Meet the Mauritians who feel and sound Irish, but live in fear of deportation
Some 5,000 young people in Ireland live in fear of being forced to leave home because of their undocumented status.
In a meeting room on Dame Street, 12 young people are eating pizza and drawing pictures that represent their hopes and dreams (“That’s meant to be a bicep to show how strong I feel,” says 18-year-old Aisha. “They said it looked like a chicken wing”). They wear jeans and baseball hats and bright T-shirts. Most of them are Mauritian, although there is one young Brazilian here and other members of the group are from Georgia, Zambia and Botswana. Most of them have been in Ireland for at least half of their lives and all have Dublin accents. Their mothers and fathers are in low-wage, cleaning, caring or service industry jobs.
The group is called Young Paperless and Powerful and they make films, they go to seminars, they paint murals, they talk to their neighbours, they meet politicians. They’re raising awareness. Of what? “We raise awareness that we exist,” says a 17-year-old Ariana, who’s about to begin her Leaving Cert year.
The Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) estimates there are about 20,000-26,000 undocumented people in Ireland and that between 3,000 and 5,000 of them are under the age of 18. They want their situation to be regularised. Being paperless brings problems.
Today the young people I meet are all around college-going age and some have been accepted into university, but they can’t afford the exorbitant fees for non-EU students (more than €8,000 or Rs 315,000 a year). The only jobs they can have are low-paid or cash-in-hand jobs, like those held by their parents. They can never travel outside of Ireland for fear they might not be able to return. They have, since the day they arrived, lived in fear of deportation – a letter in the post or a knock at the door.
“It’s something we think about a lot,” says 23-year-old Mello.
He and four others stay to talk to me after their meeting. Migrant Rights Centre community worker Kate O’Connell chips in occasionally to confirm a figure or, touchingly, to highlight their accomplishments, but she lets them tell their own stories. They’re using pseudonyms in this article, though one argues strongly for using their real name.
O’Connell sighs. “We’re trying to protect them,” she says. “We discourage them from identifying themselves. But they’re so passionate. Sometimes we go to events and before you know it, one of them is standing up addressing the crowd.”
“We’re here to take action, we’re not going to back down,” says Aisha.
“This is our issue and if you’re not going to take a step forward then no one is going to stand up for you,” says Ariana. “We’re representing the people who are afraid to come out of their shell.”
They talk about coming to Ireland. Most came after their parents had been here for a while. Not all of them knew they were coming to stay, though Mello says he “kind of had an idea. I had a conversation with my ma on the phone. She said ‘This is your ticket, your way out.’ It’s tough in Mauritius.”
Did their parents explain why they were coming to Ireland?
“My parents told me, ‘You’ll have a better life here and have a good job,’” says Ariana. “I was a kid with a big imagination so I was actually excited to come but then my mum was like, ‘You can’t go there; you can’t do this and you can’t tell anyone you’re here without any papers’. That put a big wall between me and other people.”
Pressure to lie
“You feel so much responsibility,” says Aisha. “You can’t tell people who you are, because you don’t know what to say.”
What if someone asks questions?
“You have to learn how to lie from a very young age,” she says.
“Or you have to come across as cocky,” says Mello, “telling them to f**k off for asking.”
“I had friends planning a holiday to Croatia this summer and I had to say that my family had already booked a holiday and so I couldn’t go,” says Ariana. “That was a lie.”
“It is difficult when you grow up in a place and it’s your home,” says Sara (17). “And you feel like everyone else, but you can’t tell them that you’re undocumented. So you have to lie.”
Do their friends know about their situation? “Since the campaign we’re more confident, more comfortable telling them,” says Ariana.
Do they worry about being deported? “Every day,” says Ariana. “You don’t know when someone will show up at the door and say, ‘You’re undocumented. You have to leave the country’. So you can’t do things that normal people would do.”
“Everything you do,” says Sara, “you worry in case you’re exposed in some way.”
“You have to be careful about what you say and to who,” says Aisha.
Many of these young people are unknown to the State, although some of their families have, sometimes voluntarily and sometimes after discovery by the authorities, applied for “humanitarian leave to remain” through section III of the Immigration Act. This is a terrifying process for them.
Do they know people who were sent home? They all nod.
“It’s very traumatic,” says Mello.
“Some people might just be at work and suddenly immigration turn up,” says Sara.
“One of the cases I know, someone told immigration about this whole family – immigration went and checked the whole place out and they got put on a flight,” says Ariana.
I ask the group if they could be deported. “Of course,” says Mello. “You’re told that all the time and you’re afraid and there are trust issues about being ratted out. For teenagers throwing random tantrums and being a bit rebellious, you have to be extra careful because when all of your Irish friends are acting out on the streets, you’re more worried. With them it’s like, ‘Look at me.’ With me it’s like, ‘Yes sir. No sir’ . . . We’ve grown up watching our parents being scared to walk to the shops, constantly paranoid.”
Have they had any particular reasons to worry? “When I was going to be doing the Leaving Cert they asked for my PPS number,” says Aisha. “They asked when I first went to school but we pretended to not hear the question. I thought this was the end, that I wouldn’t be able to sit the Leaving Cert, but we took the risk and applied for one.”
So what type of work do their parents do? “Cleaners, kitchen porters, things like that,” says Mello. “We’re like the Mexicans in America.”
“Mello!” exclaims Kate.
“But it’s true,” he says. “We get to do all the s**t jobs. You’re going to grow up to wash dishes or be a cleaner. The only way to make money is cash-in-hand jobs. And exploitation is a big issue.”
Later, Helen Lowry, the MRCI’s community work co-ordinator, tells me that most of these young people’s parents have PPS numbers from their earlier days in the country and consequently pay tax, despite not having residency papers. There are a few, rare, undocumented people in well-paid employment but most are on the minimum wage or less.
Do they feel their parents are exploited because of their status?
“Of course,” says Mello. “You can see it on their faces.”
“They’re tired,” says Ariana. “They don’t get fair wages.”
“But they don’t complain,” says Mello.
“None of us complain,” says Ariana.
They avoid officialdom. They don’t call the police even when they need them. Mello recounts a story about an undocumented friend not calling the Garda after being stabbed and Ariana tells me about helping someone after an assault.
“My ma and da gave out to me for just being there. ‘What if the police came down? You could have brought trouble on the whole family.’ We have to accept anything society throws at us – racism, bullying . . . We’re taught to stay quiet.”
“If someone says, ‘You f***ing Paki’ you have to laugh it off,” says Mello.
Later he talks about a well known broadcaster who insisted on using the word “illegal” instead of “undocumented”. “Can you imagine how hurtful it is hearing that at a young age?” he says. (The MRCI reject the word “illegal”. “[Being undocumented] is an administrative breach not a criminal act,” says O’Connell.)
Do they feel Irish? “I feel human,” says Mello, “but the way we get treated sometimes is not very human.”
“This is our home,” says Ariana. “I know if I get my papers, I’m only going to go visit Mauritius. I wouldn’t be able to live there. This is where I grew up. But if I had my papers . . . ” She trails off and shakes her head.
Mello thinks for a moment. “Sometimes there’s the pressure of trying to fit in,” he says, “[I remember] being in school with these people who aren’t like me [wondering] ‘How do I become like them?’ You study them: How do they walk? How do they talk? They move in this way. They do this in class.”
He slumps down, throws his arm over the back of the seat and then throws his leg casually across the seat beside him – a parody of casual laddishness. Everyone laughs. “Hey I’m one of them. You lose a sense of identity a bit. And you get laughed at as well and you try to figure out, ‘What am I doing wrong?’”
They all live near one another in the north Dublin inner city but they only met through the group. In general, their parents came on student or tourist visas and then went under the radar when those visas expired. They sent money home before eventually sending for their children who arrived on tourist visas.
“We would have been taught to stay on our own quite a lot so they could work,” says Sara. “Some might say we came to claim the dole but I’ve been told over and over by my parents we’re not here to get the dole. And we’re not allowed claim benefits anyway.”
“We were very isolated,” says 18-year-old Kwayne. “When I came I didn’t have any friends. I was the only child. My ma and da would leave me at home when they had to work. I was 11. I had a very lonely life until I got into first year and made friends. But I still didn’t tell them I didn’t have papers. When there was a school trip I had to say my passport was getting renewed. None of my teachers knew.”
“I don’t think people understand when you talk about the loneliness and the quiet desperation and the depression that comes with it,” says Mello. “Children want to be listened to, they feel lonely, they need friends and I’d just got moved from the jungle, from Tarzan-land, into the concrete . . . I lived in a box with my mam working from sunlight to the moon – no friends, no internet. I would play basketball by myself. I was 14 and I saw [Sara’s] brother. He didn’t look Mauritian to me but he approached me and told me about this youth club.
And then I saw other Mauritian people.”
He laughs. “‘Whoo – I’m not alone.’ It was good to finally speak my language – that is Creole.”
“My mam and dad were like ‘Don’t talk to any Mauritian, they’ll tell immigration on you’,” says Ariana.
“I only knew one Mauritian girl,” says Aisha. “She lived on the same street and she thought I was Indian. We never talked and we went to the same school and would walk by each other for a year and then I got the courage and said, ‘Are you from Mauritius?’ and she said, ‘Yes’ . . . Now I know a whole Mauritian community.”
Do they feel more Irish than their parents? “Of course,” says Mello. “[Our parents] made conscious decisions to move and find a better life, but their personality and values and beliefs had already been shaped in this other place . . . But you grew up with something way different – a different game, a different set of rules, a different environment . . . [My] whole personality was shaped around youth workers and teachers and people speaking English. I didn’t play the same parts they used to play growing up or eat the same food they ate or chase the same type of girls me da was chasing at my age.” Everyone laughs.
“They’re starting to accept the fact we adopt Irish ways,” says Sara. “They have more understanding of that now that we’ve been here long enough.”
“Simple things like speaking English,” says Mello. “They look at you and say ‘Look at you. Say that word again.’”
“They have a different expectation of the way a girl should be dressed,” says Ariana. “Here it’s more outgoing and they say, ‘You wouldn’t be wearing that if you were in Mauritius’ and I’m like ‘Mam!’”
“When we go shopping my mum says, ‘Oh look that’s a nice dress.’ I’m like ‘For you or for me?” says Aisha. Everyone laughs again.
Mauritian food is better though, says Ariana. “I can adapt to anything Irish but the food.”
“I like a good full Irish breakfast,” says Aisha.
“I like Taytos, I have to say,” says Sara.
Their immediate problem, if their status isn’t regularised, is accessing further education. Sara just did the Leaving Cert and would like to study law at NUI Galway. She knows that if she doesn’t get residency rights she won’t be able to afford the huge fees for non-EU citizens. Kwayne is in a post-Leaving Cert course (PLC). These courses are more affordable and easier to access. Ariana hopes to some day study marine biology. Aisha was accepted into an arts degree in Maynooth but had to defer. In the meantime, she did a PLC. “I got seven distinctions and two merits but it’s just a piece of paper because I can’t do anything with it.”
Mello is a bit older than the others. He volunteers at a youth centre and is an incredibly talented musician, rapper and singer. I’ve seen him perform.
“You get demotivated by what’s happening,” he says. “It weighs heavily, psychologically and physiologically ... but the music liberates me. I don’t feel any fear when I perform. I’m in the zone ... People in the inner city say, ‘I can relate to that’, because it’s not about being Mauritian or Irish, it’s about human experience. We all struggle and despair.”
This is all very difficult for them, and as Mello points out, it could have consequences for their mental health as they get older. The MRCI staff spend a lot of time keeping them feeling empowered and upbeat. (On the evening we spoke they were engaging in a specially devised leadership programme). The Young Paperless and Powerful group is a campaigning group. They want regularisation for people who have been in Ireland a long time, especially for young people who have grown up in the country. Most political parties favour some form regularisation, though Fine Gael hasn’t yet taken a position on it, and 69 per cent of Irish people surveyed by a Red C poll are in favour of regularising the status of people who have been in the country a long time (this goes up to 79 per cent when asked about young people such as the group I talked to).
Until then, these kids worry about having to return to Mauritius. “We’ve nothing there,” says Ariana. “Our lives are here.”
“Mauritian people might not accept us because of the way we talk and move,” says Mello. “There’s a sense of maybe not fitting in anywhere.”
“I’m sure if one of us did something really cool, like become a Nobel Prize winning scientist, then Irish people would say, ‘Yes, this girl was here,’” says Aisha.
“We know this is definitely where we belong,” says Sara, “but it does breed anger because there’s this paper saying you don’t belong here.”
“The only thing stopping us is that bit of paper,” says Ariana and her eyes widen with the injustice of it all. “Just a bit of paper.”