Immigration: the Irish experience

Our series on immigration across Europe examines how Ireland has dealt with migration over the past two decades


There are nicer places to be on a dark January morning than the square in Gort, in south Co Galway. But the small group of Brazilian labourers huddled on Queen Street have little other hope of getting work.

Brazilians started to arrive here in the late 1990s to work in a nearby meat-processing plant. When that closed they stayed: the men did casual construction and farm work, and the women got jobs as housekeepers. By 2006 Brazilians accounted for about 30 per cent of Gort’s population, but many packed their bags after the economic crash. In the years since then their numbers have reduced from about 1,500 to 500.

Chralys, who is 28, arrived in 2006, intending to stay for less than a year. “After six months I say, ‘I stay for a year,’ and I’m still here,” he says. “When I arrived I was waiting in the square for a job, for someone to pick me up. People get to know you, you get the job and after that you have a reference.”

It was easier to get work a few years ago, and the money was better. “Now it’s not that easy . . . but we keep going.”

Charlys says he has permission to work in Ireland: he gets regular work and his wife is expecting a baby, so he plans to stick around. But others face a more difficult situation. “Most of the Brazilians here are illegal,” he says. “They don’t have work permits. That’s why they stand in the street, waiting for the jobs.”

Campaigners have been urging a regularisation scheme for the estimated 30,000 undocumented migrants in Ireland, but their calls have been dismissed. In response to a parliamentary question about the subject last month, Minister for Justice Alan Shatter said it was the responsibility of all non-European Economic Area (non-EEA) migrants to ensure they had permission to live in Ireland. “It does not follow logically that the solution to illegal migration is for the Irish State to reward those who engage in it,” he said.

While the documentation issue affects thousands of non-European immigrants, it’s important to distinguish between immigration from inside and outside the EEA. Twelve per cent of the population, or 544,000 people, come from outside Ireland. Most are from eastern Europe; they entered under EU freedom-of-movement rules. About 120,000 non-EEA nationals live here, having been granted permission to remain in the State.

Campaign groups are looking forward to this year’s Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill. They hope that the Bill, which predates the current Government and has been amended hundreds of times, will introduce a “best interest of the child” principle, as well as clear procedures for points of entry to the State, and put long-term residency on a statutory footing.

Campaigners have also said the legislation should provide an independent immigration appeals mechanism, similar to the Refugee Appeals Tribunal. The Immigrant Council of Ireland has also criticised Ireland’s inconsistent approach to EU directives. We signed up to the researcher directive, for example, allowing international researchers to come to the country, but we opted out of the long-term residence and family-reunification directives. “We have a situation where the EU policies are adopted in a quite incoherent way where we opt in to some and we don’t opt in to others,” says Hilkka Becker, senior solicitor with the immigrant council.

But there have been improvements. Visa and citizenship application waiting times have been reduced, for example. In 2013 about 95,000 visa applications were received, a cumulative increase of 14 per cent since 2011, with an approval rate of 91 per cent. In the same year 30,000 citizenship applications were decided on, and 18 citizenship ceremonies took place.

Eastern Europeans
While it’s argued that Ireland could be more welcoming to non-EEA migrants, the country has been quick to open its doors to eastern European workers. While other EU members placed temporary restrictions on accession states in 2004, Ireland allowed full free movement after just a short time. In the past decade or so, hundreds of thousands of eastern Europeans have come to consider Ireland home.

On Sundays a large congregation of Romanian people attend Our Lady of Lourdes church in north inner Dublin to hear Mass in their own language. Afterwards, friends greet each other and chat.

Anderi Negu is on the steps, holding a guitar case. He came to Ireland last July from Bucharest after being head-hunted by an IT firm. Although it was “never my plan” to come here, the 30-year-old says he is “very impressed by the Irish people. They are warmer than I thought.”

Rev Eugene Timpu, who has lived in Ireland for 11 years, says Romanians usually go to Italy, then Germany or France. Ireland is a bit out of the way. Typically, he says, people come here to make some money, “get a better life” and return home. “But after years they are settled here, and maybe they are never back in Romania, only for holiday or visiting their relatives.”

After almost two decades of significant immigration to Ireland there are plenty of signs that the new arrivals are here to stay. Across the road from the church is a Polonez outlet, one of 28 in the Republic, that sells food from Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Romania and Ukraine.

But for some in Ireland, intra-European immigration has gone too far. In the wake of the financial crisis, anti-immigration parties across the EU gained traction among frustrated Europeans.

Ireland has remained free of anti-immigration parties for the most part, but the nascent National Independent Party is hoping to build on what it says is a sense of disillusion with Europe. “We have a big problem with unemployment in this country,” says Peter O’Loughlin, the party’s candidate in the European elections in May. “We need to get our own people back to work. There are migrants here working: that’s great, that’s fine, there’s no issue with that. Let’s just not bring in more people to compete with our own people.”

He says the EU has turned into something that he and a lot of other people don’t want to be a part of. The party, which claims to have about 100 members, also intends to run “a handful” of candidates in the local elections, also in May.

For now, members of Ireland’s new communities seem less concerned with politics than with making a life for themselves.

Fifteen years ago Ongar barely existed, but development exploded during the Celtic Tiger years as first-time buyers purchased new houses on the northwestern outskirts of the capital. Today, nearly 25 per cent of the Dublin 15 population comes from outside Ireland, and the international influence is readily apparent in Ongar village, which has two eastern European groceries and a bakery run by Lithuanians.

Davia Dirgala has owned and managed Era Food Store with her family for four years, and business is brisk. “Loads of Lithuanians, Polish, Romanians,” she says.

Ioana Gresent, from Romania, is waiting for her two boys outside the local national school. She has lived in Ireland for 12 years and, despite misgivings about the weather, says it’s a lovely place to live, with lots of green spaces. Gresent and her husband have made Ireland their home, and have a business that’s doing well. A year and a half ago she received her citizenship. “Now I’m Irish as well,” she says with a smile as she walks towards the car with her boys.

This series concludes on Monday with a report from Guy Hedgecoe on Spain’s North African migrants

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