CHILD advocacy specialist Norah Gibbons was shocked when she heard there are more than 2,000 children living in direct provision accommodation in this country.
It is shocking. And an issue that seems to be largely ignored, through ignorance or by design, by the Government.
Answering a parliamentary question on the welfare of children in direct provision last month, Health Minister Mary Harney replied that accommodation for ‘separated children’ seeking asylum is under the remit of HSE inspectors.
"Four children’s residential centres for separated children seeking asylum have been inspected and registered by the HSE. The four remaining hostels, due to close in the course of 2010, have been audited for safeguarding purposes," she said.
The question asked, however, was not the one answered, and the issue of separated children is very different to the situation of those who are not separated.
Although the misinterpretation of the question was later clarified by Minister for Children Barry Andrews, it nevertheless highlights a lack of understanding at top-level government.
Children in direct provision are very different to separated children in that they have gone largely unnoticed, unheard, unseen.
These are children living sometimes with just one parent and who are growing up in cramped, unnatural conditions and who were sometimes born into such environments.
The centres they live in are not subject to the same inspection regime as ordinary childcare facilities; they have no independent complaints mechanism and there is no outside recording or monitoring of any complaints that they or their parents may make about the level of child protection in the centres.
The statistics are startling.
There are currently 1,252 children under the age of four living in ‘direct provision’ – a somewhat meaningless term used to describe the old hotels, hostels and centres used to house people claiming asylum.
There are 599 five-to-12-year-olds, and 183 13-to-17-year-olds. About a third of people in the state-run centres are under 18.
According to Liam Thornton, lecturer in law in the University of Ulster who specialises in asylum issues, if Ireland is really serious about the rights of the child, then it is of the utmost importance that recommendations in a recent FLAC (Free Legal Advice Centres) report be considered as a matter of urgency.
The report, One Size Doesn’t Fit All, says the state must ensure parents can properly protect the best interests of their child and that the reception system is human rights-compliant.
This, Thornton maintains, would go some way to ensuring all children are cherished equally. But it is not just children who may be adversely affected by their time in direct provision.
Altogether, there are 6,246 asylum- seekers in this country. Almost 2,000 are aged 18-35 and a further 1,000- plus are aged from 36 to 45.
They are not allowed to work, make decisions about food, travel or life. They are cooped up day-in, day-out, facing a judicial system which wants to send them back to countries where they claim they are in danger.
Even if many are simply economic migrants, as the Justice Minister suggests, it be would difficult to imagine their lives are in any way comfortable, or even close to it.
Dr John Good, who works with asylum-seekers at Dublin’s Centre for the Care of Survivors of Torture, admits the system is highly distressing. He is aware of people who have been in the system for many years.
"Not only were these people at worst victims of torture, at best victims of severe poverty, and here the asylum system works to further compound their psychological trauma.
"They suffer from very low self esteem issues, and feel ostracised and find it very difficult to find a position in life," said Dr Good, who described direct provision as "really appalling".
He added that people "live on €19 a week, sharing rooms with complete strangers who are often disturbed, suspicious and restless".
Because of their experiences, people in the asylum system tend not to trust others. They are housed in often isolated places with infrequent transportation to the nearest town.
Very often they are suffering from psychological disorders and it can be difficult for them to see past their situation when no answers are coming from the legal process.
"The tribunal process which asylum- seekers go through to try and prove their case is too adversarial," Dr Good maintains.
"Credibility is a big issue. You are dealing with people who have undergone torture very often, but tribunal members seem to be unaware of this.
"When someone arrives here they are interviewed by the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner (ORAC). They might then be interviewed again a number of times. Often details of a story might be different – different parts may be remembered at different times, which is a known phenomenon with torture victims and is very well documented, but this is held against them.
"People are questioned quite aggressively and it can be a very intimidating process. Take for instance if you have a woman who might have been raped. For her, because of her culture, it is extremely difficult to talk about. There is a lot of evidence of honour killings from the UK and cultural differences are not being taken into consideration. Cases are looked at with a very western perspective," he added.
According to Dr Good, who has worked with political prisoners all over the world, the tightening of Europe’s borders has impacted on the judiciary, who appear to act in a more adversarial way.
"UN guidelines recommend someone should be given the benefit of the doubt, but if someone arrives in a country with no documentation it is very difficult for the authorities to ascertain if they are who they say they are and do not have a criminal record.
"I would say for the people I see, and the nature of the stories we have listened to, 95% would be impossible to concoct," he said.
"The tendency is to give respect and dignity to the person and believe their story."
The term "economic refugee" is used as a convenient term to label people, Dr Good said.
"There are a percentage of these people, but just because they may not be political refugees who have experienced torture does not mean they have not experienced hunger, famine, illness and had very sad and traumatic lives."
Access to healthcare for people in direct provision is a big issue, compounded by the language barrier.
"There are efforts being made by the HSE and the Department of Justice and well-intentioned NGOs to deal with people’s problems, but they are uncoordinated," he claimed.
Dr Good said he had written to the Health Minister, expressing his concern and pressing for the appointment of a national coordinator with a full mandate to look at how the lives of people in the asylum system could be improved.
One man actively engaged with the asylum community is Galway-based Dr Hans Olaf Pieper, who ran clinics for people living in centres in Galway city. He maintains language is the biggest barrier to people accessing health services. Dr Pieper had been working in an HSE-funded post – an asylum seeker and refugee healthcare fellowship – which was discontinued last year due to budgetary constraints in the health service.
Dr Pieper said that while he regretted the end of the fellowship, which he had worked on for almost four years, he was certain it had made a positive contribution to the improvement of healthcare for asylum-seekers and refugees in the HSE Western region.
However, there are still many challenges ahead, he said, not least that there is no special training given to GPs to deal with ethnic diversity, and doctors often desire more training as they feel they are not equipped to deal with patients from ethnically and culturally diverse backgrounds.
Another major barrier, Dr Pieper said, is the dispersal system, whereby people are moved from one centre to another.
"This leads to a real discontinuity of care. People come here and they do not have medical notes. Maybe three months later they are moved, just when a doctor might get to know them and everyone is thrown into the deep end again.
"If I refer someone to hospital in Galway, by the time they get an appointment they have been moved to Waterford. This dispersal system, which I feel is based on where the Government can find the cheapest accommodation, highly impairs healthcare," he claimed.
Dr Pieper said working with asylum -seekers had been a real eye-opener.
"It was mind-boggling to work with people who live in the middle of Galway, and yet are so much at the margin of our society, far away from their homes and families, deprived of basic human rights," he said.
"I had been unaware that asylum -seekers in direct provision live on €19.10 per week, often share one little room with three other residents, possibly from different ethnic backgrounds, that they are not allowed to cook, to work or to receive third level education in Ireland.
"Their asylum process may last many years. They struggle with language and cultural barriers, trying to integrate into Irish society with very little support. I never ceased to be impressed to see such challenged people retain their calm, smiles, pride and dignity against all odds."