Just one of the several thousand people who arrived in Ireland without a valid travel document in recent years faced related criminal charges.
More than 4,200 people arrived at immigration control in Dublin Airport last year with no travel documentation, indicating they had destroyed or lost it before reaching immigration control. The majority of these claimed asylum.
Under the Immigration Act 2004 it is an offence, punishable by up to 12 months in prison or a €3,000 fine, for an adult to land in the State without a valid travel document.
According to figures obtained by The Irish Times, just one person has been charged with this offence since 2019. They faced a single charge in 2019 and no conviction was recorded.
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Another person was charged in 2021 with attempting to leave the country without showing a valid travel document to immigration officers. No conviction was recorded in that case either.
The figures were released by the Court Service, which warned some additional cases may have been brought but not recorded properly in court records.
The issue of foreign nationals destroying or losing passports when entering the State has attracted significant controversy in recent months, as Ireland deals with record numbers of asylum seekers entering the country.
Security sources, immigration experts and the Department of Justice say there are various reasons someone might not be charged for failing to produce a travel document.
A Department of Justice spokesman said that in some cases people without travel documents are immediately “returned to their country of origin as soon as is practicable. In these circumstances, the question of prosecution does not arise”. He said prosecution decisions are a matter for the Garda and Director of Public Prosecutions.
A Garda source working in immigration pointed to a provision in the Act stating a person may avoid prosecution if they can prove they had “reasonable cause” for not having a travel document.
They also said humanitarian concerns and the administrative burden of prosecuting so many people for a relatively minor offence may play a role in the low number of charges.
Stephen Kirwan, a solicitor with KOD Lyons specialising in immigration and asylum, said it is a complex area of law. He said that the Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees does not require asylum seekers to have travel documentation when presenting at a border.
Additionally, some asylum seekers are accompanied into the country by human traffickers or “agents” who provide them with false travel documents and take them back before the person disembarks the aircraft.
Not having a travel document when reaching immigration “can be an indicator of genuine persecution”, Mr Kirwan said. “It can also absolutely be an indication of someone coming into the country on a false document, destroying that document and trying to enter the country for nefarious purposes. I think the reality is somewhere in between.”
Mr Kirwan said these aspects “assumedly” form part of the authorities’ decision-making when considering whether to bring charges or not.
He said that in recent months the Department of Justice’s Border Management Unit has stepped up checks to prevent people losing or destroying passports between disembarkation and border control. This includes checking passports while people are still on the aircraft.
Separate figures show there was a higher rate of prosecutions of foreign nationals who fail to produce documents showing their identity and nationality while in the State.
There have been 388 such charges since 2019. Only 16 per cent of these cases resulted in a conviction, however.