Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan with asylum seekers Anna (left) and Olugide with her baby Gloria at a Christmas Party last year in the Montague Direct Provision Centre for Refugees in County Laois; Anne Marie McNally
This week I watched with admiration and respect at the women who finally felt they had their voices heard and the horrors of their earlier years acknowledged. The women who arrived not just from around the country but from around the globe, returned here to put faces to the horrors, to have their personal stories heard and to see people take to the streets to cheer them.
I had a dinner party recently and of six people around the table, five of us had tales to tell of direct family connections to the laundries or a mother and baby home. This is not something that happened long ago or ‘to others’ this is something that is very recent, very real and very raw.
Those of us who tuned into PrimeTime or who lined Dawson Street to cheer the women as they entered the Mansion House did so because what those women endured deserves not only to be apologised for but to be aired and aired repeatedly because the most important element of all their bravery is that in telling their tales of horrors they can ensure that we, as a State, never make the same mistake again.
Of never outsourcing responsibility, never perpetuating a culture of false shame or degradation, and never again institutionalising innocent people under the guise of a social service
But if that lesson has indeed been learned and we feel so righteous in our ability to look back and wag a knowing finger at how horrific that system of institutionalisation was, why then do we currently ignore the fact that we are, right now in this Ireland that honoured Magdalenes, continue to warehouse men women and children in horrendous conditions and degrade those people as if they are somehow less than?
That is not hyperbolic in the slightest. At the last official count we currently had 5,096 people living in Direct Provision centres across this State and 1,420 of those were children and 104 are people older than 56 years of age.
That is 5,096 people forced to survive on an allowance of €21.60 per week. (This amount is payable to every adult and every child in Direct Provision).
Even if you ignore the economic unfairness of expecting someone to survive on the guts of twenty quid a week, the ignominy of how these people are forced to live is a stain on our collective conscience. While some centres have self-catering facilities, many don’t and residents are forced to endure canteen food handed to them thus removing any element of personal choice.
Imagine not being able to choose what you or your children eat or having zero control over the nutrition of your children; how utterly dehumanising.
And that is what Direct Provision has succeeded in doing; dehumanising people in the eyes of the rest of us.
The out of town locations, the misinformation that is spread regarding what residents get and their ‘entitlements’ and a general toxic attitude of ‘isn’t it better than what they came from’ have all conspired to dehumanise and ostracise residents of Direct Provision and has given us the balm to salve a conscience that deep down knows we should be demanding an immediate end to the barbaric system.
Direct Provision was initially supposed to be for a six month period while people’s applications for asylum were processed. The current average time spent in Direct Provision is 23 months but of that ‘average’ some were up to 5 years in the system.
A lengthy prison sentence for daring to escape whatever horrors existed in their home country and for the audacity of trying to create a safer future for themselves and their children. Imagine.
And even now with asylum seekers recently having been granted the Right to Work, the ignominy continues and possibly deepens because yet again, in an attempt to turn a blind eye, many now say: “but sure they can get a job now and support themselves.”
While it is welcome that people have been granted the right to work it is important to understand the strict restrictions that go along with that right.
If you are an asylum seeker the work permit alone will cost between €500 to €1000.
But the real stinger here is this – applicants must find a job with a starting salary of €30,000 and there are over 60 sectors that the job cannot be in including construction and hospitality.
Given that the average graduate starting salary in Ireland is around €28,000, you’d be doing pretty well as an asylum seeker to be finding a job paying a minimum of €30,000.
The perception of what asylum seekers can do for themselves is very far from the reality and they suffer abuse, vitriol, humiliation and State-sponsored institutionalisation as a result.
So yes, Dublin did indeed ‘honour Magdalenes’ and rightly so, but unless we act now, we cannot celebrate a lesson learned. Instead we should reflect on the hypocrisy of it all.
Anne Marie McNally is Social Democrats Political Director and General Election candidate for Dublin Mid-West.