One hundred years ago, as the Kaiser sent his shock troops through Belgium to invade France, the people of Limerick opened their arms to an influx of Belgian refugees displaced by the outbreak of World War One.
That Catholic Limerick should do its best to help its co-religionists in their hour of need was the cry of the day.
“Plucky little Belgium” was also a colonial power and its mismanagement of Rwanda and the Congo left a legacy that encouraged the genocidal ethnic conflict that continues to intermittently flare up in the Great Lakes region today. But refugees fleeing the more recent African conflicts – their Catholicism notwithstanding – have been less universally welcomed.
Asylum seekers, rather than being viewed as people who need help, are among the most maligned groups in society. Any article on the subject, including the recent protests by Limerick asylum seekers over their living conditions, is guaranteed to attract ill-informed or outright racist commentary online, typically from anonymous contributors.
But casual racism is not the biggest problem facing Ireland’s asylum seekers. It is rather the outdated and dysfunctional system by which the state assesses and processes applicants.
That the system operates under such a veil of secrecy – visits to hostels have to be permitted in advance and the business of the Refugee Appeals Tribunal is conducted out of the public gaze – only encourages misunderstanding.
No amount of clarification will disabuse some of the myths that asylum seekers, for example, are bumped up the housing lists ahead of the Irish or that they need only clap their hands before some welfare official delivers them a new McClaren baby buggy.
Those waiting year after year for leave to remain or refugee status are generally accommodated in the direct provision system, with hostel-style accommodation and communal meals at set times the order of they day. They are not allowed to work or to cook for themselves.
Welfare payments for those in direct provision amount to €19.10 per week plus €9.60 per child, amounts that have gone unchanged since the Government introduced direct provision as a temporary measure over a decade ago.
Recent protests over asylum seekers living conditions at the former convent in Mount Trenchard, Foynes, have focused political attention on the issue.
It emerged this week that retired High Court judge Maureen Harding Clarke was so disturbed by allegations about conditions in Foynes that she took the unusual step of requesting the former minister for justice Alan Shatter to establish an inquiry.
Foynes, which Doras Luimni wants closed, is home to men only, some deeply traumatised by the experiences that forced them to leave their countries.
And Minister Jan O’Sullivan said she is also concerned for the welfare of hundreds of children growing up in direct provision centres in Ireland.
It appears that the political sands may be shifting and that the great work of Doras Luimni in advocating a more humane and more efficient system may soon pay off.