Why does racist and cruel treatment of asylum seekers barely raise a whisper?
OPINION:The Irish ‘system’ fails to treat refugees with common decency, let alone fair procedures
TIMES ARE tough: many of you reading this are worried about the mortgage, the bills, the future. But imagine a nasty situation blows up in your street or estate, so nasty you have to leave the country.
When you arrive in a seemingly civilised destination, you have to tell an inquisitor who the third president of Ireland was before you are allowed stay in the country.* Absurd? It might be, but this is the equivalent of the type of question considered suitable as a test for people seeking asylum in Ireland.
If the person cannot answer questions about their home country correctly, their case takes a turn for the worse.
The 5,000 people living here seeking asylum are at the bottom of the pile of concerns for legislators, authorities and the average citizen. But that should not mean they suffer inhumane treatment. And the way they are treated by the Irish “system” is nothing less than racist and cruel.
Innocent people can be put in limbo for three, six, even 10 years, while a lethargic Civil Service dabs occasionally at their cases.
On September 27th a Congolese man awaiting a decision on his refugee application for six years took his own life at the refugee hostel in Mosney, Co Meath. Suicide is a regular feature of the so-called system whereby Ireland honours its obligations under international treaties. Another, deportation, is the target of a new campaign for justice by asylum seekers and their supporters.
AntiDeportationIreland has just been launched to protest at the regularity and psychological brutality with which deportation orders are executed. Earlier this year a woman was deported from an asylum camp even though her child had not yet returned from school. Numerous examples of similarly callous treatment are described by Elena Moreo in a report explaining the grievances behind AntiDeportationIreland.
There have been hundreds of deportations a year since the late 1990s, with Nigeria the most common country of return. The Department of Justice and Equality may be well-equipped with experts on the country, but a solicitor who advocates for asylum seekers says he has found much of the knowledge on which decisions are based appears to come from Google searches.
Deportation is the tip of this iceberg. The length of time it takes to decide on applications for refugee status is long – three, four, five years is not uncommon. And while applicants wait, they may not work. Instead they have to while away time in hostels run by commercial operators and live on €19.10 a week. Frustration turns to depression – mental illness is a recurrent risk.
At the AntiDeportationIreland launch, some asylum seekers spoke about their experiences. “The way we are treated, it is obvious that we are not considered to have human rights,” said one African man.
A woman who lives with her three-year-old child in a hostel spoke of the fear of child abuse. “If there is an incident, the offender is just moved to another centre and nothing else is done.”
It’s all too reminiscent of the Catholic Church’s strategy for dealing with priests who were sexual predators. Have we learned nothing? Asylum seekers and their supporters want to raise the issue, but know that individuals who speak out could be targeted for retribution.
There’s no doubt their situation is untenable. Take even the simple matter of sustenance: the food provided in the hostels is often hard for people from African or other countries to eat.
John Gerard Cullen, a Leitrim-based solicitor who tries to help asylum seekers, says the direct-provision hostels are run only for profit and are not subject to licensing or review. He is very critical of the refugee appeals procedure. The default position towards appellants, he says, is to “throw them out”. One member of the appeals tribunal has turned down all 140 appeals he heard. As Carol Coulter has pointed out in this paper, the rate of refusal of refugee status here is far higher than comparable countries.
And as a Sudanese asylum seeker (six years awaiting a decision) commented, while poor treatment of people in his position is big news in countries such as Australia and Canada, in Ireland there is barely a whisper.
Because these people have no vote and face resentment in a depressed State, they are ignored. But this avoidance of scrutiny means their treatment can slip below international norms – or even common decency.
Angela Long is a journalist and a former director of the Refugee Information Service