On his fourth night in Cloverhill Remand Prison in November 2019, Christian Campos decided to stay awake, he says. “I was like, okay, I’m not planning to sleep at this place.”

A breathing problem means he snores. His cellmates had gotten angry, he says.

He remembers them saying something along the lines of, “Chris, try to do better, we’re mature, but if we weren’t patient, we’d punch you in the mouth,” said Campos, last Monday on a Zoom call from his home in São Paulo, Brazil.

He had tried a pile of extra pillows. “So I could lay down a little between lying down and sitting,” said Campos, leaning into a half-sitting, half-lying position.

His cellmates had said it worked, he says, until staff had taken those extra pillows away.

Campos was there because border control officers at Dublin Airport didn’t trust that he was coming to the country for a quick trip, he says, given he had overstayed before.

One of his cellmates told him he had been accused of drug-dealing, he said, and the other cellmate, of selling guns.

Campos says he couldn’t believe that Ireland didn’t have an immigration detention centre at the airport.

He got a phone call before being carted to prison, he says. He called his mother and lied to her. “I said I’m going to a kind of a detention centre for travellers,” said Campos, laughing.

From January to September 2021, gardaí detained 238 people, who had been refused leave to land at Dublin Airport, said Kevin Metadjer, who works at the border management unit of the Department of Justice, during a webinar last November.

But the data only tells some of the story. Gardaí doesn’t count or record the number of those it detains at Garda stations on immigration charges in the absence of an immigration detention centre, the webinar heard.

A spokesperson for An Garda Síochána didn’t address a query as to why the immigration detention centre long-promised for Dublin Airport isn’t operational yet.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice referred questions to the Gardaí about the airport detention centre’s delay, and the Gardaí’s not counting people it holds in Garda stations on immigration charges.

Stopping By

From 2016 to 2018, Campos had been an English language student in Dublin.

He stayed six months beyond the expiry of his immigration permission, he says, but left eventually to backpack through South Asia for 10 months.

En route back to Brazil, he thought to stop by Dublin again to say goodbye to friends, he says. Brazilian citizens can travel to Ireland as tourists visa-free.

At the airport, they clocked he had overstayed before and became suspicious, says Campos. “They thought I was coming back to stay in the country.”

He had a return ticket to Brazil, he says, but he was refused leave to land which meant he would be deported. “But because they send you back to the country you travel from, I had to go back to Athens,” he says.

Border control officers told him that the next flight to Greece was in five days, he says, and took him to Cloverhill Remand Prison, a medium-security prison for men, in Clondalkin.

No Place to Hold Migrants

In 2019, then-Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan told the Dáil that An Garda Síochána was refurbishing a building at the airport to turn into an immigration facility. It would likely be in operation by May of that year, he said.

Last Wednesday, a Garda spokesperson said the former Transaer House building has been refurbished into a new Garda station, and also has accommodation for Garda National Immigration Bureau (GNIB) workers at Dublin Airport.

“The Dublin Airport Garda Station has general Garda custody facilities but these facilities are not yet operational,” they said. “An Garda Síochána does not have a dedicated immigration facility.”

They didn’t say when the new custody facilities would start operating. “We have no further information available at this time,” they said.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said: “the cells have not been fully commissioned at this time”.

Last December, Minister for Justice Helen McEntee, a Fine Gael TD, told the Dáil that authorities were still ironing out outstanding matters there.

However, “Work has been completed on a new Block F in Cloverhill remand prison which is intended to be used to accommodate people detained for immigration purposes,” McEntee said, separately from ordinary prisoners.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, though, Block F has instead been used as an isolation unit, she said. “It is intended that when the pandemic is over, Block F will revert to its original intended use, subject to the availability of staff and the impact on resources,” she said.

Between January and December 2021, more than 3,200 people were refused leave to land, including 575 Eritreans, 528 Syrians, 399 Somalis and 189 Afghans, said a spokesperson for the Department of Justice.

Metadjer, from its border management unit, said at the November webinar that 65 percent of people are detained for a day or less. Only 4 percent of those people who end up in prison on immigration charges stay there for more than five days, his figures showed.

But it’s unclear how many people are kept at Garda stations and for how long.

A 2008 EU directive known as the “return directive” says that immigration “detention shall take place as a rule in specialised detention facilities”. But Ireland hasn’t adopted that.

Other Human Rights Issues

A big issue for those who are detained is access to solicitors, says Siobhán Conlon, an immigration and human rights solicitor at the law firm Siobhán Conlon Solicitors.

Campos says that he tried to reach a solicitor himself while in Cloverhill Remand Prison and through a friend.

He struggled to get a phone call in prison during his second day though, he says. As he remembers it, a prison guard kept telling him to shut up, and that he had to wait for his call.

“I said, please, I need to call a lawyer. I’m not a criminal,” says Campos. Eventually, he got a chance to use a phone, he says.

Adriana Ribeiro, his friend, says it was surreal to see Campos behind a glass screen when she visited him. “I told his mum he’s in a hotel.”

Campos says they hugged through the glass, stretching his arms crookedly, trying to recreate the scene.

Ribeiro says she contacted the Brazilian embassy in Dublin for help but they couldn’t.

Immigration organisations took ages to get back to her, she says. By the time a solicitor responded, Campos was just two days away from flying back, she says.

Conlon says that those detained on immigration charges struggle to access solicitors.

“And it could be a language barrier and not necessarily the fault of the guards or prisons, but for whatever reason, this is certainly a problem,” said Conlon.

“There were certainly people being held or detained who would appear to want to, you know, access to somebody, a lawyer, and it’s just not happening.”

The EU’s 2008 Return Directive, which Ireland isn’t party to, stresses the importance of access to legal experts and free legal aid for those who can’t afford it.

Conlon says there is no immigration legal aid beyond asylum cases.

“But somebody who is in prison for a criminal offence has the right to free legal aid, but somebody who is there on immigration-related offences or who is refused leave to land doesn’t,” Conlon says.

She said they’re not getting the same due process that everybody deserves.

Vulnerable Travellers

Sometimes, those seeking asylum at the airport also get locked up.

Just recently, Conlon said, she got a call from a sergeant to visit a Garda station where they were holding a traveller who didn’t speak English.

“The guy was saying the term refugee to me over and over again and was extremely distressed, and this is three days after being held in detention,” she said.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said border control officers don’t detain vulnerable migrants, like asylum-seekers or victims of human trafficking.

Staff are trained to spot them. “People in these categories will not be returned and they are not detained,” they said.

Conlon says she knows of cases where people have tried to come back to seek asylum after getting deported, or attempted to escape as border control officers tried to put them on return flights.

If a return flight is immediately available, she said, it means someone who is potentially fleeing danger but grapples with communicating it, never got a fair shot at seeking refuge, she says.

Campos, the Brazilian man, says that on the fifth day when he was set free from jail, the rest of the journey also took a toll.

“They drove me to the airport in a police car, a Garda car,” says Campos. “They followed me to the plane.”

As they ordered him to sit at the back of the plane, he says, he felt the weight of passengers’ stares.

“I wish I could reach to their brains to know what they were thinking. Like the worst crimes probably came into their minds,” said Campos.

The officers at Dublin Airport had told him that once the flight landed in Athens, he should stay in his seat because the pilot had his passport.

Once in Athens, after all the passengers left, a man with an imposing figure that to Campos looked like a”Greek God” called him from the end of the plane and gave back his passport, he says

From there, things went smoothly. Soon enough, he was on a flight back to Brazil.

But he says the experience left him wary of travelling for a while. “I was scared of leaving my country.”

He said he’d worked at a rickshaw puller in Dublin, working in close proximity to the guards, but this was different, more personal, he says.

He’s lucky that he’s older, he said, because these experiences, like sharing cells, can leave enduring scars on younger people and vulnerable women.

The conditions in Irish prisons are better than that in Brazil, he said. But “Ireland should have an immigration detention centre at the airport”.

Shamim Malekmian covers the immigration beat for Dublin Inquirer. Reach her at shamim@dublininquirer.com

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