905976-14: the number that identifies me and my three children for the five years that we have been resident in Ireland. From the moment we landed in Dublin and declared that we were seeking international protection, all the documents that identify us as individuals were taken away from us and replaced with a blue ID card. This card bears an identification number and states in bold red letters that it is not an identity card. I knew from that moment that we had become a statistic, another number!

*

Seeking asylum is not a crime; it is a fundamental human right that should be safeguarded by all nations. Ireland is a signatory to the Geneva Convention and is therefore obligated to uphold that right. It is extremely unfortunate that seeking protection and safety comes at the price of one’s freedom. Direct provision as a system does not allow you to heal, to forget and to move on with your life. It is impossible to go through the day without reliving your past traumas. You live in constant fear of being called into interview and having forgotten any detail about when and where a particular incident occurred. Should you forget, you are deemed to be ‘inconsistent’ and fabricating your fear, therefore meaning that your claim for protection is bogus. Instead, the direct provision system in Ireland (and indeed the international protection system) is extremely cruel, discriminatory, racist and violates the most basic human rights. It is a profit-making system that strives on the misery of vulnerable human beings; it is a system that benefits private contractors to the tune of multi-millions every year. No one should ever be allowed to benefit financially from the vulnerability of other people. As an asylum seeker in Ireland you are forced to live in limbo and in forced poverty, due to state-imposed limitations and discrimination with no rights to basics such as the right to work and the right to education.

*

When people leave their home countries to seek asylum, driven out by unbearable situations that pose a danger to their lives, they leave behind most of their material possessions. But there are certain things that they cannot and do not leave behind, things such as education, skills, expertise, dreams and ambitions for themselves and their children. People flee with the hope that they will be able to start or continue living a meaningful life, as with any individual in a ‘normal’ situation. We are forced to live in isolated centres that are segregated from local communities. We are forced to raise families on a meagre income of €38.80 a week.

In 2018, ‘our’ government opted into the EU Directive that brought Ireland in line with many EU member states, but evidently did very little to provide a meaningful right to work for International Protection applicants. When Ireland opted into the EU Directive on Reception Conditions, the Department of Justice said that some 3000 people would qualify for the permit, which the department considers to be generous. But only 330 people have actually secured work with the new permit out of 1521 permits issued to people living in direct provision.

The difficulty with the permit is that it is granted on a piece of paper when other non-EU/EEA workers in Ireland have a GNIB or Irish Residency Permit Card. As such, many employers do not know much about it and applicants have to explain it themselves to potential employers. The second problem with it is that the permit is valid for six months and is renewable. But the uncertainty over renewal and it being valid for six months already limits employment to short-term, usually low-paying contracts. Then, once a person has been working for at least twelve weeks, they must pay to live in direct provision or find alternative accommodation. It is already difficult enough for people who have been granted protection to leave direct provision, with some taking six to eighteen months to find accommodation. Thus, the prospect of paying to live in direct provision is very real.

The other major problem with the permit is that it’s only issued to people who have been waiting for a first-instance decision for at least nine months. It means that for nine months a person will not be allowed to work. And those who have been in the system longer, mainly in the Appeals stage of the application process, are disqualified from working, which increases the pool of people who are working in slave-like conditions for as little as €50 per week because they are desperate to provide for their needs. If €50 per week means avoiding having to ask a contractor appointed by the government for a slice of bread or cup of coffee, then it is worth it for many people in the system. Unfortunately, restrictions on work rights has normalised these conditions.

*

We cannot talk about direct provision and its violation of human rights without addressing the violations of the rights of the child. This is an issue of major concern. The 2000+ children living in direct provision are not entitled to any social welfare benefits including the child benefit allowance that is given to Irish national children and children of Non-EU citizens legally working in the state. Children also have the right to a loving and nurturing environment; direct provision is not a loving and nurturing environment. On the contrary, it is often a hostile space that must be shared with strangers. It is a space where children are exposed to inappropriate behaviours, nudity, language and conversations. There is no space for physical play or mental stimulation required by a developing child. Children are forced to follow a monotonous routine, everything is done the exact way it was done the day before.

*

All children have the right to health care and nutrition, but children living in direct provision go for years without knowing the taste of their own mother’s cooking. The centres often don’t have self-catering facilities, meals are on a two-day rotation menu served at specific times three times a day. There is no special menu for children to ensure that the dietary needs of a developing child are met or to ensure that the food is specifically prepared for their young palates, and this often leads to numerous health problems. Those children must go to school and interact with many children whose parents are able to provide for their needs. Children in direct provision have their school lunches prepared by a contractor that is appointed by the government. The contractor decides what their school lunch will be.

*

There are other simple things that can foster a childhood worth remembering, like going on holiday with the family or going out to the movies with friends from school. Teens in direct provision are robbed of ordinary teen experiences and have the added stress of knowing that no matter how well they do in school, they cannot access third-level education unless they are lucky enough to get a scholarship. Children have the right to equal opportunity and quality education; this is not a reality for children living in direct provision. Though the government introduced a higher education pilot support scheme, part of the qualifying criteria is that students completing the Leaving Cert and looking to progress onto higher or post-Leaving cert courses should have been a minimum of five years in the Irish education system as of 31 August 2017, and have been an applicant for protection or leave to remain for a combined period of five years, and not pending a deportation order. If a deportation order has been issued, that child is automatically disqualified from availing of the scheme.

*

The obvious impact of not being allowed to work or access further education, as well as living in limbo with the threat of deportation and everything that comes with direct provision, is huge on the mental health of a person. You can see the effects manifest in many ways; drug and alcohol addiction, gambling addiction and the recent increase in suicide and suicide attempts. People who are in the asylum process had jobs in their countries and suddenly they are not able to work and provide for their needs or for the needs of their loved ones. These are people who have already lost so much of what it means to live a normal life in their countries, and yet their supposed place of sanctuary robs them of that ability to provide for themselves. Both parents and children in direct provision experience mental health problems because of the State-sanctioned poverty they live in.

*

The restrictions on working rights and education rights create communities from asylum and refugee backgrounds that have difficulty entering the labour market once they are eventually granted some form of protection. Most people will have spent a long time without a real right to work and thus have a huge gap in their CVs. And other barriers like language, foreign qualifications and discrimination against Africans in the workplace contribute to the difficulty of integration for people with an asylum background. People who were once able to provide for their needs are suddenly stripped of that right and must depend on the State’s cruel system. Getting a simple slice of bread or trip to the dentist to clean teeth becomes a herculean task, all because the government has decided that asylum seekers must live in poverty while their applications are pending.

*

We need to realise that children are like sponges: they watch and absorb everything we do as adults, the things we pay attention to and those that we don’t. The situation created by the direct provision system is troubling and dangerous. We are raising the future residents of Irish society in a place that is teaching them that it is acceptable to be dependent and helpless and that it is acceptable to be able to live on charitable handouts way below the poverty line. We are showing our children that a living allowance increase from €19.10 to €38.80 is something worth celebrating. Can you then imagine what happens when you move that individual from €38.80 a week to €180 per week?

*

Institutionalising and warehousing human beings is unacceptable and mother to a list of endless problems. Nobody should ever be placed in a situation where they feel like they are less than human. Seeking asylum is not a crime; it is a human right that we are all entitled to. It is unacceptable and unforgivable that children are being forced to grow up in these conditions. The system of direct provision needs to be abolished immediately.