Wednesday 25 April 2018

A migrant's trek to Ireland via Calais

How the mystery 21-year-old Afghani man spent three months making his way here, only to be jailed and attacked in prison cell

LONG TREK INTO LONELINESS: Afghan refugee Wali Ullah Safi, above right, who was assaulted in a Cloverhill jail riot, arriving for his appearance at Naas Courthouse. Photo: Adrian Melia
LONG TREK INTO LONELINESS: Afghan refugee Wali Ullah Safi, above right, who was assaulted in a Cloverhill jail riot, arriving for his appearance at Naas Courthouse. Photo: Adrian Melia
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

During Monday evening rush hour on July 13, a dark-haired man in worn clothes lay down on the grassy verge of the M7 outside Naas, Co Kildare. Cars whizzed by. But at least one passing motorist was concerned enough to call gardai. He was still lying on the grassy verge at 6pm when gardai picked him up, apparently exhausted.

He had no English, no passport and no documents. He was unable to communicate how he came to be lying on the side of a busy motorway at rush hour. Gardai didn't even know what language he was speaking.

But an immigrant without identification papers in Ireland is committing a criminal offence, one which carries a 12-month prison sentence and a €3,000 fine. The guards drove him to Naas Garda Station. He was arrested, given food and drink and placed in a cell overnight, as gardai struggled to figure out where he was from.

For the homeless man who could speak no English, the next 24 days and nights turned out to be the most traumatic in the three months since he set out from his war-torn home country of Afghanistan.

In prison with serious criminals while awaiting trial, he was tormented by his cell-mates, had scalding water poured on him, was held captive and beaten up by a mob of rioting criminals.

When Farah Mokhtareizadeh, a PhD student at Trinity College, of Iranian heritage, and a volunteer with Network Against Racism, got to visit him last Wednesday in Cloverhill prison, he seemed to her a broken man.

"All I said to him was that we had heard his story and that we were moved by it," she said. "He immediately started sobbing. For someone who worked in Afghanistan as I have, it was really unusual to see that. It was clear that this person is severely traumatised."

Wali Ullah Safi's journey from southern Afghanistan to the motorway in Naas draws Ireland into the heart of the migrant crisis engulfing Europe.

More than 3,000 have perished trying to cross the Mediterranean to Italy, fleeing conflicts in Africa and the Middle East, and thousands more camp outside the northern French port of Calais, risking their lives attempting to cross the English Channel to asylum in the UK.

Over an hour and a half, he told part of his story to Farah Mokhtareizadeh. He spoke Pashto, one of two official languages of Afghanistan, but they communicated through Dari. Wali Ullah came from southern Afghanistan, a volatile region of the country torn apart by a war between government forces and insurgents that is now in its fourteenth year.

How did he get from Afghanistan to Naas?

"Mainly, he walked," said Farah. "He said it took him three months to get here."

According to Farah, his story seemed similar to tales told by other Afghans, escaping through his country through the north, travelling overland through Greece and Turkey and onwards to Western Europe.

"Families often sell houses for €15,000 just to get one person out," she said, and although he didn't talk about it, it would be unusual for him to have made the 6,000km journey without having had to pay people smugglers along the way.

He reached Calais, epicentre of the migrant crisis, joining thousands of others camping out, waiting for the chance to breach the barriers, and cross the English Channel. Some get into the back of container trucks. Others who make it that far risk their lives dodging high speed trains in the Eurotunnel.

Wali Ullah Safi took his chances on a truck. He later claimed to an interpreter that he was a stowaway for three days, concealed in a container on the back of a lorry bound for Ireland - for Irish truckers, the Dover-Calais run is the quickest route to the Continent.

How he ended up on the M7 is another mystery. Was he discovered and turfed out or did he take advantage of a rest stop along the busy motorway and make his escape?

According to those familiar with his case, it's likely that he had been only a matter of hours on the side of the motorway by the time gardai picked him up on July 13, exhausted from his three-day voyage in the airless container.

When gardai brought him to Athy District Court the following morning to charge him with failure to produce a passport under the 2004 immigration act, gardai had found an interpreter but even at that they were unsure of the name he gave them.

The judge was told that Wali Ullah Safi had come to Ireland because he was not safe in his home country, according to court reports. But with no address and no papers, he was remanded in custody to Cloverhill prison in Dublin.

There were several more court appearances - on one occasion he was convicted of the passport offence, given the Probation Act and released, only to be promptly rearrested for the same offence again.

As Conal Boyce, the solicitor who took over his case later, told RTE: "He's like a fiddler's elbow, in and out of court at the moment.

"We had to remand him in Cloverhill, there was nothing else to be done. But there is a very humane regime there also," he said.

"He's very confused. He's just 21 years of age and finds himself in a different planet from where he grew up."

There was worse in store for Wali Ullah Safi.

On his 16th day in custody, on July 29, a gang of criminals ran riot in Cloverhill, smashing an observation post and goal posts. The vulnerable and silent Afghan was in their path and they beat him severely until prison officers in riot gear intervened to save him.

Newspapers reported that his face was slashed and that his arm was broken - though he showed no signs of either when he was in court again last week. He was treated in hospital and was later transferred to the medical unit.

The piteous plight of a 21-year-old Muslim man in a strange country with no English, at the mercy of drug-dealing gangsters in a Dublin prison, moved the public.

Campaign groups called for his immediate release from custody.

"He had travelled a distance of 6,000km to get to this country in the hope of finding a safe haven and unfortunately for him he found himself further brutalised within our system," said Conal Boyce.

On Friday, July 31, on his 19th day in custody, the UNHRC stepped in. Enda O'Neill, a legal advisor with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Dublin, visited Wafi Ullah Safi in prison, with an interpreter, and started the asylum process, having read reports that suggested he was unable to communicate his case.

Farah Mokhtareizadeh, also moved by the press coverage, contacted Kieran Mahon, an anti-austerity councillor in Tallaght, who under prison rules is entitled to organise a professional visit as an elected representative.

During their visit last Wednesday, Wali Ullah Safi broke down in tears on several occasions while they talked.

He clearly found prison to be traumatic. He told her the other prisoners picked on him, threw things at him and at one point dropped scalding water on him.

He could barely speak about the hostage situation he found himself in.

"He felt the most unsafe there (in Cloverhill) than at any time in his journey.

"He cried several times in the hour and a half we there," said Mokhtareizadeh.

They offered to help him in any way they could, and asked if he needed money but he refused. Kieran Mahon said: "The man was very humble. One thing that struck me was his humility."

The next day, gardai led Wali Ullah Safi into Naas District Court from the prison van. He wore prison-issue tracksuit bottoms and a sweatshirt and clutched a copy of the Koran to his chest. He never once smiled, the weight of the world was on his shoulders.

Mokhtareizadeh and other campaigners with the Anti-Racism Network were in court to offer their support and a safe place to stay in case he was released on bail.

Judge Patrick Clyne pointed out the "unfairness" in convicting him of the offence of failing to produce documents that he was not in a position to produce.

"He is now officially an asylum seeker. That entitles him to certain things, including an obligation to provide him with a temporary residence," he said.

He released him on bail, on condition that he sign on at a garda station, and asked that he be given a mobile phone, with the GPS activated.

Afterwards, his solicitor drove him to the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner, the gateway into the direct provision system for asylum seekers, and he spent his first night of freedom being "processed" at a reception centre in north Dublin.

Farah Mokhtareizadeh visited him on Friday, bringing a working mobile phone and food from his home country. She found him in "slightly better" form. She told him about all the people who had come out of the woodwork to offer support. She thought he might find it all a little overwhelming.

Members of the Afghan community in Ireland have also tried to reach out to him - one man wrote to him in prison but told the Sunday Independent he hasn't received a reply.

When Wali Ullah Safi arrived, he hadn't so much as a toothbrush. Now he has a place to sleep, an immigration lawyer and a weekly allowance of €19.10, and joins a queue of 4,400 asylum seekers, some of whom have lived in conditions described as "inhumane" for up to 10 years.

To some campaigners, he has simply swapped one prison for another.

Sunday Independent

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