updated 7/25/2008 4:41:02 PM ET 2008-07-25T20:41:02

Irish Justice Minister Dermot Ahern issued an apology Friday to a Somali woman whose husband and children have been stuck in an Ethiopian refugee camp waiting for visas to Ireland — papers that were issued and dumped in a Dublin file three years ago.

State lawyer Sara Moorhead apologized on the minister's behalf to the 30-year-old woman in Dublin High Court for what she called "a profound systems failure." Moorhead said visas had finally been sent from Dublin to the Irish Embassy in Ethiopia this week, ending the woman's three-year legal struggle.

"We don't have excuses for it," Moorhead said.

The woman was present in court for the apology. High Court Justice George Birmingham ordered that her name be withheld to protect her privacy.

The Somali came to Ireland in 2003, won refugee status in 2004 and applied for her husband, son, daughter and stepdaughter to join her. Ireland's Justice Department approved the move in August 2005 — but never communicated the decision to any family member.

Instead, the Justice Department conceded, its officials ignored several letters from the woman and her lawyers asking for a visa verdict in 2005, 2006 and 2007. Late that year her lawyers successfully sued to see her own Justice Department file under a Freedom of Information Act request — and found the 2005 visa approvals inside.

Last month, faced with the evidence in its own files, the Justice Department assured the woman that visas would be provided to her family in Addis Ababa. But when they traveled from their refugee-camp home to the Ethiopian capital last month, Irish diplomats denied knowing anything about it.

The woman's lawyers immediately filed a lawsuit alleging violations of her rights under Ireland's 1996 refugee laws, its 1937 constitution, and the European Convention on Human Rights. The judge said he would rule in October whether that lawsuit should proceed, given the government's belated visa delivery and apology.

In an affidavit to the court, the woman said she was "very distressed by being apart from my husband and children, knowing they are at risk where they are, and am extremely upset at the time it has taken to secure visas. The time apart from them can never be replaced."

Her son and daughter are aged 8 and 9, respectively, while her stepdaughter — the child of her husband's dead brother — is 16.

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