In Year of Citizen we must bolster migrants' rights
Opinion:The arrival of 2013 will not only herald the start of the Irish presidency of the EU, but also signal the bloc’s Year of the Citizen, a 12-month period to celebrate the rights we all are supposed to enjoy.
It is an opportunity for Ireland to reflect on the enormous changes which have occurred in our population in recent years, often as a result of EU expansion and policies.
There is much to celebrate; just ask the more than 36,000 people who received Irish citizenship over the past two years at joyous ceremonies which helped raise all our spirits. As the bells ring in 2013, some 17 per cent of our celebrating population will have been born outside the island, representing 766,770 people.
Political leaders will no doubt be keen to use the opportunity to highlight our role at the helm of Europe as it celebrates the rights of its citizens. They will point to the citizenship ceremonies and the role of migrants in rebuilding the Irish economy, and highlight the legal reforms to welcome new people.
While there have been achievements, a more honest assessment of how we treat new arrivals on our shores would be of better service to them and our nation. Much of our legal reform in this area has been piecemeal, with little real political interest in the immigration sphere. At official level, there remains a gaping failure to recognise the importance of integration and equality in a society emerging from a recession.
At the heart of our failure is the lack of a modern, efficient and streamlined immigration system with an independent appeals mechanism.
Many people who have chosen Ireland as their home will start this year alone, separated from their loved ones by a system which overly relies on discretion when considering family reunification with no legal entitlement and decisions which lack transparency.
The need for legal reform in this area is urgent. At the Immigrant Council of Ireland, we will be focusing on this issue with a major international conference in Dublin in February on the subject of family reunification. We will be joined by the Government at senior level, the European Commission and legal experts from an Irish and EU context.
Another area of concern is spouses who arrive in Ireland to be with their legal partner to find they are in a violent relationship. While we have made progress in this area, often victims feel unable to make a call for help, fearing lack of support and uncertainty about their ability to remain in Ireland. We are seeking a formal recognition of domestic violence in immigration law with provisions to enable victims access emergency supports while applying to remain in Ireland.
Even the much-celebrated system for applying for citizenship needs reform. Citizenship, together with those seeking a secure, long-term immigration status, continues to account for the bulk of calls to the immigrant council helpline.
Despite the progress made, there is a general lack of information. Fees remain prohibitive for many and there is a lack of an independent appeals procedure.
Incidents of racism are a growing concern. We are responding to an average of one serious incident a week, ranging from verbal abuse to physical violence. Victims often complain that, at official level, they are met with indifference. But the immigrant council is proud to count Dublin City Council, Dublin Bus and Luas as strong partners in anti-racism efforts.
The Government is reviewing Irish laws on prostitution and will hopefully use both its EU presidency and the Year of the Citizen to clamp down on the sex trafficking which is linked to this evil trade.
Together with over 60 other Irish groups, we want the Government to show its seriousness by introducing legislation in 2013 which will target the buyers of sex, and make those who have brought organised crime into every county accountable for their actions.
Our wish list for the special year ahead may seem long, but if we are to be serious as a country about delivering a modern, efficient and transparent immigration system, it is time to stop a piecemeal approach and deliver a service worthy of a modern EU state.
Minister for Justice Alan Shatter has long taken an interest in this area and we are encouraged by remarks he has made both from Opposition and Government benches.
If the Year of the Citizen is to mean anything, it must lead to Ireland establishing itself as a country which embraces integration. We must permit those willing to come here to use their skills to contribute to economic recovery with security, safety and respect.
Denise Charlton is chief executive of the Immigrant Council of Ireland