Ahmad Siyar Gholam-Ghadar can’t afford to bring his family from Afghanistan under the government’s new scheme, he says.
“You have to have a house for them. You should be able to support all of those people and so many other conditions,” he said.
“You know the rent in Dublin?” he says. He pays €1,450 for a one-bedroom apartment.
Even if he could afford to sponsor his family members, he says, covering – as would be required – their accommodation, and flights, and non-emergency healthcare, other conditions still put reunion far out of reach.
Gholam-Ghadar’s parents died when he was a child. His uncle and aunt raised him, he says. “They were like my parents until I left Afghanistan and came to Ireland.”
But under the new Afghan Admission Programme, which opened on 16 December 2021 as a way for Afghans in Ireland to help family members flee the Taliban, the Department of Justice doesn’t consider uncles and aunts eligible for reunion.
Gholam-Ghadar says many other Afghan people he knows in Dublin have relatives they want to bring here who won’t qualify for the scheme. Many aren’t planning to even apply for them, he says.
Among his acquaintances are others who have sought asylum and waited for years in Ireland’s direct provision system, who now work minimum-wage jobs and so can’t satisfy the programme’s financial requirements, he says.
Solicitors and non-profits working with migrants say similar things. The scheme’s conditions are a nightmare to meet, they say.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice wouldn’t say exactly how many people have applied so far, a month into the submissions window.
“The programme has been welcomed by the Afghan community in Ireland, with a small number of applications received to date,” they said. It expects more applications as the deadline of 24 February draws closer, they said.
The spokesperson didn’t respond to queries about the financial requirements and other conditions making it challenging for some Afghans to apply.
Afghans hoping to bring in their family members to Ireland have to prove that they can financially support and provide homes for them until they can establish their lives and afford homes of their own, show the scheme rules.
Sponsors should also be able to pay for their family members’ healthcare and cover their travel and visa costs, the rules say.
Wendy Lyon, partner and solicitor at Abbey Law, says she hasn’t had any clients asking to apply because most people don’t have that kind of money.
“The requirement to be able to accommodate your family member is a massive issue,” she says.
“It’s clear to me that the scheme is designed to make it as difficult as possible for people to apply and for anybody to qualify essentially,” she said.
Lyon says the scheme is suitable for wealthier educated Afghans, or Afghans who didn’t migrate to Ireland as refugees.
It’s challenging for new Afghan refugees to tick the financial box, says Nick Henderson, the CEO of the Irish Refugee Council.
They haven’t had “adequate time to establish themselves, as well as those with disabilities or caring responsibilities”, he said.
Fiona Finn, the CEO of refugee and migrants’ non-profit NASC, says it’s also unfair that the sponsored family member can’t access any government benefits until they can establish their own independent life.
“This means no access to child benefit, no access to housing support, no support for third-level education, no access to training schemes or language classes run through the Department of Social Protection,” said Finn.
Finn says the scheme favours wealthier immigrants. One man, she said, cried about not being able to reunite with his mother and sister as he couldn’t provide for them financially.
“He had been in direct provision for years and had only been recognised as a refugee in September,” says Finn.
Gholam-Ghadar says a friend, an Afghan refugee, who can’t read or write, will never score a job with a high enough salary.
“This person can’t write his own name, what job? You name a job with that salary that doesn’t require you to read or write,” he said.
There is a massive gulf between the scheme’s conditions and the reality of life for many Afghan refugees in Ireland, Gholam-Ghadar said.
“Before making these rules, the Department of Justice, they need to talk to some Afghans, interview them and ask, hey guys, what’s your average income?” he said.
Not having enough money is only one obstacle keeping the new scheme out of reach for some.
Applicants can only sponsor a child if the child is parentless, say the rules. “The related minor child must be unmarried and without dependants, e.g., Sibling, Orphaned Niece/Nephew/Grandchild,” it says.
If someone wants to bring in a parent-less child, they have to have a legal guardianship document.
The unmarried condition, though, is at odds with the reality of life in Afghanistan, said Henderson, the CEO of the Irish Refugee Council.
“Married women [including minors] are at risk along with their minor children, particularly teenagers who are at risk of forced marriage to Taliban members,” he said.
Afghans in Ireland can try to bring their parents, but people who grew up as orphans can’t reunite with those who raised them.
Gholam-Ghadar, who came here as an unaccompanied child migrant back in 2009, says he’d tried to reunite with his uncle and aunt back in 2018, under a different scheme, Ireland’s Humanitarian Admission Programme (IHAP).
Gholam-Ghadar’s aunt raised him like one of her own kids after her parents died when he was little. Under the IHAP scheme, he says, he sent the passports and Afghan ID cards of his aunt, uncle and their children to the Justice Department, he says.
“And a written statement explaining why I’m applying and how much they meant for me, but they still rejected the application,” says Gholam-Ghadar.
“They said that these are not your close family members. I wrote them that I grew up with them. How can they say that they’re not my close family members?”
He says he’s hopeless now. “I am afraid I will stay without my family forever,” he says, like the past 13 or 14 years.
Lyon, the solicitor at Abbey Law, says it’s also unclear if Afghans in Ireland with British or EU passports can apply to bring their relatives here under the new scheme, because applicants must be Afghan refugees or Irish nationals.
The family members that one is hoping to reunite with also need to have been either in Afghanistan or in neighbouring countries like Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan or Tajikistan since 1 August 2021.
Says Lyon: “Some people have managed to get out and get further, and now they’re ineligible for the scheme.”
Under the programme, applicants have to either submit original identity documents or certified copies, and Lyon says that doesn’t match up with the reality of life in Afghanistan.
Finn, the CEO of NASC, says that requirement is overwhelming.
“At an average cost of €10 per page for a document to be legally certified, the cost of putting together an application can quickly become eye-watering,” she said.
Requiring this level of certified documentation at the initial application stage is unusual because if the application is successful people have to go through another round of visa checks, she says.
“And will have to provide an original travel document (most likely a national passport) for that so there will be opportunity to verify the applicant’s identity again at that stage,” she said.
This might also put people’s lives at risk back in Afghanistan where it’s not safe for Afghans to carry around “potentially incriminating” documents, in search of a lawyer who’d certify them, she said.
“What happens if you get stopped at a Taliban checkpoint with documents verifying your work as an interpreter with the US or British army?” said Finn.
Applicants must show that their freedom and safety is compromised “as a result of the recent changes in Afghanistan”, says the Justice Department rules.
Furthermore, Catherine Cosgrave, the managing solicitor at the Immigrant Council of Ireland, says the February deadline sets a narrow window of opportunity.
“Under no circumstances will applications be accepted after the closing date,” says the Afghan Admission Programme’s policy document.
There have been technical glitches in the application form. “Some sections of the PDF application form appear not to be working,” said Cosgrave.
The online form hasn’t functioned correctly for almost four weeks, said Finn, the CEO of NASC, on Wednesday 12 January. “That’s half-way through the window for applications.”
A spokesperson for the Justice Department said that there have been “minor functionality issues with the electronic version of the application form”, and they’ve worked to fix it.
“A new version of the application form is now available online,” they said on 14 January.
Those who do manage to apply to bring relatives to Ireland under the scheme, and are successful, would likely get a type of Stamp 1 that gives them permission to work without a work permit, says Lyon.
Some might end up seeking asylum themselves to go on immigration statuses that come with better rights, says Lyon, the solicitor at Abbey Law.
“I think what’s going to happen when people get here is that they’re going to probably apply for asylum and get recognised as refugees because you’re obviously going to have much better status,” she said.
A Publicity Stunt?
Finn, the CEO of NASC, says the scheme had so much potential to do good but restrictive conditions means it is wasted.
“When we think of the lives at stake here, it’s tragic that this desperately needed scheme, which had so much potential, is so mean-spirited,” she said.
Says Lyon, the solicitor at Abbey Law: “It’s purely a public relations exercise.”
“They want to be able to portray themselves as, you know, sympathetic, compassionate, humanitarian, and that’s why they introduced the scheme,” she says.
But they made it very difficult for people to qualify under it, turning it into an empty gesture for ticking the compassion box, she says.
Gholam-Ghadar says he doesn’t believe that it was a genuine humanitarian effort to bring people to safety.
“In my opinion, it’s a fake scheme, they released it, and they marketed it,published it on RTÉ, ‘Hey guys, tomorrow you can apply,’” he says.
“But who is applying? How did they come up with these tight rules?” he says. “Do they know how so many Afghans live?”
[UPDATE: This article was updated at 9.30am on 19 January 2022 to add information to solicitor Wendy Lyon’s concern that it’s not just Afghans in Ireland with British passports who appear ineligible under the scheme, but also those with EU passports.]