Page last updated at 19:47 GMT, Friday, 25 July 2008 20:47 UK

Apology over Somali visa blunder

By Diarmaid Fleming
Dublin correspondent

Somali policemen
The family fled war-torn Somalia

The Irish government has been forced to apologise to a Somalian woman in Dublin whose husband and children languished in a refugee camp in Ethiopia for three years because Irish officials failed to tell them they had visas to join her.

The 30-year-old woman was forced to go to the High Court after Department of Justice officials ignored her letters in 2005, 2006 and 2007 asking about her family's situation.

She had come to Ireland in 2003, was granted refugee status a year later, then applied for her husband, son and step-daughter to be allowed to join her.

Her son and daughter are aged eight and nine respectively, while her stepdaughter - the child of her husband's deceased brother - is 16.

The Irish Department of Justice decided in 2005 to allow the woman's family to come to Ireland - but failed to tell her, or any of her family.

Her letters to officials in Dublin over three years were ignored, during which time her family were forced to stay in a refugee camp in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, instead of being with her in Ireland as they were entitled to.

The woman only found out her family's visa requests had been granted when her lawyers obtained her file under the Republic's Freedom of Information Act in late 2007.

Despite the discovery, the family's ordeal continued.

Although the Department of Justice in Dublin told the woman that visas would be issued, when the family travelled from their refugee camp home to the Irish Embassy in Addis Ababa, diplomats there said they knew nothing about the case.

The woman then took legal action against the Irish State, claiming her rights under Irish refugee laws, the Irish constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights have been violated.

Apology

On Friday, High Court Judge Mr George Birmingham heard lawyer Sara Moorhead for the Irish State apologise on behalf of Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern, for a "profound systems failure".

"We don't have excuses for it," the lawyer told the court.

She said that visas would be issued by the Irish Embassy in Ethiopia for the family to come to Ireland.

The Somalian woman was in court but the judge ordered that her identity be protected for her privacy.

He also said he would rule in October if the woman's action against the Irish state should go ahead, given the apology she has received.

In an affidavit to the court, the woman told of her extreme distress at being apart from her husband and children, knowing that they were at risk where they were, and was extremely upset at how long it took to get the visas.

"The time apart from them can never be replaced," she stated in the affidavit.

Flight arrangements are being made to fly the family to Ireland and they are expected to be reunited shortly with their mother.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Justice said a review into procedures at the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service was already under way.

An internal report by consultants into procedures at the service two years ago revealed that junior officials sometimes took decisions on visas which were not scrutinised externally, and that long backlogs exist for visa and residency applications.



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