Ireland steps up as immigration leader

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

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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

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.

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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.

One reason for this is historical. Many Irish emigrants were themselves the victims of racism – many British boardinghouses had signs that read "No blacks, no Irish, no dogs" – and these experiences have helped temper local attitudes to the new arrivals. But also, the most common nationality of immigrants between 1995 and 2000 wasn't Polish or Chinese or Nigerian. It was Irish, returning migrants who are reversing the flow of emigration (in the US, nearly 35 million people claim Irish ancestry).

Still, the Irish government has been proactive. "One of the recommendations from the World Conference on Racism, held in South African in 2001, was for governments to design national action plans," says Kensika Monshengwo, training and resource officer with the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism. "The Irish government was quick to put in place a National Action Plan Against Racism that is used by the police, education institutions, and service organizations."

Ireland's Employment Equality Act outlaws discrimination on nine specific grounds. "You don't find that in many other countries. Even the European Union directive only has six grounds," say Mr. Monshengwo.

As part of its response to the National Action Plan Against Racism, the Irish police force, An Garda Síochána, changed its entry requirements to allow nonnationals to apply for positions. Speaking recently, Brian Lenihan said that the Garda "must be broadly representative of the community it serves, and the changes in Irish society are starting to be reflected in the intake of Garda recruits." At present, it has trainees from China, Poland, Canada, Romania, and Denmark.

"I don't know of any other country where nonnationals can be a member of the police force," says Monshengwo. "It is a major step that is mindful of the future, when the force will be policing a diverse community."

But problems have arisen. In July, a member of the Sikh community completed his exams and training for the Garda Reserve, but was told he could not wear a turban on duty. Wearing a turban is obligatory for Sikh men, and police forces in the US, Canada, Malaysia, and Britain allow it.

"On one hand they are being pioneers in opening the door for non-nationals," says Harpeet Singh of the Irish Sikh Council, "and on the other hand they refuse to follow the example of other police forces in including Sikhs."

This present impasse mirrors a broader debate. Does Ireland follow the multicultural model of countries like Britain, where common public values don't necessarily trump individual cultural practices, or the assimilation model of France, say, where the dominant national culture prevails? Ireland recently appointed a minister of state for integration policy, but a clear position has yet to emerge.

"[M]any NGOs ... are concerned about the separation between developing an integration policy and our immigration policy," says Denise Charlton, chief executive of the Immigrant Council of Ireland. "We must ensure that our immigration policy does not create barriers to integration. The forthcoming Immigration, Residence, and Protection Bill should clearly define migrants' rights to family life, permanent residence, protection against discrimination, access to services and ... information."

The bill will come before the Irish parliament convenes this fall.

Irish policy has been slow to evolve, but many say it's off to a good start. "Remember that diversity and multiculturalism is only 10 years old in Ireland," says Adebari. "By allowing immigrants to participate in society, Ireland has accepted the first generation of immigrants."

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