It is no small irony that it was the arrival in July 1998 of a large group of Roma Gypsies to Wexford in south-east Ireland that precipitated our first national debate on immigration, a debate that has continued to rage ever since. The Gypsy people could in a way be recognised as the first true Europeans. A people without a traditional homeland of their own they have always been recognised as a group for whom international borders and lines of demarcation have meant very little. The Gypsies arrived in Wexford, south-east Ireland in August 1998. They were hidden in container lorries that were transporting goods from France to Ireland. 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. This new phenomenon of immigration came as something of a surprise. So too did the challenge of creating a new multiracial and multicultural Irish society. Ireland is a country with a long history of emigration and for centuries Irish people have emigrated to every corner of the globe. 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.
An amazing economic boom has changed all of this. Decades of poverty, emigration and unemployment have been turned around and Ireland will soon be one of the wealthier countries in the European Union. This much-improved economy has meant that for the first time in itís history Ireland now has people applying for asylum there.
In 1992, there were only 39 applications for asylum in Ireland. This compares with 5,497 applications for the first 10 months of the year just ended, 1999. Refugees have come to Ireland from Bosnia and other eastern European countries, Turkey, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. Over half of the immigrants who applied for asylum in 1999 were from two countries in particular, Romania and Nigeria. Figures show that, relative to our population, Ireland is now one of the most popular destinations in Europe for those seeking refugee status. Experts say that Irelandís flourishing economy and a welfare system that compares very favourably with the rest of Europe are the major "pull" factors.
How has the Irish government handled the immigration issue thus far? Not very well is the general consensus. There are at present nearly 10,000 asylum-seekers here awaiting the processing of their applications. The applications process itself has been bogged down in red tape and there is a large backlog of people still awaiting a decision on their applications. It is difficult to get an accurate "fix" on what the governmentís real policy is on immigration. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has been slow in implementing legislation in this area which may indicate that their real policy is to try and keep the numbers applying for asylum down while at the same time making life quite difficult for those immigrants awaiting a decision. Some people have now been waiting for up to three years for the results of their applications. The problem of their uncertain status is compounded by the fact that the government has until very recently refused permission to work except to a tiny handful of them. This has forced the majority of asylum-seekers to remain on social welfare and made them vulnerable to the taunts of bar-room racists that they are "spongers". One of the main problems at present is that all those people who are seeking visas and the right to work have been lumped together as "asylum-seekers". Many of the recent immigrants are actually economic migrants but as things stand at present they must pretend to be seeking asylum in Ireland rather than admit that they are seeking a better life for themselves and their families. Their insecure status is similar in some ways to that of the many Irish people without visas who have been forced to live as "illegals" in America and Australia and some of the Irish public would now be of the view that the government should have a policy whereby they take in a certain quota of migrants from countries such as Romania every year. That there should also be a delineation made between asylum-seekers and other immigrants is also a common view. The right to seek asylum is guaranteed by international law and Ireland as a State is obliged to provide assistance to asylum seekers; many of whom have endured the most appalling suffering before arriving here.
To date however there has been a marked reluctance amongst the general public to debate the immigrant issue openly. Those who advocate any form of restriction on immigration are often afraid that they will be branded racists by the "politically-correct" lobby and yet there are few people who advocate an "open-door" policy whereby the country accepts all immigrants who arrive on our shores. This reluctance to engage in public debate on the issue has meant however that the Irish governmentís ad-hoc approach and attendant lack of policy has managed to rumble on thus far, creating potentially harmful problems for Irish society in the longterm.
For instance the governmentís decision to house many refugees in areas already crippled by a lack of social housing and longterm unemployment shows a very short-sighted approach. The potential for xenophobia and racial tension is obvious and ironically it is the present acute housing crisis in Dublin where 85% of asylum-seekers are housed that has prompted the government to react more swiftly in recent times regarding the immigration issue. Within the last few months the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has advertised in the provincial press so that they could compile a list of suitable accommodation for asylum-seekers. The owners of hotels, guesthouses and bed and breakfast premises have made contact with the department and accommodation has been found for 8000 people. This accommodation is being inspected at the moment to see whether it is suitable. At the same time further accommodation is needed for the most recent immigrants to the country, immigrants whose numbers continue to rise every month.
The government recently announced a new policy of dispersal to rural areas and the decentralisation of the asylum process. Whether this new approach is successful depends on many factors. "Dig-out" systems need to be ready to meet a "myriad of needs " according to Ms Orla Ní Éilí of the Irish Refugee Councilís branch in Ennis, Co. Clare, where 300 refugees are already housed. These range from practical day-to-day matters such as how to work a washing-machine, to the need for accessible, free and local legal advice, as well as emotional support, language classes and opportunities to socialise and form self-help groups.
As it stands rural Ireland is totally unequipped to deal with the special needs of itís new residents. Mr. Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, the Sinn Féin Cavan-Monaghan member of parliament says that "despite the best efforts of individuals, the system at local and national level is not equipped to cope ." In his constituency as in many other places throughout Ireland it is the voluntary work of local people which is filling the gaps in attempting to welcome new immigrants to their area. In Castleblayney, Co. Monaghan a group of local people set up the Castleblayney Roma Support Group, a small voluntary organisation in response to the arrival of many families of Roma Gypsies to their town two years ago. The groupís members helped the Gypsy families find accomodation and have also aided them in legal matters and in their applications for refugee status. Groups such as the one in Castleblayney have been formed throughout the country in the past year. They rely on the good will of local people and undertake their activities without any financial assistance from the State. Indeed it has been left to non-governmental groups and individuals in most cases to challenge the governmentís general lack of urgency and coherency regarding the immigration issue.
The President of Ireland Mary McAleese used a Christmas address last December to highlight the subject of refugees. She said that "This year, historically accurate or not, we are celebrating two thousand years since the birth of Christ, that most famous refugee or all", adding that " the entire Judeo-Christian tradition is marked by the experience of exile, of being strangers in a foreign land ". The week before this address the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace (a commission of the Irish Catholic Bishopsí Conference) proposed a set of eight principles which might form a basis for an immigration policy in Ireland. In a document entitled First Notes Towards a Comprehensive Irish Immigration Policy , the Commission said current developments meant "a humane, transparent and sustainable immigration policy" was now essential. The document recommended that a national immigration policy should embrace three categories of people - "those coming or recruited for economic reasons, those admitted on humanitarian grounds other than on foot of an asylum application, and those admitted on grounds of a family reunion". The document also recommended that new immigration policy should be framed in the context of a rights framework with international immigrant rights standards "firmly incorporated into Irish legislation." Whether the government will pay heed to calls such as these when formulating itís evolving immigration policy remains to be seen. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has recently announced major staff increases in itís department aimed at clearing the current backlog of nearly 9000 asylum applications. The intention is to reduce the time taken to process an application from up to two years to six months. What is clear is that many Irish people would like to see a coherent immigration policy in place. In the opinion of many there has been all too little in the way of generosity or reflection in the light of our history as a migrant people in offical Government policy.
The vast majority of asylum-seekers are only too willing to work and wish to integrate into Irish society. They naturally resent the fact that they are denied the opportunity to do so. The absurdity of this situation is that sections of the Irish economy are crying out for workers and immigrant labour could only be of great benefit to them. Fr. Gerry Raftery, the Franciscan justice director at the Merchantís Quay project in Dublin, a project where volunteers provide language classes, legal advice and support services to some 120 asylum-seekers from Eastern Europe, belongs to an increasing body of opinion which believes that an amnesty could be a solution to the present situation. An amnesty for all those asylum-seekers presently in the country would give the government "an opportunity to put it right", he says. The numbers grew quite quickly last year and we havenít been able to deal with it administratively. An amnesty would give them a breathing space.
Immigration is a new phenomenon in Ireland. Irish people have the benefit of learning from the tragic mistakes that other European countries have made over the past three decades and ensuring that they donít repeat these same mistakes. Dealing with difference is challenging. However it is a challenge that the Irish government will have to face up to and address in a positive manner.
Mícheál Ó hAodha is a librarian at the University of Limerick, Ireland. He also works as a development worker with Limerick Traveller Development Group.
Conversations with the staff of the office of the Irish Refugee Council in Ennis, Co. Clare and all the major Irish newspapers including the following:Irish Times,Posted 02 May 2000 by the Patrin Web Journal with permission of the author.
Sunday Times (Irish edition)
The Sunday Business Post