On Sunday morning, Eric Ndjankam and his wife, Gertrude Koukam, smiled at each other often as they talked inside the living room of their flat in Dundalk city centre.
Ndjankam was sitting on a chair in front of a laptop on a dining table. Koukam, a little further away, near their tiny kitchen.
Toys and toddler stuff covered the living room floor, a red chair with a smiley little girl on it, a pink toy car, and stuffed animals.
Their small boy stood in the corner, his nose inches away from the television screen, lost in a cartoon show with a song about the importance of brushing teeth.
For Ndjankam, the road to a reunion and something closer to everyday normal domesticity with his wife and child was far from smooth. Even now, he may have to leave them again.
Stuck in neglectful and dirty conditions in a refugee camp on the island of Kos in Greece, the couple had hustled to get Koukam passage to Ireland in March 2020. She recently won refugee status here.
Ndjankam, meanwhile, stayed in Greece and got his refugee status there. He worked a job paying €400 a month and desperately, he says, wanted to be with his family.
“Even if you have refugee status, life is very very hard, very hard to get a job, very hard to get your papers,” says Ndjankam.
People who get refugee status from an EU country don’t win the same rights as its citizens, so there are mechanisms in place to grant them freedom of movement across the zone.
But on 18 July, Ireland pulled out of the agreement that allows refugees to travel between 20 European Union countries without a visa, justifying the change by saying it was needed to thwart people like Ndjankam who already have asylum in another country from applying in Ireland – which it calls an abuse of its asylum system.
Even as Ireland tightens its own immigration regime, Ndjankam’s story anda body of research suggest that the disparities embedded in European laws leave countries with external European borders like Italy and Greece struggling to host more refugees than others further from migration routes.
So, refugees who reach these countries find dirty, unsafe and neglectful conditions and opt to flee elsewhere, but when they do,the law calls it “asylum shopping”.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice did not respond to queries, including one asking for a breakdown of the EU countries from which refugees travel to Ireland to re-apply for asylum.
Unseen in Greece
Ndjankam and Koukam fled Cameroon to seek asylum in Europe on 28 May 2019, arriving in Greece by sea.
The video scans their shanty home, the floor scattered with bare mattresses – ones others have discarded, she says – ridden with fleas.
Says Ndjankam: “The conditions was very dirty.”
Ndjankam and his wife say they had to go in plastic bags as there was no other option. “Toilets?” they both say, laughing.
Koukam gets up and shows a surgery scar on her back near her right shoulder, where she says there used to be a large painful lump.
In Greece, they’d told her it wasn’t anything to worry about, she says. Here, doctors removed it.
The couple had complained about conditions, but the system was so overwhelmed that it rendered them invisible, they said.
“They don’t care. They have thousands and thousands. If you have a problem, that is your problem,” says Ndjankam.
Shortly after they arrived in Greece, Koukam realised she was pregnant. Ndjankam promised to save her from the camp, he says.
They made a deal with a local man who hired refugees to work on his farm, and asked in exchange for fake travel documents for Koukam rather than the €20 a day he usually paid.
“We told him we don’t want the money. I want my wife to leave this place,” said Ndjankam. They would only help his wife, he says, not him.
Koukam didn’t choose Ireland, she says. Just like they hadn’t chosen Greece. “He only had connections in Ireland,” says Koukam.
Koukam made it to Ireland in March 2020, by then about eight months pregnant. She was granted refugee status two months ago.
Ndjankam was still in Greece. He wasn’t able to hold Koukam’s hand while she was in labour, to be there when his son was born, or to see him grow from a newborn to a bouncy baby to a curious wobbler.
He was waiting and hoping, he says, for Koukam to get asylum in Ireland so she would then be able to bring him over to join her as refugees can under the International Protection Act 2015.
But it took so long.
So, losing hope and patience nine months ago, Ndjankam sought asylum again, this time in Ireland.
Freedom of Choice
In 2015, Lesbos, another small Greek island with the capacity to host 2,800 migrants at most, received over 350,000, accordingto a July 2021 study by researchers at the University of British Columbia.
Which European countries have responsibility for hosting which asylum seekers is set out in the rules known as theDublin III regulations.
Under these regulations, at least in theory, asylum seekers should be able to seek refuge in a European country they have family in, or a country they already have a visa to enter or a residence permit to stay in.
But in practice, countries mostly rely on another criteria, one saying the state responsible for an asylum claim is the one to which an asylum seeker first arrives when they step into the European Union.
Abuse of this condition overburdens Mediterranean countries, like Italy and Greece unfairly, forcing people seeking asylum who arrive there first to live under sub-standard conditions, the 2021 study says.
When people make it out and try to make a new life in another country, they are often set straight back to Greece or Italy, through the Dublin system, it says.
Not all refugees are subject to restrictions on where they can settle. After Russia invaded Ukraine, EU countries granted Ukrainians the right to move around the zone, choosing which country suits them best to settle in.
Ireland’s move to pull out of the agreement allowing refugees to visit Ireland visa-free – which it says it will review in a year – doesn’t apply to Ukrainians, it has said.
Ndjankam and Koukam, the couple in Dundalk, say that if someone had asked where they wanted to live, they would’ve probably picked France. “Because of the language,” says Ndjankam.
“When we arrived in Greece, they wouldn’t allow us to leave,” he says. Ndjankam says after he managed to get his wife out, he tried to escape Greece many times and flee to Ireland to be with her. “But the police catch me every time.”
He was in jail for six months for that, his wife says. “When I was giving birth here, he was in jail.”
“Asylum seekers only have one opportunity to apply for asylum in the European Union and, if the request is denied, this denial applies throughout all member states,” saysthe July 2021 study.
But a favourable decision from one member state doesn’t mean refugees enjoy the same rights everywhere in Europe – meaning they can live and work across the zone.
Patricia Brazil, a barrister and law lecturer at Trinity College Dublin, says that despite the conditions for asylum seekers and refugees in some Mediterranean countries, Europe’s asylum system assumes that everyone enjoys the same standards of support no matter where they are.
So it’s assumed that a person isn’t in need of refugee protection in Ireland if they have already been granted refugee protection elsewhere, she says.
“But we know the reality is very different on the ground. We know in Italy, there are lots of stories about people who were granted refugee status or subsidiary protection who are homeless,” she says.
They often struggle to get support from the government, says Brazil. “The Italian system has been under pressure for a long time now.”
Meanwhile, the conditions faced by asylum seekers in Greece have amounted to inhumane and degrading treatment, Amnesty International said in 2012.
Being subjected to “inhumane or degrading” treatment or punishment is grounds for seeking asylum under theUN’s 1951 Refugee Convention.
On 20 August 2021, Latvia asked other member states, through the European Migration Network, if they’d let someone apply for asylum using their embassies or consulates in another country. Ireland asked its response not to be made public.
But it had said no. “Under the International Protection Act 2015, an application for international protection may only be made at the frontier of the State or in the State,” says its response released under the Freedom of Information Act 2014.
As Ireland tightens immigration control to stop people from coming here to re-apply for asylum, the current mechanisms also ensure that people can’t apply from Mediterranean countries without travelling here, Brazil says.
“And there are restrictions in place to do with deterring or preventing people from physically arriving on the shore to make an application,” she says.
The solution is an asylum quota for each member state and countries taking equal responsibility, Brazil says. But since things to do with migration are a matter of sovereignty for each state, the European Union can’t force this on countries, she says.
Ndjankam, the man in Dundalk, says that even after getting refugee status in Greece, he had no place to stay and few job prospects because he couldn’t speak the language.
He and his wife both work in Dundalk now. Ndjankam as a housekeeper and Koukam at a nursing home, they said.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice didn’t give figures for how many successful asylum claims have been made in Ireland in recent years by people who, like Ndjankam, have already been granted asylum in other European countries.
In February 2020, the Department of Justice put a young Somalian doctor with refugee status from Hungary in a deportation queue.
The woman had studied medicine in Ukraine, then returned to Mogadishu to work but faced threats from a jihadist fundamentalist group because, as a woman, she worked and did not wear a full burqa,says a court judgment from 30 April 2021 that quashed her deportation order.
She fled back to Ukraine using a student visa and friends helped her get smuggled into Europe.
Smugglers left her at the Hungarian border, forcing her to apply for asylum there, which she was granted. But she still faced xenophobia, was assaulted, and, unable to speak Hungarian, struggled to integrate – and was more scared because of the widespread anti-Muslim hate than she had been in Somalia, the court documents say.
In Ireland, the Department of Justice rejected her asylum claim and request to stay on humanitarian grounds.
It had assumed that because Hungary was a European country, it couldn’t violate her rights, ignoring country-of-origin information and newspaper reports about Hungary’s attitude towards refugees suggesting otherwise.
In her judgment, Ms Justice Tara Burns, had cited those reports, noting how tough refugees had it in the country led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Although the Department of Justice is free to presume that somebody’s fundamental rights will be upheld in a particular member state, she said, that doesn’t mean its presumption isn’t rebuttable.
“It seems to me that the founding architects of the system of international protection which is in place in Europe today, would be of the view that we, as a people, have badly failed the Applicant in this case,” her judgment says.
The Irish government’s opt-out from the Council of Europe’s – Europe’s human rights organisation – agreement to not have visas for refugees is uncommon, says Brazil, the law lecturer at Trinity.
Greece and Italy have reached breaking points many times, she said. “But they haven’t pulled out of this visa mechanism.”
The decision also raises other unanswered questions about potential knock-on impacts on the ability of refugees living in Ireland to travel freely around Europe and the criteria for judging those who apply for visas to visit here.
Koukam says she wonders if she will now need a visa to travel across the EU too.
Brazil says she is unsure, but it’s most likely a matter for each EU country to decide.
Spokespeople for the Department of Justice, Department of Foreign Affairs and the secretary general of the Council of Europe did not respond to queries asking if Ireland’s decision impacts the freedom of movement of refugees in Ireland too.
Brazil says that it’s unclear how Ireland will examine visa applications from refugees in the zone without unfairly rejecting some based on assumptions that they plan to reapply for asylum.
“We do see in visa decision-making quite a high degree of suspicion sometimes, and the quality of visa decision-making in Ireland is very inconsistent,” says Brazil.
There are good decisions and really poor ones, says Brazil, who says there is no refugee visa that people can apply for separately either.
She says she wants to know how the department will go about this reasonably.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice has not yet responded to queries about this.
Ndjankam, who doesn’t have a decision on his Irish asylum case yet, wonders about the odds of getting refugee status for a second time, how likely it is to happen.
But he said that he feels more seen by Irish authorities and is banking on their kindness. “I just hope that the government allows me to stay with my family.”