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
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.