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Influx of Immigrants Leads to a Sharp Rise in Irish Racism

February 04, 2001|Kevin Donegan | Kevin Donegan, who frequently writes about Ireland, has appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Boston Globe

BERKELEY — An Irish welcome isn't what it used to be. The country that for more than 150 years sent its people abroad in search of a job or a new life is denying those same aspirations to its newest and most vulnerable residents.

The success of Ireland's "Celtic tiger" economy, fueled in part by a booming high-technology sector, has attracted more than corporations looking for low tax rates and a well-educated work force. Refugees, returning expatriates and immigrants of all races and creeds have flocked to Ireland, many by government and business invitation, turning a once white, Catholic country into a reluctant multicultural home.

A small but vocal anti-immigration group, the Immigration Control Platform, has called on the government to withdraw from the 1951 U.N. Geneva convention on refugees, which set up international standards for the treatment of refugees. The group's spokesperson describes immigrants as "socially unwelcome" and avows to represent the "silent majority who are prevented by political correctness from voicing their concerns."

Physical and verbal attacks on immigrants and people of color are commonplace. Nasser Diaby, chairman of the African Refugee Network in Ireland, claims that members of ethnic minorities are attacked daily in Dublin. Diaby was beaten in December. A survey of 157 African asylum seekers by a Catholic charity found that 95% of them claimed to have suffered racially motivated discrimination. Last year, a Dublin bus driver accused of verbally abusing a Gambian passenger became the first person to be convicted under the country's Prohibition on Incitement to Hatred Act.

Just how frequent and widespread the attacks are is difficult to determine. Experts agree that many incidents go unreported, and even when a police report is filed, the attack is usually not recorded as racially or ethnically motivated. An upgraded police computer system, the first phase of which should be online later this year, is expected to provide more detailed information about the attacks' motives.

The current wave of immigration to Ireland is largely made up of Irish emigrants returning home, legal immigrants from India, Malaysia, Japan and other Asian countries, refugees from the Balkan wars and the ex-communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, and asylum seekers fleeing African countries such as Nigeria, Congo, Somalia and other war-torn nations. Of the estimated 48,000 immigrants to Ireland in 1999, fewer than one-sixth were asylum seekers.

An Irish government report predicts 336,000 new arrivals--the equivalent of 9% of the population--between now and 2006. About half of them will be returning Irish emigrants. Foreigners in Ireland currently make up less than 1.5% of the population--about half the European Union average--but the rate of asylum applications, at about 3 per 1,000 immigrants, is the second highest in the EU, after Belgium.

Irish business leaders, in response to labor and skill shortages, have encouraged immigration. The rate of unemployment in Ireland is at a record low of 3.6%, down from more than 20% in the 1980s. The state employment training agency estimates that the Irish economy will need about 200,000 foreign workers in the next five years.

The Irish government has been slow to respond to the outbreak of ethnically and racially motivated attacks. Judges complain that ineptitude and delays at the Department of Justice mean they can't rule on appeals for asylum in a timely manner. Irish politicians and radio talk-show hosts, meanwhile, are quick to exploit public anxiety about immigrants. One recent study reported that many Irish teenagers show little empathy for asylum seekers and find it difficult to understand why people become refugees. Many regard immigrants to Ireland as "welfare abusers" and assume that if they had to leave their homes, "it must be because they are criminals." By contrast, when discussing Irish emigration, these teenagers say that when the Irish went to America, "we worked," "we helped build the country," "we were shipped over like slaves" but "we found a way."

The Irish have long discriminated against the country's gypsy community, or "Travelers." Last year, laws were passed prohibiting providers of goods and services from discriminating against people because of gender, age, marital and family status, religion, race, sexual orientation, disability or membership in the Traveler community. Protections in housing and employment exist but often go unenforced.

Mags Glennon, an activist with Anti-Fascist Action Ireland, says that overblown media reports and exaggerated government estimates of immigration levels have increased public fears. She points out that only 1% of Irish people actually know an asylum seeker.

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