Christianity demands more than the normal empathy and loyalty

The direct provision system is barbaric

MAGIS Ireland, the Jesuits’ social justice ministry for young people, closed its doors last year. The last event of theirs I attended was a look at the direct provision system that asylum-seekers face when trying to enter this country. We heard from people involved in trying to reform the system, and from Chinazo, a man who was himself in direct provision.

I left that event absolutely convinced that direct provision made a mockery of any claim we might make to being a kind, compassionate country.

With the years and years spent in substandard accommodation, unable to work and without any guarantee of residency at the end of the process; the children who have to grow up in these conditions, and who can’t enter third-level education; the pathetic allowance which is supposed to cover everything; the allegations of authoritarian and even abusive behaviour by some administrators of the system – this system is barbaric.

So you can imagine that I was somewhat taken aback by an opinion poll which found that 52% of Irish people would prefer to see asylum seekers remain in direct provision, compared to 31% who wished them to  get full refugee status and be able to seek employment and receive benefits.

These aren’t the only alternatives and there was no mention of reforming the system.

But that so many support the status quo is disturbing.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the poll is the age breakdown. The Irish Times report on the poll contains this revealing sentence: “Surprisingly, the over 65s are the most liberal in their attitude while the age group most hostile to abandoning the direct provision system is the 25 to 34 cohort closely followed by 18 to 24-year-olds.”

It’s only surprising if you’re expecting to see a certain narrative play out. Over-65s hail from old, regressive, Catholic Ireland, and so they’re bound to be xenophobic, right? Young people, though, are cosmopolitan, liberal and progressive.


Looking through a different lens, the breakdown according to age makes perfect sense. When you realise those on lower incomes also tended to support direct provision more than those on higher incomes, it’s fairly easy to see the pattern: older people are less likely than the young to be competing for jobs with immigrants.

This could just be rational self-interest at work.

But in the face of injustices like direct provision, rational self-interest just isn’t a sufficient response.

Anxiety about employment prospects, however well-grounded, can’t justify supporting this.

It’s too easy simply to put this down to young people being self-centred and lacking in compassion. Most of the young people I know are pretty empathic.

The problem is that their empathy is often strongest for people like them, or like people they know.

Look at the campaigns against homophobic bullying in secondary schools and college campuses across the country, which are making real differences in the lives of vulnerable people.

But while more and more people now know someone who is gay, I’d wager that not many have friends who are asylum seekers.


What’s missing is a sense of universal solidarity: a sense that we’re all in this together, a sense that it’s worth seeking justice for the weakest, whoever they are, simply because they’re our brothers and sisters.

The Synod on the Family has sparked huge debates about divorced and remarried Catholics and the pastoral care of LGBT people.

How do we welcome and challenge at the same time? But it’s easy to forget that all this stuff is ultimately supposed to help people live the Gospel, and to love God and their neighbour. I was struck by this passage in the Synod’s controversial mid-week document, the relatio: “In this the Church can carry out a precious role in supporting families, starting from Christian initiation, through welcoming communities. What is asked of these, today even more than yesterday, in complex as well as mundane situations, is to support parents in their educative undertaking, accompanying children and young people in their growth through personalised paths capable of introducing them to the full meaning of life and encouraging choices and responsibilities, lived in the light of the Gospel.”

Serving the least

Catholicism is a way of being that should get us into the habit of serving the “least of these”.

Without structures and practices – spiritual direction, regular Confession, prayer groups, authentic, challenging homilies – to help people live this life, to expose them to the depths and riches of Catholicism, then anything any synod says will ultimately be pointless.

Everyone should be challenged. No-one’s journey is finished.

Christianity demands more of us than normal empathy and loyalty. It demands that we do our best to bring people to God, and that we leave our own comfort zones to help those truly suffering.

It takes what is best in us and says “this, and much more”!