'Undocumented' are being forced to live in fear on margins of Irish society


RITE AND REASON:THE CELEBRATION of the Feast of the Holy Family last Friday enables us to reflect on the many pressures facing families at this time of year. The Gospel reading, taken from the Gospel of St Luke, reminds us of the pride Jesus’s parents felt as they watched their son grow up.

It is an appropriate time to remember the many families throughout the world divided by migration, particularly those for whom the absence of legal status is proving to be an insurmountable barrier to being together and a cause of immeasurable fear and suffering.

Last month I met some of the people receiving support from the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland. These are people considered to be “undocumented”, meaning they have no legal status in Ireland.

This can arise for a variety of reasons: they may have over-stayed a visa, changed jobs or been made redundant, or they may have been refused asylum. While there are multiple ways in which a person can lose legal status, there is no clear mechanism for addressing this situation.

The result is that thousands of people are forced to live in fear on the margins of our society. Due to the nature of this problem it is impossible to provide an exact figure, but the centre estimates it to be 30,000, based on demand for its services.

I was shocked to learn that about 85 per cent of these undocumented people have been in Ireland for four years or more. That is an unacceptable amount of time when you consider the context. It means: living life in the shadows, in a constant state of fear and insecurity; not being able to access essential services such as health services; acute vulnerability to exploitation and violence, because of a reluctance to go to the Garda Síochána or bring a case before the courts; barriers to children’s social and educational development and risks to their health; being separated from family members in your home country and fearing that you may never see them again; the denial of sharing of human gifts due to barriers to contribute to society.

In this time of recession, with employment opportunities increasingly scarce, it can mean living in absolute poverty and destitution, with no entitlement to support of any kind.

Among the people I met was a mother from Sri Lanka, who has been living undocumented in Ireland. She told of her fears for her teenage daughter. She succeeded in enrolling the girl in a school and she has just completed her Leaving Certificate – the top performing student in her class – but what will happen when she turns 18 and has no legal status?

A father from the Philippines broke down as he told of the pain of being separated from his now teenage children for the last eight years, not being able to be there for them in times of need. If he returned home he would have no means of supporting them.

A mother from Mongolia introduced her two little daughters, who have no birth certificates or legal documents, as both parents were undocumented when they were born.

Her husband lost his job when his employer introduced checks on legal status, and he has been unable to find work since. Despite the fact he paid tax and PRSI throughout the seven years he was working here, he is not entitled to any form of social welfare and the family depends on food vouchers for survival.

Many of us can identify with the pain just described, having friends or relatives in a similar situation abroad, particularly the undocumented Irish in the US.

In many homes at the turn of the new year there was an empty place for a loved one who could not take the risk of returning home. Many Irish families share the fear that they will never be together again.

Our Government is, rightly, actively engaged with the US authorities to address the plight of undocumented Irish people, but what are we doing to help those in a similar situation here?

How can we lobby for rights and recognition for Irish people abroad and yet be unwilling to extend the same rights to people from Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Mongolia who have been living and working in Ireland for many years?

If we wish to commit ourselves to protect the vulnerable then let us take as our mission the theme of the 50th International Eucharistic Congress which takes place next June in Dublin and work to be “in communion with Christ and with one another”.