In mid-August, a few days after the fall of Kabul, Hameed Wasily lost touch with one of his brothers in Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city. Taliban militias took him away, he says.
“We don’t know where he is at the moment,” said Wasily, sitting inside a Dublin café, leaning forward with his folded arms on his thighs.
“His wife told me the following day that he had to be taken because he refused to work when they came to the door and asked him to,” he says.
Taliban members, Wasily says, were going door-to-door asking highly skilled people like his brother, a tech worker, to return to work. Some refused in protest.
Earlier this month, they took away his other brother, a municipality worker under the previous government, but unlike his tech-worker brother, they know where he is, he said.
When that happened, Wasily’s sister-in-law sent their teenage kids to a neighbouring country on their own to keep them out of harm’s way, he says.
But Wasily says he’s worried about his nephews and nieces because unaccompanied teenage kids can be easily targeted, and fall victim to crimes.
He wants to bring his family to safety in Ireland, but to do so has to meet conditions set by the government that, he says, he just can’t.
“Having your blood relatives, your brothers, in a difficult situation, you feel like, I wish I could do something, but I can’t do anything, you know,” he says.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said that there is a time limit within which new refugees have to apply for family to join them.
But Afghan refugees in Ireland can apply for an “alternative immigration permission” via other schemes, they said, and also pointed to a new scheme due to open in December which will also allow Afghan refugees in Ireland to nominate some close family members and bring them to safety.
Refugee advocates and immigration solicitors say they are worried that conditions attached to the new scheme will mean that many are still left behind.
The Department of Justice must make its upcoming scheme as inclusive as possible, said Catherine Cosgrave, an immigration and human rights solicitor at the Immigrant Council of Ireland.
“But it remains to be seen what ultimately will be provided when the details are published,” said Cosgrave.
Who Can, Who Can’t
Once people who flee to Ireland are recognised as refugees, they have 12 months by law to put in an application to bring family members to join them.
Family members are defined as partners, and unmarried children younger than 18, and for child refugees, their parents or any unmarried siblings under the age of 18, the law says.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said that so far in 2021, 106 Afghans have been granted permission to join family members in Ireland.
“Of which 53 were granted since the Taliban takeover, taking the date of the fall of Kabul, as the 15th August 2021,” they said. Those applications were all made by refugees within the 12-month window that they have to apply, they said.
So those who got refugee status earlier, like Wasily, can’t apply through that route.
There’s another route opening from December, said the spokesperson, with places for up to 500 Afghan family members.
“Each applicant will have an opportunity to nominate up to four family members who are currently residing in Afghanistan or who have fled to neighbouring territories and whom they consider would be especially at risk in terms of their freedom and safety,” they said.
Wasily says he was told that he could only apply for those in his family with an Afghan passport. Only one of his brothers, the municipality worker who was recently detained, would meet that requirement.
“They told him he’s under investigation, and once investigation is complete he will be released, so we’re hoping for that,” says Wasily.
But that still leaves most of his family out in the cold. “It’s really uncommon for people to hold a passport in Afghanistan, especially in the past, because when you don’t have intention to travel why would you hold a passport?” said Wasily, making a quizzical gesture with his hands.
Literacy rates are still low, and many children’s births alsogo unregistered, he said. Some Afghan kids go through life with no identification cards and without knowing their exact date of birth, says Wasily. “Never mind passports.”
In school, he said, “me and my brothers were registered under my father’s name”.
With little to no migrant representation in the Irish government, Wasily said, it remains uninformed, looking at Afghanistan through a Western lens.
“I’m not talking about the Department of Justice, and maybe there are rare cases, but I haven’t seen anybody interracial or migrant working in government office, never mind people from Afghanistan,” he said.
Since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, at least 170,000 Afghans have filed passport applications, but the Taliban only re-opened the country’s passport offices earlier this month, according tolocal media outlet TOLOnews.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said that it has to make sure somebody granted an immigration permission is who they say they are. Normally, the proof is a passport, they said.
But in some cases, they may accept other documents, including expired passports, national ID cards and registration papers issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
“Each case is examined on a case by case basis, in determining what documentation will suffice for the purposes of making the application,” the spokesperson said.
Wendy Lyon, partner and immigration solicitor at Abbey Law, says the Department of Justice should issue those travel documents for passport-less Afghans to widen their ability to leave.
“There is no reason they can’t issue travel documents to allow anyone who doesn’t have a passport to come here. They’ve done it for years for Somalis,” she said.
The Department of Justice spokesperson said that those who are granted permission for family reunification can apply for an Irish travel document, meaning they don’t have to apply for a visa.
A Difficult Choice
The scheme expected to launch in December will allow Afghan refugees to pick and bring four close family members, said the Department of Justice spokesperson.
Wasily has eight nephews and nieces, all younger than 18. It’s difficult, he says, to choose.
“I would probably choose the most vulnerable,” he said, meaning his brother’s kids, two boys and two girls, who are alone in a neighbouring country.
Wasily says he understands that the government couldn’t let people bring as many people as they wanted.
“If each person was allowed to bring 10 people, maybe it was too much for the government,” said Wasily, the fingers of his right hand resting around a cup of cappuccino in front of him.
The condition is unfair, says Lyon, the solicitor at Abbey Law. “Nobody should be forced to choose which of their children to leave behind.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said that it aims, under the four-person condition, to prioritise vulnerable Afghans. “Most especially women and girls and minorities,” they said.
But there will be families for whom close members fall into high-risk categories and lower risk, they said, and “we won’t be breaking up families when considering applications”.
What discretion will be applied – and how – is all still being ironed out, it seems.
Details on who will be eligible under the scheme will be developed over the coming months, said the spokesperson, “with a view to issuing a call for applications in December”.
Wasily says that while he is erring towards choosing his young nieces and nephews as most in need of evacuation to Ireland, he may not be able to apply for them.
Under the current law around family reunification through the mainstream route, nieces and nephews aren’t mentioned as allowed.
Cosgrave, the immigration and human rights solicitor at the Immigrant Council, says normally it’s not easy to bring in adult siblings – like, for example, Wasily’s brother – either.
There is no right to apply for adult siblings under the International Protection Act, said Cosgrave. “And the Minister has no discretion to grant permission to other family members under the Act.”
She said people could apply outside of the act through a discretionary join-family visa under the department’spolicy governing non-EEA family reunification for Irish citizens and other legal residents.
“This is what Afghans are currently trying to do and in some cases, especially for spouses and children, are being approved (and quite quickly),” Cosgrave said.
Generally, when it comes to adult siblings, applications for a reunion are refused, she said: “As it’s not really ‘envisaged’ that an adult sibling is ‘dependent’ on another adult sibling.”
But these days, the Immigrant Council of Ireland and other Irish migration non-profits are flooded with queries from Afghan refugees trying to bring their adult siblings or nephews and nieces to safety, said Cosgrave.
Wasily says it’s not their fault that his family are suddenly in need of protection. It breaks his heart, he says, that Afghanistan can’t find peace because it’s perpetually used as a pawn in the game of superpowers due to its proximity to countries of interest, like Iran.
“We’ve been fighting for ages. My grandfather fought the British, my father fought the Russians,” says Wasily. “It’s going like this generation after generation. And now it’s all destroyed again.”