Osarumen Izevbokun says he can’t believe he and his family need a visa to travel to Ireland. He and his wife are both permanent residents of Ukraine.
It would be discriminatory and unfair, he says. After all, Ukrainian citizens fleeing the war don’t need visas to come here.
“We made Ukraine our home, I had all my children in Ukraine, I had my business in Ukraine and I lost possessions like Ukrainians,” he says.
Izevbokun says he thought they could come to Ireland visa-free if they’re covered by temporary protection based on what he’d read up on the Citizens Information website.
There, it says permanent residents of Ukraine who can’t safely go back to their birthplaces have the same protections as Ukrainian citizens under current European Union rules.
But when the couple – who are Nigerian citizens and had until the war lived in Ukraine for 14 years, with their three children born there – tried to board one flight from Germany to Ireland, and then another, they were confused, he says, about being turned away.
On paper, permanent residents of Ukraine who cannot return to safe and durable conditions in their countries or region of origin, do enjoy the same rights the EU promises to Ukrainian citizens.
But that’s only if they first manage to cross the visa barrier. The Irish immigration website says that most people who aren’t Ukrainian citizens and would need a visa to come in normal times, still do.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said that visa exemptions are created in Irish law on the basis of nationality. “It is therefore not possible to exempt nationals of other countries who were resident in Ukraine from our visa requirements.”
It processes those visa applications sharpish and with sympathy, the spokesperson said. “And the normal requirement to be ordinarily resident in the country in which you apply for a visa has been waived in these cases.”
As of 14 April, a little over 460 non-EEA citizens fleeing Ukraine have arrived in Ireland, said the spokesperson. They didn’t have figures for how many of those had needed visas to seek refuge here.
Izevbokun says they can’t go back to Nigeria because they have brought up their kids in Ukraine where they’re used to “a certain level of comfort”.
“Should we now, because of a war that isn’t our fault, return to a supposed ‘home country’ that cannot guarantee safety, electricity, good infrastructure and sanity?” he says.
Nigeria is struggling with violent conflicts, he says, and he has political leanings that could get him in trouble there.
Izevbokun and his family are staying for now at a friend’s house in Düsseldorf in Germany. His children are out of school, he says, because the process is so slow.
His hope was that they could move to Ireland and get the kids back into education, says Izevbokun.
He’d heard the process of settling in was faster and easier in Ireland. “My children would’ve already been in school,” said Izevbokun on a Zoom call last week standing on an outside balcony as his family ate dinner inside.
“Another reason I want to apply to go to Ireland is because it’s English speaking,” he says.
Ukrainian citizens, who before the war had the right to move between EU countries visa-free for 90 days can still do that.
That means “they are able to choose the Member State in which they want to enjoy the rights attached to temporary protection,” says the EU Justice and Home Affairs Council’s decision issued on 4 March so that the 2001 temporary protection directive could kick in. They could move if they want to Ireland, therefore.
Those who have needed visas can’t travel so freely.
But the European Union’s 2001 Temporary Protection Directive – the law that has been invoked to help refugees fleeing Ukraine and sets out member states’ responsibilities towards them – does say though that member states should give people every facility for getting necessary visas.
Formalities should be reduced to a minimum because of the urgency of the situation, it says. “Visas should be free of charge or their cost reduced to a minimum.”
In an email to another Nigerian citizen who is a permanent resident of Ukraine, the Irish embassy in Poland says he should pay €60 to file a visa application, which is the standard fee for each person.
Izevbokun says his family has been through two crowded refugee camps in Germany, which was tough on his three small kids. “We’ve been in Germany for like one and half months and we have nothing.”
On 1 April, before Izevbokun realised they needed visas, the family tried to board a plane to Ireland, he says, and a staff member for German carrier Eurowings curtly refused them.
“I never forget it, she said, ‘Nigerian passport holders, Ghanian passport holders, other African passports holders and any of those other countries are not allowed,’” says Izevbokun, waving his hand dismissively in the air.
He repeats the line. It was hurtful, he says.
A spokesperson for Eurowings hasn’t responded to queries sent on 14 April.
A spokesperson for Aer Lingus, which also refused Izevbokun’s family, said it is sticking to the rules.
“Aer Lingus is strictly following the instructions of the Department of Justice which is consistent with the EU Temporary Protection Directive for Ukrainian Citizens and their family members wishing to travel to Ireland,” they said.
Alert to It
Izevbokun’s journey out of Ukraine, he says, has made him sensitive to any hints of discrimination.
When they tried to cross the Polish border by bus, he says, they were also refused. “The Ukrainians came onto the bus and said, ‘All Black people come down’. They told us to come down.”
He says he didn’t want his kids to learn that obedience is the correct response to discrimination.
“Because it would’ve been stuck in my children’s brain that they can be oppressed and they’re supposed to allow it,” he said, pointing to his head.
He jumped up to his feet, he says, and asked other Black passengers to ignore the request to get off.
“I told everybody to sit down. I said, ‘Listen, you either take us to the Polish border, or you drive us back to Lviv,’” said Izevbokun, frowning.
“Do you believe these people drove us back to Lviv?” he says.
Human rights activists finally helped them leave Ukraine, says Izevbokun. “I have this discrimination phobia now.”
Izevbokun says he struggles to believe that his family doesn’t have the same rights as Ukrainian citizens, albeit it can look like they do on paper.
“My children never travelled to any country until the war chased us out. They were born Ukrainians and are Ukrainians. They speak Ukrainian language,” he says. “What makes them different? The colour of their skin?”