Sheron Buzuzi felt overwhelmed when she heard the good news, that she would benefit from a new scheme to regularise long-term undocumented people living in Ireland.
“It’s like I won the lotto,” the Zimbabwean native who lives in Dublin told Al Jazeera. “This is what I have been waiting for. This is a dream come true.”
The initiative, officially called the Regularisation of Long Term Undocumented Migrant Scheme, grants Sheron a work permit and a pathway to citizenship, and allows her to visit family, who she has been supporting through her work as a childminder and carer, after 14 years away.
In that time, Sheron has gained four grandchildren who she has not met, and lost her husband.
“That was so hard,” she said of missing his funeral. “It will be a huge relief to see my family again after so long.”
About 17,000 undocumented people live in Ireland, according to research by the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI), which worked with the Irish government in developing the scheme.
It closes at the end of July, and is open to anyone who has lived in the European Union country without documents for an uninterrupted four years, or three if they have children.
“Good character” requirements and any criminal records are also taken into account.
The vast majority of irregular arrivals work, often in care roles, but their precarious situation means that they often earn less than minimum wage.
Accessing state services, such as healthcare or law enforcement, can be “very difficult and dangerous”, said MRCI’s Neil Bruton, adding that the undocumented “live in constant fear and anxiety” of being arrested.
Campaigners have called for regularisation for more than 10 years, winning support along the way from key trade unions and business groups.
The 2020 general election saw manifesto commitments from several political parties, including the Greens who would go on to form part of the current coalition government.
Over the years, campaigners blasted the Irish governments that lobbied Washington for the regularisation of undocumented Irish people in the United States while simultaneously ignoring the issue at home.
Justice minister Helen McEntee made reference to this when announcing the scheme last year, noting that Ireland needed to “show the same generosity towards undocumented migrants living in our country as we ask other countries”.
The Department of Justice told Al Jazeera that, so far, more than 7,000 people have applied and more than 1,300 people have been granted permission to stay since April.
MRCI’s Neil Bruton said there has been “a huge outpouring of relief and joy for those receiving the positive news”, with many booking flights to see family for the first time in years.
“After so many years campaigning for this, and so long dreaming of this, it is so wonderful for activists in Justice for the Undocumented and all undocumented people to see the good news coming in.”
Bruton said those who are yet to apply are likely hesitant about making themselves known to the authorities, or struggling with the fees – which range from 550 to 700 euros ($558 to $710) – and other required evidence.
A separate strand of the scheme is dedicated to asylum seekers who have spent two or more years in Ireland’s much criticised “direct provision system“.
‘I don’t fit anywhere’
However, the schemes are imperfect, according to those who will not benefit due to technicalities.
Vera (not her real name) and her family have lived in Ireland for five years and her children were born in the country, but they are not eligible for either programme.
Her family claimed asylum when they moved to Ireland, but were rejected some two years later. During that wait, they were asylum seekers.
Their status since they were rejected has been “undocumented”, but it has been less than the minimum three years required for families with children to be considered eligible, so they cannot apply.
Vera told Al Jazeera that while she was initially very hopeful when the schemes were announced, finding out she was excluded left her “heartbroken”.
“I don’t fit anywhere. They are saying you don’t belong here, don’t belong in this one either, and this hurts. Why not me? I’m no different from other people.”
“My kids are born here. Their first steps of education are starting here. Their first language is English.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice told Al Jazeera all applications will be examined “pragmatically and humanely”, and that other immigration options can be explored for those not eligible for the scheme.
In the meantime, Vera and her family, who put in an application for a discretionary decision two years ago, live under the threat of deportation.
The government recently announced that forced deportations, which had been paused during the pandemic, will resume this year, while visa-free-travel to Ireland for non-Ukrainian refugees will be halted.
Officials defended the moves as necessary due to the high numbers of refugees and a lack of accommodation for new arrivals, but NGOs say the steps are “regressive”.
Bulelni Mcfaco, of the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI), said it was “problematic that the schemes exclude a large cohort of people who have called Ireland home”, especially in light of these recent policy changes.
While the government has repeatedly stressed the scheme is a “once in a generation” event, MASI and civil society groups have said they will continue to advocate for those who are not covered.