Ireland’s Asylum Policy; Children seeking a childhood need not apply. Comment and opinion

In the run-up to the Children's Rights Referendum in November, this month's Opinion Piece looks at the status of Ireland's 2,000 asylum children and their rights. Catherine Flynn details the unsettling aspect of these children's rights in Irish law and suggests what is needed to deal with the issue.

"A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members." ~ Mahatma Ghandi
They are voiceless, they have limited legal rights, they are essentially homeless, they do not have a choice as to what food they eat, they live in cramped conditions reminiscent of overcrowded tenements in the 1920's, their parents cannot feed them, the Government has sanctioned their impoverishment.
No, I am not writing about a slum in India or sub-Saharan Africa.
I am writing about the appalling conditions forced upon 1,789 children living in our communities throughout Ireland in 2012.
In the ten years I have worked as a professional charged with overseeing the protection and welfare of children, there are none, in my opinion, more vulnerable and more invisible than asylum-seeking children.
Recent media coverage of the children's rights referendum due to be held on November 10th generates the persona of a State that puts the welfare of vulnerable children at the core of its moral compass.
Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore poetically stated:
"Childhood only happens once. And on November 10th, we have an opportunity to decide that every childhood is precious, and that every child is deserving of our protection and care."
Eloquent as that may be Mr. Gilmore, your Government actively denies asylum children the very basic fabric of a childhood by creating institutions whereby they are detained with their parents for sometimes as long as 10 years. And we know only too well what institutions have done to children in the past in this Country.
So what is the big deal? What are their lives really like?
David's Story
I will call him David. He is 7 years old and born in Ireland, as was his 5 year old brother.
Their mother is Nigerian and arrived in Ireland seeking asylum. Whatever your views on asylum are, let's just look at this little boy as a child first, asylum seeker second.
He has spent all his life living in a direct provision centre which houses nearly 300 men, women and children who live in dormitory style accommodation. The Centre is on the outskirts of a large City, most people in the community do not even realise it exists.
David's family live in a room that is 15 x 15 square feet. This is their entire living space. Their furniture consists of two beds, one wardrobe, two chairs and a table. They share the three toilets on the corridor with 12 other families Any form of cooking and hoarding of food is strictly forbidden and room searches are carried out frequently by the centre staff.
All residents must eat in the canteen on site and eat the meals prepared for them at the set hours dictated by staff. They are given their allocation of toiletries once a month. They are forbidden to work. The vast majority of residents are professionals with university level qualifications. I have met doctors, engineers, journalists, computer programmers and lecturers living there.
How has this effected David?
He has never been inside a house in his life. He has never made a sandwich, never played in a garden, never been inside Tesco or any supermarket, has nor held a potato.
He has never had a holiday, nor had a pet, never had a birthday party, nor had a gift from Santa, has never slept in a bed of his own, nor been to the cinema.
David is 7 years old and was born in our Country.
His favourite subject at school is Irish. He plays for the school hurling team and when he grows up his dream is to win an All Ireland medal for the county he lives in.
That is his second wish.
The first wish he told me was for his family to 'get free and start a life in a proper home'.

When asked where he is from he said:
"In between Ireland and Nigeria, I guess".
This is the life the Government has decided that David must live until the family's legal status in the Country is decided. Nearly a decade on and David is still waiting for permission from the State to start his childhood. How has this happened?
Ireland's obligation
Ireland ratified the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees in 1956. As a result Ireland has an obligation to accept refugees who are fleeing persecution and not to return them to countries where their life or liberty would be at risk.
Those seeking protection are commonly known as 'asylum-seekers', a status they keep until they are accepted as refugees or given some other form of permission to remain in Ireland.
The Reception and Integration Agency was established in 2001 by the Department of Justice to oversee the system of Direct Provision. They were given the responsibility of sourcing and contracting centres and coordinating the services available onsite.
Direct Provision accommodation provides bed space and also meals available at fixed times in shared canteens.
The Direct Provision portfolio consists of: purpose-built centres, former hotels or hostels, a caravan site and a former holiday site. The shared facilities in the centres, for example for play, vary considerably from one centre to another.
The asylum-seekers themselves receive an allowance of €19.10 each week per adult and €9.60 per child, a rate that has not changed since the system was introduced over 12 years ago.
'Litany of chronic state neglect'
The Irish Refugee Council published their report "State Sanctioned Child Poverty and Exclusion" in September of this year.
The report identifies a litany of chronic state neglect that these children suffer daily, particularly in the direct provision accomodation, which the IRC report finds is NOT a natural family environment.
The report found that the residents live in confined spaces in often unhygienic living areas.
The centres do not have separate bathrooms, children then share communal bathrooms with grown men and women.
Children may live in a room with their entire family or share with other families and people who are of various ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic backgrounds.
Alarmingly, the report highlighted that children 'can be exposed to violent and sexual behaviour' and different genders may also share the same room.
The report looks at other health issues arising from the conditions in the accomodation from witnessing, or having fear of, deportation which harms psychological development, to depression and mental health problems and malnutrition.
In addition, there is no child benefit for asylum seeker children. The report says parents 'routinely must buy school books etc. from their €19.10 allowance'.
Also, children 'cannot invite friends to play who live outside Direct Provision'.
Ellis Island
The list from the IRC study reads like a report you would see on Ellis Island detailing the living conditions of the thousands of detained Irish immigrants in the early 1900's awaiting entry to the United States.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child States:
"Parties recognize the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child's physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development'. Article 27.1
In the cases of nearly 2,000 asylum children, Ireland is reneging on it's commitments under the Convention.
The National Guidelines for the Protection and Welfare of Children: Children First 2011 states:
"The prevention, detection and treatment of child abuse or neglect requires a coordinated
multidisciplinary approach, effective management, clarity of responsibility and training of personnel
in organisations working with children…the welfare of the child is paramount".

The State as the perpetrator
What happens when it is the State that is enforcing the neglect of these children? When the State is the perpetrator rather than the parent or carer?
Of course, there have been many critics who say that Ireland's immigration policy is too lenient.
If Asylum Seekers are not happy here then they should simply go home.
Foreigners are here looking for handouts from the government and Ireland is seen as a 'soft touch' and a welfare state.
How would we react if the American government deported all the Irish living illegally in the United States, or if Australia started to detain all the Irish working on the black market?
How quick we are to turn a blind eye to our own history of mass immigration and lament at the memory of the placards that hung over pubs in New York and London stating " No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish".
We live under an administration of contradictions.
The Minister for Children Francis Fitzgerald promising to improve children's lives, the Minister for Justice Mr. Alan Shatter imposing neglect upon children's lives.
Are all children equal? Or are some more equal than others?
This is not about politics. This is not about policies and procedures. It's about a 7 year old boy's right to have a childhood outside the 15 x 15 foot room that has become his childhood prison.
The parents of these children are awaiting decisions on their asylum applications and are often afraid to speak about the conditions they live in in case it jeopardises their applications.
So who will speak out for these children?
There are four government bodies accountable, either directly or indirectly for the situation of these children.
Department of Justice policies have directly impacted negatively on their daily lives.
The committee is to hold a news briefing at the Abbey Hotel in Roscommon at 10am.
The HSE is responsible for highlighting child neglect but in the cases of Asylum children's living conditions they have been ominously silent.
The Department of Children and Youth Affairs is tasked with national policy making for the well-being of all children and seem to have conveniently sidelined Asylum children.
The Ombudsman for Children Ms Emily Logan, the supposed watchdog who oversees the system from the outside, has never once brought the adminsitration to account on this issue.
Action needed
A national multi-disciplinary task force made up of the four bodies mentioned above needs to convene and devise a strategy to ensure that Asylum children and their families are exempt from the Direct Provision system that has stripped these children of their childhoods and denied them their fundamental rights under both national and international law.
You, the citizen can also play your part.
The Irish Refugee Council has initiated a nation-wide postcard campaign to highlight the plight of children. The postcard is addressed to the Minister of Justice, Alan Shatter, as this is the department directly responsible for the system of Direct Provision currently in place in Ireland.
As a champion of children's rights they are urging the Minister to follow the IRC's recommendations and alleviate the pain and suffering of Ireland's invisible children.
Only once we tackle this stain on our record can we hold our head high, and perhaps one day not too far in the future, we can be judged 'great' for the way we have treated our weakest members.

Catherine Flynn is a Child Protection & Welfare Worker, based in Munster

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