Government has failed to examine why immigrants are coming here


In the absence of a coherent policy, the Government bears a responsibility for the creation of anti-immigrant feeling, writes Carol Coulter

It may be that the RTÉ exit poll, which showed that a substantial proportion of those who voted Yes in the citizenship referendum did so out of hostility to immigrants, was not scientific.

Some comfort for that view can be gleaned from the fact that the one candidate in the European elections to run on an anti-immigrant ticket, Justin Barrett in the East constituency, only got 2 per cent of the vote. Nonetheless, there is now no doubt that widespread anti-immigrant feeling exists and was given a focus by the referendum.

This should not surprise us. Since the growth of immigration into Ireland at the end of the 1990s the response of the Government has been to attempt to prevent people coming here and to get rid of those who were here illegally, rather than to examine why they were coming and deal with the new phenomenon.

Terms like "bogus asylum-seekers" were introduced into the discussion by Government figures. The impression was created that the Republic was under siege.

There is no doubt that our asylum system was ill-equipped to deal with the increase in numbers it experienced at that time. There is also no doubt that these numbers were inflated by people who wanted to come to the State primarily for economic reasons. Their presence in the asylum-seeking process contributed significantly to its inability to cope. But they were there because there was no other way for them to seek to enter the State.

The first explanation for the increase in people seeking to come to Ireland offered by spokespeople for the Department of Justice was our reputedly "generous" social welfare system for asylum-seekers. No explanation was offered for the fact that in previous years, when our social welfare system was not significantly worse, there was no such demand.

There was no willingness to recognise the obvious - a growing economy attracts immigrants. As our own history should have taught us, people in poor economic circumstances emigrate to other countries for work, often intending to send remittances home. They are attracted to countries where work is available, as happened in the Republic in the late 1990s.

People from outside the EU could only work in Ireland if they held either a work visa or a work permit. A work visa is issued to skilled workers in specific occupations, through Irish embassies.

To obtain a work permit an aspiring worker has to find an employer who wants to employ him or her, and who can prove inability to recruit an Irish or EU worker for that job.

So a restaurant or shop in Ireland which wanted a waitress or shop assistant would have had to advertise in, say, the Romanian version of the Evening Herald, interview locally, select the worker and then seek a work permit from the Department of Enterprise and Employment. The permits last a year. In practice, many had recourse to agencies.

The immigrating worker also has to obtain a residency permit, which is issued and administered by a different Department, the Department of Justice, to those who can prove an entitlement to be in the country.

There was, and is, no way for a non-EU national to come to the Republic speculatively to seek work, despite the widespread evidence of demand for workers on the one hand, and for access to the Republic on the other. Those who came as asylum-seekers were denied the right to work, in case this would act as a "pull" factor.

As long ago as 1999 the then minister for justice, Mr John O'Donoghue, said during a debate on the 1999 Immigration Bill that he favoured a quota system to allow legal immigration. However, five years later nothing has been done.

Instead, every single piece of legislation on this topic has sought to curtail people coming into the country or get rid of those deemed to be illegal.

The 1999 Immigration Bill had little to do with immigration, and instead dealt with deportation orders, exclusion orders, the removal of non-nationals and the imposition of various penalties. It also amended the 1996 Refugee Act to set up the Refugee Applications Commissioner, the Refugee Appeals Tribunal and various other parts of the necessary asylum infrastructure.

The Illegal Immigration (Trafficking) Act of 2003 covered people-trafficking and additional measures on the arrest, detention and deportation of failed asylum-seekers.

Following the striking down of sections of the 1999 Act, the present Minister for Justice, Mr McDowell, introduced another Immigration Bill, which was enacted earlier this year. It contained various provisions, like imposing an obligation on householders to ensure that non-nationals were legally in the State, that were widely criticised. Again, no provision was made for permitting legal immigration.

A High and Supreme Court action on the residency rights of the non-national parents of Irish-born children was successfully brought by the Government, followed by the referendum to deal with "citizenship tourism".

The message from the Government and the raft of legislation and initiatives is clear - Ireland is threatened by people coming to our shores, and we need to restrict this as much as possible.

Yet, as Nuala Kelly pointed out in her report for the Migrant Rights Centre on work permits in Ireland, there has been no corresponding enthusiasm for creating a coherent immigration system. Referring to the development of a common EU policy on managed migration, she writes, "Various EU Directives remain to be implemented towards this end in most EU states, including Ireland."

She also points out that, while various official statements refer to the need to integrate migrants, little is done on the ground.

It is small wonder, therefore, that people have a negative attitude towards immigrants. The impression has been created by legislative priorities that they represent a range of problems, from the cost of administering the asylum process to the alleged abuse of our citizenship laws.

This could have been avoided by an integrated process that allowed for legal immigration on a rational and coherent basis, along with tackling any genuine problems that arose with the asylum process or that needed to be addressed in our citizenship regime.