- 31 May 20
Covid-19 crisis has focussed strongly on the failure to protect asylum seekers in general from the coronavirus. However, in many ways, children are being hardest hit, with the closure of schools impacting severely on their education and development. Main photograph by Alan Landers.
Children in direct provision are being severely disadvantaged educationally by the response to the coronavirus in Ireland.
As part of the ongoing examination by Hot Press of the conditions imposed on asylum seekers living in Ireland during the coronavirus crisis, we wanted to gauge the impact of the health emergency on the children of those marooned in direct provision here. The picture, it emerges, is not a pretty one.
The latest figures reveal that 1,672 children (813 girls and 859 boys) live in direct provision centres across the State. Of these, approximately 85 per cent are aged 12 and younger. Over 600 children are between 0 and 4.
For some of the children living in Direct Provision Centres, the effect of the restrictions imposed as a result of Covid-19 have been disastrous. Schools were closed for all children. But those in direct provision were also forced to deal with an unusually restricted – and restrictive – form of confinement. In addition, a significant number were forced to relocate; and had thrust upon them the reawakening of historic traumas.
This is no small thing. A mounting body of research suggests that the reappearance of traumatic events early in a child’s life may interfere with healthy brain development. The medical world refers to the physiological response as ‘toxic stress’.
With their lives already uprooted and damaged by conflict and migration, refugee children living under the tyranny of the country’s direct provision system, are the pandemic’s youngest, and perhaps most unheeded, victims.
Until March 2020, Jo (8) used to study at a primary school in Drumcong, Co Leitrim. There he was best friends with most of his classmates. Last Christmas, the child delighted at the numerous Christmas cards sent to him by his friends.
However, only a few days after his school went into lockdown and was closed, Jo was forced out of Leitrim. He was put on a bus with his family and shunted into the direction of the small Co Kerry town of Cahersiveen. It was Jo’s first-time leaving Leitrim. He knew no one in the new direct provision centre, where he felt exiled again.
Later, when an outbreak of coronavirus loomed over life at Skellig Star Hotel, Jo’s new home, the child began to show symptoms of depression and distress. The infamous centre is currently home to nine children. As part of the HSE’s stringent plan to curb the coronavirus outbreak there, residents at Skellig Star Hotel were confined inside the centre for a month.
In an environment where following social-distancing guidelines remains challenging, parents were forced to keep their children in cramped rooms. It is easy to see why the effect on children locked up in this way is likely to be damaging – maybe even devastating.
A recent study conducted by researchers at Miguel Hernández University, under review by the journal Frontiers in Psychology, has revealed that the psychological impact of coronavirus-driven confinement on children in Italy and Spain – countries that imposed the most rigid social curbs in Europe – has been significant. About 90 per cent of 431 Spanish parents surveyed for the study, reported emotional distress and behavioural changes in their children.
Jo’s father, who prefers not to be named, reveals that the traumatic events have precipitated a spiral of emotional and behavioural problems in his son.
“He has lost all of his friends,” his father tells Hot Press, “and he’s been alone for two months. When he got to know that some residents tested positive the smile disappeared from his face. He went into panic mode.”
CLOSURE OF PREMISES
To cope, the child took refuge in the simple world of his storybooks. “He read 40-50 storybooks twice to keep himself busy,” his father says. “Sometimes he would leave his bed to sit on my lap like a baby.”
Although the outbreak at the centre has been quelled and residents are now being encouraged to go outside, Jo is loath to explore the new surroundings.
“He has retreated back to shell, like a snail, and doesn’t want to go out no matter what you promise to give,” his father says.
Jo’s father does everything he can to restore his son’s sense of calm. Inside, however, he is crying.
“I keep telling him that our stay here is temporary,” he reveals. “And that we will move close to his friends again. He feels alive every time I give reassurance that he will be reunited with his friends in Leitrim. Every day he asks how long until we move back there.”
Of course, a return to Leitrim seems like an impossible dream.
Following the outbreak of Covid-19 in the Skellig Star Hotel, and the attendant controversy, residents and locals alike have demanded the closure of the direct provision centre in Cahersiveen. But that does not seem likely. Almost certainly Jo is there for the foreseeable future. Or until someone in the Department of Justice decides that he can be told to, in the words of the Ewan McColl and Donal Lunny song, performed by Christy Moore, “Go, move, shift."
As people continued to protest, the Minister for Justice, Charles Flanagan TD, wrote a letter of apology to Cahersiveen locals, in relation to the way in which the centre had been opened. “We are in a contractual arrangement for a 12-month period with the Skellig Star,” the Minister said.
Understandably, however, Jo’s father worries that the stigma of Skellig Star Hotel will endure. The fear is that, if the family has to remain in Cahersiveen, the harrowing circumstances of recent months will haunt his child, long after the pandemic is over.
LIVING IN FEAR
Jo is not the only Direct Provision kid who is missing Leitrim. Moody, a nine-year-old child whose life was upended, as a result of the coronavirus crisis, is going through the same emotional ordeal. Moody and his parents were relocated to Mosney Direct Provision Centre in Co Meath, in mid-March.
“I still remember very well when my son was crying a lot,” his father tells Hot Press. “Because he was losing his school friends and kids who were living in Direct Provision in Leitrim. He had many beautiful moments with them. But all their future plans were demolished in one day, because of a trivial decision made by IPAS, who is not thinking about the meaning of childhood or children’s rights.”
Moody’s father is angry that he can’t save his son’s childhood.
“These decisions will affect children’s mental and physical health, I am sure of it,” he said.
Meanwhile, a young mother whose seven-year-old daughter contracted coronavirus in Cahersiveen, after being uprooted from another centre in Dublin, says that her son and daughter are finding it difficult to make new friends.
The family, relocated three times in less than three months, are now in a centre designated for families. The mother is hoping that her children can begin to recover. But they seem to be living in fear of the moment that have to move on again. What, they might ask, would be the point of making new friends?
“They have been unable to enjoy what most kids their age cherish in such times, which is the ability to make new and long-lasting friendship,” the young mother reflects. “Fear is dominant in their everyday lives. They are, I think, unsure if friends made would be torn from them in another move; or if leaving their room to get food would lead to an infection of Covid-19. It is a terrible way for children to have to live.”
The young mother says that it has also been increasingly challenging to get her children to engage with schoolwork.
“But being in a family environment,” she said, “they are much happier than before.”
CONFUSION AND FEAR
For three-year-old Rayan, living in Temple Accommodation Centre in Moate, Co Westmeath, the crisis has prompted a climate of confusion and fear. Too young to comprehend the nature of the crisis, the child would often touch items outside of the family room. Every time Rayan touches these random things, his parents start panicking, and the bewildered child becomes upset.
Hot Press understands that over 20 people became ill with Covid-19 at the Westmeath centre.
"He is scared of everything now, because as soon as we leave our room, he is not allowed to touch anything," his father says, "and if he touches, we start freaking out and try to sanitise his hands quickly. It is just because we have no control over anything outside our rooms – and even inside the room to some extent."
Rayan has unusually enlarged tonsils, causing him breathing problems. Thus, his parents say they can't be too cautious, even pleading with members of staff that they should wear a mask when coming into the family room.
Back in Leitrim, Jo’s teacher was heartbroken to learn about his student’s plight.
“I’m so sorry to hear that,” the teacher wrote. “He is a fantastic student who works very hard and has a very kind heart. I have thoroughly enjoyed teaching [him].”
Jo has his textbooks, but unlike many children across Ireland, no online classes were planned for him. Even if the idea had been mooted, the child has no access to a computer that would allow him to join Zoom classes.
Jo is lucky in that his father’s English is good. But what of those kids whose parents do not speak English well, or even at all? They will be losing out doubly. On top of which, there is the fact that the natural integration into the community which going to school brings is also lost.
In effect, children in direct provision are being shunted even further to the margins and left behind both psychologically and physically.
This week in the Dáil, a number of TDs expressed concern about a lack of the technological devices needed to fulfil the educational needs of children in Direct Provision. In response, Mark Wilson, director of International Protection Accommodation Services (IPAS), said that a survey conducted by IPAS’s ‘call centre’ revealed that the demand for laptops and tablets among asylums seekers was low.
Jo’s father counters this: he insists that all the parents in Cahersiveen had expressed the need for a laptop for their children when surveyed by the centre's management.
Fianna Fáil TD Stephen Donnelly, told Mark Wilson it the Dáil, that he was presently home-schooling his children; he added that it was difficult to educate kids with no access to computers effectively.
Moody uses his father’s phone and his brother’s broken tablet to look at school activities online. It is a totally unsatisfactory arrangement – if you could even call it that.
Children whose parents don’t speak English, like an Albanian teenager in Skellig Star Hotel, are often entirely missing out on their education. The young girl understands some English. Since moving to Cahersiveen, however, her connection with her previous school has been cut off. Thus, her English is stagnating. Having no English, her parents can’t home-school her either.
Confined in Skellig Star Hotel, the teenager feels helpless. She is trying her best to cope with trauma, but with no professionals to help her navigate the intertwined pressures of the crisis and of adolescence, the experience may leave lasting scars on her mental health.
Schools can make the children who attend feel equal. But we know now that there is nothing like a pandemic to expose class divisions and disparity among students.
Something needs to change – and soon…
* Picture shows Georgian women with a sign demanding "Move Us Out" in their native tongue. Home schooling of children is hardly an option for them...