Despite the concept of peaceful co-existence being touted as a major success of international organisations the world over, human politics remains unable to eradicate war. In 2012 alone, over 40,000 people died in a Syrian civil war, and over half a million deaths are attributed to an internal Somali conflict that has been ongoing since 1991. 2,000 people died due to conflict in Afghanistan in 2012, and the Mexican drug wars claimed over 18,000 lives last year alone.
In Ireland, we talk a lot about emigration and how terrible it is for us to lose thousands of our young, educated graduates to other states. They seek opportunity, employment, love and hope. It is difficult for us to imagine the fear felt by tens of thousands worldwide as they flee their homes and families on the spur of the moment. They leave, not for hope or love or opportunity, but in an effort to save their lives. They arrive in countries they have never seen before, alienated by language concerns, alone and scared; their futures are far from secure. A job in London is beyond their comprehension, a fresh apartment in Dublin a dream they are unlikely to realise.
The United Nations calculates that in the first half of 2012, over 212,000 individuals claimed asylum internationally, with 123,000 of those claiming asylum in the European Union. Countries like Canada, Belgium, Norway, Sweden, Poland and Switzerland see much higher rates of asylum seeking than Ireland, where just 458 people sought asylum in the first six months of 2012.
On arrival in Ireland, asylum seekers are housed in the Direct Provision system, where they are catered for on a full board basis in one of 37 centres nationwide. The Refugee Integration Agency (RIA) calculates that asylum seekers represented just 0.13% of the population in August 2012. The centres in which we house asylum seekers are interesting; only three were purpose built, with the remaining centres having once served as convents, nursing homes, guesthouses, hostels and, in one case, a mobile home site.
RIA publishes reports each year and the 2011 report utilised photographs of rooms that seem warm, safe and friendly, with playgrounds for children and clean common spaces for residents. This is a fallacy at best, and outright misinformation at worst. The Irish Refugee Council, in a report issued in December 2012, outlined the truth; isolation is a serious concern for asylum seekers. In the Cork centre based at Drishane Castle in Millstreet, there is a bus transport at fixed times to the city once a week, rendering access to services nigh on impossible. There are no purpose built amenities for children and toilets are shared between many residents. The castle looks from the outside like a fairytale, but in reality is anything but. The people who live there are faced with having nothing to do for days and weeks on end.
In Lissywollen, County Athlone, almost 400 residents in a mobile home site share one washing facility. Most asylum seekers live in these accommodation centres for upwards of 36 months. Perhaps the Irish imagination will find it difficult to grasp the notion of five people sharing one mobile home for over three years. It is a reprehensible scenario.
Poverty is a constant topic of conversation in Ireland. We complain about property taxes, water charges, mortgage repayments, high rent. The Central Statistics Office, in 2010, established that a disposable income of less that €207.56 a week would equate with poverty, a total of almost €10,800 a year. The maximum jobseeker's allowance is €188 per week, which would equate to €9,776 a year; that is already too low given the cost of living in Ireland. But think on this: an asylum seeker receives a payment also. Once a week, an adult asylum seeker receives €19.10 as disposable income, or €993.20 per year. Even if asylum seekers received that rate every day instead of every week, they would fall far below the poverty line. Children seeking asylum receive €9.60 per week, almost €500 per year.
That means that a family of four, with two adults and two children claiming asylum, receive €2984.80 per year, placing them in extreme poverty based on a national, objective scale. To put that in perspective, a single TD's basic salary of €92, 672 a year would facilitate these payments to thirty one asylum seeking families, or 124 people. Just one TD's basic salary, with no extras or expenses considered, would facilitate the disposable income of 124 people.
I'm not naive and I won't mislead; the costs associated with the actual centres amounted to €69.5 million in 2011, which according to the Irish Refugee Council was mostly paid to the private commercial enterprises that host these asylum seekers by contract to the state. In other words, it wasn't paid to the residents. I have been unable to find out how much of that funding went to service provision, and how much is profit for the centres.
Many asylum seekers become refugees, or get married and have children and reside in Ireland on that basis, where they work, volunteer and contribute taxes to the national economy. After a period of years, they can apply for Citizenship of Ireland. For the pleasure of granting Citizenship, we charge people up to €950.
Ireland currently holds the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. Last week, Viviane Reding, Vice President of the European Commission, launched the European Year of the Citizen in Dublin. I asked her what she thought about asylum conditions and human rights concerns for those seeking protection, given the possibility that they will become citizens of the European Union in the future. She responded to my question by saying that Europe has a "real problem with asylum seekers and illegal immigrants."
Vice President Reding is partially correct. For Europe, a large part of the illegal immigration problem lies in Greece, where over 23,000 people were caught attempting to enter the country illegally up to July 2012. The New York Times has reported that the Greek government hired only 11 staff members to deal with asylum applications, despite funding being made available for 700.
Greece has acquired notoriety for its poor handling of immigration and asylum claims. Amnesty International has termed the atrocious conditions faced by those seeking protection in Greece as nearing a humanitarian crisis. Human Rights Watch has located refugee children being housed in centres with unrelated adults, where the floor is covered with sewage from broken toilets. Those hoping to claim asylum in Greece queue for days and nights, never certain if their applications will be submitted. Racist violence has flared up on the streets of Athens and amid widespread sweep arrests of immigrants, police cells are over capacity. In some places, there is no access to clean drinking water, exercise or even light.
The European Union does have a real problem with asylum seekers and illegal immigrants, but not in the way the Vice President suggests. Our core problem with asylum seekers and illegal immigrants stems from the fact that we treat them like dirt when they most need help.
The landmark case of MSS v Belgium and Greece found Greece and Belgium culpable for offences against those seeking protection in 2011. Between 2008 and 2011, Ireland returned ten asylum seekers to Greece, in full awareness of the conditions there; the Dublin Regulation, a European Union Regulation, allowed this to happen. Worse still is the fact that Frontex, the EU border police agency, has been complicit in the mistreatment of migrants in Greece according to Human Rights Watch.
When asked about the human rights concerns relating to asylum systems in the EU, Vice President Reding stated that "This continent is built on values. We have in common the basic values which are inscribed in the Charter of Fundamental Rights. That is the basis for our future." That same Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union entered into force with the Lisbon Treaty in 2009; we voted on it- twice. It outlines that human dignity is inviolable, that nobody should be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment, that everyone has a right to liberty and security of person. It specifically outlines the right to asylum. The Charter recognises its own duties and responsibilities to humanity.
Vice President Reding made it sound poetic: this continent is built on values. People flee their countries fearing death. We pile them into mobile homes and infested rooms and pay them an absolute pittance. Private enterprises collect millions along the way. In Greece, they are rounded up and forced into cells; nothing is done to stop endemic violence, racism and defilement.
People leave everything they own, everything they love, and beg for shelter. We strip them of their dignity at the gates. This continent is built on values.