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Some Irish soldiers 'refused entry to US after peacekeeping duties'

The issue has been raised with the US authorities by the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Irish troops on duty in Syria.
Irish troops on duty in Syria.
Image: Irish Defence Forces

SOME IRISH SOLDIERS who served on United Nations missions in Syria and other warzones have been refused entry to the USA.

Sources have said that it is feared that these military personnel have been erroneously placed on a terrorism watchlist by US authorities.

The issue has been raised with the US authorities by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Irish diplomats have been attempting to find a way to prevent the problem arising. 

The status means that soldiers who have served in a number of countries, including Iraq and Syria, have not been able to access the United States using normal ESTA regulations. 

At present there are 130 Irish soldiers deployed inside Syria working on a peace keeping mission dubbed the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF). The current mission started in 2013.

Normally Irish citizens can apply online for access to the United States, a so-called ESTA, but sources have confirmed that a number of Irish soldiers have been refused entry to the US. 

The problem arose because of the US system of monitoring terrorists in a number of troubled countries.

Anyone who has travelled to Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Syria or Yemen after March 1, 2011 is automatically placed on a no-fly list regardless of their activities in that country. 

It is understood that this issue is not just a problem faced by soldiers on UN duty but also by members of the Irish public who have worked in the countries. Retired members of the Defence Forces are also affected as well as Irish diplomats.

‘Terrorist Travel’

This rule was brought in following the passing of a US regulation contained in the Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015 – which came into law in 2016.

The problem for Irish soldiers has seen a number of people refused ESTA status – Ireland serves on peace keeping duties in Syria in the Golan Heights but has also, in previous years, sent personnel to Somalia and Iraq. 

Sources have said a number of Defence Forces personnel have been left substantially out of pocket having booked flights and accommodation expecting to be cleared for a visa on personal trips.  

51700532759_2c8221c9c6_o An Irish soldier on peacekeeping duty with the UN. Source: Irish Defence Forces

A spokesperson for the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers (RACO) has asked Minister Simon Coveney to intervene directly.

“RACO has raised this issue with our colleagues in the Department and the Defence Forces, and we are aware that former members have written directly to Minister Coveney on the matter.

“It is essential that Defence Force members and their families are not disadvantaged in this manner due to their work with the United Nations in the service of peace.

“This would be highly unfair, and would inevitably impact on members willingness to be deployed to certain regions. We hope that the Minister can use his influence to resolve this problem,” the spokesperson said. 

Foreign Affairs

A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs has confirmed its officials have been working to find a solution with US authorities.

“The Department of Foreign Affairs is aware that some members of the Irish Defence Forces have recently been unable to obtain a US visa waiver (ESTA) for travel to the United States.

“US immigration regulation and operations are a matter solely for the US authorities, and the Department is not in a position to intervene in decisions taken in relation to ESTA applications.

“However, the Department has engaged with the US Embassy on the broader question of Irish Defence Forces personnel who may have difficulties travelling to the US because of international travel related to their peacekeeping duties,” the spokesperson said. 

The Department said that the denial of an ESTA for the US does not mean a guaranteed refusal following a further visa application.  

The Irish spokesperson said that the US Embassy has advised applicants to apply for a visa well in advance of their intended travel date and to not “make any non-refundable travel arrangements unless they are in possession of a valid US visa”. 

It is also understood that a recent decision has been made by the Irish Defence Forces to issue a certified letter to prove that they are or were serving members of military when they visited one of the identified countries in their subsequent application for a visa.

It is understood that various agencies in the US feed information into a terror watchlist which is maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). 

US Advice

Carlo Cortina, Branch Chief of Field Operations with the US Customs and Border Protection agency sought to reassure serving Irish military personnel.

“I would say to them to make sure that you are answering the questions in the application and before you submit it if you have any doubts or questions reach out.

“There is a Frequently Asked Questions section which has an email you can reach out to if you have questions. Before you submit and if you have a doubt that you may be denied because you are not sure of the information seek the validation before you submit it because if you submit it that information is recorded.

“I would also say that you must make sure that you have your ESTA before you make travel arrangements,” he said. 

The Journal asked Cortina regarding the claims that Irish Defence Forces members placed on a terrorist watchlist but he responded: “We are not mentioning a watchlist, we can’t talk about a no fly list, we don’t own that.” 

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