On 4 May, Anosh Sayed Hussain was headed from Dublin to a human rights meeting hosted by the European Union when he was detained at Brussels Airport.
He spent a night in a detention facility there, he says, and was deported back to Ireland the following day. “They said I needed a visa,” said Hussain, recently.
The following month, Hussain, an Afghan refugee who works for a human rights organisation, was due to fly to another meeting – this time in Geneva.
Eager to avoid a repeat, he applied for a visa at the Austrian embassy in Dublin, which looks after immigration matters for Switzerland.
But they couldn’t process his application because Switzerland didn’t accept his current travel document, they replied.
When he moved to Ireland, Hussain hadn’t really expected to have to deal with any visa applications to be able to travel around Europe for his job or to see family, who now live in Sweden.
Available info was that those with refugee status in Ireland can travel to 20 European countries visa-free.
He asked the Department of Justice what was going on, he says.
His refugee status was different to those allowed visa-free travel, he was told, and he has a different travel document to those granted asylum through the mainstream route which makes it harder to even get a visa.
For Hussain, Ireland making his refugee status a “second-class” type with fewer rights means missing out on travel opportunities for work and growing more estranged from his family each day.
There are two kinds of refugees. Convention refugees take the mainstream route to asylum, get registered and wait their turn for an interview. They may get refugee status after that or appeal a negative decision and win status later or not.
For those who get it this way, it is under the Refugee Convention of 1951.
Programme refugees can skip the asylum queue because their countries undergo such turmoil and instability that they’re considered in need of protection, no questions asked, says Stephen Kirwan, partner and solicitor at the law firm KOD Lyons.
Convention refugees can travel to 20 European Union countries visa-free and have an explicit right to family reunification under section 56 of the International Protection Act 2015. But programme refugees can’t and don’t.
Hussain, who flew from Afghanistan to Qatar and then Germany, where Irish officials put him on a flight to Ireland, is a programme refugee.
The different rights weren’t flagged to him, he says. “There was no explanation to tell us, okay, if you will apply to this programme, these are pros and cons,” says Hussain, who now rents a room in Dún Laoghaire.
Kirwan, the solicitor, says it’s unfair that programme refugees don’t enjoy rights guaranteed to convention and Ukrainian refugees.
“The government might argue that the Ukraine situation is governed by the EU temporary protection directive,” says Kirwan, referring to the European Union countries’ current open-border policy for refugees fleeing Ukraine based on a temporary directive activated on 3 March, shortly after the war started.
But that makes a case for granting equal rights to programme refugees even stronger, he says.
Programme refugees aren’t here temporarily, he says. “They’ve actually been given full equivalent rights, but in practice, there are still discriminatory elements.”
Ireland did recently opt out of an agreement to allow refugees to come here visa-free, but it seems that, so far at least, other countries haven’t reciprocated.
Convention refugees in Ireland can still travel to them visa-free to visit, said government spokespeople in Switzerland, Finland, Denmark, Luxembourg, Sweden, Belgium, Norway, Germany, the Czech Republic and Iceland.
But that doesn’t make any difference for programme refugees, who needed visas before and still do.
Hussain says Ireland didn’t accept his family, so they went to Sweden. “I wanted to bring them to Ireland.”
Wendy Lyon, partner and solicitor at Abbey Law, says the International Protection Act 2015 doesn’t explicitly mention that programme refugees are entitled to family reunification.
But in practice, the Department of Justice has let programme refugees apply, she says. “But this is very much a policy decision which could be subject to reversal at any time.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said programme refugees do have a right to family reunification under the act. That normally means they can, during the first 12 months after getting status, apply to bring family without having to prove that they have the financial means to support them.
The spokesperson for the Department of Justice didn’t say why programme refugees like Hussain aren’t declared refugees under the United Nations Refugee Convention 1951 – which is why they have different rights.
Lyon, the solicitor, says it’s because if some programme refugees had their cases scrutinised, they might not qualify for refugee status.
“Some people admitted to a programme might not be at risk for any reason other than the conflict situation,” she says. So, they’d be eligible for subsidiary protection but not refugee status, she says.
Programme refugees can make a mainstream asylum application, sit for asylum interviews and see if they can get status under the convention, she says. But it can be a long and unpleasant process, Lyon said.
Hussain says he worked at a civil society organisation in Afghanistan and was prioritised for evacuation when the Taliban took over in August 2021, arriving in Ireland on 4 September that same year.
Germany and Sweden were other options, he says. But he was worried that not knowing majority languages there would stop him settling in and hold him back professionally, he says.
“I mean, it would be hard for me to learn German or Swedish, but when I see I can’t even travel in the EU, then it makes it complicated,” he said.
Programme refugees in Germany normally don’t get convention travel documents either, says a UNHCR report on the country’s refugee resettlement programme.
Meanwhile, information on the Swedish Migration Agency website suggests that candidates for its resettlement programme may be declared refugees under the 1951 convention if they meet its conditions. If not, they’d get subsidiary protection.
For Ireland, the Citizens Information website suggests that both convention and programme refugees are entitled to a travel document that allows them to “travel to most countries in the EU without a visa, and stay for up to 90 days using this travel document”. Even if that’s not the case.
On top of all his other problems, Hussain says his passport from Afghanistan is about to expire and that he has no way of renewing it.
The spokesperson for Ireland’s Department of Justice said that in such cases, it can issue a travel document that can work as a passport.
Hussain has one of those travel documents already, the one given to programme refugees. But Switzerland wouldn’t accept that, and he’s not sure whether other European countries – like Sweden, where he wants to go see family – will or not either.
Hussain is getting restless to see his family. He hasn’t seen them since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan again last year.
“My mum is calling me every day,” says Hussain. Homesickness makes it even more difficult to tolerate the distance.
“Like, I was travelling before, but there was always a home I could go back to,” he says. “But, like, now you can’t go back, you can’t even see your family.”