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Ireland steps up as immigration leader

The 2006 census, released over the summer, shows a rapid rise in immigration in the past decade.

By Michael SeaverContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / September 5, 2007

Dublin, Ireland

As Europe wrestles with its relatively new status as an immigrant continent, an unlikely leader is emerging: Ireland.

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Historically known for its high emigration rates, the island nation has exploded with newcomers from 150 different countries in the past decade – and taken some innovative steps to help its new residents settle in.

In the past ten years, Ireland has experienced a greater rise in the percentage of immigrants than Britain experienced over the past half century. In 1999, fewer than 6,000 work permits were granted to non-Irish migrant workers; last year, 48,000 were handed out. According to the 2006 census, which has been gradually released over the summer, 420,000 foreign nationals, or about 10 percent of the population, now live here.

In some primary schools in Dublin, some 50 percent of the children are from nonnational backgrounds. In some districts, the number of immigrants has risen by 120 percent since 2002.

A combination of low and highly skilled workers, the newcomers have fueled the Celtic Tiger economic boom – as well as social upheaval. But while Ireland has struggled with racism and other tensions, it's experienced nothing like the Paris riots of 2005 or the homegrown-terrorist attacks that rocked London in 2006 and Madrid in 2004. Some newcomers credit the proactive stance of the government, which has allowed noncitizens to participate in local politics and join the police force.

"By allowing immigrants to participate in society, Ireland has accepted the first generation of immigrants," says Rotimi Adebari, a Nigerian who in June became Ireland's first immigrant mayor. "I think my election is a model that can be showcased throughout the world. What Ireland has done is very unique."

Bryan Fanning, editor of Immigration and Social Change in the Republic of Ireland, also applauds the efforts of Ireland, which allows nonnationals to vote in local elections.

"That is unusual and a very positive initiative," says Dr. Fanning. "It is unhealthy to have large proportion of your population outside citizenship. Two problems arise. First of all, they are not stakeholders in a positive way in society, and second, if they are voiceless, then they are powerless. It would be easy for pressures of marginalization to build up."

Mr. Adebari, who sought asylum after fleeing Nigeria with his wife and two children seven years ago, agrees. "Nonnational workers pay taxes, so the fact that they can have a say on how those taxes are spent locally – on roads, schools, or services – makes them feel more integrated with their community."

But many immigrants don't feel welcome, let alone integrated. A 2006 report from the Irish-based Economic and Social Research Institute found that 35 percent of immigrants were insulted, threatened, or harassed in public because of their ethnic or national origin, a figure that climbed to 53 percent for black Africans. It found, however, that the incidence of racism in Ireland was lower than other European countries.

In recent general elections, there were three candidates representing the Immigration Control Platform, but they received just 1,329 votes. There are no far-right political parties in Ireland, like the British National Party or Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front in France. Attempts to politicize the issue have been largely unsupported.