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Ireland's undocumented migrants: 'Our flat was broken into. We couldn't report it to the gardaí'

Ireland’s undocumented migrant workers are calling on the Irish government to regularise their status.

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The Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) estimates that there are between 20,000 and 26,000 undocumented migrants living and working in Ireland today. So far, the Irish government has done little to respond to their situation. 

Much like Irish undocumented workers in the US, they live in constant fear of discovery by the authorities, they are unable to return home for holidays or if there is an emergency, and they have little or no legal protection against exploitation, including no rights under Irish employment law. We asked undocumented migrants, both living here for more than a decade, to tell their story.

Debra, 58, Philippines

MRCI_11 Source: LIAM MURPHY PHOTOGRAPHY

I CAME TO Ireland eleven years ago on a tourist visa. Some friends from my home village helped me to get here, and later helped me to find my first job as a cleaner. They had persuaded me to come to Ireland and were always telling me that Irish people are good and treat workers fairly.

That first cleaning job paid me €10 per hour and I used to work 36 hours per week. My bosses didn’t care that I was illegal. That family trusted me; they let me alone in their home minding their dog. After that cleaning job finished I used to mind an elderly doctor. He died two years later and now I mind his sister-in-law. She has dementia.

Ever since I arrived here I’ve been very lucky. All of my employers have been good people. They all knew that I was undocumented but they accepted me.

I try not to spend money and live a simple life. I live in a one-bedroom flat with six other people. I sleep on the floor. All I need is a place to rest at night.

Family life in the Phillipines

I’ve never attempted to go back home in the eleven years I’ve been here. I’m too scared of not being able to get back into the country.

I have two daughters and seven grandchildren. I miss them so much and we talk on Messenger every week. My grandchildren are always asking me when I’m going to come back. One of them said to me recently: “I’ve never held your hand. I’ve never given you a hug”. I send them boxes of clothes, toys and biscuits when I can.

I’m a public school teacher back home but my salary wasn’t enough to give my family what they need. But as long as I have the strength, I’ll stay working here in Ireland for them.

Living in fear

When you’re illegal, you live with the constant worry that you will be deported. If something happens you can’t go to the authorities. You’re too scared. But I trust in God and I pray every night.

All I want is that the Irish government see me and other illegal workers like me. They must listen to us and give us a chance. We are helping our community and Irish people. We are contributing so much. We are minding children so their parents can work.

We want to be documented. We want to pay tax and we want to stay.

Jo, 43, Malaysia

MRCI_08 Source: LIAM MURPHY PHOTOGRAPHY

I’m here with my husband. We’ve got two sons at home and they live with my sister-in-law. We’ve been here for fourteen years.

We’ve missed seeing our sons grow up; We haven’t been there for them. But the situation in Malaysia is tough. What you earn isn’t enough to cover your family, especially if you want your children to go to college.

Working life

My husband works in a kitchen. I’m a childminder so we rarely see each other. I’m in bed by the time he gets home at night and he always works at weekends.

I stayed in my first childminding position for ten years. I raised those two little girls and they’re like my family now. But the hard thing when you work as a childminder is missing your own children. I think about my boys all of the time as I’m minding other kids, even though I try not to.

Now I work ten hours a day as a childminder and I earn €250 a week. My husband’s kitchen job is much busier than mine and he earns the same amount: €250 a week. We work so hard but we have nothing much to show for it.

We rent a one-room flat in Skerries and pay €650 a month for it. We save everything we can and cut out all unnecessary expenses. We send as much money home as we can so that our boys can have better lives.

We keep to ourselves

Our flat was broken into a few years ago and some of our stuff was stolen. We couldn’t report the crime. We have to keep ourselves to ourselves and avoid the gardaí if we see them on the street. I’m always terrified that they’ll stop me and ask me a question. I’m terrified all of the time.

The Irish government want to save money. They think that if they give the undocumented status we might just take benefit money for free. But there are more positives if we are made legal than negatives.

We’ve been here for so long now that Ireland is my home. I’d feel like a visitor in Malaysia. People on the street in Skerries recognise me. It’s a small, friendly town and I’m well integrated in the community now. I’m begging the Irish government to recognise us.

Can You See Me Now? is a collaboration between Justice for the Undocumented (JFU) and award-winning photographer Liam Murphy – an exhibition of portraits of undocumented migrants, the first of its kind in Ireland. For the series, undocumented migrants stepped into the light and sat for large-scale portraits. For some, this is their very first time revealing their undocumented status. It runs at Filmbase, Temple Bar, Dublin 2 from 9 to 12 August.

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