Lives in Limbo – The children: ‘It’s like being stuck in a cage’

Children in the ‘direct provision’ system live under threat of deportation. They learn not to worry about the future

Natasha and Minahil are friends that live in the direct provision system in a caravan park. They speak of the difficulties facing them as teenagers, such as having friends over to visit and studying.irishtimes.com/livesinlimbo Video: Bryan O'Brien

Mon, Aug 11, 2014, 14:25

‘We have a plan,” announces Natasha, grandly, as she breaks out into a broad grin. She’s just 12 years old, but her long-term planning and attention to detail should be the envy of any sharp-eyed chief executive.

“There’s a group of us who’ll go to Oxford University. We’ll study really hard. The houses there are really expensive, so we’ll all rent a place together. Then we’ll spend our summers working in the US,” Natasha says excitedly, as the plans take shape.

“That’s if we can get there in the first place,” interrupts Minahil.

She’s also 12. Minahil is Natasha’s best friend, but she’s more of a realist.

“A few years ago I’d have thought, ‘I’ll have my [residency] papers next year’, ” says Minahil. “But I’m tired of saying that now. We’re here eight years. It could take, I don’t know, a hundred years . . . It’s just tough.”

“Wow,” Natasha says, pausing for a moment. “One hundred years. That would be tough.”

After several years in primary school, Natasha and Minahil are due to start secondary school in September. They feel daunted by the prospect.

“It’s a school with 300 children. And we’ll be the small people instead of the seniors,” Minahil says. “When people find out where we live, they’ll probably bully us . . . Natasha and I, we’re best friends. But we won’t be able to look after each other all the time.” ]]] Nastasha and Minahil are like any other children in Ireland today. They have the same giddy hopes and everyday anxieties. But they are also acutely aware they are different in crucial ways.

They are among the 1,600 or more children growing up in a direct provision system for asylum seekers, a form of communal accommodation that has been repeatedly criticised for its duration, overcrowding and inappropriate environment.

Hundreds of children have spent their childhoods growing up in rooms they often share with their entire family. Play areas are scarce, so shared hotel rooms often become recreation spaces.

A report by the Irish Refugee Council, State-Sanctioned Child Poverty and Exclusion, paints a troubling picture of the damage done to children by years of living in institutional accommodation, far removed from the atmosphere of a family home. Income poverty experienced by families only adds to children’s exclusion from society, it found.

Asylum-seeking children do not receive child benefit on the basis that they are not “habitually resident” in Ireland. Instead, their parents receive €9.60 per week per child – a sum which has not been increased since the payment was introduced 14 years ago.

Children are, at least, able to attend primary and secondary school. But integrating into the community is made more difficult when your parents don’t have money for school trips, sports, birthday presents and other day-to-day expenses.

There are also dangers for children living in shared accommodation with other families. Single-parent families are often required to share with strangers, while in many cases teenage sisters and brothers are required to share one room.

Last year alone, social services were alerted to more than 180 child protection concerns regarding children in direct provision, including young people displaying signs of inappropriate sexualised behaviour, mental health problems or young people being left unsupervised.

The Reception and Integration Agency, the State body responsible for running the system, says the safety of children is a priority. It says it has a specific unit for child and family services and that any concerns over welfare or safety are forwarded to social-work teams. In addition, child-protection training is provided to staff across all 34 direct provision centres.

While the €9.60 payment has been criticised, it points out that asylum seekers do not have to pay for rent, food, energy or maintenance costs.

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