thehighhorse
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Do unto others….

Image by TukTukDesign from Pixabay

On Saturday, 5 December, Conor Lally reported in The Irish Times on the circumstances of Richard O’Halloran, a 45-year old businessman, father of four from Foxrock in Dublin, who has been prevented from leaving China since February 2019. He is the subject of an exit ban.

The report is based on a conversation with Mr. O’Halloran’s wife, Tara, who is seeking to raise public awareness of the situation because it has dragged on so long. I am relying on Mr. Lally’s report for this account.

Mr. O’Halloran was stopped from leaving China over an investigation into a Chinese businessman, Min Jiedong, jailed for illegally collecting money from Chinese investors in a crowd-funding scheme and using it to buy an aircraft currently leased to an airline in Europe. Mr. Min was the owner of Mr. O’Halloran’s Dublin based employers, China International Aviation Leasing Services.

However, Mr. O’Halloran only joined that company a year after the events under investigation took place and has co-operated as fully with the authorities about them as he can. He testified as a witness four times in the prosecution of Mr. Min. Both the prosecutor and Mr. Min have said that he should be allowed to leave China. He has complied with requests for information about the aircraft and the lease and with the authorities’ demand that he resign his position with the company. But all to no avail.

Initially, Mr. O’Halloran lived in a hotel room but he has transferred to an apartment in a bid to reduce the cost of his forced stay in China. His health, physical and mental, has deteriorated. He suffered a seizure in his apartment building and another in the hospital to which he was taken that left him clinically dead for a period.

Tara O’Halloran expressed appreciation of the support given to her husband by the Irish Government consular staff in Shanghai, but she was deflated when no further information emerged from a recent call between the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, and his Chinese counterpart.

According to Ms. O’Halloran:

It beggars belief he could just be left there. We can’t go any further with this but the Irish Government could and they need to demand that he be released. [The Chinese] are just using him as leverage and we are so worried.

A spokesman for Mr. Coveney countered that the Government is doing all it can and was more upbeat about the recent call between Ministers.

The case of Mr. O’Halloran featured prominently in this discussion, which is the latest in a series of engagements with the Chinese authorities, both by the Minister personally and by officials over the past several months.

This is an extremely complicated consular case. The Minister remains actively and personally engaged and the consular teams in Dublin, Beijing and Shanghai have Mr. O’Halloran’s welfare above any other consideration. They are doing everything they can to resolve the case and bring him home to his family.

Full disclosure: as a former aircraft leasing professional, I met Richard O’Halloran a number of times many years ago, but too long ago and too infrequently to be able to offer any assessment of him beyond that he appeared energetic and enthusiastic about the career on which he was then embarking. I have no knowledge of the background to his present situation beyond the picture presented in the newspaper. But I do hope he gets home soon.

The same edition of The Irish Times also carried a report by Sorcha Pollak on what can happen to people who arrive from abroad in Dublin Airport but who are refused permission to enter the country. In other words, they are denied “leave to land”. They never officially enter Ireland but must await a plane back to their country of origin.

Among several disturbing personal testimonies, the report highlighted the treatment of Estefany Alquinta Gonzalez, a 33-year old environmental engineer from Chile who arrived in Dublin Airport on Thursday, 2 July 2020 from Denmark where she had been staying with her boyfriend. Her purpose was to pursue an English language course at a Dublin based school.

Before travelling, Ms. Gonzalez took the precaution of checking with the Department of Foreign Affairs whether the switch from classroom to on-line teaching had any implications for her entitlement to enter the country. She was told that she would be allowed entry if her travel documents were valid and was advised to bring her passport, letter of admission from the school and evidence of sufficient funds to support herself, all of which she had on arrival at the airport.

However, she was detained by immigration officials and denied entry on grounds she represented a real and immediate threat to the fundamental policy interests of the State. Ms. Gonzalez managed to leave a Whatsapp voicemail with her sister, Lorena, explaining the situation. When the family eventually established contact with Dublin Airport, they were told initially that Estefany was not there and that no more information could be given.

After numerous calls to Gardai, Lorena Gonzalez was told that her sister was to be flown back to Denmark on Saturday, two days later. Her boyfriend went to meet her at Copenhagen Airport, but she didn’t show up. Neither Lorena nor the Chilean consul could extract any further information from Gardai.

On the advice of Amnesty International, a family member started emailing Irish NGOs and immigration lawyers in Ireland. This brought her in contact with Wendy Lyons from Abbey Law solicitors. After a High Court hearing on 13 July, Estefany Gonzalez was released the following day from the Dóchas women’s prison where she had spent 12 days, in solitary confinement because of COVID regulations.

Ms. Gonazalez said that the people in the prison dealing with her were very kind and she was allowed a daily six-minute call to her family in Chile. But, she added: “I was very scared. I did not know what was going to happen to me.”

Ms. Gonzalez was one of fifty people — 43 men and seven women — held in Irish prisons between 2 March and 28 July, 2020 having been refused leave to land. In 2019, with travel at normal levels, 490 committals to prison were recorded, an 18% increase on 2018.

Ms. Gonzalez’ experience appears to support the claim by Fiona Finn, director of Nasc, the Migrant and Refugee Rights Centre, that there is a “complete lack of transparency” around Dublin Airport’s Border Management Unit’s decision-making process. The law provides for officers refusing entry to inform the person in writing “of the grounds for refusal” as soon as possible. Ms. Pollak interviewed several people for her article, some on and some off the record. None received a detailed written explanation for their refusal.

There is no automatic access to representation, no established procedure for appealing refusals of entry and no differentiation in the mode of detention between immigration detainees, remand and sentenced prisoners. Indeed, detainees sometimes share cells with sentenced prisoners.

On the same Saturday morning that I read these reports, I caught a snippet on US National Public Radio (NPR) about hearings three days earlier in the Michigan state legislature into the conduct of the presidential election in that state. President Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, introduced a series of witnesses critical of the arrangements.

One witness, Hima Kolanagireddy, a naturalized American citizen from India, served as a Republican poll watcher at the Detroit Convention Centre on election day. She testified that the state should tighten its requirements for voters to provide photo identification before casting their vote:

A lot of people think all Indians look alike. I think all Chinese look alike so how would you tell? If some Chow shows up, you can be anybody and you can vote.

Ms. Kolanagireddy leveraged the perception of “a lot of people” that all Indians look alike to legitimise the reasonableness of her own perception that all Chinese look alike; interchangeable because indistinguishable. I wonder how it would have gone down in the legislature if she had suggested that a lot of Indians and/or Chinese think all Caucasians look alike, but I fear it would have been seen by too many only as confirmation of the inferior intelligence of the former.

We are reflexively disposed to sympathy for those who are “our own”, established by family, locality, or nationality, and to a vaguer, lesser degree by common language or selective similarities of appearance. We can and certainly do individuate the former, whatever about the latter. And when “our own” encounter difficulties abroad, in almost all circumstances, we would think it unfair as well as unfortunate that they be denied transparent due process and presumption of innocence. That sense of connection and fellow feeling is entirely appropriate.

However, the opposite reflex all too often applies the further people are from our orbit of familiarity. The less they tick relevant boxes of affinity or affiliation, the more alike and commoditised they become in their general “otherness” than unique in their individual identity. Suspicion if not outright hostility can prosper in our dealings with them.

Reflecting on her sister’s ordeal, four months later, Lorena Gonzalez believes the State’s response would have been very different if an Irish woman was detained in similar circumstances in a Chilean prison.

There needs to be more transparency on how the police act so they don’t arbitrarily detain people. My sister was deprived of contact with her family or information as to why she’d been detained. They were breaking international human rights obligations. All this happened because of discrimination, because of the country we come from.

The Government should imagine what would happen if the situation was reversed. They need more empathy, then they can start to understand.

Céad míle fáilte is a good expression because it suggests a liberal and expansive but not unqualified welcome as our watchword. But we should be as open, effusive and respectful towards our visitors as we would wish other places to be towards our voyagers.

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