Breaking up families as policy
In a marked toughening of Government attitudes, an increasing number of fathers of Irish-born children are being refused leave to stay in Ireland. But is this decision to create fatherless families storing up trouble for the future?
TAI AND KENNY remember the day the men came to the house to take their daddy away. It was about 6am when the officers from the Garda National Immigration Bureau knocked on their door. The five-year-old twins were woken up by all the banging and then their father, Kabir Alli, was taken away from them and their brothers and sisters.
“Are you going to get him back?” they ask when I walk into their living room to interview their mother, Miriam Alli, about her husband’s deportation to Nigeria last month.
Juwon, the eldest of Miriam’s five children and a fanatical Manchester United supporter, says he misses his dad a lot. “He used to play football with me every day and help with the local team that I play for here in Lusk. I’m good at football,” he says, proudly showing off a selection of football trophies lined up along the length of the mantelpiece.
Kabir is one of a growing number of fathers of Irish-born children who have been refused leave to remain in the country by Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern. Immigration lawyers say that about 20 fathers have been deported so far, 60 challenges against deportation are pending in the courts and 600 or more applications to the Minister remain undecided.
In most cases the fathers are asylum seekers, who arrived in the Republic a few years after their wives settled here and had given birth to Irish-born children. These children are all Irish citizens because they were either born here before the referendum in 2004, which overturned the automatic right to citizenship for children born to foreign parents, or their mothers have lived in the Republic legally for three years.
“Tai and Kenny both have ‘Red Ps’ . I don’t know why a government can split up a loving family like this. Why would they remove a father?” asks Miriam, who is finding it difficult to cope with four children and a six-month-old baby.
Solicitor Brian Burns, who represents scores of clients facing the threat of deportation, says the Government has considerably toughened up its immigration policy over the last 18 months. “More than 16,000 parents of Irish-born children got leave to remain in the country shortly after the citizenship referendum. But since the economic downturn many fathers are being refused, with many deportation orders citing the recession as one of the factors,” he says.
Burns adds that these applicants, whose cases may have been delayed by the authorities through no fault of their own, are now routinely refused leave to remain. “I have noticed that numerous applications, which would have been granted last year or the year before, are now being refused despite almost identical facts in the cases,” he says, warning of the detrimental effects on families and Irish-born children.
The Department of Justice says that 291 people were deported in 2009, compared to 161 in 2008 and 139 in 2007. Two-thirds of deportees were Nigerians. So far in 2010, 41 people have been deported. But this number is likely to increase dramatically in coming months as a staggering 1,077 deportation orders were signed last year. The Minister also deported 106 children between 2007 and 2010 and, in one tragic case last year, he deported a Nigerian mother while leaving her four-year-old son in State care here.
“They just want us out,” says Olu Ogunmade, who fears he could be the next father of an Irish-born child bundled on to a plane to Lagos, Nigeria. “Three of my children were born here and two of them are Irish citizens. But I recently got a deportation order from the Minister for Justice and they could take me to Nigeria any day.”
Ogunmade joined a group of 100 asylum seekers, many of whom have Irish-born children, who marched on the Department of Justice and the Dáil this week to protest against the deportation policy. Many protesters warned about the damage the new “get-tough” policy wreaks on the families of Irish citizens.
“The Irish are storing up trouble for themselves in the future,” says Shegun, father of a six-year-old boy. “Look at what happened in France a few years back. They had riots in the suburbs. This could happen in Ireland. Taking fathers away from families could have a devastating impact on the family unit and these children. Who will be their role models?”
CHILDREN’S CHARITY Barnardos echoes these concerns, warning that the policy is hurting children. “One day your father is there with you in the family and then a hand reaches in and removes him. This is bound to make a child feel unsafe. It could lead to disruptive behaviour, poor performance at school and make it difficult for a remaining parent,” says Barnardos advocacy director Norah Gibbons. “We claim in this country to cherish all children equally. But when you are deporting the parents of children, I think it’s time you must ask: where is the evidence of this commitment in the Constitution?”
In a statement, Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern told The Irish Timesthat virtually all parents of children born here before the referendum have been granted permission to stay. But, ultimately, as a sovereign state, we must be able to rule whether someone meets the criteria for residency or not, he said. “We operate probably one of the most progressive immigration laws in western Europe, with careful consideration given to asylum applicants – but our system must also be robust,” he added.
He credits the Government crackdown on abuses of the asylum system for the significant drop in numbers of people claiming asylum. Last year, just 2,689 applications were received in the State, a fall of 30 per cent from 2008, and well below the peak of 11,634 applications in 2002.
The High Court has backed the Minister’s policy, turning down a challenge to Kabir Alli’s deportation order in an important test case in December. The challenge was largely based on the protection given to families and children under the Irish Constitution.
Judge Maureen Clark said she was satisfied that deporting Kabir would not “impact in an excessive way on the personal and family rights of his wife and children as there were no insurmountable obstacles to their going with him to Nigeria”. She also said that Miriam Alli would not be “excessively inconvenienced if her husband returned to Nigeria”, bearing in mind that she had managed to live without him for three years when she arrived here first in July 2004. Judge Clark also refused leave to appeal her decision to the Supreme Court, which leaves Kabir and his family with only the difficult option of appealing to the European Court of Human Rights.
Miriam insists that she won’t take her children back to Nigeria to keep her family united. “The education they get in Ireland is much better than in Nigeria. My children are also integrated into Irish life and I have to think of them first, so we will stay,” she says.
But she worries about the impact that the deportation has had and will have in the future on her children. “The children have cried a lot since Kabir was taken away, and they get angry a lot,” she says, before asking the twins what they think of Ireland now.
“I like Ireland and my school, but I miss my daddy,” says Tai, who has spoken to her father on the phone only three times since he was deported. “I want him back.”
'Why can't an Irish citizen choose who to marry?' Couples divided by deportation
It’s not just the fathers of Irish-born children who face deportation. In recent months the Government has also begun deporting the husbands of Irish wives.
Three weeks ago Henry Olabode was bundled on to a charter jet at Dublin airport, bound for Lagos. He applied for asylum when he arrived in Ireland in 2007, claiming his life was in danger due to his campaigning against hostage-taking in the Niger Delta region in Nigeria.
While waiting for his asylum claim to be processed, he met Gillian, who lives in Athlone with her two children from a previous relationship. They married shortly before his claim was rejected and lived together for almost a year.
“I met him when I was out for a few drinks with friends, and we clicked right away,” says Gillian. “They took him away from me without interviewing us or asking any questions about our marriage. I’m heartbroken and will fight to get him back into the country. This is unfair. Why can’t an Irish citizen choose who to marry?”
Over a crackly telephone line from Lagos, Olabode describes his deportation. “I was about to get into my car when two fellas came over to me and asked if I had an ID,” he says. “I was taken to Cloverhill prison for seven days, where my wife visited me every day until they deported me. I’m very nervous here in Lagos. I was secretary of the Nigerian youth against hostage-taking and if these militants find out I’m back I may be in danger. I have 100 per cent belief that I will see Gillian again, but I don’t know when or how. Our love will bring us together.”
Olabode is cut short as the line breaks down again, underlining the precariousness of the situation he’s been sent back to.
Other couples in similar positions are understood to be contesting deportation orders.