When asylum seekers go home
What kind of life awaits asylum seekers who are sent back to their native countries? The Irish Times travels to Lagos, in Nigeria, to find out
In Lagos: Noruwa Oziegbe and her six-year-old triplets, Joshua, Miracle and David, who were born at Waterford Regional Hospital. Photograph: Akinola Ariyo
In Lagos: Claire Ojomu, who was born in Our Lady’s Hospital in Drogheda, with her mother, Funmi, outside their lodgings. Photograph: Akinola Ariyo
In a rundown one-bedroom home in Lagos, Nigeria’s biggest city, Funmi Ojomu sifts through remnants of another time and place, papers that unfold an abruptly terminated narrative. An Irish birth certificate records her daughter Claire’s arrival at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda, in April 2007. As she was born after January 1st, 2005, Claire was not automatically entitled to citizenship. Ojomu also still has adult-education scrolls with grades that fostered a quiet hope that she would be allowed to stay in Ireland, and the worn letterhead of the Fine Gael TD Bernard Durkan, an immigrant advocate, reflecting a search for help as the end neared.
After three years as an asylum seeker in the Mosney accommodation centre, in Co Meath, and a few days in Mountjoy women’s prison, pending “removal”, a narrative of uncertainty became a tale of daily survival. “You are thrown back to a bleak place where there is no hope,” she says.
Claire sits quietly on the sofa. She is light in complexion, owing to an expatriate father who may have left Nigeria. On the thronged, sandy streets she goes into a shell when people call out “oyinbo” (“white person” in Yoruba). The kidnap-for-ransom gangs present a sharper concern. “They wouldn’t know that I don’t even have a penny,” says Ojomu. “I whisper it to God: ‘Don’t let her just be a victim, because I don’t know what I would do.’ ”
Since their deportation, in December 2009, Claire, who has had malaria “several times”, often speaks of Ireland. “Claire, what do you always tell mummy? Don’t be shy,” Ojomu gently prompts, and Claire says softly, “Want to go back.”
A grubby curtain shrouds a tiny kitchen without running water. A torch on Ojomu’s table speaks of a shaky electricity supply.
Nigeria’s economy has grown strongly in recent years, but most people have not benefited in this nation that is tired of paradoxes. Corruption and mismanagement facilitated by western organisations – the NGO Global Witness reported in 2010 on British banks and “dirty money” from Nigeria, for example – have long thwarted the enormous potential of this oil-rich nation, and daily sustenance, employment and school fees are all huge challenges for Ojomu.
She bears a painful-looking hand injury, which she cannot afford to have treated. “You fall victim to so many things,” she says, “because you want to survive.”
Ojomu came to Ireland seeking asylum in December 2006. Applicants must show a “well-founded fear of persecution”. She claimed that a member of her family threatened her pregnancy, as Claire’s father was a Muslim and her own family were Christian.
A “friend” arranged her travel to Ireland and met her in Dublin, advising that she “declare” herself in the country. At Mosney she got three meals a day and €19.10 a week (as well as €9.60 a week for Claire) but was not allowed to work. Ojomu kept busy with volunteer work as the weeks, months and years ticked by.
Since they were deported they have had no contact with the person who she says threatened her.
Ojomu’s main concern is her daughter. “By the time the person spends over two years adapting to the culture and everything, they are thinking, Oh, things might be better now, I’ll get myself together here,” she says. “But suddenly you are back to square one again. For a child who was born over there and who had never been in this country . . . the first thing they will be faced with is no light, no water, mosquitoes. If it is only me . . . I can go through it, but she is too small for this.”
Claire looks at her mum, who is in tears.
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On September 24th, 2006, Noruwa Oziegbe gave birth to triplets at Waterford Regional Hospital. She had been expecting twins, the third baby having been missed at antenatal appointments.
Today, in a cramped rented home in Lagos, the six-year-olds – David, Joshua and Miracle – jostle for attention as their mother praises the Irish midwife who insisted there was a third baby. She has a clipping from the Tipperary Voice as a keepsake for the triplets. She has two other sons, 10-yearold Paul and 13-year-old Ose, who is out at secondary school.
Oziegbe says that since their deportation, in March 2012, her boys frequently ask when they are returning to Ireland. They lived there for more than five years. “They go to school and are coming back saying, ‘Oh, Mummy, we are not doing what we used to do in St Mary’s [in Drogheda].’ It is an everlasting thing that will be in their memories.”
Oziegbe, who is from Lagos state, arrived in Ireland in September 2006. Her asylum application claimed that her twins (as was thought) would be made to undergo “a ritual” to “keep them safe”. Her requests for asylum and for subsidiary protection, an EU-mandated status that refers to a risk of serious harm if deported, were refused. She was also declined leave to remain, a status at the discretion of the minister for justice that is meant to consider humanitarian issues, including family circumstances.
On March 8th, 2012, there was banging on the door in Mosney. It was the Garda, who had arrived even though a legal challenge to the refusal of subsidiary protection had been appealed to the Supreme Court (and has yet to be heard).
The gardaí “came in the morning, just like that, and woke them up from the bed,” Oziegbe says. “They took us straight to the airport, and we didn’t leave until that night.
“I cried all the way. When we got to Nigeria it just dawned on me: the first thing was the hot air,” she says. “They felt it. They were all sweating. I don’t know how to explain it – coming down, the hot air, the people, the questioning. They were like, ‘Mummy, what is happening?’ ”
Oziegbe, a pharmacy graduate, has found work. Her husband, who remained in Lagos, is also working, but they struggle to make ends meet. “There are many things that are just not right in this country,” says Oziegbe, who maintains that she is still fearful of issues raised in her asylum claim.
Paul, quiet throughout, decides to say a few words. Speaking flatly and staring ahead, he remembers the Irish Sea, watching films on a Saturday, visiting Scotch Hall Shopping Centre, chatting with friends on the bus, attending church and school. He says school in Nigeria is very different, as it is “hot inside” and “they will beat you if you do something bad”.
Oziegbe says the boys often ask her to ring Dublin Airport and “just tell them we are coming back”.
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In Iyabo Nwanze and Elizabeth Odunsi’s sparse lodgings, a picture entitled Lagos: A Mega City sits on the floor. It reflects ambitious political plans to rehabilitate the infrastructure of this hectic metropolis, but progress will be slow.
Home for the two friends before they were deported from Ireland, in 2005, was a suburban estate in Athlone, in Co Westmeath. Home today is a small section of a house, with bars on the windows to discourage armed robbers, with a rudimentary cooking area just inside the doorway.
“Life has been really difficult,” says Nwanze, a mother of two, “but God has been so good to us and our kids and our families.”
Single parenthood is growing in Nigeria, but lone parents receive no support in a country with huge unemployment. Odunsi, a mother of four, says they “do odd jobs here and there to make ends meet”.
Both had lodged asylum claims in Ireland in 2001 and considered Athlone home. “It was quiet, peaceful, loving,” says Nwanze. “It was friendly and peaceful,” says Odunsi.
On March 14th, 2005, they went to Athlone Garda Station in what they say was a routine visit that people at risk of deportation must make. Each arrived with her youngest child, Odunsi with her son Bolu, Nwanze with her son Israel). Their other children – Nwanze’s son Emmanuel and Odunsi’s children Ayo, Oluwaseun and Segun – were at school. The women say they were detained and their mobile phones withheld.
Immigration officers went to find the four other children, then aged from eight to 17, and took Odunsi into Our Lady’s Bower Secondary School while searching for Ayo, who had earlier heard about the Garda presence in her estate and had left.
Noel Casey, now principal of the school, says he was stunned by the behaviour of the Garda: “I still remember that sense of, my God, what is happening here?”
Odunsi was held, “begging and crying for help”, and was warned not to be “foolish”, in a scene watched by dozens of girls at after-school study.
Later the then minister for justice, Michael McDowell, publicly accused the women of orchestrating a separation – a claim they denied – and he defended the Garda National Immigration Bureau against allegations by neighbours that officers had told them, “We know you black people cover up for yourselves.”
Casey made an official complaint to the Garda over officers’ behaviour at the school; a chief superintendent “came down and carried out an investigation”.
Casey understood that the force has changed some procedures as a result, but the Garda press office says it is unaware of “an investigation into” the Garda National Immigration Bureau after events in Athlone.
Many locals had opposed the deportation – or the manner of it – and a campaign headed by the late Frank Young advocated the women’s return to their children, who were in the care of the Nigerian community in different localities. Time magazine reported on proceedings.
Friends were troubled by events and still wish for their return. “We were highly affected negatively . . . Their children had mixed,” says Joshua Olufemi-Ojo, a friend, pastor and Dublin Bus driver who has residency because he is the father of an Irish citizen. None of Odunsi or Nwanze’s children was born in Ireland.
Today Odunsi’s three eldest children are grown and do not live at home – the space is “not conducive” – although Segun, who is now 19, did stop by during my visit. It was two years before the children left Ireland, according to Nwanze.
Both families were “overwhelmed” by the support they received. “You know, there’s this popular saying that out of sight is out of mind,” says Nwanze. “But although we were out of sight, the good people of Athlone and our friends still had us in mind.”
Their last day in Ireland still disturbs them: they describe shock, separation, an invitation to scream all they wanted because nobody would hear, a promise that they would never see Ireland again and, on arrival in Nigeria, the hours held at the notorious Kirikiri Prison until they were released on bail.
Odunsi shakes her head and Nwanze dissolves into tears.
This article was facilitated by the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund