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Prime Time last night carried a report on EU citizens whose non-EU spouses are being threatened with deportation on the grounds that the couple did not live together in another EU state before moving to Ireland.

This is happening because of the government’s interpretation of a recent EU directive which, ironically, was intended to strengthen the family rights of EU citizens.

I have a friend who recently fell afoul of this law. David has been married to his wife (a citizen of one of the “old” EU states) for about eight years. They have lived in Ireland for most of that time, having previously lived in David’s native country. He entered the state legally, with his wife, and was granted residency as the spouse of an EU citizen. This permission had to be renewed annually, so every year, he and his wife would go to the Gardaí to verify that they were still married, and he would get a stamp for another year. He is now eligible for Irish citizenship and has filed an application, but the waiting list is very long and it could be 2009 before his application is approved.

So a couple months ago, when his stamp was due to expire, he and his wife went for what he had every reason to believe was just a formal appearance before the Gardaí for another year-long stamp. Except this time they wouldn’t give it to him. “The law has changed,” he was told, “and you no longer have any right to reside here.” Within a few short weeks he would become an illegal immigrant; his employer would be required by law to let him go, and a deportation order could issue at any time.

Fortunately, it hasn’t come to that for David. He has a few advantages that many others in his situation don’t have: his employer is fairly well connected, and David is a white, native English-speaking westerner (this isn’t supposed to make a difference, but I guarantee you that it does). In his case the authorities relented – at least for this year.

So why is the government all of a sudden deciding to make legal immigrants illegal? Their explanation is that they are cracking down on “sham marriages”. Right. And the only way a couple can prove that their marriage is not one of convenience is to demonstrate that they lived together in another EU country first? My arse.

What happened is this. The government’s solicitors are under instructions to scrutinise every immigration-related EU law in order to determine the most restrictive way it can be applied. In this case, the solicitors found that this new EU directive could be interpreted to say that family rights only had to be granted to couples that had previously lived in another EU state. That, of course, was never the EU’s intention, but no matter. The government saw a loophole and jumped through it like a circus horse. And then made up this nonsense that it was all about "sham marriages".

What angers me most about this is the utter disregard it shows for the human needs, let alone human rights, of the people affected. Not all of them will be deported, of course. With a little luck (and a cerebrally-functioning Supreme Court) maybe none of them will, apart from that small percentage who genuinely did marry for convenience. But they don’t know that. Try to imagine the fear that someone in this predicament must feel. Someone who has spent years in this country, entirely legally, playing by the rules, building a life here for themselves and their family. And then to have a threat like this dangled over their head.

It is a cruel and disgusting way to treat people who have done absolutely nothing wrong.

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