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
‘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.
But many critics say none of this takes account of how long children spend in these settings. The average length of time they spend in the system is three years and eight months – though many spend far longer.
It is a practice that may well be storing up problems for the future, says Geoffrey Shannon, the State’s Special Rapporteur on Child Protection. He has raised concerns that many children’s life chances are thwarted by living in inappropriate environments for long periods.
“We are in a situation where we treat children in direct provision as being second-class citizens,” he says. “Apart from the human cost caused by mental health and other issues linked to direct provision, there is likely to be a cost to the State, as regards mental health and social services. [This] has yet to be estimated.”
]]] Natasha and Minahil don’t need reminding that their lives are different from Irish children’s. They live in mobile homes on one of the State’s biggest direct provision centres. The accommodation centre, on the edge of Athlone, is home to more than 250 people, including about 150 children.
There isn’t much to do. A playground was installed, but they’re too old for it. It’s a 40-minute walk into the centre of town to visit the library. They feel too embarrassed to have friends over, who have to pass through a security barrier and sign their names at reception.
“You don’t have the normal life of a 12-year-old,” says Natasha. “When I look back on my life, I’m going to know that I didn’t do the things I wanted to do because I’m stuck here . . . it’s like being stuck in a cage.”
Natasha has been living here for about four years, but Minahil has spent eight years in the system. She shares a mobile home with her mother and three siblings. Minahil is the eldest. Her brothers and sisters range in age from six to 11 years.
There are three small bedrooms in their mobile home, but they have to use one for storage. Minahil shares a tiny room with her sister, while her mother shares with her brother and youngest sister. “It was okay when my brother was really young, but now he’s embarrassed,” she says.
Homework is a struggle. With the paper-thin walls, the noise of her brothers’ and sisters’ horse-play is a constant distraction. And late at night, she says, she can hear her mother crying.
They both go to the local primary school. They have Irish friends, but feel apart from them. When the other kids do sleepovers, for instance, they often come up with excuses for why they can’t go.
“If I went, then they’d want to come to my house,” Minahil says. “Then, what do I say? ‘I, eh, have a dog in my house?’ I can’t do that. It wouldn’t be fair.”
They also see the toll the asylum process takes on their parents, though they try to hide it from them. “Before we came here,” Natasha says, “my mom was able to cook and make meals for us. Now, she can’t. All the control is in the hands of someone else. Even what you eat.”
“The system makes our parents think they’re low and that it’s their fault we live like this,” Minahil says. “I don’t want them to feel like that. I think they do more than any parent could. They deserve a Nobel prize.”
]]] Parenting in the direct provision system is tough. That, at least, is what the High Court in Northern Ireland concluded when it ruled on the case of a Sudanese asylum-seeker and her three children last year. The family originally sought asylum in the Republic. After they moved to the North, authorities tried to return them back across the Border. But the North’s High Court prevented the move.
Mr Justice J Stevens ruled there was “ample evidence” of physical and mental health issues developing among asylum seekers living in direct provision. “Any analysis of the best interests of the children would have led to the inevitable conclusion that the best interests of the children favoured remaining in Northern Ireland,” he found.
It’s not just the judiciary in the North which says the system wanting. A judge in the family courts in the Republic recently expressed criticism of accommodation for asylum seekers after he ordered that an eight-year-old girl – who was born in the direct provision system – be placed in State care for her own safety.
The child’s mother, who developed mental health problems, was unable to meet the needs of her daughter. The judge said the length of time the child had spent in the direct provision system “seemed inappropriate” and suggested it could be reviewed by an outside authority such as the Ombudsman.
The Ombudsman for Children, ironically, doesn’t have any power to investigate the treatment of children in the direct provision system. The office is specifically excluded from investigating anything to do with asylum. When the Ombudsman sought that these powers be extended to include direct provision in 2012, the Government said it was not necessary.
Government ministers acknowledge the system is flawed, but maintain it is the most humane and cost-effective way of ensuring asylum seekers’ needs are met.
Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald, who in her previous role as minister for children expressed concern about the manner in which children were forced to live, still maintains the system is far from ideal. But she says the answer is to speed up processing of applications by reforming the system. Such promises were made before. Legislation was produced in 2010, but never enacted. It remains to be seen, given the sweeping changes being made to the Department, whether plans to reform direct provision will once again be put to the back of the queue.
]]] It’s mid-summer, and Natasha and Minahil are wondering what their music video will look like when they release their first hit single. They don’t have instruments, but figure that when they do, they’ll sound like a mix between Little Miss and Destiny’s Child.
“Natasha is a really good singer,” says Minahil. “And I can rap.”
“I’d really love to learn guitar,” Natasha says. “But it costs €20 to do a lesson. And you need a guitar. So I sing instead. I’d do anything to do music. I’ve loved it since I was young.”
They learned a long time ago to try not to worry about what the future holds.
There have been times when gardaí have arrived at the centre – usually late at night, or early in the morning – to deport families whose asylum applications have been unsuccessful. The possibility of being uprooted after so many years and returning to a land they know little about is something that gnaws away at them.
“After eight years? I don’t think I could go back,” Minahil says. “Look what happened to Malala [the Pakistani girl shot by the Taliban]. I don’t want to go back.”
Natasha, too, finds it hard to envisage being home after so long.
“If they say, ‘go back’, what do we go back to? My mother used up everything to come here. And it’s dangerous for her at home . . . If we got an answer about staying here within a month, I could deal with that. But not three years, six years or eight years later. How do we go back when our lives are here?”
Tomorrow: Life after asylum: adapting to normal life