Illegal Irish workers in Australia face a perilous existence
Those without necessary visa have reason to feel afraid and very vulnerable
“Sarah” flew out to Australia on a working holiday visa in 2013. She works in Perth as an administrator for a big company. But there’s a secret the Irish woman is keeping from her employer: she has been living in the country illegally since her visa expired last year.
“I come from a small town at home and I just couldn’t go back to nothing,” says Sarah (23) whose Irish boyfriend, who works in construction, has also overstayed his visa.
“I had a choice to go home and be on the dole, or stay here and try and make a life for myself. I tried everything to stay legally. We met with an immigration agent, but because my degree is not on the skills list and my boyfriend’s trade isn’t either, there is nothing we can do.”
Sarah and her partner are among an increasing number of Irish people overstaying temporary visas in Australia, not wanting to move home to Ireland when they expire.
According to the Australian department of immigration and border protection, 1,120 Irish nationals were believed to be living in Australia unlawfully in June 2015.
More than 100,000 Irish people moved to Australia in the six years following the crash in Ireland in 2008, the vast majority on working-holiday or four-year employer-sponsored (subclass 457) visas.
With the economy in Australia contracting and unemployment levels rising, they are now finding it harder to get sponsorship or permanent residency to stay legally in the long term, as their visas come to an end.
“There is more talk of it now than I have ever known,” says Liz O’Hagan, co-ordinator of the Claddagh Association in Perth, who has been a registered migration agent in Australia for 17 years.
“They are getting nervous because there is so much talk of people in detention. We are getting a lot of hypothetical questions, asking, ‘What would happen if my friend who is illegal . . . ?’ ”
Figures from the Australian department of immigration and border protection show that between July 2014 and June 2015, 92 Irish citizens were “removed” after being arrested and held at immigration detention centres, up from just 16 in 2010/11.
A further 309 returned to Ireland voluntarily, after overstaying their visas and engaging with the immigration authorities.
“A lot of the people who came out here [during the recession in Ireland] weren’t skilled. They left school in Ireland and went to work on building sites, and don’t have a third-level education.
“They are the ones who are staying on illegally because they don’t have the skills Australia needs, and can’t get sponsored,” O’Hagan says.
“They are reluctant to return to Ireland. They are worried about their job prospects because they don’t have any skills. The labourers who haven’t done an apprenticeship and don’t have a degree have very limited options.”
Brian Mooney, who keeps Perth’s Irish construction workers well-fed with breakfast rolls, batch bread sandwiches and curry chips at Mooney’s Irish Sandwich Bar, says “the chat” among his customers “has always been about the visas, and how they can stay”.
“God love them, what choice do they have? Things haven’t changed completely at home yet, and work is still hard to get. There’s a lot of depression about – they don’t know what they are going to do.”
Mooney has noticed a sharp drop in the number of Irish construction workers coming through his doors in the last year, as they move home, to Sydney where construction is still booming, or on to other countries.
He estimates that the proportion of illegal Irish among those working on sites around Perth could be one in 10.
A lot of them work for cash, he says, which leaves them vulnerable to exploitation.
“On the sites they might be on AUS$1,500 [€1,014] a week, and their boss might not pay them for four or five weeks if they haven’t been paid for a job or something.
“Suddenly they are thousands in debt. And if they are illegal, they can’t do anything about it, they can’t complain to anyone if they are not paid. That is happening a lot. I feed some of the lads like that who are hungry – young fellas who have no money or have lost their jobs.”
Living undocumented in Australia is a risky business, especially when it comes to healthcare, O’Hagan says.
“They put themselves at risk because they don’t have access to insurance policies.
“There is such a risk of someone reporting them that they pay cash to go to the doctor. If you get sick you could end up in detention at the end of your hospital stay.”
By doing so they will face a three-year ban from the country, but will avoid arrest or detention.
O’Hagan says the department won’t actively seek out people who have overstayed, but do come down hard when undocumented immigrants get in trouble with the law in other ways, for driving offences or arrests for drunkenness.
“For people who have no history but have just overstayed, they can get lost in the system and not be caught for a long time.
“But the Australian tax office is linked to the department of immigration, so they can get caught that way. It is surprising how many people talk openly about it too, which is beyond stupid – you don’t know who you are talking to.”
Also related to the expiry of temporary visas is the rise in the number of Irish being refused permanent residency.
The case of Bernard Lee from Greystones in Co Wicklow made headlines across Ireland this month when he was arrested by armed border police in Perth and detained at Yongah Hill detention centre, before being deported back to Ireland 10 days later.
Lee (28), who had applied for permanent residency, had his business visa cancelled when the department discovered he had not informed them of nine-year-old convictions in Ireland for drink-driving and driving without a licence.
Lee’s case received a lot of publicity because of his family’s appeal for his release, but organisations such as Claddagh are seeing cases like his regularly, mostly because the people involved haven’t disclosed prior criminal convictions.
At a recent presentation to these Irish welfare organisations in Perth, a representative from the department said there was a particularly high refusal rate for permanent residency among Irish applicants.
“They are coming down really heavily. There is a pattern emerging of Irish people being caught out for not declaring minor offences,” O’Hagan says.
“I see this on a weekly basis where young men have committed an offence, usually minor like driving without insurance, but tick ‘No’ under the criminal record section on the form when applying for their working holiday visa, or their employer sponsored [subclass 457] visa.
“What is happening more and more often is people have an offence on their Garda clearance that they didn’t declare, not only on their visa applications but at the airport every time they entered Australia after being on holidays.
“What is a major no-no is if you reoffend in Australia. You have your history in Ireland, a history of not telling the truth to immigration, and then an Australian offence. There is zero tolerance for that now.”
The Lee case will “cause a bit of fear for the lads” who are illegal in Perth, Mooney says, “because they always thought that if caught they would be just brought to the airport and put on a plane and sent home. But it doesn’t work like that.”
As increasing numbers of Irish apply for citizenship in Australia (3,092 Irish took the oath in the 12 months to June 2015, up from just 903 in 2009), the number of refusals for Irish applicants on is also on the up, says the department.
On a recent visit to Perth and Sydney to meet some of Australia’s young Irish population, there was a lot of talk about getting citizenship as a “safety net” before returningto Ireland, in case things don’t work out and they want to return to Australia.
“People are rushing to get citizenship who have no intention of remaining in Australia, and the department has cottoned on to that,” O’Hagan agrees.
“They sometimes even say it in their citizenship interviews, or ask for their applications to be rushed through because they are moving home.
“They will be refused, because genuine citizen applicants are expected to contribute to Australian society in the long term.”
O’Hagan has also noticed an increase in the number of people violating the conditions of their sponsored visas, which are state-specific:
“They might have lost their job in Perth and they go to Sydney, which is against the terms of their visa. But they tell me they don’t feel they have a choice, because they can’t go back to Ireland.”
Sarah says she lives in fear of being caught by the police in Perth, but the risk of living illegally seems worth it to her for now. She and her partner plan to stay working in Australia until they have saved a deposit for a house.
“We are not criminals, we are not bad people,” she says. “I have never ever been in trouble here or in Ireland, but I still feel I will be treated like the worst kind of criminal if I get caught.
“We are afraid to go to the hospitals, and we are terrified of the police because we know they can take our whole lives away from us.”