The issue of asylum seekers and the system of direct provision got very little air time in the run up to the recent European and local elections. As a voter, this is one of the most important issues to me as I strongly feel that the current system of direct provision is a moral blight on our society. Aside from the moral bankruptcy of the system, it makes little economic sense to keep people for years in a system where they are fully reliant on the state and cannot work or properly integrate into a society.
This article appeared in today’s Irish Times, offering a glimpse into the realities of family life in direct provision centres. Despite my intentions to avoid the comments section on such articles, I did find myself scrolling down. Perhaps it was all the recent talk of immigration and the swing to the right in the recent elections across Europe that made me curious. I should have known better….
The comments on this article made my blood boil. Many comments indicated that as the people in question, from Somalia, Zimbabwe and Nigeria, had no link to Ireland, why did they come here? And what could possibly have been so bad that they needed to claim asylum? One can only presume that word had filtered through about how much craic it is sitting around in limbo for five years with no freedom and with €19 a week to throw around.
It also begs the question, what countries do in fact have a connection to Ireland? And how do you define such a ‘connection’? Surely Ireland actually has connections all over the world through our missionary history? If it is all about borders, then we are connected to no one and no one to us. When Irish people left for England, Canada, America over the last 150 years or so, fleeing their circumstances at home, was such a connection to the fore of their minds?
There are, according to the UNHCR, 482,390 Somali refugees in Kenya. Likewise, there are an estimated 362,000 Sudanese refugees in Chad, and 350,000 Syrian refugees in Iraq. So the idea that everyone jumps on a plane when seeking refuge is ridiculous. Many, many people simply get themselves across the nearest border. Many of the commenters on the article dismissed the idea that an asylum seeker genuinely doesn’t know where they are going when they board a plane. So the idea that a terrified, traumatised individual, might be so focused on the act of getting out that they basically don’t care where they are going is, apparently, ridiculous. In her book ‘Tears of the Desert’ Halima Bashir describes how when she arrived to the UK from Darfur, she had no idea where she was and had to ask the person in front of her in the queue what country she was in. Having no idea where her family was and having been tortured and gang raped in Sudan, I for one can imagine why her country of destination was of limited significance to her at that time.
People are of course entitled to their opinions. But the lack of compassion that comes through in discussions about asylum seekers is appalling. Yes, people are struggling in Ireland, and increased numbers of Irish families are finding themselves in emergency accommodation. Of course these families need to be cared for. But there is not a straight trade off. Deporting all of the 4,278 asylum seekers in Ireland would not solve our housing crisis or social challenges. The circumstances that put Irish families in emergency accommodation are very different to the circumstances that put someone in the asylum process.
Marius Schoon, a South African anti-apartheid activist, came to Ireland with his son in 1984 after his wife and daughter were killed in an parcel bomb attack meant to kill him. He and his son were both granted Irish passports. Marius was strongly involved in the anti-apartheid movement in Ireland and was co-ordinator of Comhlámh for three years. Marius Schoon was a high profile figure, whose story was well known. But what if he hadn’t been? What if he was an ordinary citizen, maybe an academic, maybe a doctor, maybe a farmer, fleeing unrest, oppression and a regime that had already taken family members from him? What if he and his son had been put into a direct provision centre because the integrity of their story was in doubt? What if they had been expected to keep quiet, await a judgement from on high that could send them back to the country that had killed their family and all the while be grateful for their safety and freedom?
Everyone has their own story, their own past, and these may be very different, very similar, closely linked, worlds apart. But one person’s story cannot be silenced because another person’s story has changed. Who is to say whose story is of greater or lesser value than another?
Do not assume to know or understand a person until you have listened, and really listened without prejudice, to their story. And most importantly, never judge someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes. I