The misconduct of Irish institutionalisation is being repeated under our noses
In the last few weeks, the Irish media has been reacting to the devastating Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation report, which revealed to the public that 9,000 children, or 1 in 7, died in the 18 institutions which were investigated. People in these institutions received extreme mistreatment in many cases, prompting terms like “never again” and the concept of Ireland “having learned its lesson” to float around the media. However, on this note, one part of the report stands-out in particular:
“The government could consider earmarking a specific fund for current disadvantaged children (for example, children in direct provision, or children with special needs and naming it in honour of, say, the children who died in Tuam)”
Shockingly, what can be taken from this is that the State clearly does not see that it is oxymoronic to perform a charitable act to those disadvantaged in Direct Provision, given that they are “disadvantaged” precisely because of the State’s handling of the system, as opposed to disadvantage being some inherent part of a child in Direct Provision’s character. The fact that this would be in the report rings significant alarm bells for the sheer lack of consideration the State has about the impact of its unwillingness to address the appalling quality of life for those living in the Direct Provision system.
Initially established as an interim system that would accommodate people for no more than 6 months, Direct Provision has had some residents suffering its inadequate conditions for 10 or more years. Much like the Mother and Baby Homes, for years in Irish media little to nothing has been said regarding the issue. Organisations like MASI (the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland), who have been working to end DP for many years now need support, because it is clear that there is still not enough being done to end the system, despite the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights calling it out as a severe violation of human rights.
“the State clearly does not see that it is oxymoronic to perform a charitable act to those disadvantaged in Direct Provision, given that they are “disadvantaged” precisely because of the State’s handling of the system“
It is crucial to highlight the similarities between the situation in Mother and Baby Homes, which we say we will never repeat, and the cruel form of institutionalisation that is occurring under our noses. To some reading, this message could sound repetitive, but I encounter people every day who are not even aware of the system, or at least have no idea of what goes on within its walls.
So here it is: From the get-go, entry to Ireland is an unpleasant experience for people in need of international protection. There is a heavy application form to fill out with no legal representative and frequently no interpreter, despite some individuals being near state of collapse upon entering the country. If refused on first instance, applicants do not have the option to apply for right to work, and are left with a measly €38.80 weekly allowance. The appeal system has left individuals sharing inadequate accommodation like this for years.
At least 1,700 people living in Direct Provision cannot physically distance themselves from others. Many people are sharing rooms with strangers. The executive summary of the Mother and Baby Homes Report mentions that in 1921, women in certain homes ate their meals squatting on the floor, and meals were unfit for consumption. No major improvements were carried out until the 1950s, and even by the 1970s, many women disliked the fact that meals occurred only at fixed times and they had no choice about their food. This total lack of agency in such a basic human right as nutrition can compare with Direct Provision. Participants interviewed for a NASC study explained how food is often not culturally suitable and does not cater for special dietary needs. There is distinct dissatisfaction with children regarding school lunches and the size/appropriate nutrition of daily meals. Improvements have allegedly been made following the study, but recent photos shared on social media highlight how the food is still far from nutritionally adequate in Direct Provision.
We have all read in disgust in recent weeks about the quality of the life of a child in Mother and Baby Homes. Without making light at all of the horrendous treatment that occurred in the system, it is important to highlight that we are not above mistreating children on a State-level in Ireland in 2021. Specific concerns around children in Direct Provision include inadequate supports for mental health and education, the inability to participate in extra-curricular activities due to lack of funds, a lack of transport to see friends and a lack of access to further education. The Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) reports that 14% of all children in DP were referred to the Child and Family Agency (TUSLA) in a single year, compared to 1.6% in the general population of children. Referral reasons included physical abuse, domestic violence and proximity of unknown adults. The lack of a homework club for secondary schools was seen as a particular problem for young people living in Direct Provision centres who experienced difficulties completing homework due to space restrictions, noise and lack of computers and Wi-Fi. A resident, Donnah Vuma, told the Oireachtas Committee for Justice and Equality in May 2019 about how her children could not take part in extra-curricular activities or join school trips. Her nine-year-old son was showing signs of depression: “He has come to me and said, ‘sometimes when I feel sad I feel like killing myself’.” There are countless cases of children under the care of the Irish State feeling similarly. It is completely unacceptable, and an utter disrespect to the memory of those children in Tuam, for the State to be so blind as to recommend donating funds in their name to children whose lives it is directly harming.
While a government white paper on replacing Direct Provision was due to be drafted by the end of the 2020, activist groups were worried from early on that a lack of political will would mean major delays in passing legislation. It has already been delayed as of January 2021. One argument for complacency is that there are no alternatives for those seeking international protection in Ireland. However, case studies from Portugal, Scotland and Sweden illustrate the possibility of a humane process for asylum seekers. The key to success in each of these systems is a focus on social integration. In these countries, asylum seekers are given opportunities to engage with local communities. We know there are alternate models – so why hasn’t Ireland sought them in the last 22 years? Well, looking at Ireland’s history of retrospectively apologising for State-influenced human rights violations that were going on under our noses, like the Mother and Baby Homes, it is clear that complacency could be repeated with Direct Provision. Lobby your politicians; contact Roderic O’Gorman as Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth; speak up about this injustice. We do not want to look back as a nation with shame again in 20 year’s time, when it is too late for real justice.
Featured photo by Dail Eireann on Flickr