On their way back to Dublin from London back in March, Hamda Ajmal and her family were stopped. “I think we had to wait for an hour for them to let us check in,” she said.
Ajmal, her husband and their youngest child, who was born here, were all travelling with Irish passports. But Aryan, her eight-year-old son, didn’t have anything to prove his ties to Ireland.
Usually, they would show a re-entry visa for the child, but the Department of Justice suspended re-entry visas for children under 16 during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic and renewed its decision on 14 June.
Young kids can’t get Irish residence permits and so re-entry visas used to be the only legal proof of their life in Ireland every time they travelled abroad.
Some of those faced with stressful journeys say it wouldn’t be an issue for them at all if some of the rules around applying for citizenship for kids were rationalised.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice didn’t say why it suspended its re-entry visa program for kids.
But they said that parents or legal guardians of children younger than 16 can prove their ties to the child in various ways to return to the country, including birth certificates or a death certificate if one of the parents is no longer alive.
“Any changes to immigration arrangements are routinely notified to carriers through the appropriate channels,” the spokesperson said.
Ajmal says they’d shown the Department of Justice’s “travel confirmation notice” explaining the suspension of re-entry visas for kids back in March.
“And they look at it suspiciously because it’s just a plain paper with something written on it. Anyone could’ve done that,” she says.
Ajmal and others say that airline staff and border control officers in other countries demand to see a re-entry visa or an Irish passport. But since young children of non-EU migrants don’t get those visas anymore, travelling is stressful.
“It’s humiliating because people behind you in the queue are looking at you, and it’s very awkward,” said Ajmal.
Even with re-entry visas, when a whole family of Irish citizens turns up at an international airport with a non-EEA child it can raise suspicions and cause hassle.
Last week, Dzianis Lisouski and his family were stopped in Germany on their travels.
Lisouski’s small daughter had a re-entry visa because her parents applied for one right after the government’s pandemic suspension of these visas expired. They got it in the two-weeks period before it renewed its decision, he says.
But border control officers in Germany got so suspicious of the fact that their daughter – who has a non-EU passport – didn’t have an Irish passport while the rest of the family did, that they took them to a police station, says Lisouski.
“And they started asking questions, how long you gonna stay in Germany? Where do you live? How much money do you have?” said Lisouski. Sat next to him outside a Subway in Sandyford, his daughter swung around a pink water bottle.
“And during that, they claimed that she wasn’t our daughter. Like literally, they said, ‘She’s not your daughter’,” he said. Lisouski’s daughter was born in Ireland and has never lived anywhere else, he says.
Sanobar Nomani and her family got stuck in Turkey for 24 hours back in March en route to Pakistan, she said recently, sitting at a Starbucks in Lucan.
They had “e-visas” for Turkey, which residents of Ireland can get, but her 10-year-old son didn’t have any official documents proving he was a resident of Ireland, Nomani says.
That meant hours of trying to cobble together documents to prove his residency, she says, emailing border management in Ireland and different government departments.
Ajmal says this is affecting so many. She sends a screenshot of a message from a woman who says she’s a doctor in Letterkenny and had a “real bad experience” at Lahore Airport in Pakistan travelling back to Ireland with a child “due to no entry visa of minor”.
She plans to travel to Pakistan again in July, the message says, because her husband needs to sit for an exam, but she doesn’t want to relive the experience.
“I really appreciate if our voice can be heard, because I can’t forget that night at lahore airport. I really don’t want to face it again,” it says.
Many of these parents say that, ideally, their kids would already have their Irish passports. But the road to citizenship isn’t smooth for the kids, especially if they weren’t born here.
On the same day Ajmal gave birth to her first child, her husband got a job in Ireland.
Fourteen days later they were all in the passport office in Pakistan, says Ajmal. Two months later, they arrived here.
But, even though Ajmal and her husband recently became Irish citizens, her son Aryan who is now eight – isn’t yet, and was only able to apply much later than his parents.
“If he was born here, I could’ve applied when he was three,” she says.
It’s a quirk of the law that parents of children who weren’t born here can’t apply for citizenship for their kids when they’re lodging their own applications, but have to wait until they’ve got it.
One of the reasons that it’s become such an issue for parents is that the average processing time for kids’ citizenship applications is almost two years.
And without an Irish residence permit either, which kids can’t get, travel has actually become tough in recent times, parents end up being stopped and held at borders as they try to prove a child’s connection to themselves and to Ireland.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said that it currently has no plans to make it possible for family members to apply together.
“However, the citizenship application process is reviewed on an ongoing basis to continually improve customer service quality,” they said.
They said that all citizenship applications are processed chronologically by the date received. “For a broad range of reasons, some applications will take longer than others.”
In The Queue
Come November, Nomani and her husband, who works as a doctor, will have been waiting for a decision on their citizenship applications for two years. Until that comes through, their child can’t apply.
“He came with us. He spent the last six years with us, attending school here. He’s a minor, so, why can’t he apply for his citizenship with us?” says Nomani.
The wait could’ve been cut in half, she says, if they could all apply together. “Now it’s going to be two years for us and approximately two years for him.”
Imran Khurshid, partner and solicitor at Daly Khurshid Solicitors, says the law stops family members from applying together.
“It’s just not possible for children to apply for citizenship at the same time as their parents,” Khurshid says.
Some kids, meanwhile, just don’t have anybody to apply for them.
Wendy Lyon, partner and solicitor at Abbey Law, points to migrant kids with no parents or legal guardians who came here on their own to seek asylum, won refugee status and grew up under Tusla’s care.
“Few cases of these who have been in Ireland for way more than five years but don’t have a parent here to be naturalised and then apply for them,” says Lyon.
(Refugees can apply for citizenship after three years of Irish residency instead of five).
Lyon says the law doesn’t let Tusla’s care workers apply on their behalf either.
Unaccompanied minors in Ireland have Tusla-appointed social workers but not legal guardians, says a recent joint report by the international non-profit Oxfam and the Greek Council for Refugees.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice didn’t say how many kids are currently waiting for a citizenship decision but said it has approved about 500 applications so far in 2022.
They expect to close 1,000 applications from kids this year, they said, which would be a 15 percent increase from last year.
Asking for Anything
The spokesperson for the Department of Justice didn’t say if its citizenship unit scrutinises applications for children the same way as those for adults.
But Khurshid, the solicitor, says kids mostly need school and GP letters and their passports and birth certificates to apply. They don’t need extensive background checks, he says, to prove that they have good characters.
“Because a child is a child, you don’t need Garda vetting, e-vetting and stuff like that. You know what I mean? So, it can be very simple,” he says.
Ajmal says she was disappointed when the Department of Justice said that it was not processing re-entry visa applications for the kids even after it was business as usual at the Department of Justice, with automatic immigration extensions no longer renewed.
“Everyone I know who’s travelled this year and a half has had a problem going back. We thought, ‘Okay, this nightmare is going to be over,’” says Ajmal.
Ajmal says she wouldn’t dream of travelling to countries with rigid border control routines, like the United States.
Likewise, Nomani, whose parents live in the United States, says she’d dread taking the kids to see their grandparents.
Ajmal and Nomani say if the road to citizenship for children is so long and winding, then the government needs to give kids something that could count as proof of residency in the eyes of immigration authorities abroad.
“Just give us something, a visa or an IRP card,” Nomani says.
Lisouski, the man in Sandyford, says that last week’s travel drama has left a negative mental mark on his small daughter.
“When we arrived at the hotel after this experience, they asked for our IDs,” he said, “and my daughter started saying, ‘Don’t show my passport, my passport is wrong.’”
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