As the new academic term begins, most students are excited to start their new classes, meet new people, and get involved with societies and clubs. For international students however, there is the added stress of registering with the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (INIS). A stressful and flawed process that rarely deserves the attention it gets and effects the welfare and academic lives of almost a third of UCD students.
The most significant hurdle to registering with INIS is actually booking an appointment. Obtaining an appointment from the INIS (formally GNIB) used to require waiting for many hours outside the Burgh Quay Immigration office. I once spent six hours outside waiting for an appointment ticket only for the office to run out of appointment spaces shortly after opening. I know many UCD students who had similar, and in some cases, worse experiences.
In 2016, the GNIB moved to an online appointment-booking system. It removed the physical lines, yet did nothing to remove the stress and frustration. The process can seem straight-forward but the reality is it’s not. INIS only has limited appointments available and releases these appointments at specific times of the day. The website is prone to freezing and many days there are no appointments available. Changes to the “Re-entry visa”, through which applications can now only be completed by post, also have drastic impact on lives of UCD students. The problem has gone underground and it is important that calls for reform continue to be heard. The issue has been covered by major Irish news organizations in the past, but the invisibility of current issues lacks similar coverage. Students are arriving in a new country, going to a new school, sometimes speaking a new language, learning a new culture, trying to find accommodation during the housing crisis all while stressed about immigration.
A look at this years UCD international students Facebook group shows evidence of the wide-reaching frustration this process generates despite students spending weeks even months attempting to book an appointment. The situation is so dire that private online services have arisen to take financial advantage of student’s desperation and frustration. A Facebook page, “GNIB and Visa Appointment” charges €25 to book an appointment after the student provides highly sensitive information over Facebook Messenger. “GNIBot”, a €10 service that takes a person’s information and has their robot make the appointment. Each service’s Facebook page has over 1000 ‘likes’ and multiple reviews stating that the service was easier and less stressful than booking the appointment themselves. These services present an unfair advantage for students willing to pay and a disadvantage those trying to book manually. A legally required appointment should not be so difficult to obtain that students feel the need to pay a potentially insecure online service in order to be successful.
There are a number of factors that have led to this annual crisis in the international student community. It is annual because student visas are valid for one year even if the student will be a registered student at an Irish university for multiple years. This requires thousands of students to reapply each year putting a significant strain on the already under-resourced INIS.
The disconnect between the targets of the Department of Education and Skills and the resources by the Department of Justice is also a factor. While the Department of Education and Skills implements their ‘International Education in Ireland Strategy 2016-2020’, which seeks to increase the number of international students enrolled in Irish institutions, there is no collaboration with the Department of Justice to develop their resources to match the higher demand of immigration of appointments. Beyond an increase in international students, Ireland is experiencing higher rates of immigration across the board. The INIS is under-resourced year round, but it is in September and October when the crisis hits each year.
There needs to be more investment from the government in reforming and streamlining the student visa process. The International Office in UCD can only provide basic informational support to students struggling with booking appointments and has to comply with the strategy set forth by the Department of Education, meaning that the only entity that can enact real reforms is the Department of Justice.
Here at UCD, the international community is rich with cultural diversity and enriches UCD’s student life at all levels. International students also generate over €97 million in revenue for the university. According to the Department of Education and Skills, international students, based on output impact basis shows that they are worth a minimum of €1.55 billion per annum to Ireland. It is not just in UCD’s, but also the Irish government’s, economic interest to invest in continuing to reform this system. The contribution international students have on the Irish economy is significant enough that calls for improving the visa appointment system should be dealt with seriously.