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
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