IT was former US vice-president Hubert Humphrey who declared that “the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy, and the handicapped”.
Successive Irish governments have failed that test on our behalf, most notably in how the State has treated asylum seekers left to languish in the direct provision system.
The system was supposed to be a stopgap measure when it was introduced for six months in 2000 to cope with a sudden influx of more than 10,000 asylum seekers that year but it has been allowed to continue despite condemnation from many quarters for its inhumanity and lack of compassion.
Most of that criticism centred on what adult asylum seekers are forced to endure, which is life in a limbo of humiliation, despair, and hopelessness, not allowed to work or go to college or even cook for themselves. There has been little concentration on the lives of children, many of whom have spent their whole lives in direct provision.
A notable exception occurred in 2013 when authorities in the North sought to return a Sudanese asylum seeker and her three children to the Republic, where they initially sought asylum.
The High Court in Northern Ireland prevented the move on the basis that returning the family to direct provision was not in the best interests of the children.
“The wellbeing both emotionally and financially of the primary carer and the importance of that to the wellbeing of the children in her care would point significantly to the best interests of the children being to remain in Northern Ireland,” Mr Justice Stevens found.
A report by the Department of Justice, the first to concentrate on children, bears witness to the wisdom of that decision. It shows that children in direct provision feel unsafe, with many fearing racism and bullying in both the accommodation centres and at school.
Some children said they did not feel safe when sharing space with single adult men, and described their living conditions as “overcrowded” and “dirty”.
Worst of all, those 1,600 asylum-seeking children living among us are not allowed to be children.
It is essential that this report does not go the way of a 2015 report that recommended adult asylum seekers be allowed work after being here for nine months. At the time, the minister of state at the Department of Justice, Aodhán Ó Riordáin, said he could not stand over “the scandal of direct provision”. Yet that scandal is still with us.
Direct provision does neither the State, its citizens, nor asylum seekers justice. We, as a nation, are better than this, capable of exhibiting the kind of humanity, generosity, and compassion as expressed in the marriage-equality referendum two years ago.
That showed us at our best. Direct provision shows us at our worst.
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