Six years ago, when Hamda Ajmal, a PhD student of machine learning at National University of Ireland Galway moved to Ireland from Rawalpindi, the adjoining city of Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, she felt a little homesick.
Along with her husband and two sons, Ajmal had come to Galway to work and study. They began living in Galway and moved to Dublin city in 2018.
The couple loved their new beginning, she said, but the young mother often missed the presence of other Pakistani women in her life.
As she speaks, her two-year-old son keeps interrupting her, and Ajmal who is wearing a red top emblazoned with elaborate Pakistani embroidery, apologises.
Ajmal says that in April 2017 she decided to start a Facebook group to find and connect with other Pakistani women in Ireland.
The idea was forming friendships, sharing recipes, parenting tips, problems and “lots of love”. Things really took off, and the group, entitled Pakistani Women in Ireland now has around 1700 members.
Soon after creating the group, however, Ajmal said that a worrying pattern emerged. More and more women, she said, used the Facebook group to vent about their abusive husbands.
Some of those women were undocumented immigrants in Ireland. A fear of deportation often stopped them from seeking help or leaving abusive relationships, Ajmal says.
“I have always encouraged women to go to the police, until now,” she said.
On August 22, the findings of a PhD dissertation conducted by a member of An Garda Síochána, was published in The Irish Times, and it troubled Ajmal.
It said that Gardaí do not investigate the immigration status of a person who is a victim to, or witness of, a crime.
This only lasts for the duration of the investigation, however.
According to the findings of a study outlined in the book, The Realities of Policing Diverse Communities from Minority and Police Perspectives, Gardaí have an unwritten policy of referring suspected illegal immigrants to the Garda National Immigration Bureau (GNIB) for investigation following the conclusion of an inquiry.
“I read that in the news, and I was like maybe I shouldn’t have told people to go to the police, now I feel guilty,” Ajmal said.
Among those women feeling afraid to seek help, is one Pakistani woman who married someone with a secure immigration status in Ireland and moved to the country in 2015.
She wanted to flee grating poverty. “We are very poor back home,” she says.
The woman spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of deportation as well as retribution.
Her husband began hitting her soon after their wedding, she says.
“He used to drink, do drugs, go to prostitutes, didn’t provide me with food, money, anything,” she said.
The woman came to Ireland on a Stamp 3 visa, an immigration scheme which allows spouses of work permit holders in the country to remain in the state with their family, but denies them the right to work.
The scheme was revised on 6 March 2019, however, allowing spouses and de facto partners of Critical Skills Employment Permit holders to access the labour market.
The Critical Skills Employment Permit is granted to non-European immigrants whose professional expertise is highly required in Ireland.
The policy shift left out spouses of those with General Employment permits, leaving them dependent on their partners.
To renew their spouse’s Stamp 3 visa, work permit holders must accompany them to the Irish Immigration and Naturalisation Offices (INIS). The Pakistani woman said her husband stopped helping her reboot her Irish Residence Permit card, rendering her undocumented in 2018.
“He would say that he would report me to the guards, so I was afraid of standing up to him,” she said. “I’m still undocumented.”
Ajmal said that she had heard numerous accounts of abusive spouses who use immigration as a weapon to silence and isolate their partners.
“They keep it as a tool to keep them quiet, they say, ‘you’re undocumented, if you go to the police, they send you back to Pakistan’,” she said.
However, Ajmal is quick to note that the issue of domestic violence is a universal one and not limited to Pakistan.
When she gave birth to a child, the undocumented Pakistani woman said her husband began threatening to hit the baby. For her, that was the final straw.
“I left because he threatened to hit my child,” she said.
She is now essentially homeless, staying with friends. A recent visit to a social welfare office reinforced her deportation fears.
“I went to my local women’s shelter, they sent me to the social welfare, but the lady there threatened to report me,” the woman says.
“She said technically she should report me to immigration and have me removed from the country.”
Their Own Protocols
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice and Equality said that they do not ask any organisation, including An Garda Síochána, to report undocumented immigrants who have been victims of crime.
“However, according to their own protocols, An Garda Síochána may relay information to the Department,” the spokesperson said.
The department said the state does not take issues like domestic violence lightly, working to “tackle all instances of domestic violence as effectively as possible regardless of the status of the people involved.”
A spokesperson for An Garda Síochána expressed doubt about the accuracy of information outlined in the PhD study, turned book, which was written by David McInerney.
McInerney has served as head of the Garda National Diversity and Integration Unit from 2001 to 2019.
McInerney’s study, they said, was not an internal report but a PhD dissertation for which he was awarded a degree from the department of sociology at University College Dublin in 2016.
“The publication is not Garda policy,” they said.
The spokesperson said they have been working with relevant non-governenmental organisations representing undocumented persons in the country and are “actively encouraging” those organisations to assure migrants of their safety in reporting criminal behaviour to the force.
Nevertheless, McInerney is a veteran member of An Garda Síochána, according to his book, — he takes credit for suggesting the creation of the role of Garda Ethnic Liaison Officer to the then Garda Commissioner, in the 2000s.
The Fear Factor
Migration and human rights solicitor, Catherine Cosgrave, who is also a senior solicitor at the Immigrant Council of Ireland, says that she is yet to hear about a case where seeking assistance from An Garda Síochána by a migrant victim or witness of a crime has led to an immigration inquiry.
“I’m not saying it never happens, but in my professional experience I haven’t encountered someone who has gone to the police for help and had come back to say, that ‘they are now investigating my immigration status’,” she said.
The focus of their attention, she said, would be on protecting victims and bringing assailants to justice.
Cosgrave said, however, that undocumented migrants’ fear in reporting domestic abuse was understandable.
“A lot of time, they don’t know that they can retain their immigration status if leaving an abusive relationship or marriage,” she said.
Current guidelines issued by the Department of Justice allow victims of domestic violence whose immigration status is derived from or reliant on the status of abusive spouses to apply for independent immigration status.
The Department’s policy extends the definition of domestic violence to include emotional abuse, destruction of property, isolation, stalking and control over “money, personal items, food, transportation and the telephone.”
Ajmal says that she is planning to team up with the Immigrant Council of Ireland to help undocumented migrant women affected by domestic abuse.
The project is in infancy, but the aim is to hire and train female community leaders with access to immigrant women, like Ajmal, to provide appropriate help and advice.
Familiarity will help bolster trust: “The idea is to train migrant community leaders to be first responders to migrant women issues.”
In the meantime, Cosgrave said, undocumented victims of domestic abuse could contact Women’s Aid’s 24-hour helpline which provides instantaneous translations in different languages to assist those who speak little English.
Despite all the reassurance, the Pakistani woman whose husband is abusive towards her said that she was still fearful of seeking help.
She is hopeful, however, that the INIS would take notice of her story and assist her in obtaining a legal immigration status.
“They should not ask for proof of residence from domestic abuse victims in social welfare, but they let you down so badly. Women are scared to say anything or stand up to men because of these hurdles,” she said.
For more information and support about domestic violence, you can reach Women’s Aid 24hr National Freephone Helpline on 1800 341 900.