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Not In My Back Yard – A Look At The Undocumented In Ireland

Resource type: News

Irish Examiner |

By Aisling Ryan Saint Patrick’s Day brought the usual bowl of Shamrock from Ireland, to the White House this year. But despite the festive mood on March 17, the Irish delegation was focused on developments in the immigration debate, as the Senate Judiciary Committee prepared their version of the Immigration Bill to present to the floor. The stakes are high for the estimated 50,000 undocumented Irish now living in the United States. So far, the Bill passed by the House of Representatives last December, makes no provision for a guest worker scheme, which could help to regularize the many undocumented who now call the U.S their home. Certainly, collapse of negations in the Senate on the McCain/Kennedy Bill, which includes a guest worker scheme, is cause for serious concern. The Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, who has raised the issue with President Bush on numerous visits, has stated that the issue remains the highest priority for the Irish government. It remains to be seen whether the final legislation will ultimately benefit undocumented Irish. But whatever outcome, given their tireless lobbying, the Irish government must be applauded for their support of the Irish Diaspora in their hour of need. Back in Ireland, a less furious debate is taking place, amid broad consensus however that the Irish immigration system requires urgent reform. Immigration into Ireland increased dramatically during the economic boom of the late 1990s. If the predictions are correct, the numbers of migrants are set to continue to rise in the coming decade. Criticism of the system has focused on the lack of legal framework to deal with applications it currently consists of piecemeal legislation, ad hoc policies and ministerial discretion for its application and lack of integration initiative for long term immigrants. Acknowledging the need for reform, new legislation has been promised by Justice Minister Michael McDowell, and this development has been welcomed by all sides of the debate. But it is not expected to be far reaching, and for some, who have languished in a system struggling to modernize it is already too late. These include the undocumented in Ireland, who like their Irish counterparts in the US are living life in a shadow of insecurity not knowing what the future may hold for them. In Ireland, the undocumented are largely made up of two groups those who fell out of status, often because of job exploitation or domestic violence, and failed asylum seekers who are awaiting decisions on complimentary humanitarian status. Under Irish and international law, the Justice Minister is obliged to take into account a number of factors before deciding whether to deport a person, or grant them leave to remain, including their age, time spent in Ireland, and humanitarian considerations. Known ironically as the humanitarian process, according to Catherine Cosgrave, Legal Officer with the Immigrant Council of Ireland, the problem is that leave to remain is heavily dependent on ministerial discretion and consequently is fraught with inconsistencies and delays, although legislation makes clear the matters the Minister is obliged to consider…due to the totally discretionary based nature of decision itself , it is not possible to advise any applicant what prospects of success their application has, whether it will be delay with in the same manner as previous applications, and what the likely timeframe is. The Irish Refugee Council has also commented on the lack of transparency and inconsistency in the leave to remain process. Applicants in this process are actually undocumented, in the sense that they are in a sort of limbo and have no rights of residency while they await decisions. But, unlike the undocumented in the U.S at present, they are participants in a formal decision making system, and are therefore entitled to fair and due process. Still, with a lack of transparency and deportations frequently made against families who have put down roots in their communities, after many years, it would seem that the undocumented are no more secure than if they were underground. There are no official estimates for the numbers involved, but it is believed by some to be in the region of several thousand. Calls have been made by NGOs and politicians to draw a line in the sand and offer some form of regularization to this group. In contrast to the situation of the undocumented Irish in the US, and although the numbers estimated are modest in comparison, the government is yet to support this proposal. For one group of undocumented, the wait is particularly distressing. They are young people who came to Ireland as separated children, that is to say unaccompanied by parents or guardians and have aged out or turned eighteen years. According to Mary King, Chairperson of the Dun Laoghaire Refugee Project, most of them and their numbers are estimated to be less than 250 have lived in Ireland since 2001 or longer. Yet despite their considerable vulnerability they, like any other adults in the humanitarian process, are subject to deportation if refused leave to remain. So far two of the group, have been deported to Nigeria, one last week and another 19 year old, Portia, last year. Portia relies on the financial assistance of Irish friends to put a roof over her head in Lagos, without having to resort to prostitution. Given the humanitarian concerns in deporting this group, King and a group of volunteers have started a campaign, PLUS, Please Let Us Stay, requesting the Minister to grant them leave to remain. The issue, she says, is not one of amnesty. She believes that the system has failed these young people, in that inadequate provision was made for them in the adversarial and adult focused asylum system and that the delay in deciding on their cases has only compounded their cause. Our argument is that these people were neglected, in the sense that the system couldn’t cope at the time. The children really didn’t know what was happening and the Health Board didn’t have the time to explain it to them. They were not being represented the same way an Irish child would be. All except a few in the group are from Africa, including Nigeria, Angola, Burundi, Somalia, Ethiopia, South Africa, Kenya and Rwanda. An English teacher, King became involved five years ago through a Pilot Project run by the St Vincent de Paul. When the project finished, she and other volunteers felt that they had no option but to continue to support the children, given the lack of resources for them. I realised there were a lot of separated children and the Health Board were over-stretched. This was a new thing in Ireland. I thought, God, if these were my kids in Angola or a country where they didn’t speak the language, I’d like to think that someone would support them, She says that such were the limitations on the Health Board at the time, that in one eighteen month period King and her group placed 150 children in some form on education. Many of the group have now completed their Leaving Certificate and King says they have been encouraged where possible to enrol in courses to keep busy. Under Irish law none of them are entitled to work in Ireland and are reliant on a weekly stipend of 19.10 euro from the government to survive. The Dun Laoghaire Refugee Project runs a drop in centre for the group every Monday night. According to King, they come from all over Dublin, some from as far as Meath and Kildare. Local politicians and senior members of the church have visited the centre and recently on Anti-Racism Day, the Ethnic Liaison Officers from the local Gardai invited the group to the station for a game of pool and a sing song. King recalls with obvious appreciation, They even drove them back to their hostels in a squad car. King’s positive attitude belies the strain in her voice as she talks about children she has watched grow into adults. We have seen them mature, which is very sad that their parents haven’t. A lot of them haven’t got parents. She recalls comforting a fifteen year old boy who had just arrived in Ireland, and told her he had seen his uncle beheaded the week before. You can’t turn your back on them. You have a vague idea of where they have been and what they have seen, but you can’t imagine how hard it is to cope. Recently talk at the drop in centre has turned again to deportation, as one more of the group has been removed and another awaits the outcome of injunctive proceedings against the Minister. For Kennedy George (21), the week has also been distressing. Required to sign on for deportation for the 20th time in the past 15 months, he was unsure until he went to the Garda National Immigration Bureau whether he would be removed that day. A national of Sierra Leone, Kennedy’s situation exposes the flaws in the system where deportation orders are being made by the Minister but not affected. Kennedy says that despite such a stressful situation, he has still not been told why he is required to sign on so often or when his deportation will take place. Kennedy left his country in 2001 because of the brutal armed conflict there, which ended in 2002. Having lost his father and brother, and unsure of his mother’s whereabouts he is afraid of what will become of him if he is returned there. I have gone through a lot of pain and I am now living without a future. I don’t know what’s happening. People are deciding on my life. I feel very down. Two others in the group were recently granted leave to remain, but continue to attend the weekly drop in centre to support their friends. Abrahim (21) from Nigeria is now a student of business and works part-time in a pub. When he got leave to remain last year he had mixed feelings. There was a mixture of feelings. It was hard to put into words. I was very angry because a girl, Portia, and another friend were with me and I was the only one still standing. That was difficult. I was grateful to be given the chance to remain, but I always look out for my friends irrespective of where they come from. We are all here for a reason. We are not bogus as the Minster would put it. We are not giving cock and bull stories as the Minister would say. A recent recipient of a World Refugee Day award, Abrahim is positive about the future in his adopted country and recalls feeling homesick for Dublin when he went on a football trip to Amsterdam last year. Its not just about having to live in Ireland, it’s about having a future in the long term. In the years to come we could have the first African TD or Archbishop. He does not see the sense in deporting members of the group, when so much has been invested in them to date. The government has spent a lot on us. It doesn’t make any sense after that to say ‘tough luck go back to where you came from’. People have put down roots. Cristavo, (21) is from Angola and was recently granted status. Having lost his parents during the civil war, his hope is to trace his sisters and brother, who may still be in Angola. To do this, he says he will have to rely on word of mouth reports from resident friends visiting their homeland. Currently working full time in an insurance company in Dublin, Cristavo says he was really happy to be granted status. I realised I can make it here. I can give something back to the community. In the same breath he acknowledges that it does not undo what has already happened to him. At the end of the day it won’t bring my mum and dad back. The response to the PLUS campaign has been hugely positive, attracting the support of the Teachers Union of Ireland, who have called upon the Minister to grant leave to remain to the group. General Secretary Jim Dorney, agrees that the constant threat of deportation is having a detrimental affect upon them. We would ask that the situation in which this small group of aged out minors find themselves is regularised. We urge the government to reach a positive decision on this appeal with all due haste, so that these young people can end the state of anxiety, fear and uncertainty in which they have lived for so long. Local politicians are also supporting the campaign including Fianna Fail’s Fiona O’Malley and Labour’s Eamonn Gilmore. They have formed a cross party Oireachtas group, but to date the Minister has refused to meet with them. Commenting for this article, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice said The Minister…has noted the representations made by Dun Loaghaire Refugee Group and a number of Elected Representatives on the issue. However, [he] takes the view that the most equitable manner for dealing with applications from persons who seek permission to remain temporarily in the State, including applications made by so called aged out minors, is to consider each case on its individual merits which is the Minister’s current policy and practice in this area. The Irish Refugee Council is not convinced of the distinction between a person of 17 and just 18. We would see little distinction between the situation of a 17 year old Separated Child and that same child the day after he/she turns 18. Yet as it stands official policy consigns ‘aged-outs’ to the adult asylum system, an often adversarial process that is… often unsuitable for such vulnerable people. They are also concerned with the apparent inconsistencies in the system, where similar facts are presented to the Minister but do not guarantee similar outcomes. Ibrahim, whose case is outlined above, says that despite arriving at the same time as him, and with the same case his brother still awaits a decision. These circumstances prompt the IRC to ask the question just what does one have to do to be granted leave to remain. To some extent the efforts of the P.L.U.S campaign have paid off. Four of the group against whom deportation orders have signed, had those decisions reversed by the Minister last year. This highlights the enormous discretion of the Minister in these cases, a power which became apparent in 2005 when there was public outcry over the deportation of Nigerian student Olukunle Eluhanlu, just weeks before his Leaving Certificate. In face of pressure from Kunle’s classmates at PalmerstownSecondary School in Dublin, the Minister reversed the order and granted a visa for him to return to Ireland to sit his exams. Similarly and more dramatically in 2005 the Minister, announced an administrative scheme availed of by approximately 20,000 parents of Irish citizen children to obtain Irish residency, and said of the scheme that was not something I was legally obliged to do, but I felt morally compelled to do it. The Irish government is not legally compelled to lobby for the documentation of thousands of Irish in the States; however their compassion for this community is all too apparent. In a recent article in the Irish Times, the Taoiseach wrote of the undocumented in the U.S, they long to come out of the shadow of fear and uncertainty and to have their lives recognised and accepted. The P.L.U.S campaign make similar arguments for their young people but also feels that the Minister has a responsibility to ensure that the legal system which has failed them, now makes amends. Mary King is hopeful that the campaign will gather momentum and remains upbeat. We haven’t been adversarial. That’s not the way we work. We have been positive for the kids. P.L.U.S is a positive logo.