Twelve years ago, Nivelton Alves de Farias was a geography teacher at a secondary school in Goiânia, a bustling city in his home country of Brazil. There, he dreamt of going overseas to learn English.
“I always had this passion for learning,” he said recently, nodding pensively.
At first he wanted to go to the UK, but his visa application was rejected. His agent suggested he go to Ireland, instead.
On 9 November 2006, he stepped off a plane in Dublin.
Alves de Farias, who has a shaved head and wears plastic-framed glasses, became an English language student in the city. In the years that followed, he studied and worked a colourful array of low-paying jobs, mostly serving drinks, as he cobbled together rent and tuition fees.
Once he had mastered the language, Alves de Farias decided to learn more in his new tongue.
He embarked on a new course, doing his master’s in sociology in University College Dublin. “Then I took a year off. All these years, I tried to change my student status to residency,” he said.
At that stage, he had lived in Ireland for nine years.
“They said that my nine years as a student, even though I had paid taxes for nine years, that wasn’t grounds for applying to change my status,” he said, “They wouldn’t count my years of paying taxes as a student.”
His dream these days is no longer to master English, but to teach here — at an Irish university, says Alves de Farias who is now a PhD student of geography in Trinity College Dublin.
For non-European students like him, however, the road toward citizenship and residency is often long and winding.
“You can ask the Minister for Justice to let you stay, but there is no guarantee but [the Minister] may allow you to stay as a sort of a favour,” he said, “I know of some people who did it.”
Five Years, Or More
One route to Irish citizenship is for a person to have five years of reckonable residence in the country. In other words, to have lived here for five years.
But the law comes with a caveat. Unlike other European countries like Sweden, Belgium and the Netherlands the government doesn’t count “any time spent as an asylum seeker or on a student visa”, according to Section 16A of the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act .
This puzzles Alves de Farias.
He thought five years paying taxes on a student visa would be enough, he says. “If I had lived in Portugal all those years, I was already a citizen.”
New arrivals can apply for a permanent residency permit after living in the Netherlands for five continuous years. Or, after a shorter time if they work during those years and suddenly retire or become unfit to work.
For international bachelors and master’s students in the Netherlands, the years that they spend studying are calculated for half as reckonable residence.
For PhD students, the years engaged in studying are counted in full as reckonable residence by the Dutch state.
Pippa Woolnough, a spokesperson for the Immigrant Council of Ireland, says the issue of reckonable residence is significant but rarely discussed here in Ireland.
“There is definitely an argument to be made that there is no reason why long-stay students should not have their time counted,” she said.
They have long-stay visas and are allowed to work, she says. They pay high student fees, living costs, and taxes.
“They contribute extensively to the economy and are not eligible to access public funds,” says Woolnough.
Ireland does have other paths to help non-European students after they graduate, says a spokesperson for the Department of Justice.
The department is “in regular dialogue” with others – such as the Department of Business and the Department of Higher Education – about how immigration permissions operate and any changes needed to meet the social and economic needs of the state, the spokesperson said.
There are 1G stamp permissions which allows “a student who has finished their studies here, to work full time in accordance with employment law provisions”, they said.
Those on a 1G stamp have two years to get a job and a work permit – whichmany have said they struggle to do because employers don’t recognise their documents.
Years spent on 1G Stamp are also not counted as reckonable residence.
If they do find work and work permits, then they start to clock up reckonable residence, and revenue contribution starts to count.
Five years later, they can apply for citizenship if they wish. Some students, like Alves de Farias, have paid taxes as students for nearly a decade. Those years don’t count.
It is much easier to obtain a work permit if one is eligible for a critical skill visa scheme like engineers, doctors and nurses. Those on the critical skill visa scheme can also upgrade to Stamp 4 visas — permanent residency — after two years of employment. For those on general work permits the road from employment to permanent residency extends to four years.
Obtaining a general work permit for a non-European graduate is also more complex and can be expensive for employers. When the job isn’t listed as a critical profession, employers can save money and resources by hiring European citizens.
“It is very unlikely that I could get a work permit working in academia here, and I’m done working low-paid jobs,” Alves de Farias said.
A spokesperson for the Revenue Office said that although it does receive taxes from non-European students, the immigration impact of their contribution is a matter for the Department of Justice.
An Expensive STEP
The Department of Justice also noted that students could avail of the Start-up Entrepreneur Programme (STEP) to stay in the country following graduation.
“The programme is designed to encourage innovative entrepreneurial individuals to apply for permission to establish businesses and reside in Ireland on a full-time basis,” a spokesperson said.
Obtaining permission to stay under the STEP programme is expensive. Applicants must prove that they have €50,000 in the bank along with an innovative business idea to be considered for the scheme.
If the Department of Justice rejects such an application, the decision cannot be appealed.
Alves De Farias says he believes that the government treats immigration and education as commodities available for sale to the highest bidders.
“Everything is about the money here. And even the colleges are reluctant to change because they get €15,000 from a master’s student,” he said.
“Ireland likes to promote itself as this cosmopolitan, open society, whatever, but it’s actually very closed.” It’s either get a work permit, he said, or leave the country.
“Chances are I will be returning to Brazil,” he says.