Ireland's inept system for dealing with asylum seekers has been making headlines here again because of the case of Ellie Kisyombe, a Malawian woman who is running for election to Dublin City Council in the local elections in May this year.
Ellie Kisyombe story -- and how much of it can be believed -- has sparked a renewed debate on the issue.
Kisyombe was accepted recently by the Social Democrats (a small left-wing party in the Dail) as a candidate in inner city Dublin where many immigrants live. She has been in Ireland for over nine years living in Direct Provision, the system which provides accommodation and food for asylum seekers in centers, often former hotels.
Asylum seekers are not allowed to work (except in limited circumstances), can't cook for themselves in the centers and are given €21.60 a week spending money. It can be a miserable existence and one which Kisyombi has been campaigning vocally against.
In doing so she has become a well-known face in the media, appearing on TV and radio discussion panels on immigration. She has received a lot of sympathetic coverage because she has been in Direct Provision for so long and because she is a co-founder of Our Table, a non-profit organization of asylum seekers who run pop-up food stalls serving ethnic dishes. The aim is to win community support and advance the campaign against the system.
Given her profile and the fact that she is a bright, ambitious and articulate woman, her emergence as a local election candidate may not be that surprising. But it has gone badly wrong for the Social Democrats because of the holes in her personal story that have been revealed.
The party is now undertaking an investigation and this decision led to the resignation of three members of its national executive in the past week, making it all headline news.
The trouble began a few weeks ago when The Irish Times featured Kisyombe as the cover story of its Saturday magazine. Since she is the first asylum seeker to run in an election here that was perhaps understandable.
However, the interview followed the usual soft approach of the paper (and RTE) which is given to all coverage of migrants, with no probing questions of the story being told. Given that she is a candidate for public office that was poor journalism, to say the least.
The story told by Kisyombe was that she had a happy childhood in Malawi with parents who were high ranking public servants. This changed when a new authoritarian leader came to power, her politically active father died (she says he was poisoned) and she became involved in protests for civil rights. She was advised to leave for her own safety, she told The Irish Times, and "the Republic of Ireland was mentioned."
There was no explanation of why Ireland was chosen since it's a very long way from Malawi in southeast Africa. Or how she got here. Or (since there are no direct flights here from Malawi) why she did not apply for asylum in the first safe country she landed in, as she was supposed to do.
Instead of asking any difficult questions, The Irish Times writer continued, "She remembers arriving at the airport (in Dublin) in early 2010, alone and terrified they would send her straight back." And the rest of the article went on in the same sympathetic vein, with much criticism of the Direct Provision system.
When she was asked by the Times writer why she has been in Direct Provision for so long waiting for a decision, the response was that "she doesn't know." This was not challenged, even though it is ridiculous.
Most asylum applications (and the subsequent appeal if they fail) are concluded in around two years. What leads to delays are the repeated court actions taken by applicants challenging the decision.
The interview would have attracted little criticism, inadequate though it was because it was in tune with the politically correct narrative here. But it was followed a week later by a front-page report in the Irish edition of the British Sunday Times which blew very large holes in Kisyombe's story. Not only was this embarrassing for The Irish Times, but it set off a heated debate on the matter.
The Sunday Times report revealed that Kisyombe had not arrived in Ireland straight from Africa in 2010 "terrified,” as she had told The Irish Times. In fact, she had been a student at Bristol University in the U.K. between 2007 and 2010 and had gone home to Malawi before getting a student visa for Ireland (presumably her U.K. student visa had expired).
When she had that she came here and subsequently applied for asylum in the U.K., leaving Ireland to live there for some time. She did not apply for asylum here until a year later than she told The Irish Times, perhaps when her U.K. application had failed and she was told to leave.
Not only did all this cast doubt on her account of choosing to come to Ireland, but also on her account of the threat she was under in Malawi when she had left. If she was in such danger, why had she returned home?
The Sunday Times story was probably helped by a leak from someone in the immigration service here where there is irritation at the accusations of "bureaucratic delays" which allegedly cause people like Kisyombe to languish in the system for years. This is continually trotted out by the media here, even though the real reason is the repeated court challenges made by failed asylum applicants who don't want to go home.
It seems clear at this stage that Kisyombe has been economical with the truth, to say the very least. In that, she is no different to many asylum seekers who arrive here and mold their stories to fit what they think is required to win residency.
Kisyombe's mistake is that she thought being a local election candidate would back up her case for staying here. Instead, the scrutiny that has been applied to her story has exposed her, magnified by the split in the Social Democrats that has been a consequence.
Are there lessons to be learned from this case, given that she has been in Direct Provision for over nine years? The obvious one is that we need to change the system that enables endless legal challenges to frustrate deportation decisions.
Kisyombe's application for asylum here (and probably also in the U.K.) and any subsequent appeal, was more than likely refused. Yet she is still here nine years later because Ireland, unlike most other countries, allows serial judicial review cases to challenge deportation and also provides free legal aid to enable that. This is used by failed asylum seekers to go underground, put down roots here and perhaps marry and have children.
(Kisyombe's teenage twin children, born in Malawi, have been with her here for years and, like all asylum seeker children, are eligible for free education here up to university level.)
It might also be useful to consider not allowing anyone without papers to land here if they have come from an airport where we know papers are required to board a plane. Applicants destroying all their documents so they can claim to be from a war zone or a dangerous country is a serious problem. Establishing their real country of origin causes lengthy delays when their case is being heard initially by the immigration service.
At the end of the day, Kisyombe is only doing what most failed asylum seekers do in the same situation, using any excuse to frustrate the system and gain the right to stay here. This includes telling gullible journalists, predisposed by political correctness to be sympathetic rather than objective, what they want to hear. It means that obvious questions are not asked and key facts are left out.
This may make the reporter feel virtuous, but it does nothing for maintaining the integrity of our system for dealing with asylum seekers and sorting out the genuine cases from the vast majority who are economic migrants.