A look at the social welfare system in Ireland, from the eyes of Roos Demol, a Belgian writer/blogger resident in the country for eighteen years, as posted in Migrants in Ireland, her blog dedicated to stories of the Irish immigration experience.
The last thing I ever wanted to do was to become dependent on social welfare. But things happen. I had to quit my job a few months ago because I needed to be with my daughter who had several health problems, so money was already scarce, then my estranged husband decided to cut the maintenance in half and I was left penniless.
As any mother would do, I got into protection mode and did everything possible to get some kind of income. While looking for jobs, I also signed on for social welfare in the hope it would keep me going.
Ireland has an extremely outdated signing-on system., the endless paperwork, the old fashioned standing in line, the grumpy people in the social welfare office, it was all very unpleasant to experience, but I took it on and went through it, because I had no choice.
Nothing, however had prepared me for the meeting with the social welfare inspector.
Of course, I do understand why an inspection could be necessary, especially since I noticed that in the social welfare office and the community office every document you produce is considered to be fake, and everything you say is considered a lie, even my birth certificate was looked at with suspicion. ( I had to point out to the lady in the SWO that ‘September’ in Dutch means ‘September’ in English. I keep forgetting that Anglophones find understanding other languages very difficult).
I went to the appointment with the inspector as instructed on a Monday at 12. I was a bit taken aback by the office doors that each had a lock and an entry code. What was going on?
The man, blond with little piercing blue eyes, let me into his office, as always I smiled and said hello. He didn’t smile back.
He took my file and looked through it, then he said ‘So are you going back home?’ I looked puzzled. He repeated ‘why don’t you go back home to your family?’. I then realised that by ‘home’ he meant Belgium.
I looked at him in disbelief. I said ‘I’ve been living here for 18 years, my children are Irish, why on earth would I go back to Belgium?’
Then he said ‘So I guess you’re not then’. ‘Because you are going to get money off the state here’ he shouted out loud with a menacing look on his face.
I was bewildered, from then on I knew this was not just a talk about what happened and about the steps I should take, etc. this was an interrogation. I had to keep telling myself I was in Ireland, land of the thousand welcomes. I have borne children here, I have paid taxes, I pay taxes every time I buy something, I pay road tax, I delivered very intelligent and talented children to this country, I organised charity events for Action Breast Cancer , I am a cultural ambassador for the Irish In Europe Association, promoting Irish businesses in Brussels, I did workshops with teenagers from disadvantaged backgrounds, I fundraised money for the local school, brought choirs to small churches in the country side and many more things. but here was a guy telling me I am taking money off the state and telling me I should go ‘home’.
That meeting lasted around an hour. I was treated like a criminal all the way through, everything I said was either ridiculed or sneered at.
I could only think of one thing. What if I was black? What has this guy been saying to other people?
I did not sleep that night, I was completely traumatised. I made a complaint, we’ll see what happens.
I thought about the movies I saw, the books I read about the Magdalen sisters and the industrial schools, Angela’s Ashes and the way poor people were treated in the old days. It was always just fiction, but now I had experienced it myself, it is still happening.
I used to work in the employment office in Brussels, I met people like me, I also worked in prison for six years as a nurse. Never in my entire life have I treated anyone with such disrespect. I am totally disgusted.
I am in bad luck and working hard to get out of it. I am not taking social welfare because in the end I am not yet reaching the (very low) threshold for job seekers allowance, and the thought of ever having to see this man again, makes me sick. I think I’d rather go ‘home’ indeed.