On Saturday, toys and family mementoes were neatly arranged around Rejwanul Haque’s living room.
A card on the mantel, handmade by his daughter, wishes him a “Happy Father’s Day”. In the corner was a wooden crib with a few stuffed animals and beside that, a comfy crib with a mobile of toys.
On a table in the corridor was a photo of Haque’s wife, holding a tiny baby.
But for almost three weeks, Haque, a computing lecturer at the National College of Ireland on its campus at the International Financial Services Centre in the city centre, has been living alone in their home in Portlaoise.
On 5 July, he travelled with his wife and kids to India to see family. On 22 August, when it came time to return, staff for Emirates Airline in Kolkata wouldn’t let their 11-year-old daughter onto the flight back to Dublin.
Haque had to leave his wife and his kids there, he says. “I travelled alone because I had to go back to work.”
The family were divided because airline staff were asking for a re-entry visa to Ireland for Haque’s 11-year-old daughter – even though the Irish government suspended that requirement for kids younger than 16 at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and hasn’t changed that.
Parents in Ireland with children from outside of the European Union have said that the lack of re-entry visas adds hassle and stress to travel, as airlines and immigration authorities abroad block them from flights without one.
In Haque’s case, it meant separation. His children have missed doctors’ appointments and school.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said that it had communicated the suspension of re-entry visas for kids to anyone who needed to know and published a notice on its Immigration Service Delivery website.
“Where the Department becomes aware of cases where children resident in Ireland have been denied travel we have endeavoured to inform the carriers or foreign border agencies that the visa requirement for children resident in Ireland has changed,” they said.
But Haque says that grabbing the attention of Irish authorities for help can be really tough with ignored emails or pass-the-buck responses. “It’s such a hassle,” he said.
Staff at Emirates Airline took their time talking among themselves before they finally said his daughter couldn’t travel without a re-entry visa, says Haque.
His six-month-old son has an Irish passport. Haque and his wife are permanent residents of Ireland. But they couldn’t travel without their daughter.
“My wife was almost crying, but we didn’t have any options,” says Haque.
His daughter, he says, felt guilty, thinking her passport and status were the problem. “It was kind of a mental pressure on her that we couldn’t travel because of her.”
He hasn’t been his usual self at work without his family around, he said on Saturday. “I’m only 20 percent productive.”
For his daughter, not making it to Ireland as planned means she couldn’t start school with her friends and classmates, says Haque.
She missed an appointment to get kidney issues checked at Temple Street children’s hospital and another one to get a second Covid-19 booster. “She is a little bit immunosuppressed,” says Haque.
He gets up, brings two pieces of paper, and drops them onto the coffee table in the living room. They’re letters showing that his son’s appointment at an eye clinic in Athlone had been rescheduled from 1 September to 23 September.
Haque had applied for a re-entry visa for his daughter before they travelled but got a letter back from the Department of Justice saying, “You are asked not to submit re-entry visa applications as they will not be processed.”
The department has told airlines that kids no longer need a re-entry visa, the letter says.
Haque said he was counting on that letter when travelling to India, that showing it on the way back meant they wouldn’t face any issues. But the airline dismissed it.
“It’s just a letter. They want to see something in the passport,” says Haque.
The website of Emirates Airline shows that it was aware of Ireland’s new visa policy for children. A spokesperson for the airline hasn’t yet responded to queries, including why its staff still asked to see a re-entry visa.
Back in Ireland, Haque bought another ticket for his wife and kids for 12 September this past Monday (it cost €772, he says), and spent every day trying to make sure they could return.
He wrote to the Border Management Unit (BMU) of the Department of Justice.
They only deal with “front line immigration matters”, they wrote back on 29 August. “Please be advised that the boarding of any person on a flight solely rests with the Airline,” says the email.
But on 9 September, they sent a more detailed response to Haque, replying to a forwarded copy of the queries sent to the Department of Justice’s press office for this article.
The new email says they’ve taken care of the issue. “You can show this email to the airline if any issues arise. Also attached is confirmation from Irish Immigration Website that your child is not visa required,” says the email.
Haque says it’s upsetting that only media queries could snap the BMU into action. “It’s like they don’t deal with common people like us.”
Meanwhile, the Irish consulate in Kolkata left his emails unanswered, Haque says. But on 8 September, the Irish embassy in Delhi finally got back saying if an airline won’t let a child on a flight without a re-entry visa, “it is advised that the minor applies for a new entry visa, which will be processed free of charge”.
Haque says he had no idea about that. Even if he had been aware, it could take weeks for the embassy to process a new visa, he says.
“I think it’s three weeks, at least, and it would also take time to get the documents for the application,” he says.
On Sunday, the day before his family was due to try to travel to Dublin again, Haque was worried, he said. “My wife is under pressure because she is travelling with two kids. You can understand.”
On Monday, his wife and kids headed to the airport. She showed piles of documents and the correspondence her husband had with Irish officials and gave a “timatic reference number” that they’d been given on the phone by Irish immigration officials.
(Timatic codes help airlines check passengers’ travel documents and figure out if they have the right documents in the face of changing rules, according to the website of the International Air Transport Association.)
They let them board, he says.
Still, Emirates Airline staff in Kolkata asked his wife an array of questions before letting her and the kids on a flight, Haque says.
Brian Collins, advocacy service manager at migration support non-profit Nasc, to which Haque had also turned for help and got a letter from, says in some countries, kids get their own residence permits.
“Or even have a formal certificate issued by the state confirming the child’s immigration status,” he says.
But not in Ireland, Collins said, and without re-entry visas, people may continue to run into problems when trying to return to Ireland.
A simple solution is to give families with non-EU children a travel certificate valid for up to five years, says Collins.
But in the meantime, Irish embassies and visa offices must actively try to make sure that people aren’t facing stressful situations, he said.
“To ensure that no families are left in the position where their child is unable to return to Ireland, with all the difficulties which that entails,” says Collins.
Solving the significant delays in processing citizenship applications would help address a root cause too, says Collins. It takes, on average, 26 months right now for a kid’s application to be processed, he says.
Haque says he will be eligible to apply for citizenship in a year. But it’ll probably take a couple of years or more for that to go through the system, and since he can’t apply for his kids until he has Irish citizenship, it would take another two years or so after that for his daughter’s application to be ruled on.
Meanwhile, he says that unless the Department of Justice resumes re-entry visas for kids or starts issuing Irish Residence Permit (IRP) cards for them, he and his family will have to stay grounded in Ireland.
“I will not travel because of all the problems I faced,” he says.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice didn’t say whether it would consider issuing IRP cards or any other proof of residency for children.