In June 2015, a group of teenagers met in the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland for the first time. Each of them had grown up in Ireland, and was undocumented, and most had never spoken about this to anyone outside of their own families. They formed a group and called themselves ‘Young, Paperless & Powerful’.
The group have since then worked to tell their stories through film and art. In August, they performed original spoken-word pieces to a large crowd, revealing their fears and dreams with heart-breaking honesty. They are smart and irreverent, multilingual, insightful, and obsessed with Snapchat. They are ambitious and fearful, simultaneously full of hope and doubt.
Of 540 undocumented migrants surveyed by Migrant Rights Centre Ireland in 2014
- 44% have children under the age of 18
- 21% have children here with them in Ireland
- 33% are currently paying income tax
- 1 in 5 is here over 10 years
There are 20,000 to 26,000 undocumented people living and working in Ireland. This includes between two and five thousand undocumented children and young people.
Their situation is an inevitable consequence of an immigration system created on a piecemeal basis. Just as with undocumented Irish people in the USA, the vast majority of the undocumented people in Ireland entered the country legally. They were on a student visa, tourist visa or work permit, and they subsequently became undocumented. Some 20% have been in Ireland for more than ten years. Children and young people are undocumented in Ireland either because they were born to undocumented parents or because they joined their parents who were working in Ireland.
Onerous consequences afflict young people when they are undocumented and living what are precarious lives. Many suffer from anxiety and depression, due to the daily stress. Children become aware of their parents’ lack of legal status from a very young age. Fear leads most to hide their irregular status from everyone outside their immediate family. They often obsessively avoid situations which could result in the disclosure of their undocumented status. Even when they are victims of serious crimes, undocumented young people are reluctant to contact the Gardaí for fear of being exposed.
As they approach their Leaving Certificate exams, they become more aware of their uncertain futures and the limited options available to them after secondary school. Without permission to work in the State, young people who have reached employment age are often exposed to exploitative work conditions, and end up working in jobs their undocumented parents have been struggling to survive in for many years.
Without access to education, work and secure residency, the cycle of low-wage work and poverty will continue. The loss of potential is staggering. Feelings of deep frustration and hopelessness manifest as these young people watch their peers move on while they remain stuck. Without opportunities for economic independence and development, young people often become isolated and socially excluded.
These people work in Irish businesses, care for Ireland’s children and older people. They bolster the Irish economy and, naturally, put down roots in Irish communities. Ireland is their home. Our politicians show profound understanding of the plight of the undocumented Irish in America and their experience of living in fear of the authorities and being unable to return home for family births or funerals yet they have taken no action for the undocumented in Ireland experiencing the same struggles.
Earlier this year, the UN Committee on the Rights of Children highlighted the failure of the Irish immigration system to address the needs of undocumented children. They urged Ireland to “ensure that the legal framework includes clear and accessible formal procedures for conferring immigration status on children and their families who are in irregular migration situations”. We are in breach of our international human rights obligations.
We can no longer ignore this situation. A regularisation scheme, as proposed by the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland, offers a straightforward and pragmatic solution. There is support for regularisation right across civil society. Employers, trade unions, community and voluntary organisations and experts agree. This was evident in recent presentations to the Oireachtas Committee on Children and Youth Affairs and to the Justice and Equality committee where there was cross-party support for regularisation.
There is no good reason not to act now, to protect children and young people and uphold their rights.
Edel McGinley is Director of the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland. Young, Paperless & Powerful continue to share their stories and campaign for regularisation in Ireland.