The United Nations estimates that there are currently over 50 million people around the world who are displaced persons. In 2013 there were 16.7 million refugees worldwide. 50% of refugees are under 18 years old.
The escalating conflict in Syria has displaced an estimated five million persons. Like the Irish who fled the great hunger in the 1840s and died in their thousands in the coffin ships crossing the Atlantic, thousands of Syrian and north African people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea for Europe.
Some refugees have made it as far as the south of Ireland. In November 1999, a decision by the Fianna Fáil government established a system “to deal with matters relating to the dispersal of asylum seekers throughout the country and preparation of plans for a system of direct provision of housing, health needs etc.“
Direct provision centres have been described as “a holding pen where people are kept for efficient deportation” and conditions have been consistently criticised by human rights and civil society agencies and some politicians.
When I raised this issue with the Taoiseach in the Dáil last week he confirmed that a working group is looking at all of the issues and will report in March. It couldn’t come soon enough for those trapped in this horrendous process. But of course the key to progress is what the government does with the report. It needs to move beyond the rhetoric of concern. It needs to introduce legislation that urgently addresses the many concerns about direct provision centres that have been consistently raised, including ending the secrecy that often surrounds them.
A first step would be to extend the Ombudsman’s remit to the Direct Provision Centres and include the administration of the centres within the Freedom of Information rules.
The Direct Provision system was originally intended to accommodate asylum seekers for six months. Today almost half of the 4,324 people living in the system have been there for five years. Twenty five per cent have been there for more than six years and at least one person has been there for 14 years. 61 asylum seekers have died in direct provision since 2002. This is unacceptable.
Residents in these centres are not allowed to work. They get 19 euro per week from the state. Conditions in the centres are also unacceptable. They are overcrowded with families often sharing one room. Basic essentials like soap, toilet rolls and other items are rationed. There are limited recreational or living areas and the stress on those in the centres, especially from the fear of deportation is a constant worry.
To the government’s shame around one third (1529) of those in the 34 DP centres are children. This creates its own difficulties. In the last five years the social services have been alerted to over 1500 child protection or welfare concerns. Sixteen children under five have died in Direct Provision Centres. This is a disgrace.
Asylum seekers come from all across the world. They come from war torn societies or states where their lives are at risk. They come in search of a new life in the same way that Irish people have travelled over the centuries throughout the world. They arrived in this state only to be treated in a most deplorable way.
Sinn Féin has long campaigned in support for those thousands of Irish citizens who are living and working in the USA and who have no legal status. This campaign has also been supported by the Taoiseach and all of the parties in the Dáil.
It’s only fair that we treat people who come to our country the way we want our people to be treated when they travel to other states.
The direct provision centres and system is a blight on the reputation of the Irish state. It reflects an attitude which in previous years created the dreadful Magdalen laundries and the industrial schools. It should be dismantled and a new, more humane and transparent and accountable system, based on internationally accepted protocols, should be put in place which provides dignity for those who are fleeing torture and hardship and want to build a new life in a new place.