Romani (Gypsy) culture and social issues.
Roma Immigration to Ireland

by Mícheál Ó hAodha

The recent arrival of Romany Gypsies, or Roma, to Ireland focused attention on this much-maligned ethnic minority and brought the entire East-West immigration issue into the public domain for the first time in Irish life. Ireland is a country with a long history of emigration and for centuries Irish people have emigrated to every corner of the globe. They have done this to escape the violence of colonization, the hunger of the Great Famine in the 1840's or simply to seek out a better life for themselves and their children. Virtually every decade of this century saw large numbers of Irish people emigrating to Britain, the United States, Australia, Canada and various countries throughout Europe. This has changed in recent times. A much improved economy and the general East-West migration of people has meant that for the first time Ireland now has people applying for asylum there. In the past five years about 7000 refugees have arrived in Ireland, the majority of them seeking political asylum. They have come from Bosnia and other eastern European countries, Turkey and the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. About 1,500 of these refugees are from Romania, a substantial proportion of whom are Roma or Gypsies. But it was the arrival of about 250 Romanians, nearly all Gypsies, to the port of Rosslare, Wexford, in Southern Ireland in the last two weeks of July and the first week of August (1998) which really brought the immigration issue to a head.

The Gypsies arrived on ferries from Cherbourg in France where they had hidden on container lorries which were transporting goods between the two countries. The manner of their arrival - one group which was discovered by police on arrival numbered over 40 people and included two pregnant women and children, all of whom had been travelling for days with very little food or water - led to a sense of outrage amongst Irish people and this was exacerbated by the fear that someone might soon be found dead in one of these lorries. The Irish Department of Justice came under severe pressure to combat the problem of illegal trafficking and the formation of an adequate social policy response to immigration. There is at present a backlog of asylum applications with some immigrants already waiting the best part of four years for their applications to be processed. Sociologists believe that the Gypsies who arrived recently in Wexford may belong to the monied and mobile minority of Roma who can afford to pay huge sums - relative to the salary of the average Romanian worker - to be smuggled across Europe. A senior policeman with Europol confirmed that the trafficking of illegal immigrants into Europe is increasingly being controlled by highly-organised criminal gangs, who use routes traditionally used by drug traffickers.

Terezaia Micula, her husband and three children were amongst the group of 47 people who arrived in Wexford in the first week of August. They told the Irish Independent newspaper of their arduous journey across Europe having paid an unknown German 700 German marks ( about £300 Irish pounds) to be smuggled out of Romania. They said that they left Romania and stopped in Prague where they changed trucks. "We did not pick Ireland. We talked to a man in Czech who said he would get us to a free country where our children will be allowed to go to school and we can get jobs and earn money." The 13-day journey was not easy for any of the refugees. A fifteen year old girl who has since given birth to a baby in Ireland found the journey particularly tough. They are all seeking political asylum and many claimed that they were persecuted in Romania, particularly by the police. A boy named Vilmos said through an interpreter that his father was frequently arrested and that he left primary school to be by his side. Sabin Cirpaciu who travelled with his pregnant wife and child said that "In Romania our children were not allowed to go to school, they had no medical care and we could not get jobs. We were discriminated against, our families were very poor there and we were considered a different race".

The refugees said that they were willing to learn English, that they wanted to find work and wished to integrate into Irish society. Unfortunately they are prohibited from working while their applications for asylum are being processed under the present guidelines of the Irish Department of Justice who appear to be taking a particularly tough line on the immigration issue. European Economic Community (EEC) regulations state that those people who are proven to have have travelled through a number of EEC countries before applying for asylum, may be sent back to the first European country which they entered if their application is unsuccessful. The Gypsies have emigrated to the West and to Ireland for a variety of reasons according to Nicolae Gheorghe, a Romanian sociologist who has studied his country's 2-million strong Gypsy population. He told the Irish edition of the Sunday Times that the Gypsies "want to be in a country where the economy works well and where there isn't daily predjudice against Gypsies. There is a perception that Ireland which produces a lot of emigrants is still tolerant".

The reaction in Ireland to the most recent immigrant arrivals was mixed. In a country which has never had a history of immigration, legal or illegal it was inevitable that there would be  some negative reaction. Some of the tabloid newspapers tried to whip up racist and negative attitudes towards the immigrants by speaking in terms of an "influx", a "wave" or a "flood" of asylum seekers when this was clearly not the case and warning that many of them were only here to claim welfare. There were reports in one newspaper that Roma men were trying to befriend local women in an effort to have a child by them, thereby gaining permission to stay in Ireland. The same paper also accused the Roma of being given luxury accomodation, eating in restaurants and digging up vegetables from gardens because they were hungry - a suggestion that fits oddly with the notion that they were also patronising the town's finest restaurants.

The Roma request for political asylum was probably not helped either by an interview (including photo) in one of the "quality" Sunday newspapers with a self-styled "King of the Gypsies" named Bulibasa Ioan Munteanu from the village of Huedin in rural western Romania who was said to have described Ireland as a heaven on earth, where money was easy to make, applications for asylum were taking a number of years to be processed and the social welfare system was very generous. The Baro Rom said that a hundred of Huedin's thousand Gypsies were already living in Ireland and had already telephoned home with reports of the generosity of the welfare system. Despite this interview and the scaremongering attempts of a small group titling itself the Immigration Control Platform regarding a possible "flood" of refugees the ordinary Irish people treated the Gypsies well. Local people came to the community centre in Wexford every day with cups of tea and food for the Roma community until the Gypsies were housed in local apartments. Various groups of Gypsies were also given accomodation in the counties of Wexford, Monaghan and Cork.

Crismarita Anghel, his wife and four children who were staying in a hostel in Monaghan confirmed the welcome of the Irish people when they told one of the Sunday newspapers "In Ireland, for the first time, we have been treated equally. The people have been nice, much nicer than they are in Romania, but then they couldn't have been much worse."  These Romanian Gypsies are not the first Roma to visit Ireland. Some English Romany families came to Ireland in the 1940s to avoid conscription and stayed to marry into Irish Traveller families. There is also evidence of some intermarriage between the English Romanies and the large Irish Traveller population in England. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century large numbers of Gypsy families have emigrated from Europe to America, some of them stopping briefly in Ireland on the way. A few of the Kalderash Gypsy coppersmith families who caused quite a stir amongst the British population as they travelled around Britain at the turn of the century also came to Ireland around 1911. They didn't stay long however, the poverty of the Ireland of the early 1900's perhaps limiting their opportunties for employment. There has always been a movement west amongst the Roma searching for a better life for themselves and their families. Over a thousand Czech and Slovak Gypsies emigrated to Canada at the end of 1997 and about the same number arrived in Dover last year to try and claim asylum in Britain.

At present there are approximately 7000 asylum applications in Ireland compared with 105,000 in Germany in 1997 and 41,500 in Britain. In Ireland this represents 0.1 percent of the population and brings the country into line with its European neighbours who for many years have taken in the refugee burden leaving Ireland untouched. Last year refugees made up 0.13 percent of the German population and 0.07 percent of Britain. It is not clear how many Roma are presently living in Ireland but it is estimated there may be anything between a 1000 and 1,500 Roma who have yet to have their applications for asylum processed.

Postscript:

(August 27th, 1998)
The forty-seven Romanian Gypsies who were smuggled into Ireland in freight containers at the beginning of August have had their applications for asylum rejected and have been told to leave the state within two weeks. The decision was one of the fastest made by the Irish Department of Justice in recent times regarding asylum applications. It is believed the Department is anxious to deter more Gypsies from coming to Ireland. All the Gypsies who come from Arad in Eastern Romania are to appeal the decision but it is unlikely that their appeal will be successful. The Gypsy group which included over 27 adults and 20 children were being accomodated at a holiday hostel in Castleblayney, County Monaghan and were said to be "extremely upset" at the prospect of being deported. One woman in the group gave birth to a baby girl while she was in Ireland. The girl, named Micula-Lamita Elisabeta is an Irish citizen and is automatically entitled to residence in Ireland. About 200 Romanian asylum-seekers, most of whom were Roma Gypsies arrived in Ireland during the month of August.

Most of them entered the country by hiding in lorries which arrived from the French port of Cherbourg to Rosslare in southern Ireland. Since then, security has been tightened at the French port and very few people have arrived in Rosslare in recent weeks. It is thought that the Gypsies may be sent back to France as under EEC regulations asylum seekers must make their applications in the first country in which they have lived. Irish police suspect that these Roma may have been living in France for a time before coming to Ireland as many of the children speak fluent French. The tough stance taken by the Department of Justice in relation to the most recent Gypsy immigrants has been severely criticized by many of the Irish populace including sections of the Irish media and the various groups campaigning on behalf of the rights of refugees.

Another Postcript:

(October 8th, 1998)
The forty-seven Romanian Gypsies mentioned above are still in Ireland. Their appeal against deportation is still being heard.


Sources consulted:
All the major Irish newspapers including:

Mícheál Ó hAodha is a librarian who spent the last number of years working as Project Manager of the Gypsy Collections at the University of Liverpool.

Reprinted by the Patrin Web Journal with permission of the author.
Posted 1 November 1998.



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