The reality of growing up undocumented in Ireland

Young migrants and refugees have few of the rights the rest of of us take for granted

“What’s the point of me finishing school when I know I’ll be nothing. I feel like I’m in prison. I want my freedom. I want to travel. I just want to be equal.” Photograph: Sara Freund/The Irish Times

“What’s the point of me finishing school when I know I’ll be nothing. I feel like I’m in prison. I want my freedom. I want to travel. I just want to be equal.” Photograph: Sara Freund/The Irish Times

 

“Nine years here, nine years of fear

As you watch your friends take the road, the road to continue

You must stay behind and let it pin you because I have been told that this is it

Yet I cannot explain this pain.

The pain from a piece of paper, a paper that will decide whether I rise or fall.”

Speaking last night at a spoken word event to mark the UN International Youth Day, 16-year-old Sara’s* words reflected the reality faced by 2,000-6,000 children and young people growing up undocumented in Ireland today.

Like many undocumented migrants in the State, Sara’s parents came to Ireland from Mauritius on study visas that have since expired. More than eight years later, Sara is angry that her legal status will prevent her from progressing into third-level education when she finishes school.

There are 20,000-26,000 undocumented migrants living in Ireland, with nearly two-thirds aged 25-39, according to the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI). For years, undocumented migrants have been calling on government to introduce regularisation which would give them the chance to legalise their immigration status and work legally in Ireland.

Sara was joined at last night’s event in Film Base, Temple Bar, by six other young men and women whose undocumented status means they are unable to apply for university. After completing the Leaving Cert, these young people enter a legal limbo, blocking them from any attempts to get a job or continue their studies.

Alex* (17), who moved to Ireland from Mauritius more than seven years ago, would like study computer programming after school. However, he’s not sure he’ll even fill out his CAO form.

“I basically feel like there’s nowhere I can go. As soon as I finish my Leaving Cert I can’t go to college.”

He says Irish people do not understand what it means to be undocumented and presume he came here illegally, “like you just came in a container”.

In his spoken word performance, Alex told the audience he felt useless. “What’s the point of me finishing school when I know I’ll be nothing? I feel like I’m in prison. I want my freedom. I want to travel. I just want to be equal.”

Nina’s* parents had already been living in Ireland for seven years when she left her grandmother in Georgia to join them. On arrival, she met her baby brother for the first time.

“My brother was born in Ireland and he has no papers. He’s never been outside Ireland and every time he’s, like, ‘oh, when are we going to America or Spain?’ . . . My Mum just says, ‘soon, soon’.”

When Nina’s grandmother died last month, the 18-year-old was unable to travel to Georgia for the funeral. Instead, the family went to the local church to pray for the loss of their loved one.

Parallels

Dearbhla Ryan from MRCI says Irish people struggle to recognise the parallels between undocumented migrants living in Ireland and the 50,000 Irish people living undocumented in the US.

“People don’t understand what undocumented means and get confused with the protection system and young people in direct provision,” says Ms Ryan.

“As a country, we are still in emigrant mode and see ourselves as an emigrant country even though a large proportion of our population now come from another place. Maybe we haven’t made that step to acknowledging the diversity our own country. This is no small way connected to the fact that our Government has consistently not dealt with immigration law.”

Ms Ryan says many undocumented teenagers fear gardaí and other figures of authority in Irish society. “They have a legitimate fear of the State and of gardaí and that’s very worrying. What if something happens to them? If they get robbed or assaulted they’re not going to report it. ”

* Names have been changed to protect identity of undocumented teenagers.