Immigrant Council calls on Government to allow international travel for family reunification

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– Council highlights cases of critical skills permit-holders – including frontline workers – whose families are being prevented from joining them –

The Government must act immediately to allow travel into Ireland for all types of family reunification. That’s according to the Immigrant Council of Ireland, which today (14.05.21) called on the Department of Justice to treat family reunification as “imperative”, regardless of the current public health situation, and to publish a clear timeline for when visa applications will resume.

The Council has been contacted by hundreds of migrants over the past year, whose families are prevented from joining them in Ireland due to visa restrictions during the Covid-19 pandemic. Some of those affected are frontline health-workers, who came to Ireland on ‘critical skills’ work permits, with a commitment – under the terms of such permits – that their families could join them. 

Currently, people requiring visas to enter Ireland can apply for entry as a priority or emergency case, including “imperative” family reasons. However, according to the Immigrant Council, no guidance has been provided by the Department of Justice about what constitutes an “imperative” reason, and no distinctions are being made between family-members wishing to just visit the country; and family-members who have statutory rights to reunification and are seeking to re-join their partner, spouse or parent.

Commenting today, Brian Killoran, CEO of the Immigrant Council, said: “Travel for all types of family reunification must be considered an ‘imperative’ purpose – especially where there is already a law or policy in place that provides for immediate family reunification, such as for the family members of refugees, of EU citizens and of critical skill permit-holders.

“We are demanding that family reunification be considered essential, regardless of the current public health situation. Family reunification decisions have been approved for many migrant families, but the Department is generally not accepting visa applications from visa-required countries, so the family members in question cannot travel to Ireland.”

Growing Backlog

In addition to calling for a clear timeline for when visa applications will resume, the Immigrant Council also wants to see additional resources allocated to the Department of Justice to work through the backlog of applications.

“The Department needs to continue to process visas, so the backlog doesn’t continue building up,” said Brian Killoran. “Pre-Covid-19, long-stay ‘D’ visas typically took over 12 months to be processed. The current suspension of visa processing will only add unnecessarily to delays and backlogs that already existed.

“Visa-holders could be required – as relevant – to go through the mandatory Covid-19 testing and quarantining when they enter Ireland. But denying them entry outright is unjust, and – in some cases – in breach of international and European law. Immediate family members of EU citizens, for example, have a legal right to family reunification, regardless of their nationality.”

Colin Lenihan, Information and Support Services Coordinator with the Immigrant Council highlighted anomalies in the Government’s approach to visa processing for family reunification, including the fact that the current restrictions are based on nationality, rather than point of origin.

“Brazilians now require visas to enter Ireland, but no such visas are being issued,” he said. “But this requirement is based solely on nationality. So even a vaccinated Brazilian who has been a long-term resident of New Zealand, for example – which has low Covid-19 cases and whose own citizens are not subject to travel restrictions into Ireland – is prevented from applying for a visa to travel to Ireland to re-join an EU spouse or close family-member. In contrast, an American living in the USA – a region with significantly higher rates of Covid-19 – is not restricted from joining their EU spouse in Ireland. The blanket approach in refusing to accept visa applications from people of certain nationalities is impacting in a disproportionate, arbitrary and discriminatory manner.”

Case Studies

The Immigrant Council highlighted the stories of two people who have contacted them in recent months due to the family reunification restrictions. Pamela Chiwara is a Zimbabwean medical laboratory scientist, working for the HSE. She came to Ireland on a critical skills work permit, with the clear understanding that her husband and two children could join her.

“I left my husband and children at home, hoping they would join me here after l had established myself, found a place to live, secured school places for my kids and also established myself at work,” she said. “My children are eight and nine years old.

“The plan was to apply for my family visas in June 2020 but, by then, new visa applications had been suspended. When we were finally able to apply, we submitted our applications in November 2020. We only got a response in April, saying a decision to grant my family visas had been approved but they couldn’t issue the visas for them to travel because it is deemed ‘non-essential’. You would think children coming to join their parents would be deemed essential, wouldn’t you?

“I came here on a critical skills permit that promised me l would be able to bring my family to come and live with me. Throughout all of this frustration and despair, l have been working full time on the frontline, processing Covid samples. This is my job, my passion. Today, after almost 18 months apart, I have finally received word that our family visas have been approved.”

Sebastian Buquet, an Argentinian-Italian living in Dublin since November 2020, also contacted the Immigrant Council.

“Before moving here, I made all the proper enquiries to find out if my wife had to travel with me or if she could join me later, as she doesn’t have a European passport – only her Argentinian passport,” he said. “We were told there was no problem with her travelling later, and we made all the arrangements for her to travel at the beginning of February, as she needed to finish some personal business in Buenos Aires before travelling.

“Unfortunately, one week before she was supposed to travel, the Government of Ireland established new restrictions on visa-free travel for South American passport-holders, and she has not been allowed to travel since. This situation – moving abroad, starting a new job, being isolated, living completely alone, and most of all being kept away from my wife – has had a severe impact on my mental health.

“Our situation meets the criteria for an emergency visa for ‘imperative family reasons’. Yet the Irish Embassy in Argentina refuses to accept our papers, saying they will not provide a visa for my wife. We are in a desperate situation. We have been apart for more than six months now, and the situation has long ago turned unbearable for both of us.”

Commenting on the cases of Pamela Chiwara and Sebastian Buquet, Brian Killoran said: “Covid-19 restrictions have been keenly felt by all migrants who are separated from family and loved ones for extended periods. Poor communication of an exit strategy, combined with the near complete suspension of some services, has meant migrants are experiencing an even more difficult pandemic. For a country of migrants, we should really be doing more to ensure we are all in this together.”

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