Easy choices


The wailing and gnashing of teeth that has followed reports on child sex abuse, the Magdalene laundries and the industrial schools over the past decade in Ireland has been justified, but too late.

It is very easy to react emotionally and with horror when it is too late. When the women who were enslaved are elderly, dead or dying; when the men who were locked up as children are too damaged, mired in alcohol addiction and homelessness to campaign for redress; and when, in that most Irish way, we can shake our heads and say ‘Oh, but it was a different time’.

Lots of terrible things happened in ‘a different time’. The Cromwellian genocide; the famine; the Penal Laws. This type of thing is still happening, of course, but to faraway people in faraway places that we don’t have to confront every day. The knowledge that these things are happening, but to people that we don’t know, is there, but it’s not something we are required to react to, unless a Munster rugby player is pictured with a small starving child, or a pop star tweets a selfie from a Syrian refugee camp. Then, we can do what’s needed and what, in many ways, is not difficult; send money, and reassure ourselves that we are good people.

What is more difficult to do is to react with compassion when there is still something to be done, and when it is closer and less comfortable to try doing it.

We need to react with emotion, horror, indignation, when it is not too late to prevent children growing up in de facto prisons. When it is not too late to prevent families of five, of all ages and with all the needs every family has – sexual, physical, emotional – sharing one room for up to six years.

When it is not too late to stop the damage being caused by strangers – who may have been desperately traumatised by war, rape or torture, or who may have been the ones perpetrating the war, rape, or torture – living side by side in rooms they cannot lock and with no privacy. When it’s not too late to prevent children suffering from malnutrition in a country where obesity is rife and we produce more food than we could ever eat ourselves.

We need to react to the scandal that is Direct Provision now.

The arguments for Direct Provision – housing asylum seekers in almost-prisons for up to six years – do not stack up.

It is not cheaper; it is for private profit. It is not more humane; keeping people forcibly out of work, unable to decide what or when to eat, where or when to sleep or who to live with has all the hallmarks of imprisonment.

It is a dreadful long-term strategy; it causes perfectly healthy people, who may end up living in Ireland long-term, to develop serious psychiatric illnesses, and to be unemployable. Most asylum seekers want to work; they are not allowed to.

Last week a boat carrying approximately 500 people was shipwrecked off the coast of Lampedusa, an island between Sicily and Malta which is the entry point to the EU for many desperate people attempting to escape their home countries. More than half are still missing.

Imagine just how desperate you would have to be to travel for days or weeks from your home, at the mercy of a people trafficker, on an unsafe boat, knowing you would end up locked up for years on end without anyone you knew, in a hostel at the other side of the world. It’s not what you’d call an easy choice.

But there is an easy choice available to the rest of us – say nothing, and wait for your children and grandchildren to ask if you knew what was happening, when the reports come out. Or say something, and make this scandal end. Sign the petition at irishrefugeecouncil.ie.

From the Cork Independent, 10/10/13

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