It begins shortly after 4am. Dressed in winter hats and wrapped in blankets, the first applicants arrive at the front door of the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service office on Dublin’s Burgh Quay. Within an hour there are women with buggies and small children, men in suits, students with backpacks, all queuing silently for re-entry visas or identification cards.
The line snakes from the front door of the building, down Corn Exchange Place, along Poolbeg Street and back on to Hawkins Street, almost wrapping around the entire block. Many have snatched a few hours of sleep. Others, based outside Dublin, say they have slept on friends’ sofas or waited overnight in McDonald’s.
Lucas is one of them. He wraps his jacket around him to keep out the cold. It is dark and chilly – but at least it’s not raining. He has been here for half an hour now and the queue keeps growing behind him. “I came here at 6am the last time and didn’t get seen,” Lucas says. “I was number 280 in the queue. I won’t make that mistake again.”
The system works like this: once you get inside, a case worker gives you a numbered ticket. There are only a limited number of these tickets each day. Lucas does a quick tot in his head: he reckons he’s number 61 in the queue. He’s hopeful that he’ll get a ticket before they are all issued.
The queue starts to shuffle forwards at about 7.30am. Inside. there aren’t enough seats to cater for the volume of people. A mother and her children are sitting on the floor in the corner of the room. Not far away, there’s a couple trying to get some sleep, pressed up against a window which faces out to the street. Privacy and dignity are in short supply here.
Some people who can’t get out of work ask friends to queue for them for a ticket. Outside, an entrepreneurial woman walks among those still queuing, offering her ticket quietly for €50.
“It’s soul-destroying,” says Jonathan, the partner of a Brazilian who has been queueing. “You end up wasting countless hours during this pointless waiting game.” Lucas, who has taken a day off his work at a local restaurant, tries to see the lighter side of it. “I know all about queues at home in Venezuela. We’re experts at it – but this is bad, even by our standards.”
A student at the Royal College of Surgeons says she can’t get her head around why everyone has to show up in person. “Why do we have to renew our papers every year?” she asks. “Why not get a visa for the duration of my five-year course? Or get it stamped in a Garda stations. That’s what happens in other countries.”
Denise Charlton, chief executive of the Immigrant Council, says the queues are symptoms of an immigration system which is failing. New legislation has been promised repeatedly, but there is still no sign of it. "Our system is very bureaucratic and discretionary. It's all over the place. If there was clear legislation and a proper framework, it would help."
A Department of Justice spokesman says immigrants are required to present in person, in common with many other jurisdictions. “This is necessary and unavoidable for establishment of identity and as an anti-fraud measure and is the practice of immigration services worldwide.”
This is one of the busiest offices in the State, with some of the longest opening hours of any public service. “About 130,000 persons attend the Burgh Quay office each year, which presents ongoing logistical challenges,” he says. While there have been “no unmanageable issues” with queues, the department spokesman adds that officials are anxious that queuing be reduced to an absolute minimum.
A spokesman for the Garda National Immigration Bureau says that due to large numbers of foreign nationals presenting at the office in recent weeks, it has recently opened the office on Saturdays.
In the meantime, Lucas has finally got his papers. It is early afternoon and about eight hours since he joined the queue. By now, his good humour had drained away. “It does make me angry. I’m a taxpayer, I work hard, but this isn’t a fair way to be treated. I don’t think Irish citizens would stand for it,” he says.
Jonathan, one of the few Irish people standing in this queue, feels embarrassed by the treatment of visitors and residents. “Céad míle fáilte? Yeah, right,” he says.