Twelve days in an Irish prison: ‘The most stressful period of my life’
Some 500 people were sent to prison last year after being refused ‘leave to land’ in Ireland
Lorena (left) and Estefany Alquinta Gonzalez
On Thursday, July 2nd, 2020 a WhatsApp voicemail appeared on Lorena Alquinta González’s phone from her older sister, Estefany. She listened in shock as her sister hastily explained she had been refused entry into Ireland and was being detained by police.
Estefany – a 33-year-old environmental engineer – asked her sister to keep the truth from their mother to avoid any unnecessary worry. “I love you a lot, kisses, ciao, I have to go.”
“Obviously I was upset and as the hours passed with no news I started calling Dublin Airport,” Lorena explains over Zoom from her home in the city of Calama in northern Chile. “When we finally made contact they said she’s not here, we can’t give you anymore information.”
After numerous calls to gardaí, Lorena González discovered her sister was scheduled to fly back to Denmark, where she had been living, on the Saturday. However, when Estefany’s boyfriend went to Copenhagen airport, she didn’t show up.
“I was so worried; a day usually never goes by when we don’t speak. I started calling the police again but they just said she’s gone. I was scared something bad had happened to her. When the Chilean consul told me there was no news either I sat down and cried for hours. It was traumatic. I knew I wouldn’t calm down until I heard her voice.”
Meanwhile, Lorena told her mother Estefany was under quarantine in an isolation unit in Dublin. Just two months had passed since the girls’ father had died of Covid-19, and González worried her mother would fall apart completely if she learned the truth about her daughter’s situation.
On the advice of Amnesty International, González’s younger sister, who lives in New Zealand, started emailing Irish NGOs and immigration lawyers. Wendy Lyons from Abbey Law solicitors responded, and within 48 hours, Estefany was released from the Dóchas women’s prison where she had spent 12 days in solitary confinement.
A person who is denied “leave to land” has simply been refused permission to enter the country. People who are refused leave to land never officially enter Ireland, but must await a plane back to their country of origin.
Fifty people – 43 men and seven women – were held in Irish prisons between March 2nd and July 28th, 2020 after being refused leave to land in Ireland, according to data released by the Irish Prison Service in response to a Freedom of Information request. Last year, with travel at normal levels, it was almost 500 in the entire year.
This year’s group included 10 Brazilians, five Iraqis, five Eritreans, four Afghanis, two Bolivians, two Syrians and two Iranians. Detainees also came from Argentina, Albania, Chile, Georgia, Greece, Israel, Italy, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the US, Vietnam and Yemen.
Estefany González’s story made national news headlines and she received a personal apology from the Minister for Justice. However, the vast majority of people detained in these circumstances never speak publicly about what happened.
The woman who searched me was friendly but it felt really invasive; I’d never gone through anything like that before
Anahi Molina, also from Chile, was refused leave to land in November 2019 when she arrived in Dublin to join her boyfriend Bruno who had been studying here for eight months. Unlike Estefany González, she had not booked her English language course in advance and planned to sign up for a class upon arrival.
She claims the border official accused her of lying and she was detained in the airport for a few hours while gardaí examined emails and social media accounts on her phone.
Anahi says she was not allowed to call Bruno who was waiting for her in airport arrivals. “It’s really stayed with me that they wouldn’t give me that call. It was my basic right to tell my family I was alive.” She was sent back to London that same day where she had connected from Chile en route to Ireland.
Meanwhile, Bruno called airport gardaí who, he claims, said his girlfriend could try and enter Ireland at a future date if she had all the necessary paperwork.
“My family paid for an English course for her over the internet and we booked a flight back for the next day,” Bruno explains. “She had all the same documentation I had when I arrived. We were confident nothing bad would happen.”
However, upon arrival in Dublin, Anahi was detained again and transferred to Dóchas women’s prison for the night. “I asked for an explanation but the police said nothing,” she says. “When I got to the prison they took my photo, took all my belongings, did a search all over me. The woman who searched me was friendly but it felt really invasive; I’d never gone through anything like that before.”
The 28-year-old spent the night alone in a cell. She was allowed to contact the Chilean embassy, and a doctor was called after she suffered a panic attack. The following morning, Anahi was sent back to London where she spent a week before flying to Germany. Bruno later joined her and the couple now live in Dresden.
Anahi continued to suffer panic attacks for months after the detention. “Suddenly I felt like I was drowning and couldn’t breathe. What happened to me was horrible, it’s so difficult to talk abut it. I’m not the same person. But I feel grateful we’re both together in Germany now.”
A total of 719 people were refused entry to Ireland between March and September of this year, including 586 refusals at Dublin Airport
Last month, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) criticised the practice of imprisoning foreign nationals who have been refused entry. It said people should be accommodated in centres “specifically designed for that purpose”.
The CPT report, which follows a 2019 review of Irish prisons, states “a prison is by definition not a suitable place in which to detain someone who is neither suspected nor convicted of a criminal offence”.
It warns that immigration detainees are often “subjected to abuse and bullying” by other prisoners, citing the example of a middle-aged foreign national who was placed in a cell with two remand prisoners who “allegedly attempted to rape him”, attack him and “verbally intimidated him”.
In its response, Irish authorities said work had been carried out on a new block at Cloverhill prison which will be used to accommodate persons detained for immigration purposes. The response notes that “the immigration detention facility in Dublin Airport has been specifically designed to provide a dedicated short-term facility” for those denied entry.
However, a spokesman for An Garda Síochána told The Irish Times it “does not have a dedicated immigration centre” and Dublin Airport’s Transaer House was “not an immigration facility” but a modern Garda station where Garda National Immigration Bureau personnel are based.
The Garda station does have custody facilities but they are “not yet operational”, he said.
When a person is refused leave to land “arrangements are made to return such persons to their point of embarkation at the earliest opportunity, which may take a number of days,” he said.
CPT head of division Hugh Chetwynd says the committee found immigration detainees were regularly treated “as if they’re remand prisoners” and that sending them to prisons was “totally wrong”. These people, who often do not speak much English, “should immediately have the right to contact someone and an interpreter should be made available”.
The immigration facility at Dublin Airport, which the committee visited last year, is not appropriate for detaining those refused leave to land, adds Chetwynd.
Eurostat figures show the number of people refused leave to land in Ireland increased by more than 55 per cent last year, rising from 4,797 in 2018 to 7,455 in 2019.
A total of 719 people were refused entry to Ireland between March and September of this year, including 586 refusals at Dublin Airport. Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said in September that her department had “conducted a full review” following the “high profile case” of Estefany Alquinta González and had “improved or amended any procedural or administrative arrangements to avoid unnecessary immigration detention in such cases”.
McEntee said she would be taking up “as a matter of urgency” with the Garda Commissioner the delay in opening the immigration detention facility.
Each application to enter the State is “assessed on its own merits” and the duration of stay, the purpose of the visit, the ability of the person to support themselves and proof of exit are all taken into account when making a decision, said the minster in response to a parliamentary question. “The powers granted to an immigration officer are not unfettered,” she added.
A Justice spokesman confirmed this week that operational procedures regarding refusal of leave to land cases had been “reconsidered” since July and that all cases are now “formally reviewed daily to ensure the return of such passengers is progressed as expediently as operationally possible”.
Fiona Finn, director of Nasc, the Migrant and Refugee Rights Centre, says there is a “complete lack of transparency” around the Border Management Unit’s decision-making process. The unit oversees immigration and border controls at Dublin Airport. Finn says its procedures fall “well below international human rights standards”.
The lack of an appeals mechanism for those refused entry is also problematic, says Finn. González’s detention in July “illustrates the real human cost and impact of our, largely subjective, border entry policy”.
González was fortunate to be able to access legal representation, something which is “certainly far from the norm” for many people denied entry to Ireland, she adds. “It is unconscionable that nothing has changed in the three years since Paloma Aparezida Silva-Carvalho was detained in Mountjoy (in July 2018).”
The 2019 Irish Prison Service annual report shows the number of people detained in Irish prisons for immigration related offences rose by 18 per cent last year, with 490 committals recorded
The detention of foreign nationals refused entry in Irish prisons is not a recent development. Wellington Oliveira, who was detained for one night in 2015, says the experience left him paranoid about travelling abroad. Oliveira is Brazilian but now has EU settled status in Scotland where he lives with his Irish boyfriend Donagh Horgan.
He was refused entry at Dublin Airport in September 2015 despite presenting the required documentation including proof of his English language course. He says airport officials accused him of trying to move to Ireland to live with his boyfriend after reading texts on his phone, despite Oliveira’s repeated assertions that Horgan lived in Scotland.
Horgan, who contacted the Irish authorities on numerous occasions after Oliveira’s detention, says he was “devastated” by how his partner was treated. “It was a harsh wake-up to the real world. The UK has been good to us but I have very little faith in Ireland now.”
Irish Penal Reform Trust director Fíona Ní Chinnéide says prison detentions should be “reserved only for the most serious offences” and “not be used to warehouse people whom social policy has failed”.
Ní Chinnéide warns there was no separation of remand, sentenced prisoners and immigration detainees in the women’s Dóchas centre, and that while Cloverhill is a remand facility, some detainees share cells with sentenced prisoners.
The 2019 Irish Prison Service annual report shows the number of people detained in Irish prisons for immigration related offences rose by 18 per cent last year, with 490 committals recorded. However, Ní Chinnéide says this is only a “snapshot” and does not allow for a proper interpretation of trends. More “transparent data” is needed including information on numbers detained under immigration law and their nationality or country of origin, she says.
An Garda Síochána and the Department of Justice refused to provide information for this article on the nationalities and sex of those detained after being refused entry.
I had no intention of coming to Ireland; they took me off the plane. Now I have a deportation on my record
Jeremey Avissar, an American national with dual Israeli citizenship was flying from Tel Aviv to New Jersey on April 17th when his flight was diverted to Dublin because of a suspected electrical problem. Avissar, who had taken anti-anxiety medication, started to act out towards crew when the flight announced its change of route and was detained upon arrival in Dublin.
Avissar says he was told he would return to the US on the next available flight. He ended up spending nearly three weeks in Cloverhill prison – one of these in a shared cell with Irish prisoners.
“I was told because of Covid I had to spend two weeks in isolation before they could process my flight to the US,” says Avissar, who was travelling on his Israeli passport. “I kept saying I haven’t broken any law but they wouldn’t give me answers.”
Avissar’s Garda file, which was sent to the governor of Cloverhill Prison and was seen by The Irish Times, states he was refused permission to land because “his presence could pose a threat to national security” and that there was reason to believe he intended to enter Ireland for reasons “other than those expressed”.
“I had no intention of coming to Ireland; they took me off the plane,” says Avissar. “Now I have a deportation on my record.” Avissar says he was diagnosed with PTSD after he was released and flew back to the US in May. “Every time I try to fall asleep now I can hear people banging on metal doors and screaming guards.”
My sister was deprived of contact with her family or information as to why she’d been detained. They were breaking international human rights obligations
While north American arrivals are questioned upon arrival at Irish airports, a legal immigration expert interviewed for this article says people carrying US and Canadian passports are almost never detained in prison if refused entry and are sometimes allowed into Ireland for a discretionary period before being returned home.
Most people refused entry into Ireland never speak to a legal professional while they’re here. Many return home traumatised by their time in prison. One English-language student who contacted me to share her story of being detained for nearly week after she was refused entry earlier this year withdrew her account after admitting she feared never being able to visit Ireland again if she publicised what she went through. This woman said she repeatedly requested a lawyer while in Dublin airport and felt “treated like a criminal”.
Under the 2004 Immigration Act, an officer who refuses entry to a foreign national must inform the person in writing “of the grounds for the refusal” as soon as possible. No one interviewed for this article received a detailed written explanation for their refusal.
Four months on from her sister’s ordeal, Lorena González is still struggling to come to terms with what happened. “First losing my father and then this. It was the most stressful period of my life.
“There needs to be more transparency on how the police act so they don’t arbitrarily detain people. My sister was deprived of contact with her family or information as to why she’d been detained. They were breaking international human rights obligations. All this happened because of discrimination, because of the country we come from.”
González believes the State’s response would be very different if an Irish woman was detained in similar circumstances in a Chilean prison. “The Government should imagine what would happen if the situation was reversed. They need more empathy, then they can start to understand.”