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Undocumented in Ireland fear being excluded from imminent regularisation scheme

Erik G

LIZ* (50) FIRST ARRIVED in Ireland from Botswana as a student in 2011. She started a degree in Business at a private college in Dublin, and worked part-time to support herself. 

Over the following seven years, two colleges where she was studying shut down permanently, but eventually she completed her degree and was granted a one-year graduate visa. Liz was unable to find work in her field, but continued to work as a home carer during this time, providing daily care to an elderly woman. 

After her visa expired, Liz remained in the country and continued to work as a carer, becoming one of thousands of undocumented migrants living and working in Ireland. Speaking to The Journal’s Good Information Project, she describes what life as an undocumented migrant is like:

“I live in fear. I really mean it because I can’t raise a complaint at work when I’m not happy because I feel they might pull out my file and notice and stop me from work,” she says. 

I have no freedom of movement as I always think I may be stopped any time. I can’t leave the country to attend family gatherings, like funerals and weddings. 

“My mother passed on just when my legal status expired and I couldn’t go to the funeral because I wouldn’t be allowed back in the country.” 

Earlier this year, Justice Minister Helen McEntee announced a regularisation scheme for undocumented migrants, which would allow them to legally work in the country, and provide a pathway to Irish citizenship.  

The announcement was welcomed by the thousands of undocumented people in Ireland. But for Liz, and many others, the news wasn’t good. 

Under the proposed guidelines, only people who have not had legal status for at least four years – or three years if they have children here – will be eligible to apply. This would mean that Liz – who has lived and worked here for 10 years but who has only been undocumented for two of those – would be ineligible. 

Migrants’ rights groups say the scheme as planned may exclude thousands of adults and children, and want the criteria to be widened.  

Undocumented migrants in Ireland

There are many different reasons a person becomes undocumented in Ireland. Some arrive on tourist visas and overstay to work, others may come as students or on temporary work permits and illegally remain in the country after their permission has lapsed, others could be victims of human trafficking. 

Due to the invisible nature of many undocumented migrants, it is extremely difficult to quantify the number of people living and working in the country without permission to do so. 

A Department of Justice (DOJ) spokesperson says that there is no official data on the number of undocumented people in the State as “such people tend to avoid official notice”. 

A figure of between 15,000 and 20,000 undocumented people living in Ireland is usually referenced, based on estimates provided by the Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland (MRCI) – a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that advocates for migrants. 

However, the department said that these figures are “not official estimates”.  

MRCI says it calculated its figures by using a “residual method” – a calculation technique that uses official government data to come up with an estimate. The technique is based on similar research conducted in the United Kingdom. 

The Irish research calculated between 20,000 and 25,000 undocumented migrants in Ireland. This has since dropped to between 15,000 and 20,000, following a smaller regularisation scheme in 2018. 

Again, MRCI caveats the figure by saying it is an estimate. 

The fight for status

MRCI and undocumented migrants themselves have been campaigning for over a decade for a regularisation scheme (sometimes called an amnesty) to be introduced in Ireland. However, until relatively recently there were no plans for one. 

As recently as October 2017, then-Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan said in response to a Parliamentary Question that the State had no plans to introduce a scheme for “those who are currently illegally resident in the State”. 

“Any such proposals could give rise to any number of unpredictable and potentially very costly impacts across the full range of public and social services,” Flanagan said at the time. 

He also referenced the European Pact on Immigration and Asylum, which commits member states “to use only case-by-case regularisation, rather than generalised regularisation, under national law, for humanitarian or economic reasons”. 

Two-and-a-half years later, and the 2020 Programme for Government committed to creating “new pathways for long-term undocumented people and their dependents… to regularise their status within 18 months of the formation of the Government”. 

The Justice Plan 2021 included a timeline for the scheme, and in April Minister McEntee announced the preliminary details, with the final proposals to be brought to Cabinet by the end of this month. 

So, what changed between 2017 and 2020? 

“I think a number of things,” says Neil Bruton, campaign lead with MRCI.

He points towards the regularisation scheme introduced in 2018 for people who arrived in Ireland as students between 2005 and 2010, which allowed over 2,000 people to get legal status in Ireland.  

“I think possibly that showed that this can be done and it can be done reasonably easily and successfully and it doesn’t lead to any negative consequences. So I think that has helped,” he says. 

But Bruton says the biggest change has been the relentless campaigning by undocumented people in Ireland to raise awareness of their situation. 

“I think [there has been] a gradual rise in awareness of undocumented issues and obviously a huge amount work, campaigning and lobbying from undocumented people themselves,” says Bruton. 

In the last three years the campaign has really gone up a gear, and brave undocumented people putting themselves forward, taking a stand and really fighting for this, has really helped.”

Justice for the Undocumented  One campaigner is Irene Jagoba, originally from the Philippines, who came to Ireland first in 2008 on a tourist visa. Jagoba had two young sons at the time, and left her home country as she was unable to find work to support them. She began to work as a childminder in Ireland, and hasn’t returned to the Philippines in over 13 years. 

Today, she works a variety of different jobs to support herself, and is a leader with the Justice for the Undocumented (JFU) campaign group. The group, coordinated by MRCI, is made up of over 1,700 undocumented people living in Ireland advocating for recognition and status. 

Unlike Liz, Irene is likely to be eligible for regularisation. She tells The Journal what having legal status would mean to her: 

“For me, the scheme is life changing. It means I would be able to see my children, then come back to Ireland and work and live a normal life without fear and restrictions,” she says. 

“I could continue to contribute to the economy, society and the community. It’s like getting your freedom, being able to drive and to be in proper employment. To be able to pay tax and things like that.” 

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A report last year from MRCI, entitled “We live here, we work here. We belong here”, surveyed 1,000 undocumented people living in Ireland. It found that 93% were working to support themselves, with almost half working over 40 hours a week. 

The survey also found that over a quarter of workers were carers for elderly people in their home, and that 26% of people did not receive the minimum wage. 

Irene says life as an undocumented migrant in Ireland can be stressful and difficult for a number of reasons. 

“The fear of deportation is always there,” she says. 

“That’s the daily challenge in an undocumented [person’s] life. Because from the moment we step out the door, we don’t know who we are going to encounter.” 

Irene describes a life of avoiding making contact with any form of authority figure, for fear that the person would realise her illegal status in the country. This extends to visiting the doctor when you are sick, or contacting gardaí in the case of a crime. 

“We’re so afraid to report a crime. For me, once my bag was stolen with €4,500 in cash… everything, even my laptop, was stolen. But I did not want to report the crime in case I was the one to be investigated,” she says. 

The future

It is expected that the regularisation scheme will be signed off by Cabinet this month and that it will open by the end of the year. It will run for six months, during which time people can apply, and will close to new applicants after this timeframe. 

Successful applicants will be given the right to live and work legally in the country, and will have a pathway to becoming Irish citizens.  

A DOJ spokesperson said Ireland will honour its commitment to the 2008 EU Pact on Asylum and Migration, by assessing each applicant on a case-by-case basis. 

Bruton says MRCI welcomes the initiative, but said that the proposed eligibility criteria are too narrow, excluding people like Liz and potentially thousands of others. 

“We are worried that thousands of people could be left behind if the scheme stays as it is currently proposed,’ he says. 

“We feel this is the chance to implement a scheme that really helps as many undocumented people as possible.” 

Junior minister with responsibility for law reform James Browne described the plans last month as a “once in a generation” opportunity. Because of the time-limited, once-off nature, MRCI says they want it to be as inclusive as possible.  

Together with representatives from 24 other NGOs, unions and civil society organisations, MRCI wrote an open letter to acting Justice Minister Heather Humphries calling for the scope of the scheme to be widened. 

Among other criteria, they would like to see the proposed criteria around years spent without legal status in the country relaxed, so that people in Liz’s situation can avail of the opportunity to regularised. 

“What we would like to see taken into account is time spent here on legal permission, before you became undocumented… We would prefer to see a simple residence requirement,” says Bruton. 

We understand and know that there’s going to be criteria and people need to be undocumented for a certain period of time, but we feel that it can be done in a much more inclusive way than it is currently.

“There are solutions that can be found that can ensure that this scheme is for undocumented people, but that doesn’t put such a strict timeframe of four full years of undocumented residence” 

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A DOJ spokesperson said that the objective was to “ensure that the scheme is as inclusive as possible” and that the department had conducted a consultation on the proposed criteria to hear from those most affected. 

“Following the consultation process, the Department continues to work to finalise the details, including eligibility considerations and qualifying criteria, and also to design and manage the practical aspects to enable applications to be made and processed as efficiently as possible,” the spokesperson said.  

“The specific qualifying criteria will be guided by, among other things, the learning from previous regularisation schemes, such as the 2018 Student Scheme, and schemes operated by other EU Member States.” 

Many EU countries have carried out both large scale and smaller regularisation schemes over the past three decades. It is estimated that between 1996 and 2008, 3.5 million people were regularised in Europe. 

The vast majority of these (c. 2.2 million) were in Spain and Italy, which enacted large scale regularisation programmes in 2005 and 2006 respectively. In 2001, Portugal regularised 185,000 undocumented migrants.  

In more recent years, EU countries have shifted away from large scale programmes, towards more case-by-case regularisation based on different criteria. MRCI and others would like to see this ongoing mechanism implemented in Ireland in the future.

The future 

For Irene Jagoba, even if she is eligible for regularisation and is granted legal status in Ireland, she says she will not stop campaigning for any undocumented migrants who are not included. 

“For myself and I hope the others on the team, we will continue to advocate for those left behind. I’m staying working with them in the future,” she says. 

For Liz, with the final details of the scheme due to be announced, she fears she will not be included and will continue to live on the margins of society, despite having contributed to the country for the past decade. 

“I’ve contributed a lot to this country, like paying tax, and I was there for this country when it needed people like me. And it needed people like me a lot during the pandemic,” she says. 

“As a healthcare assistant I was working with an elderly woman… who I’ve been with for close to nine years now. I was with her when none of her siblings could visit her because of Covid-19. Now the government proposal is leaving me out. This is very sad and depressing.  

“So I’m really pleading with the Minister of Justice to hear me out and reconsider to broaden this scheme to accommodate people like me.” 

*Liz’s name has been changed to protect her identity 

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.


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