The loud knocking on the door came at about 11pm. The young Somali woman was in her pyjamas and lying on a mattress on the floor. She had spent many hours with her husband in hospital in Dublin earlier, so it had already been a long day.
Three male officers and one female officer with the Garda National Immigration Bureau (GNIB) said they had come to deport her. Her husband was distraught. He didn’t speak English and had come to Ireland through a UN family reunification programme. As his wife noted later, he had never experienced anything like this before.
Would Ireland deport a 23-year-old wheelchair-bound woman with polio, travelling on her own with just €60 in her pocket? The actions of the State on that early morning in November 2012 indicated it would.
Ireland has had a long association with the young woman’s homeland, Somalia, particularly since the visits by then minister for foreign affairs David Andrews and then president Mary Robinson during the 1992 famine. Irish Aid has regularly contributed to programmes there. In 2014, about €5 million was given for both “humanitarian and longer-term developing programming”.
Over the past two decades, the situation has improved little, with conflict and more food shortages. The EU, UN, US and Britain contribute funding to a 22,000-strong Africa Union force known as Amisom, which has been fighting alongside Somali government troops against the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab since 2007.
A recent Human Rights Watch report documented evidence of African Union troops in Somalia gang-raping women and girls as young as 12 and trading food aid for sex.
For Hawo – not her real name, as she still fears repercussions – Ireland was a safe haven and a place where she could find treatment for her physical disability. She had arrived alone, aged 17, in 2008 with wooden crutches. She was placed in direct provision accommodation in Balseskin Reception Centre in Dublin and then transferred to Lisbrook – now closed – in Galway.
While there, an occupational therapist referred her to Cappagh hospital in Dublin, where she had callipers fitted. She says she “complained a lot” about the difficulties with constant travel and eventually her request to be transferred to the direct provision centre in Mosney, Co Meath was granted.
Her deportation order came in 2012, by which time she was married to a Muslim and living in a one-bedroom flat in Dublin. She had been learning English and had made contact with the Irish Wheelchair Association. Her application for asylum had failed the year before, as she was told her fingerprints were on Tanzanian records – often the only option for many Somalis who have no functioning government and can only hope to travel with Tanzanian papers.
As the Irish Refugee Council (IRC) points out, Hawo’s Islamic marriage was not recognised by the State, and no formal marriage application had been made as the couple were waiting for the civil marriage. But the authorities knew about her relationship.
Hawo recalls that during her appeal she had a language analysis test, which was conducted by phone from Sweden.
“They said I was from Zanzibar,” she says, smiling at the memory. “The people doing the test are Kenyans, and don’t know the language.”
She had been studying a Fetac English language programme, was signing regularly at the GNIB as a condition of her deportation order and had returned from St James’s Hospital in Dublin when her husband answered the door that night. It would be three hours before they left with her, after many tears and pleas.
“I told them that I had been signing on in the GNIB office on Burgh Quay,”she says. “So how could they come unannounced at 11 o’clock at night to take me away?”
At one point, she recalls, one of the officers became exasperated. She says he told her: “We will grab you from where you are and put you in your chair if you don’t go.” There is no independent corroboration of this remark.
Hawo’s husband was told to pack a few things for his wife. The officers told him that he could travel with them in a taxi to the airport to say goodbye. Hawo got into her wheelchair, put a dress over her pyjamas, but refused to use the controls.
The taxi arrived at the airport. By then, she realised she had forgotten her incontinence pads. Her husband offered to return home to get them, but was told he wouldn’t be allowed to see his wife again if he did. They were put in a waiting room.
“My husband helped me to lie on some chairs, but they didn’t want that and three of them carried me back into my wheelchair,”she says. “Another man wanted to shout at me, while two of his colleagues were trying to stop him. Then they took my husband away.”
Shortly before 6am, two other officers approached her.
“They spoke nicely and gently,”she recalls. They said they were taking her to Amsterdam. She asked if she could see her travel documents. They declined. When she asked again, they told her they had a “photocopy of her passport”.
“I was so tired. They had offered me food but I didn’t want anything, and I had no sleep,”she recalls. She asked if she could go to the toilet. While in the cubicle, an officer warned her not to “do something stupid”.
“One man pushed me in the chair to the airplane and two walked beside,” she says. It was now daylight, approaching 9am. The front wheels in her wheelchair had not been working properly, she recalls, and it stalled. She fell out onto the tarmac and burst into tears.
One of the officers took photos, she claims, and warned her that he would “show them what you did” – implying that she had stalled the chair and fallen on purpose. She told him that she was “not going anywhere”.
After a few minutes, she recalls, one of the officers asked her if they could lift her back into her chair. She was wheeled back into the terminal and told she “wasn’t going to leave now” but would be taken to prison.
She says she felt a sense of relief at this information. “I felt at least I might have the chance to call a few people I knew.”
She was allowed to make a call from the airport and made contact with Paula Quirke from the IRC. Ms Quirke, who had got to know her well over the previous six months, had already talked to her in the middle of the previous night.
“She was still in her apartment in her pyjamas when she rang me just after the immigration officers had arrived,” Ms Quirke says. “I don’t think I will ever forget the sound. It was one of terror and distress.”
‘Life or death’
“Hawo had handed the phone to the officers and I told them I knew they had a procedure to follow,” she recalls. “However, I tried to convey to them that this was a very vulnerable young woman who could not walk and who had been very involved with the Irish Wheelchair Association.
“She’s a very independent person, but she was going to be sent on a plane and left there with no one to meet her at the other end. For her, therefore, it was life or death.”
She wasn’t taken to prison, as had been suggested. Hawo’s husband came back out to the airport and found her in a very shocked state. “It was very cold, and we struggled to get buses,” Hawo says. “I was only wearing a jumper and tunic over pyjamas.”
She didn’t get her belongings back until the following January, but that Christmas she was afraid to return home for fear of another deportation attempt. The couple stayed with Nigerian friends. Her drama teacher at the Irish Wheelchair Association bought her clothes, and she went to her doctor who confirmed that she was pregnant.
She had an “Irish wedding” before her son was born in July 2013, and she applied for leave to stay again. She received refugee status last September and had her second child just before Christmas.
The Department of Justice has said it does not comment on individual cases. The Garda Press Office was unable to comment.
The IRC points out that no formal complaint was lodged in relation to Hawo’s experience as she was too frightened at the time and feared another attempt would be made to deport her.
“If they had deported me, my plan was to call people and try and get help from the Irish embassy in Tanzania”she says.
“One friend had given me contact for Somali relatives in Tanzania. I said to myself I will try my very best to go back to Ireland. But when they were taking me to the plane, I had no papers, just a few belongings, my wheelchair and €60 that my husband had given me in my pocket.”
Source: Irish Times