponsoring such abuse.

It is his belief asylum seekers in Ireland “would be better off in prison where, at least, there would be something for them to do”.

His sentiments echo those of comments made at the weekend by retired judge Bryan McMahon, chair of the expert group set up to review the asylum process in Ireland, who said people caught in the direct provision system were forced to live in a system which is worse than prison.

Fr Pender was speaking to The Irish Times after meeting Congolese asylum seekers at the Birchwood House direct provision centre in Waterford. He had tried to get access to the living quarters there last Friday but was refused.

Residents told him “they are not allowed do anything and that they were being treated badly and I decided to check it with my own eyes”. But he was stopped by a woman at the centre who said he was only allowed into the common room, as those were the rules.

The woman became angry and threatened to call the gardaí, he said.

Contacted by The Irish Times, a woman at Birchwood House said she was not allowed speak to the media but agreed to pass on a contact number to a manager. There has been no communication from the centre since then.

Wrath of church

Fr Pender has worked abroad for decades, most recently in South Africa’s Cape Town where he had been for seven years as a parish priest, teacher of English and religion, and a school chaplain.

He worked closely with Congolese asylum seekers there but, having incurred the wrath of church and secular authorities because of his activities, he left Cape Town to begin ministry at Ballymitty, Co Wexford, last March. He hopes to help people caught in Ireland’s asylum process.

People from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) were frequently coming from very tragic circumstances but in Ireland they found themselves in centres where there was nothing to do but “eat and sleep and walk around, sometimes for years”, he said.

He spoke of one Congolese man, now in his late 40s, who had been in the process for 13 years before being granted asylum in Ireland. “What can he do now? He has no qualifications,” the priest said. Yet another man “has got his letter of deportation after five years. He is appealing.”

‘Left in limbo’

One man he spoke to in Waterford last Friday cried. He said he would rather die than go back to the Congo but added “if I am to be left in this limbo, give me a knife”.

They come to “a so-called Christian country and are treated like this?” Fr Pender said. In fact one French-speaking Congolese man in Waterford said he deliberately came to Ireland, rather than France or Belgium, “because he thought Ireland was a Christian country”.

That man has been in Ireland 10 months now but has heard nothing from anyone here yet and “lives in the limbo of not knowing anything”.

Fr Pender described the DRC conflict as “the unknown war” which has seen an estimated seven million dead since the 1990s. “Everyone knows about the Syrians. No one knows about the Congolese, the most persecuted people in Africa,” he said.

From Clonard near Wexford town where he attended the CBS, Fr Pender is a priest of the diocese of Stockholm in Sweden, his father’s native country. His appointment to Ballymitty parish was announced by Bishop of Ferns Denis Brennan in December last year and he took up the post on March 1st last.