A situation of grave injustice

Reflection for September 2013
During the past six months or so various national newspapers have carried reports regarding the situation of asylum seekers in Ireland.   The striking fact about some of these comments is that the conditions in which asylum seekers are obliged to live are being compared to that of the children and young women living in abusive situations in Ireland over past decades while under the care of the state or religious institutions. We are now very well aware of this scandal. Recently however, retired Supreme Court Judge Catherine McGuinness made a stark comparison between both situations.  The former judge pointed out that the institutionalised accommodation provided for asylum seekers was created as a “panic reaction” to the large number arriving in Ireland during the boom, and has been allowed to drag on with no outside supervision or accountability.  She said that the situation was having a bad effect on families, and particularly children, She said “I would be very concerned that in the future we find ourselves with another huge thing to apologise for, for people who have been kept in institutions for many years with very little supervision and no recourse from the Ombudsman or the Ombudsman for Children and no outside direction on what’s happening with them.”  Almost one third of the 4,800 people living in direct provision accommodation are children.

There has been a significant decrease in the number of those seeking asylum in Ireland in recent years.  Despite this, the length of time asylum seekers are housed under the controversial “direct provision” system is continuing to increase.  The average length of stay in an accommodation centre is anything from a “short” 3 years to 6 years or more. This is unacceptable and inhumane.

Do we want this situation of grave injustice to continue – in our name?  Asylum seekers are people like us, with a name, a family – a valuable personal history, which is unknown in Ireland.  They have desires, deep fears, a thirst for a life beyond survival, a longing to work and make a contribution to their new host country, and of course, a great longing to be able to return home when times are better.  How many of us have reached out to or befriended an asylum seeker? How many of us have spoken to an asylum seeker or listened to their story? 

Ireland was marketed as “Ireland of the Welcomes” some years ago. But what values do we now live by? It’s well known that many people, once they have begun to acquire more than they had in former years, become more selfish, and less willing to share.  Is that what has happened in Ireland? Are we afraid that if we open our doors a little wider we will be “flooded” with “undesirables”, whatever that means?  Yet we expect to be welcomed in the US, Australia, and other faraway places, and we send our politicians off to plead a “special case” for Irish emigrants.

There are many scenes in the Gospels which illustrate Jesus’ attitude to so-called “undesirables”.  One scholar has commented that one could be forgiven for thinking that Jesus did nothing else but sit down and eat with others! And the thing is that Jesus ate with “publicans and sinners”, enjoyed their company and spent long hours with them, scandalising Jewish teachers and many others as well. Having a meal with someone shows that they are accepted as part of your inner circle, as it were. Well, “outsiders” were invited to become part of Jesus’ inner circle. Do we want to be in their company too?  Or will we, in ten – twenty year’s time, find ourselves striking our breasts because our political system “did nothing” for the (relatively small) number of asylum seekers arriving in Ireland, other than place them in institutions with no regard for the trauma many had suffered, or the toll on physical and psychological health of living in continual uncertainty and enforced idleness for years? Let us prove to ourselves that as a nation we can learn from past mistakes.

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