Shahab Coohe and his younger brother Shayan applied for Irish citizenship on the same day in 2017. After five years in Ireland, the Iranian brothers were finally eligible for naturalisation and filled out their forms together before posting them to the Department of Justice. Seven months later, Shayan received a letter inviting him to a citizenship ceremony in the town of Killarney in Co Kerry. No letter arrived for Shahab and weeks passed with no news. Shayan attended the ceremony and recieved his new Irish passport. Meanwhile, Shahab called and emailed the justice office seeking an update. Eventually he was told his application was still being processed. No one could explain why his brother, who had moved to Ireland on the exact same day as Shahab, was approved for Irish citizenship but not him. Three years on, Shahab is still waiting for Irish citizenship.
“I don't understand,” Shahab told me over Zoom in late 2020. “Everything on our application was the same except our names and date of birth. We came here in the same circumstances. I was only 17 when I came here. I'm a good citizen and haven't done anything wrong. I've just been going around the city playing music.”
Shahab, an Iranian musician and member of the popular Irish-Persian Navá ensemble, is just one of the 5,379 people who were waiting more than two years for their application for Irish citizenship to be processed by the end of November 2020. According to the Government's immigration website, a “straightforward application” for naturalisation should take 12 months to process. However, more than 23% of the 23,187 applications being processed last November had been in the system longer than 24 months. Another 3,202 people were waiting between 18-24 months while 4,677 were waiting 12-18 months.
The Covid-19 pandemic, and subsequent shut down of all services considered non-essential during periods of lockdown, undoubtedly played a role in this delay. However, government officials were already dealing with a significant backlog of applications before the virus hit. Citizenship ceremonies, which successful applicants must attend in order to collect their certificate of naturalisation, were put on hold for five months in 2019 after a High Court judge ruled that any person applying for Irish citizenship could not spend one day outside the country in the year before applying. The ruling was eventually overturned by the court of appeal but the incident resulted in a backlog of 20,500 people waiting to be sworn in as citizens by a judge. The high cost of becoming Irish - €175 to apply and €950 for the certificate if the application is successful – is another barrier potential applicants encounter on their citizenship journey.
For many within Ireland's non-European migrant community, becoming an Irish citizen is the ultimate goal. It means no longer having to negotiate the complicated and protracted visa renewal process to work, study or travel at short notice to visit a sick family member. It means eligibility for more educational grants and study support. And for many doctors, it means a real shot at developing a medical career in this country.
A change in legislation introduced in late 2020 means all foreign-trained doctors with internships completed outside the EU are only now eligible to apply for specialist training programmes. However, as these schemes are allocated with first preference going to Irish citizens followed by EU nationals, very few non-European doctors can actually secure a spot. A campaign supported by 200 of these doctors is currently calling on the Government to fast-track citizenship applications from healthcare workers on the frontlines of the Covid-19 pandemic. Like Shahab, many medical practitioners have been waiting years for a response on their application. Fast-tracking the process would enable healthcare workers to focus on saving lives rather feeling “demoralisation, frustration and desperation” over delayed applications, one doctor told me in January.
For many migrant healthcare workers contributing during the pandemic, citizenship feels like a far-off and unrealistic dream. Undocumented migrants have played a vital but hidden role in caring for some of the most elderly and vulnerable in Irish society over the past year. Many have contracted Covid-19 from the people in their care with a small number losing their lives to the virus. Others risk exploitation by employers and landlords but avoid seeking medical or Garda help for fear of drawing attention to themselves. While the Government has committed to providing 17,000 undocumented workers a “pathway” to legal residency in the next year, progress in this area has been slow. Meanwhile, every St Patrick's Day, Irish politicians call on the US government to provide more support to the Irish undocumented on American shores.
For the undocumented working without papers in this country, Irish citizenship is the dream. But that's a long way off. Regularisation is the first step. As Irene Jagoba, a Filipino carer who has spoken publicly about her undocumented status told me last year, there should be clear recognition of the “valuable contribution” from undocumented workers during the pandemic. “We care for the elderly and children – many Irish families could not function without us. We're just like the Irish in the US. Whatever their reason is for staying in the US, that's exactly the same reason we stay here to work. We work for our families and for a better life.”
For the 7,494 asylum seekers in Ireland today, citizenship also seems like a distant and often unachievable prospect. In June 2020, the newly formed Government coalition committed to ending direct provision – the controversial two-decade old system of accommodation for those seeking international protection in this country. The Department of Children and Equality, led by Roderic O'Gorman,is set to publish a White Paper in February 2021 on the proposed new system following recommendations from an expert group report last year. In the meantime, 6,985 direct provision residents, including 1,993 children, continue living in communal settings which often have poor facilities and are badly run. Aside from the risk of Covid-19, many residents suffer from poor mental health with support charity Doras warning last year some were at “high risk of suicide”.
In contrast to the deeply problematic direct provision system, the Irish Refugee Protection Programme (IRPP), established in 2015 in response to the European migrant crisis and which committed to accepting up to 4,000 mainly Syrian programme refugees into Ireland, has for the most part succeeded in supporting vulnerable families under resettlement, relocation and family reunification schemes. By the end of 2019, 3,788 people had arrived under the programme with an additional 160 Syrians eventually making it here by the end of 2020, following long delays caused by Covid-19 travel restrictions. After spending a few months in an emergency reception and orientation centre, these people are re-housed through local councils in cities, villages and towns around Ireland. In October, Dr Catherine Day, who led the expert group report into what should replace direct provision, noted that the Irish State was providing some refugees (namely Syrians) “better support and treatment than others” under IRPP and called on the Government to model its new international protection system for all asylum seekers, regardless of nationality, on this “successful” scheme.
Under Irish law, those who successfully secure international protection, or come to Ireland as programme refugees, may apply for Irish citizenship after three years in this country (rather than the usual five years) and forego the €175 application fee. However, like all others who apply, refugees are also caught-up in the ongoing backlog of applications. Now in his mid-20s, Shahab is counting the days until he can claim his Irish travel document. While overseas travel with his band is on hold during the pandemic, he knows he will once again face probing questions from European border guards if he continues to travel using an Iranian passport.
“Each time I go through an airport, it doesn’t matter where I am, they take one look at my passport, look into my eyes and it’s clear they don’t trust me.
“The problem is with the (Irish) administration work. I know there are lots of other people in this situation too. I am truly in love with Ireland as a country and the Irish people as a nation. I have always contributed and represented Ireland abroad as a musician. But we should just have an explanation, it would make our lives easier and give us hope.”
Sorcha Pollak is a journalist with The Irish Times specialising in migration and author of New to the Parish: Stories of Love, War and Adventure from Ireland's Immigrants.