“You no longer have permission to remain in the State and you must now return voluntarily to your country of origin or be deported,” the letter, from Ireland’s Department of Justice and Equality said. It told her she had five days to inform the authorities of her decision.
A flood of emotions rushed up at her, through the layers of her protective equipment. Lily said she wanted to cry, but forced the tears back down inside.
“I had to stay strong for the residents,” she said. “So, I put on a smile but deep down it was incredibly painful.”
She wanted to help others, so studied to qualify as a healthcare assistant; she landed a job as a care worker at a nursing home last year, and hopes to study for her nursing degree in future.
She has worked at the care home throughout the coronavirus pandemic, taking only three weeks off when she contracted the virus herself in April.
Now, with deportation looming, Lily feels she’s facing something akin to her own death sentence.
“They are saying the frontline workers are the heroes … but behind closed doors they are chasing us away and kicking us back [to the countries we fled],” she said.
The Department of Justice’s letter to Lily — issued three weeks before the country entered a second national lockdown to curb a spike in infections and fatalities from the virus — also rendered Lily’s work permit invalid with immediate effect, though she has continued working.
Healthcare worker Constance — whose name has also been changed, as she fears speaking out could affect her case — works in a different nursing home, but faces a similar situation.
In 2019, Constance’s application to remain in Ireland, again based on the anti-LGBTQ discrimination she says she faced in Zimbabwe, was rejected. She said she was told her story didn’t stack up because she didn’t “seem bisexual.”
Given her longstanding dedication to Ireland’s most vulnerable people — both before and during the pandemic — and a glowing reference from her employer, who said her work was essential, Constance said had she felt hopeful that her appeal would succeed.
Instead, she received a letter on October 28, calling for her deportation. She said she had been left heartbroken, her memories of Ireland’s public show of solidarity for healthcare workers earlier in the pandemic now faded and tarnished.
Speaking in the Irish parliament in May, the then Minister for Health, Simon Harris, acknowledged the contributions of some 160 migrant healthcare workers living in “direct provision,” the country’s controversial system for asylum seekers.
Harris said he was extending a “céad míle fáilte” — meaning “a hundred thousand welcomes” — to those migrant healthcare workers. But for those facing deportation, like Lily and Constance, his welcome rings hollow.
In its August report: “Powerless: Experiences of Direct Provision During the Covid-19 Pandemic,” the Irish Refugee Council called on the government to give migrant healthcare workers and others working in the healthcare sector “permission to remain” as a “recognition of their work and contribution to Irish society.”
Bulelani Mfaco, a spokesperson for the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI) told CNN that the Department of Justice has long been “hostile to people from migrant backgrounds,” but he hadn’t expected them to “go to such lows” in the middle of a pandemic.
Mfaco added that many other migrants were working in essential roles during the pandemic — in retail, as guards and as cleaners — doing all they can to help keep the country afloat.