If we hoist the Céad Míle Fáilte sign a real welcome must be offered

Nobody will come to you even if you’re sick, nobody will come to your room to ask are you ok, writes Victoria White

If we hoist the Céad Míle Fáilte sign a real welcome must be offered

"I’M sending you over two of my friends!” announces my Syrian friend over the phone.

He’s excited. He thinks Ireland will be a great place for his friends to live. He put Ireland first on his own list of preferred countries in which to find refuge but we were so slow to take in our share of asylum-seekers that we lost him to France.

“Now all is different”, he says about Ireland’s migration process.

“They are taking 80 this month and all is perfect, interview and medical done in day. I am going to the Irish Embassy with my friends tomorrow.”

I tell him I’ll be at the airport to meet them because his friends are my friends.

I’ll have them over to dinner, give them what support I can, put them in touch with an Arabic-speaking relation.

What I don’t tell him is that they’re most likely going to a disused hotel in a small rural town where their impending arrival has met with a mixed reception.

Refuge.

I want my country to provide it.

My Syrian friend has settled in France but he has been working with refugees in Greece these last few weeks.

He says the situation is appalling.

Families are sleeping in tents in which the temperature is at freezing point.

In Moria camp on the island of Lesbos 9,000 refugees are housed in prison-like conditions.

My friend tells the story of a little boy of four who had broken bones because he had tried to “fly” out of the camp “like Superman.”

Wild rumours are circulating that a deserted island is being prepared for the refugees where they will live under military guard.

But what they won’t be doing is leaving Europe.

“These people will be settled in European countries eventually”, he says.

“These children are Europe’s future.”

Will that future be bleak or bright?

That will depend on how we treat these children, the most vulnerable of whom have lost their families.

Nearly 200,000 unaccompanied minors have sought asylum in Europe in the last 10 years, 100,000 of them in 2015 alone.

At least 10,000 of them have gone missing without trace, mostly from detention centres.

Amid these concerns, an all-party motion moved by Minister Frances Fitzgerald in November resulted in our commitment to take in 200 unaccompanied minors from the Calais “Jungle” and we learned this week that 40 are arriving next month.

They are mostly 16 and 17-year-olds from Afghanistan and Eritrea.

These kids break my heart.

I have teens who could be them if the cards had been dealt differently.

Instead my kids have two parents busting their guts to provide for them materially and psychologically.

My 17-year-old’s challenge is filling out his CAO form while two countries over another 17-year-old contemplates a move to a country of which he’s never heard with no friends and no family, a past too painful to remember and a future he can’t imagine.

The big question now is this: what future will we give these kids?

I credit the sudden action on taking in these boys and the 240 from camps in Greece and Italy in the next three months — after months of inaction — to ministers Katherine Zappone and Frances Fitzgerald.

They took the time to visit some Greek camps last month and it seems they empathised:“I wanted to sweep them up and bring them home, ” Zappone said afterwards and I believe she meant it.

These women may have begun to save Ireland’s face when it comes to the refugee crisis.

But it will be a further abuse of these lone boys if they are made move to adult services when they are 18, as are most minors in care.

At that point some of them may have been no more than a year or two in Ireland.

They will have spent up to six months in a reception centre and if foster families are found for them, they will only have begun to settle in.

Any parent of teens will understand that these kids need to be wrapped in unconditional love and support.

They need foster families who will stay with them if necessary and that means foster families who are supported by the State to keep these kids until they are 21 and beyond.

In many countries, including the UK and the Netherlands, kids can continue in the care system until they are 21, though they must leave their accommodation.

In Ireland, it is entirely in the gift of the HSE if the kid can continue in care or not and there are no clear criteria.

In her HSE/Barnardos report on unaccompanied minors in care in Ireland, Muireann Ni Raghallaigh reported a case of a minor who had lost two stone and has suicidal tendencies out of fear of transitioning to a direct provision centre and was still not deemed “vulnerable” enough to keep in care.

No one is pretending that these traumatised young people will necessarily open up easily to the support of a new family.

Some of them may be determined to.

But Ni Raghallaigh’s report includes some heart-warming evidence from asylum-seeking foster children of the love they experienced in their new homes.

“She’s like my mum”, said one kid of her foster mother. “Sometimes I wish she was my mum.”

Heart-warming and heart-rending when you think that the State is prepared to sever those links when kids reach 18 and thinks it a great dispensation to leave the kids with their families until the school year ends.

But the Calais kids have lost years of education.

Up to half of them are likely to have post-traumatic stress disorder.

It might take them a couple of years to be in a fit state to learn anything.

They should all fall automatically into the HSE’s “particularly vulnerable” category and be assured that they can stay in HSE-supported accommodation into their 20s if they so wish.

They should be followed by an assigned social worker.

All we have is the voluntary independent living advocacy project.

These kids must not end up in unsupported direct provision in one, two, or three years’ time where, as one kid said in Ni Raghallaigh’s report, “Nobody will come to you even if you’re sick, nobody will come to your room to ask are you ok. Even if they didn’t see you for the whole day, nobody cares. I just sit in my room and I cry and cry and cry and cry.”

I know it’s a cliché but we’re at a crossroads as a nation.

For months and even years we failed to throw open the door to ease the asylum crisis in Europe.

Our door has begun to open but I’ll feel like a fraud standing at Dublin Airport to meet my Syrian friend’s friends with a “Céad Míle Fáilte” sign if there is no welcome inside.

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