The shocking suffering of asylum seekers

Sir, – Breda O’Brien (Opinion, March 23rd) highlights the outrageous and abusive way in which human beings in Ireland are being treated.

I have worked since 2007 as a doctor in a direct provision accommodation centre, working with a nurse to provide health screening for asylum seekers. I have also prepared many medical reports for asylum seekers all over the country living in accommodation centres. I have long questioned my role in health screening: are we providing it for the benefit of the asylum-seeker population or the protection of Irish people? I suspect the latter in a system that seems to be based on the many assumptions and misconceptions that abound regarding asylum seekers: that they are “bogus”, that they are here to take our jobs, that they carry dangerous diseases, that they want the riches of our society without contributing anything. It is easy to denigrate “the other” so that we can abdicate any real responsibility for their welfare.

But the more important function that our clinic offers is to provide a “safe haven” once a week, where people can come for advice or simply to offload their problems. And this they have done in their dozens. The level of suffering is truly shocking and there are many people who are barely keeping their heads above the parapet of despair.

I have witnessed the change in the past five years in many people: from hope, to anger, to despair. And when people stop struggling to try to improve their conditions, then we should become very worried about them. Some of the people I have met have been extremely abused in the countries from which they fled. Most come to this country fully prepared to work to repay the refuge offered to them. However, what they encounter is very different from these expectations.


The big problems are obvious: not being able to work is devastating to people whose worth in the structure of their family system is based on their ability to provide; being forced to live as a family in one room is anathema to most families, for whom privacy is essential; not being able to cook for the family and having to exist on food that is often barely edible is torturous; living in poverty is degrading and demoralising, especially when your children are asking for small things or money for school trips that you cannot provide; waiting, often for many years, for a decision on your asylum application in a system that appears to dispense arbitrary justice is demoralising; having your application turned down on the basis that the Department of Justice does not believe what you have told it is often devastating.

But the small humiliations of everyday life are perhaps the more insidious: standing in the Post Office queue like a beggar waiting for your handout while braving hostile stares; having to go “cap in hand” to collect your meagre entitlements of toothpaste, soap, washing powder, etc, that are often dispensed in a seemingly very unfair manner by workers who have no training and often seem to show little compassion; having to wash up your dishes and cutlery in your bedroom sink after eating in the dining room; being threatened with the punishment of being reported to the Reception and Integration Agency if you dare to try to stand up for yourself. It is a “no win” situation. I see the extreme suffering of people and it is hard to go back to the comfort of my own home after witnessing it.

The system of direct provision in Ireland is an appalling abuse of the rights and liberty of people and should be abolished forthwith. It has been compared to the abuse of women in the Magdalene laundries (Ann Marie Hourihane, Opinion, February 25th); and while the system remains, we all stand complicit in its continuation.

In a country that prides itself on its warm welcome, we should be ashamed of the welcome we give to people seeking asylum. The contribution they could make to Irish society is immense, but we are stifling this possibility by “incarcerating” them in centres and denying them access to work or third level study. And furthermore we are leading many down the road to poor mental health and psychiatric care.

It is time such centres were closed and people seeking asylum were afforded the dignity of a roof of their own, a fair system of justice and a community that welcomes and celebrates their contribution. – Yours, etc,




Co Cork.