• Clodagh Meaney

COVID-19 crisis has highlighted cracks in already broken immigration system

Earlier this month, Estefany Alquinta Gonzalez was falsely imprisoned at Mountjoy upon her arrival to Ireland from Chile.

The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted cracks in already broken immigration system - that's according to the Immigrant Council of Ireland.

The organisation have said that the system is in need of a significant overhaul, asking the new government and the freshly streamlined Department of Justice to make immediate and meaningful changes.

It comes following the false imprisonment of Estefany Alquinta Gonzalez, a 33-year-old student from Chile who was arrested and placed in in solitary confinement at Mountjoy prison earlier this month.

The woman travelled to Ireland on July 2nd to begin a six-month course in Dublin to study English. However, when the young woman arrived, she was detained by immigration and denied entry to the country on grounds that she "represented a real and immediate threat to the fundamental policy interests of the State."

She was released 10 days later on July 14th.

Speaking today, Brian Killoran, CEO, Immigrant Council of Ireland, said that while the immigration system has long required reform, the recent COVID-10 pandemic has magnified pre-existing issues in the administration.

"Time and again we hear from clients who face inconsistencies, discrepancies and delays in their application," he began.

"Problems then come when they legitimately apply for visa renewals or even citizenship applications and get penalised for delays which weren’t their fault."

Brian said other issues include a lack of legislative guidelines and an over-reliance on 'discretion', - meaning people making applications in near-identical situations often end up with different immigration permissions.

"Processing times are too often measured in pieces of string and the lack of a formal appeals processes all combine to create a service which is not sophisticated enough to manage modern, mobile life."

Calling on the new Government to address the issues head on, he said now is the time to prioritise the development of an efficient immigration system.

At present, visa applications take more than 12 months, and even longer if appealed. Residence applications have the same waiting time, with no independent appeal process in place.

When it comes to proposals to deport someone, they are often waiting more than 3 years for a decision on their case with no appeals process in place.

Applications for citizenship take from one to two years, and overall there is no complaint process in place either.

“In addition to those already within the country, recent events have highlighted the long standing and problematic practices at our airports and points of entry," he continued.

"Here discretion rules again, and 'permission to land' is governed by the on the spot assessment of an immigration official, with an overall lack of transparency or recourse for those refused."

Last year more than 7,500 non-EU/EEA nationals were refused leave to land, up 55 percent compared with refusals during 2018.

Those who are refused may find themselves placed temporarily in prison which according to Killoran criminalises a person who "may very well have done nothing wrong whatsoever, as we recently saw with Estefany Alquinta Gonzalez, who had a horrific experience."

He has called for legislative guidelines with clear guidelines on requirements for each immigration permission as it would provide "relief to our clients and reduce the administrative burden on the Department of Justice.”

Colin Lenihan, Information Services Coordinator, Immigrant Council of Ireland, said that while most of us do not have to grapple with the immigration system, those who do face long delays and uncertainty.

"The additional challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic have brought a whole new level of stress to the already problematic process."

Colin said that a lack of clear guidance from the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service caused disruption as deadlines approached and offices began to close inline with COVID restrictions.

“A two-tier system opened up with those in Dublin able to take advantage of an online renewal system, while Garda National Immigration Bureau operated registration offices in the rest of the country began phased re-opening from 20 July."

“There must be no more excuses," he continued. "For nearly 20 years the Immigrant Council of Ireland has provided information and support to thousands of people and the sad fact remains the blame for any gaps or discrepancies falls on the individual."

Ali, Pakistani national, who has been a legal resident in Ireland for the last 10 years spoke out about his experience with immigration services upon his return from Poland.

At immigration, despite having a valid passport and permanent residency given to him under EU Free Movement laws, he was stopped and brought into a small room where he was held and questioned for 45 minutes by border officials working for the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service. 

“When I landed, I felt I was in my country - in Ireland. But then being treated like this I have not been able to sleep at all thinking why did they treat me like this," he said.

Ali was returning to Ireland alone after spending a week in Gdansk with his Polish wife and her family. Immigration officials proceeded to question him about his wife, her whereabouts and their relationship.

Offering his mobile phone to show his messaging history, he said border officials took his phone and began scrolling back through the messages, looking at pictures and private messages - something which humiliated him.

"It was extremely embarrassing when 100s of people are walking by and looking at you detained in a room which is open and anybody walking can see you."

“Do I always have to show me and my wife’s conversation when I am coming to Ireland? Do I have to prove my relationship all the time? For what am I being penalised for? I don’t know. "

After asking officials why he was stopped, they told him that their information showed that he applied a student visa in 2019 - which made no sense to him given that he has been a permanent resident since 2017

If you have been affected by any of the themes in this article, please reach out:

Immigrant Council of Ireland Helpline - 01 6740200

Free Legal Aid Helpline - 1890 350 250 (lo-call from landlines) 01-874 5690 (from mobile)

Samaritans - 116 123

© 2020 by EMPWR

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