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Welcoming the Stranger?

In the early days of August 2021 Vusi Thabethe, founder of a migrant community group in Galway, walked from Oranmore (Galway) in the West of Ireland to Dublin. His aim was to highlight the appalling conditions endured by thousands of people living in what are called “Direct Provision Centres” (DPCs) around the country.

Part of Mr Thabethe’s journey took him along the Royal Canal, passing through Maynooth where I work. The symbolism of this is significant. For this is also known as The Famine Way, a route taken by starving men, women and children as they fled famine and disease during The Great Hunger (1845 – 1852). Their hope was to reach Dublin and perhaps find food, shelter, or a boat to take them to some promised land. Walking in the footsteps of past suffering, Mr Thabethe’s journey was an attempt to highlight the failings of Direct Provision (DP) and focus attention on the need for a radical change in government policy towards migrants and refugees.

What is Direct Provision?

Direct Provision was established in Ireland in 2000 as the means of providing accommodation for people seeking asylum and international protection. These centres were intended to be temporary facilities to house migrants and refugees while visa applications were being processed. Originally it was expected that people would spend no longer than six months in DP. In reality, however, thousands find themselves stuck in a cumbersome system, some for up to 12 years.

There are approximately 7,000 asylum seekers living in DPCs around the country, with more than 1,000 people arriving into the system last year alone. Most are stuck in the system because of chronic delays in processing documentation, but an escalating housing crisis in Ireland is exacerbating the situation. Furthermore, in the aftermath of the recent withdrawal by Western forces from Afghanistan, Ireland pledged to take in approximately 300 Afghan refugees. And while this is a welcome commitment by the Irish Government, one must question the conditions into which these people will arrive, and the additional strain this will place on an already floundering system.

After more than 20 years many are left wondering whether DP is fit for purpose. Amnesty International is clear in its condemnation: “Direct Provision is a fundamentally flawed system. No amount of reforms or improvements will ever make it acceptable”. It continues: “International human rights law is clear; seeking asylum is a human right. The State must ensure asylum seekers receive accommodation and services that respect and protect their rights and ensure their safety and dignity”.[1]

What are the problems with Direct Provision?

There are two fundamental problems with DP. First, it denies the possibility of work. Until February 2018 asylum seekers had no right to work in Ireland, unlike in most other EU member states. And only very limited job opportunities have been made available since then. Second, it fails to provide adequate housing for people, including families. Many live in overcrowded conditions, often sharing bedrooms and bathrooms with strangers. DPCs range from hostels, caravan parks, hotels and other accommodation owned by private companies or individuals, and paid for by the Irish State. These centres rarely allow for inclusion, or integration with local communities, and many are located in isolated settings, with limited public transport and few support services. Meals are provided at set times each day, and most residents cannot cook for themselves or their children. Residents often experience physical and mental health issues, and reports suggest that asylum seekers are five times more likely to suffer from serious mental health problems by comparison with the general population in Ireland. Furthermore, 30% of DP residents are children, and concerns exist about the impact on their development that DP will have.

Living in DP for long periods is especially harsh on families, children, the victims of sexual violence or torture, and those with physical and mental health difficulties. And Covid-19 has exacerbated the health and wellbeing of residents, adding to already high levels of stress and anxiety. Social distancing, for example, is virtually impossible where strangers share bedrooms, bathrooms and living spaces.

In 2020 the Irish Government committed to end DP by 2023. It has pledged to provide accommodation for asylum seekers that ensures the protection and promotion of human rights. However, little progress has been achieved in the intervening time.

Human Dignity and the Need to End Direct Provision

It is Christian teaching that all human beings are made in God’s image, and that we therefore possess an innate dignity. Human dignity is not dependent on race, ethnicity, nationality, gender or sexual orientation. Christians believe that we share a common responsibility to promote and protect that dignity, fight for the inalienable rights of all people, and provide the social conditions which will facilitate human flourishing.

Furthermore, the social teaching of the Church provides a clear assertion of the right to work and the right to housing, thus confronting two key failings of DP. For some time popes not simply advocated for the rights of workers but also explored the deeper meaning of work and the role it plays in the life of the person. In Laborem Exercens, for example, Pope John Paul II stated that through work human beings participate in the plan of the Divine Creator (LE 26). He believed that “As persons, humans are therefore the subject of work”, and it is as an activity of human beings that work receives its dignity. Work affords the person an opportunity to discover her identity, express her talents, contribute to wider society, and it strengthens family life and civic virtue.

It is not only good in the sense that it is useful or something to enjoy; it is also good as being something worthy, that is to say, something that corresponds to man’s dignity, that expresses this dignity and increases it. If one wishes to define more clearly the ethical meaning of work, it is this truth that one must particularly keep in mind. Work is a good thing for man-a good thing for his humanity-because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfilment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes “more a human being”. (LE 9).

In Laudato Si’ Pope Francis speaks of the “vocation to work” (LS 128), and relates this to our responsibility to the environment: “Developing the created world in a prudent way is the best way of caring for it, as this means that we ourselves become the best instrument used by God to bring out the potential which he himself inscribed in things” (LS 124).

DP in Ireland denies people the opportunity to work, in some cases for many years. Instead, asylum seekers are forced to live on a weekly allowance of between 30 and 40 Euro. Apart from the economic hardships this imposes, it raises serious questions about access to employment and the role this plays in the integral development of the person.

And it places excessive burdens on families in another important way. Proper housing is crucial to the security, well-being, and happiness of families. The Charter of the Rights of the Family, issued by the Holy See in 1983, states that: “The Family has the right to decent housing, fitting for family life and commensurate to the number of the members, in a physical environment that provides the basic services for the life of the family and the community” (art.11).

And article 12 states:

The families of migrants have the right to the same protection as that accorded other families.

a) The families of immigrants have the right to respect for their own culture and to receive support and assistance towards their integration into the community to which they contribute.

b) Emigrant workers have the right to see their family united as soon as possible.

c) Refugees have the right to the assistance of public authorities and International Organizations in facilitating the reunion of their families.[2]

In a recent Pastoral Letter on housing, the Irish Bishops’ Conference raised several concerns about the growing homeless crisis and availability of decent housing in Ireland. The plight of migrants and asylum seekers was given particular attention: “In recent years as the housing situation generally has deteriorated, it has emerged that people who have been granted refugee status or some other form of protection have had to continue living in direct provision centres because of a lack of suitable alternative accommodation. This situation once again highlights the urgency of ensuring a radically increased supply of affordable and secure housing”.[3] Most importantly, the right to housing is a fundamental step towards securing several other human rights, including the right to privacy, freedom of movement, freedom from discrimination, personal security, health, education, and the right to a decent and safe environment.

Those living in DPCs are not only subjected to sub-standard accommodation but are also denied aspects of family life dependent on having a home and crucial to individual and collective flourishing. They are denied, for example, the simple task of preparing a meal. Cooking, breaking bread, sharing table fellowship is part of how a people remember, and keep alive, their local traditions, customs, and rituals. It is an integral part of family life. Food plays an important role in any culture, and is not just a source of sustenance. And of course we connect the sharing of a meal with the sacred memory of our faith tradition. Both the Passover and the Eucharist are a form of theological remembering and solidarity, intended to bring healing and hope to our fractured lives. How we remember through food, dance, and storytelling is critical to remaining connected to our past.

In Fratelli Tutti Pope Francis invites us to authentic encounter with one another. He rejects a politics of exclusion, and the way in which identity can be used to marginalize minorities. We are called to be people of solidarity and inclusion. As Christians we believe that when we welcome the stranger we welcome God, a God once exiled and without a home. We have many miles to go before the dignity of the most vulnerable in Irish society is fully recognized and protected.

[1] https://www.amnesty.ie/direct-provision/?gclid=CjwKCAjw-ZCKBhBkEiwAM4qfF2uYSeSafyHCvB6vqT4npHhIooLOuzbp2CATgq-O7b5_KYXd96syxhoCT4EQAvD_BwE

[2]https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/family/documents/rc_pc_family_doc_19831022_family-rights_en.html

[3] Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, A Room at the Inn? A Pastoral Letter on Housing and Homelessness, (Dublin: Veritas, 2018), 39.