Way we treat asylum seekers will be State's next apology
I realise that we all have our individual news agendas. All right, all right, not everyone is swept by melancholia on hearing of the death of the man who invented the Daleks. (Ray Cusick died in his sleep last Thursday at the age of 84).
But I would have thought there would have been slightly more noise about the treatment of asylum seekers when the latest news about them arrived on the same day as the reports on the Taoiseach’s apology, on behalf of the nation, to the Magdalene women.
It is hard to imagine now that the Taoiseach gives great speeches about them, but, as he recalled in that speech, there was a time when the Magdalene women were deeply unpopular.
When no one wished to hear about them, when they were regarded as morally questionable and not at all respectable. A time when the public in general and the media in particular were not even curious about the Magdalene women or how they lived.
Now the asylum seekers in Ireland are in danger of being regarded in pretty much the same way.
We look on them with suspicion and would really rather not know the details of their lives, even though there are 500 children of asylum seekers living in what Carl O’Brien, in this newspaper on Saturday, called “grinding poverty, overcrowding and even malnutrition”.
It is true that there are a good many lies and prevarications – to say the least of it – in the process of seeking asylum. Only a fool would think otherwise. The Irish have been successfully cheating the immigration systems and social welfare systems of other countries for decades, and going on to lead happy and productive lives there.
We are a nation of chancers, and there are advantages to that. But at home we have a duty of care to the children of asylum seekers, most of whom are not fraudulent, and to face reality.
Last week in the Dáil, on the same day that the Taoiseach apologised to the Magdalene women, a written question revealed that the Irish taxpayer paid out €655 million between 2000 and 2010 to provide asylum seekers with accommodation. That is a very high price to pay for the luxury of forgetting about a group of people you don’t like.
That same accommodation was characterised by a European Commission on Human Rights report last December as having “negative consequences on their mental health, family ties and integration prospects”.
“The response has been muted,” said Independent TD Maureen O’Sullivan, who tabled the written question.
Amongst other things it revealed that the company that runs the asylum seekers’ accommodation at the former Mosney holiday camp in Co Meath was paid €89.5 million between 2000 and 2010.
I tried to arrange a visit to one of these extraordinarily expensive centres, paid for with public money. I rang a mother of two primary school children who lived in one of the better ones.
“Oh, you cannot visit,” she said. “There are signs on the stairs ‘No Visitors’.”
Her children have never been allowed to have a schoolmate over for a playdate, and ask questions about this a lot.
In the corridors she sees other children playing at imitating sexual intercourse, which she assumes they have seen at close quarters, as each family gets just one room in this centre, which is a converted hotel. “We have our own bathroom, thank God.”
No one says that this environment is abusive or that there is cruelty. But it is demeaning and humiliating and, above all, bad for children.
Last year Nils Muiznieks, the European commissioner for human rights, said in his report on Ireland that “asylum seekers, in particular children, are spending a long time in facilities designed for short-term accommodation”. The Government responded by saying there was legislation on asylum seekers in the pipeline.
The woman I spoke to, whose family has spent seven years living with her children in one hotel room, seems pretty clear-eyed about both the management of the facility – “ the manager tries, in fairness” – and her fellow occupants: “We’re all depressed. We are full of envy and frustration. We’re living too close. It’s like the Big Brother house.”
She lives on a payment of €19 per week and relieves the monotony each day by doing voluntary work. Interestingly, in the week when the nation regretted a system which preferred its women to be permanently penitent and supplicatory, she says that she was told that her application for asylum was turned down after her second interview “because they said I didn’t show enough fear of persecution going back to my old country. I don’t know if it would have been different if I had come in shaking and bleeding.”
It took the Magdalene women 50 years to push their way on to the news agenda. It took the former residents of the industrial schools just as long. It looks like we’re going to have to wait until the Irish children of asylum seekers are old enough to write novels and films and television documentaries ( to be shown on British television stations) about their blighted childhoods before we, the public, begin to look at how these families are living in our country at the moment.