A Question of Faith, Fr Liam Power’s Fortnightly Column
SUNDAY, September 20 was designated as a ‘World Day of Migrants and Refugees’. It marked the 105th annual celebration of marking the reality of the plight of migrants and refugees throughout the world. It provided us with a timely reminder of the struggle of asylum seekers and an opportunity to reflect on our own attitude to those seeking asylum in our country.
The angry protests in Oughterard against the proposal to establish a direct provision centre in the town were widely reported in the national media; there is no doubt that the protests were infiltrated by anti-immigration groups, many of whose members are fundamentally racist. The inflammatory language used by TD Noel Grealish (he referred to seekers as “economic migrants” who have come to Ireland to “sponge off the system”) is indicative of the attitude of many towards asylum seekers and it unfortunately resonates with the virulent anti-immigration rhetoric of far-right populist politicians on mainland Europe. Such language can encourage racism and xenophobia.
Pope Francis has challenged us all to respond in a truly Christian manner to the plight of refugees and asylum seekers. We must begin by acknowledging the lamentable situation of many migrants and refugees who are fleeing from war and persecution, natural disasters and poverty. Francis then exhorts us to welcome them, to protect them, to promote and to integrate them.
‘We should make every effort to promote the social and professional inclusion of refugees. They should be guaranteed language instruction and active citizenship and of course the right to work.’
The welcome should include options to enter our country legally and safely. We should offer protection ensuring that the rights of migrants are safeguarded. In particular the right to nationality should be secured and thus avoiding the traumatic plight of children who could fall into statelessness with the awful consequences that ensue.
We should make every effort to promote the social and professional inclusion of refugees. They should be guaranteed language instruction and active citizenship and of course the right to work and thus to allow them to integrate into the host community.
Reflecting on our response to those seeking asylum in our country in light of these four principles should give us cause for concern. The means for accommodating migrants (the direct provision centres) are increasingly unfit for purpose. People are given accommodation and board and a weekly allowance (€38.80 for adults). But a report on the direct provision model (McMahon Report) has highlighted a number of issues, which contribute to stress and poor mental and physical health for people who are already traumatised and vulnerable. This of course contributes to their sense of isolation and exclusion.
Issues such as lack of privacy and overcrowding in some situations and the limited autonomy enjoyed by the residents are not conducive to good mental health and wellbeing.
Family life is undermined in many such centres because parents lack facilities to cook their own meals and meet their dietary needs. While they now have a right to work, many find it extremely difficult to access employment. They have no opportunity to access formal adult education and training. One of the most distressing and soul destroying experiences for residents is the length of time people are forced to live in these centres. Even when granted asylum many find it impossible to move out as there is no alternative accommodation available.
The length of time it takes to process applications for protection can engender a sense of hopelessness and frustration and can really demotivate people. We could conclude that the direct provision model is not very welcoming.
Neither are human rights adequately protected by this model, such as the right to privacy and the right to autonomy and self-reliance. And in many instances the right to work is denied to large cohorts of asylum seekers.
The direct provision model militates against integration into the local community. This is particularly evident in relation to children in the centres. Very often they are unable to participate in extra-curricular activities such as sports and swimming and cultural events such as drama and dancing or scouting groups. This is due to number of factors. For example the lack of crèches in the centres means that there are no trusted, reliable babysitters that could free parents up to bring their child to an activity. More often than not, parents don’t have money so they often can’t buy the items required for an activity.
Then, even if they do manage to get a babysitter and buy the equipment, lack of transport means they cannot get to an event. Reports suggest that this impacts seriously on children. It isolates them from peers and increases the experience of stigmatisation. Most feel ashamed that they are resident in such accommodation and resent not being able to invite peers to their ‘home’. So opportunities for integration are virtually non-existent.
It is easy to criticise Government policy in relation to refugees.
With two direct provision centres in Waterford city, the local Church should be giving witness in practical ways to the gospel imperative of welcoming the stranger. The Waterford Immigration Network, a diocesan sponsored support group, is working quietly but effectively to provide support and advocacy for residents in these centres. Members of the group befriend the residents and offer them companionship and friendship. They organise outings for the children and enable them to participate in ‘extra-curricular’ activities such as swimming and games which contribute significantly to their integration into the local community. The group ensures that the children are not forgotten at Christmas and Easter.
Most importantly members support residents who are having difficulty accessing social services to which they might be entitled but find themselves unable to negotiate the bureaucratic maze which they often encounter. In parishes which host direct provision centres, Bishop Cullinan, in the diocesan pastoral plan (‘Go Make Disciples’), has called on Pastoral Councils to offer support to the Waterford Immigration Network in every way possible.
To conclude, I think we should all support Bishop Brendan Kelly who last week called on the Government to end the current system of direct provision as it is not fit for purpose. The system fails on all four of the criteria set out by Pope Francis, i.e. to be welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating.