- 04 Dec 20
The sheer craziness of the way in which we have dealt with asylum seekers is underlined in the decision taken by the Department of Justice to deport Benjamin Akhile, who came to Ireland from Sierra Leone, seeking asylum. Benjamin has lived here for 14 years and fallen in love with Bernadette D’Arcy. But unless the Minister for Justice Helen McEntee intervenes, he will be taken away from his loved one and put on a plane to a country where he has neither friends or relatives left… Pic: Cian Redmond
Benjamin Akhile and Bernadette D’Arcy have been involved in a relationship for seven years. Throughout that time, a deportation order has loomed over their love for one another.
This life sentence drifted in and out of their minds, even as they celebrated birthdays, anniversaries and overcame life’s other challenges.
“It’s like opening the wardrobe and pushing that dirty cloth to the back of it because you don’t want to wash it,” says Bernadette D’Arcy, smiling nervously during a video interview. “But then it suddenly re-appears: it’s always there.”
Benjamin Akhile, 54, is from Sierra Leone, in West Africa. He sought asylum here 14 years ago. His background is complicated. On the Human Development Index, Sierra Leone ranks close to the bottom, at 181 out of 189. The average life expectancy is just 54 years. In a country of immense natural wealth, 58% still live in poverty. Benjamin's family left Sierra Leone when he was six and travelled to Nigeria.
Benjamin has been careful not to go into too much detail about the circumstances of his decision to leave Nigeria, though there is a clear impression that he was in danger. He passed through Ghana on his way to Europe and arrived in Ireland in 2006.
Three years later, a decision was made that he should be deported. For the past 11 years, Akhile has been fighting the deportation order made against him. Now, however, it seems that his time is close to running out. After all that time you'd have to ask: how crazy is that?
In recent weeks, the Department of Justice has issued a final deadline for Benjamin Akhile. This, despite the fact that he is battling kidney disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. He is up for deportation on December 10.
It is an extraordinary and, in its very prosaic, human way, a heart-rending story.
A GENUINE LOVE AFFAIR
Benjamin Akhile and Bernadette D’Arcy met in Donegal. He was living in Cliff View House Direct Provision Centre at the time. Bernie met Akhile in, of all places, the parish church.
“When he said he lived in Direct Provision, my antenna went up. I would’ve been an activist,” says D’Arcy.
They started dating and the relationship continued in the same vein until Benjamin was transferred to Eyre Power Hotel, a refugee accommodation centre, in Newbridge near Co.Kildare. D’Arcy was based in Dublin at the time, and it wasn't too great a leap, to decide that they would live together.
"I was out of a difficult marriage,” she recalls.
When Bernadette D’Arcy describes what her life had been like, that too is heart-breaking.
“On one occasion I overdosed,” she recalls, “and Benjamin was the one helping me. I need him more than he needs me."
In recent years, the couple moved to a house in Co Wicklow, where they enjoy a nice view from their patio. Their time together has been lovely. But, for Benjamin, there has always been a parallel uphill struggle.
For many years, Benjamin Akhile has been in forced unemployment. He has completed courses up to Fetac Level 6. He would prefer to have been working – but asylum seekers fighting deportation orders cannot obtain a permit.
Even as D-Day looms for him, Benjamin Akhile hopes that he might yet be able to forestall his deportation. He did not want to be interviewed for this article, telling D'Arcy that he fears that speaking out against the State’s decision might go against him.
For her part, Bernadette D’Arcy is hoping that their relationship will help to keep her love here in what he has, for so long, called home.
“We’ve discussed going public in this way,” Bernadette says, “but he always pushed it off the table because he didn’t want me to feel that I’m being used. I always said, ‘Let’s go for it, I don’t mind’. But it just shows how genuine he is.”
Back in Sierra Leone, a lot has changed since Benjamin left. In Nigeria too. Akhile’s parents are no longer alive, and his sister has emigrated.
“He doesn’t have anyone in Africa,” Bernadette states definitively.
An online petition to stop the deportation of Benjamin Akhile has already attracted over 20,000 signatures so far.
Meanwhile, Bernadette D'Arcy is searching for a solicitor who might help to keep Akhile in Ireland on family grounds. She has been unsuccessful in her quest so far.
"Most of them are finishing up cases, they're not taking on new cases," she says.
Once a deportation order has been issued, an application for asylum can no longer be withdrawn, says a spokesperson for the Department of Justice.
It means Akhile can’t withdraw his asylum-seeking application to apply to remain in the country on different grounds.
However, there is a small chink of light. “Deportation Orders can be amended or revoked by the Minister for Justice under Section 3 (11) of the Immigration Act 1999,” according to the spokesperson.
The Minister will consider humanitarian factors, including changes in family status, employment records and other reasons as part of this process, Hot Press was told. However, the individual due to be deported must bring any "new circumstances" to the attention of the Minister.
“The Department takes a pragmatic approach to matters such as deportation, and each case is examined in detail on its individual merits, taking all factors into account,” the spokesperson explained.
The Department of Justice has issued 469 deportation orders since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March. That number includes many removal orders which would take people to what are currently virus hotspots.
“This is simply unacceptable,” Independent TD Catherine Connolly said on Twitter, recently.
KEEPING HOPE ALIVE
Unsettled by the mounting awareness that they may already have had their last Christmas together in 2019, the couple try to live in the present, at their home in Wicklow. Benjamin is determined to remain calm for the sake of D'Arcy, who suffers from anxiety and stress.
"I suffer badly from stress,” Bernadette states. “He's always the one pulling me out of bed saying, ‘Come on, the sun is shining, get on your bike and go for a cycle'."
Bernadette, who works in Supervalu, has been on sick leave since last year. She has been spending most of her time with Akhile, as he battles his own array of health troubles.
“We always give each other space though,” she says.
Sadly, Benjamin Akhile’s health woes have been mounting. In recent weeks, he collapsed at home, and had to have an operation to remove a stone from one of his kidneys. He is pencilled in for another operation to remove a second stone, according to D’Arcy.
Even now, less than ten days before the Gardaí gain the power to knock on their door to take Benjamin Akhile away, the couple are trying to remain optimistic.
“We’re lucky here,” Bernadette D’Arcy says. “We can go for a walk, or we can open the patio door, and we’re right by the sea. We just sit or stand there and listen to the waves. It takes the pressure off.”
But for how long? Only the Minister for Justice Helen McEntee, it seems, can answer that.
• This article was updated, following the receipt of new information, and a conversation with Benjamin, which clarified additional details.