Since partition, Irish and British people have enjoyed free movement and working rights in the UK and Republic. But those rights have never been extended to the thousands of migrants who have made this island their home. And there are fears that post-Brexit rules due to be introduced by the British government next year will make freedom of movement even more difficult. The Detail is publishing a series of articles which highlight the impact of the border on migrants. In the first of our stories, Luke Butterly explores how immigration rules restrict thousands of people from crossing the border.
Aynaz Zarif, a charity worker in Derry, loves to hike with her husband.
But if the Iranian-born couple ever walked over the border into Co Donegal they would be breaking the law.
Crossing the border is something most people have taken for granted since all Troubles-era security checkpoints were removed in the early noughties, following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
More than 30,000 people cross the border each day for work.
Yet for a growing number of non-European Union citizens who have made the island of Ireland their home, that easy freedom of movement is denied.
Due to long-standing immigration rules, the majority of nationals from Africa, Asia, and Latin America require visas to move from one jurisdiction to the other, even if they have lived and worked here for years.
The rules are becoming more of an issue as the number of non-EU migrants moving to the island of Ireland continues to grow.
According to recent census figures, around 57,000 citizens of non-EU countries live in Northern Ireland, while 250,000 reside in the Republic.
“Before coming here I didn’t have any idea that we would be restricted and that we can’t move around the whole island,” Ms Zarif told The Detail.
“It looks like there is like one island and there is no border, everyone can cross and move freely.
“Some people work this side, have their house that side, go for holidays, weekends.
“It was kind of disappointing to see that you're not like others. You are restricted.”
She said the reality of not being able to cross an open border often feels ridiculous.
“We were cycling around Derry, and after not a long time we reached a point where my husband was saying that - Ok, there is a border here. I know you can’t see it, but we need to turn back,” she said.
A community liaison officer at Derry-based North West Migrants Forum, who are campaigning for changes to visa requirements, Ms Zarif said the border is something that she has to take into consideration when organising work trips.
An Irish visa can take up to eight weeks to process, so she often cannot attend meetings in Donegal or Dublin.
Locals sometimes encourage her to take a chance – “no one will stop you” is a common refrain – but she is adamant that it is not worth the risk.
“They don’t get the importance, or how risky it can be. And that it is a crime,” she said.
“It doesn't matter how small it would look, you would be in another country illegally.
“It's a big deal, it’s an immigration crime. Someone might lose the chance of getting citizenship in the future if they want to apply for it.”
She added: “I would never risk my life here. It was a long journey, and I did a lot to be here, and I’m not going to risk it.”
UK Visa issues
Visa issues also affect people who are married to non-EU citizens.
Co Tyrone-born Cat Brogan recently moved to Co Donegal after years living abroad, most recently in Malaysia where she met her wife Yoyo.
Ms Brogan had hoped to move back to her native Omagh.
However, Yoyo has not yet been able to get a UK visa.
She has received a visa for the Republic but cannot even visit Northern Ireland.
“I wanted to live in my home town, but I don’t have that choice because it is technically illegal for her to even set foot there,” Ms Brogan said.
The couple could move to Cork or Dublin where there are more work opportunities.
“But for me, the whole point of coming back to Northern Ireland was to spend time with my family,” Ms Brogan said.
“Now to be as close as I possibly can be to my family means living in rural Donegal, but that's not easy either.
“There's no freedom of movement if you've got a spouse that doesn't have an Irish passport yet.”
Common Travel Area
The Common Travel Area (CTA) agreement, which allows Irish and British people free movement and working rights in the UK and Republic, has officially existed since 1923, following partition.
The main preoccupation of both governments at the time – and again in the 1950s, when the agreement was reconstituted – was the movement of Irish labour to Britain, said Colin Murray, a professor of law at Newcastle University and an expert on the CTA.
The lives of people who were not Irish or British “weren't on the radar as being thought of as prominent issues at all”, he told The Detail.
He added: “Even today, when we take a lot of the Brexit discussion about the importance of the CTA, again, that was all in terms of Irish and UK citizens.”
The UK’s decision to leave the European Union has brought new complications for some British citizens living in the Republic.
Around 6,000 British people living in the South have non-EU spouses.
Since Brexit rules on travel and border controls were formally introduced in 2021, British citizens could no longer rely on EU freedom of movement regulations - which covered their family members - and have had to apply for new Irish residence permits.
Barry Lloyd, a British citizen who lives in Co Donegal with his wife Wanli – originally from Thailand – and their daughter, spent months trying to get a residency permit.
He told The Detail that when the family first moved to Donegal he “couldn’t praise Ireland high enough”.
“They were very responsive back then, it was all sorted out quickly,” he said.
However, he said the process of getting a permit for his wife has been extremely complicated.
“No one seems to have contacted any of the people who were affected by this,” he said.
“It was a nightmare. And I can imagine for anyone going through it now, it is still a nightmare.”
UK border controls will change in 2023
From next year, UK border controls will be tightened for all EU citizens, apart from Irish passport holders.
Non-Irish EU citizens who want to cross the border into the north will have to apply for an electronic travel authorisation (ETA) before their journey.
The law change will include 350,000 non-Irish EU citizens living in the Republic, as well as those from countries which do not normally need UK entry visas, such as the United States.
The move will affect tourists travelling from the Republic to Northern Ireland, including those on coach trips.
There are fears that the need for an ETA will discourage travellers from visiting the north, potentially costing the economy £160 million.
Earlier this year, Dr Joanne Stuart, head of the NI Tourism Alliance, told MPs that there is little information on the planned change.
“We are scrabbling for information. There has been no consultation at all,” she said.
Then UK Home Office Minister Kevin Foster said last month that the Irish and British governments are continuing to discuss whether a “satisfactory data sharing agreement” could exempt EU citizens living in the Republic from needing an ETA.
However, Mr Foster added: “If an agreement cannot be reached, the requirement will apply to all those travelling to the UK from Ireland.”
Some campaigners are concerned that the new ETA rules will badly affect non-Irish nationals living in border counties in the Republic.
Paul Kernan, project coordinator at the Donegal Intercultural Platform which works with migrant communities, said he is concerned about the impact the measures will have – in large part because of the lack of communication.
He said many of his workers and volunteers are non-Irish EU passport holders.
“All of them are going to be affected. It's a real, real worry when you think about it,” he said.
“Most people don’t know. Most people have no idea that there is a change coming down the line. There's a huge public ignorance around it.
“There's no public information locally or nationally about changes to work… or our travel rights.”
Mr Kernan said the ETA rules will impact efforts to develop closer links across the border.
“This, in spite of what the current government in the UK says, undermines the advances in the progress made under the Good Friday Agreement,” he said.
“It restricts the capacity of communities to engage across the border.”
Belfast-based human rights group the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) has warned that, because the ETA will affect those already resident in the Republic, the risk of ‘inadvertent non-compliance’ is high, either through ignorance of the scheme or forgetfulness.
The group has called for “a high-profile publicity campaign aimed at non-visa nationals living in the Irish border region to increase awareness”.
Under the new rules to be introduced next year, anyone who “knowingly” arrives in the UK without an ETA can face up to four years in prison.
Earlier this year, the UK’s House of Lords voted in favour of granting an exemption for ‘local journeys’ from the Republic to Northern Ireland. However, MPs later rejected the plan.
The UK government said the exemption “would undermine the government’s efforts to strengthen UK border control”.
Call for Irish Government to change its rules
Both governments have stressed that the CTA arrangement between the Republic and the UK is primarily for the benefit of Irish and UK nationals.
They have said that those crossing the land border must do so in line with either the Republic or the UK’s immigration framework.
When asked in the Dáil earlier this month about the CTA’s exclusion of non-Irish/British migrants, Taoiseach Michael Martin acknowledged there were issues.
But he added: “I don’t accept there is a hard border.”
The North West Migrant Forum expressed its “deep disappointment” with the remarks.
Supported by bodies including trade union Unison and social justice group the John and Pat Hume Foundation, the forum has called on the Irish Government to change its border laws to reflect changing demographics on the island.
The group wants all those who have residency in Northern Ireland to be able to cross the border into the Republic as visitors.
Such arrangements already exist for certain non-EU nationalities, allowing them to enter for up to a month at a time.
At a protest held on the Lifford bridge between Strabane in Co Tyrone and Lifford in Co Donegal earlier this year, around 100 people gathered to support the forum's demands.
A spokesman for the Republic's Department of the Taoiseach said the Shared Island unit is carrying out research into the experience of migrants across Ireland, a departmental spokesman said.
“The Taoiseach and officials from his department and the Department of Foreign Affairs have met with members of the North West Migrant Forum in recent months and a follow-on meeting with relevant government departments is being scheduled,” he added.
Cara McAnaney, a secondary school student who has been helping the campaign over the past two years, said most people are unaware that some of their neighbours face restrictions in crossing the border.
“I've taken my free movement for granted, be it crossing the border to go to the beach or shops,” she said.
“Nobody knows. I’ve had multiple conversations with my friends, and they are taken aback. It’s a hidden issue.”
This article was supported through a Social Change Initiative fellowship.
Luke Butterly is a freelance journalist in Belfast.