Immigration is now a significant reality in Ireland, and one that is changing the dynamics of our culture and economy. This book attempts to give these immigrants a voice, a chance to tell us how they are experiencing Ireland, and the Irish.
While on the surface it might be easy enough to adapt to a new country, the mental adjustment takes years. All the subtle nuances of communication, the cultural, political and social worldviews, picked up so gradually via radio and TV, the different humour and identifications of the host population have to be assimilated if integration has to be successful. And while the immigrant is using a lot of energy and effort to adapt, the locals don’t bother much to imagine what it’s like for immigrants – unless they’ve been there, done that, themselves. These stories give Irish natives a chance to understand their point of view.
It’s the concept of home that is so elusive to immigrants and refugees. Home doesn’t necessarily mean a house of your own, but a sense of belonging to a community, to a place, sharing a cultural identity. New immigrants often sacrifice their own need for a sense of ‘home’ in the hope that their children will one day be part of Ireland’s new cultural identity.
One of my interviewees, Sahr Yambasu, from Sierra Leone, writing an essay about his experience of migration in Unsettling the Horses, quotes Stuart Hall:
Cultural identity…is a matter of ‘becoming’ as well as of ‘being’. It belongs to the future as much as to the past…Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories. But …, they undergo constant transformation.*
In the next generation or two, a transformation will take place in our cultural identity, and it is up to us how integrated and successful that transformation is.
Immigration is the biggest single factor influencing our society today. The Census figures for 2006 show that the Irish native population numbers 3,707,683, while non-Irish figures are already almost half a million, at 419, 733, with the highest number coming from the European Union. This means that one in every eight people in Ireland is an immigrant. This is reality that must be faced – now.
Given the low rates of immigration until the recent past, it’s not surprising that government is only now giving serious consideration to facilitating integration. But it is an issue that will require careful and sensitive handling for assimilation to take place effectively and with the minimum of disruption to the status quo.
While many Irish people have expressed alarm at the exponential rate of immigration, there are undoubted benefits for the country. I remember once seeing eleven obviously Irish faces on the cover of a Time magazine, the accompanying story telling us that as a monoculture, Ireland has such a small, in-bred gene pool, that every native looks like one of the faces on the cover! We obviously need to add new blood. The economy also stands to benefit from immigration. For employers, the advantages are a more efficient service and greater productivity, as well as a larger consumer market. Sure there’s more competition, but with increased competition comes higher standards.
Ireland was quick to predict the IT revolution, train up the youth, and offer tax incentives to foreign companies locating here. But now that salaries are not so competitive any more, foreign investors have already begun looking to relocate to countries such as India, where there are equally well-educated, trained and (let’s not forget) English-speaking IT experts. Something needs to be done to stop all that investment from being withdrawn. With multi-lingual workers joining the workforce, Ireland becoming a popular base for call centres, the picture looks more attractive to investors.
Another aspect of the economic climate in Ireland that needs to be addressed is our prohibitive childcare costs. Many women would like to work – or would work longer hours – if they could find affordable child care. Immigrants can be employed at competitive rates to look after children so that parents, typically mothers, can be released to do higher-paid jobs.
People who migrate tend to be young, healthy, enterprising and adventurous,* thus they are a rejuvenating influence in a country that is already seeing the effects of a falling birth rate and increased ageing. Many of our care workers are foreign, and will become more highly valued as the population ages and residential homes fill. Just as the supply of migrants is likely to increase, so too is the demand.
These advantages are, of course, be offset by the disadvantages, such as increased housing and waste management, as well as the social challenges of opening Ireland up to other cultural influences. But Ireland is very homogenous and hardly at risk of losing its own individuality. With careful planning, and a gradual filtering process, the outcome is more likely to be a welcome ‘sprinkling of colour on the Irish green’, as one of my interviewees put it. The Irish can well rise to the challenge, seeing this as an opportunity to redefine Ireland’s potential as a dynamic presence in Europe. As we are a relatively recent host country, we can benefit by the hindsight of other countries such as Britain, Australia, France, Holland and Sweden, who have had their doors open to immigrants for decades longer, and have learned by trial and error how to minimise the potential disruption to the status quo.
Unfortunately, in spite of the Irish reputation for being humanitarian, donating more per
capita to charity than most other European countries, in the last number of years, racism has been on the rise. Immigration has ignited a sense of resentment among many natives, who express their objections to immigrants in economic terms, when often the lashing out is actually racially motivated. It’s a common phenomenon in Ireland to project social problems onto a marginalised group. It used to be single mothers; then it was Travellers. Now it’s immigrants.
Asylum seekers are often treated with suspicion. Many locals are misinformed and don’t bother checking their facts. I’ve heard Irish people complain that asylum seekers are being given cars, mobile phones, ‘buggies’ for their toddlers. According to a Social Welfare officer interviewed in a film about immigrants called Who Are We Now?* this is ‘all rubbish.’ As for benefits received, they are more than repaid in taxes paid by working immigrants.**
Little attention is paid to the benefits that cross-cultural immigration brings. Many developing countries, such as India and Pakistan, have more graduates than they need, and according to UNESCO, as many as 30 000 Africans holding PhD degrees are now living outside the continent.***
Ireland, as one of the receiving countries, reaps undoubted benefits from their skills. But the current immigration policy is wasting this valuable potential resource. One negative aspect about the situation for asylum seekers is that while waiting for their applications for refugee status to be processed, they are not allowed temporary visas to work, and must instead depend on social welfare.
The asylum seekers I spoke to, hate not being allowed to work. They feel isolated, frustrated, anxious, depressed, stressed and bored with the monotony of waiting for their applications to be processed. Unless they come from a high-profile country like Nigeria, whose applications are fast-tracked, they could wait up to three years before getting on with real life. They are also deprived of the dignity that a job engenders, and remain in a
limbo state. Living with almost no money, and nothing to do, is humiliating and psychologically damaging. They cannot make progress in their new home. If temporary work permits were issued while their applications were in process, it would reduce expenses to the state and facilitate integration and a sense of individual well-being.
There is no doubt that the state’s handling of the situation, and the media’s tendency to highlight nationality in criminal cases, are partly to blame for the tension created by the rapid influx of immigrants over the last decade.
While temporary work permits would definitely alleviate the situation for immigrants, the state also has a responsibility to act morally, to set an example of humane treatment to refugees who are often too traumatised or in fragile health to contribute much to the economy. ‘Asylum is about morality’, writes Caroline Moorehead in her excellent book, Human Cargo, and ‘in an age of globalisation, it is simply not possible to ignore the world’s dispossessed. How a state deals with its refugees should be a measure of its social and political health.’ *
The media has the same moral responsibility. Editors should be particularly alert to potentially damaging headlines, such as, “Refugee rapist on the rampage”, one headline which was rightly criticised in a Questions and Answers programme in February 2005. It should be remembered that, whatever a foreigner’s reasons for leaving their homeland, the vast majority would not attempt to begin a new life in a new country with a hostile or aggressive attitude. It’s more likely to be one of humility, and hope.
These stories speak for themselves. They show us who we have living among us. They describe how immigrants feel about the Irish, what their attitudes to living in Ireland are, what their expectations were when they came here and how they have found it. It shows their courage, ability to adapt to a new culture, sometimes a new language. It also describes their experiences on arrival, and gives locals more of an awareness of the immigration process for asylum seekers.
I found it interesting to gain an insight into other cultures, from the viewpoint of natives of
those places, and to see Ireland through the eyes of immigrants. As long as we humbly accept their opinions as valid, we can only benefit from their ideas.
Different backgrounds and cultures emerge. These are personal perceptions and opinions of their cultures, not necessarily accurate, historical accounts. But mostly, they are simply stories of individual lives. They reveal the common ground that we share as fellow human beings: here we see, yes, some individuals who have suffered from living in communist, or war-torn countries, but also those who have studied, fallen in love, experimented with drugs, tried out different work experiences, endured cancer, the death of a loved one, the difficulty of single parenthood, the trauma of separation and divorce. In other words, just people, like us.
*Unsettling the Horses, quoting Stuart Hall, cited in Rutherford, 1990:225.
* Central Statistics Office (www.cso.ie)
**(Nasc, the Irish immigrant Support Centre report about asylum and immigration policy and practice in Ireland.)
*The No Nonsense Guide to International Migration p.90
*Filmed by Eddie Noonan of Frameworks.
** Nasc report.
*** The No-Nonsense Guide to International Migration.
*Human Cargo by Caroline Moorehead