Ireland’s New Face

Newsweek International, Stryker McGuire, Dec. 15, 2006

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Ireland was until recently a nation of emigrants—and one of the most homogenous states in the European Union. As late as the 1980s, with the economy sagging, one sixth of the republic’s population emigrated, peaking in a 12-month period in 1988-1989, when 70,600 Irish, or 2 percent of the population, went abroad. Today the trend has reversed. The country of 4 million people is absorbing nearly 50,000 immigrants a year. Per capita, that’s four times the immigration rate in what we think of as the world’s greatest melting pot, the United States. {snip}

Perhaps that’s precisely what the country needs, for most Irish are conflicted about immigration. Ireland needs workers. Like the rest of Europe, it is in a demographic bind, with fewer and fewer young people supporting more and more old folks. Unemployment has been at historic lows in recent years, so there’s very little elasticity in the labor market. This adds up to ample opportunities for immigrants prepared to do manual labor and menial jobs—slots that newly prosperous native Irish—”job snobs” no longer want. It also translates into a lot of jobs in special categories—like medical practitioners and construction engineers—that aren’t being filled by the native population.

But the reshaping of the job market, and the rapid cultural transformation that has come with it, has caused resentment among natives. As he meandered along Moore Street, Leo Behan, an elderly man from the working-class northern Dublin suburb of Finglas, griped that too many migrants were coming to Ireland and, in some cases, causing trouble. “The right people—no objections whatsoever,” he says. “But the others, they are harassing so many people—crime and prostitution and drugs and all that.” In this climate of fear and uncertainty, there have been some incidents of racism against immigrants. “Sometimes you can be walking the streets and they will say, ‘You nigger, why do you come here?’ “ says Said Mahmod, an unemployed 41-year-old who fled war-torn Somalia five years ago.

{snip} Ireland’s transformation is very recent. It didn’t begin until the first half of the 1990s, when for the first time on record, more people came to Ireland than left it. That was the time of Irish renaissance, when Ireland became Europe’s fastest-growing economy. The country was second only to the United States in software exports. Its per capita income rivaled Britain’s.

The new prosperity reversed the debilitating cycle of poverty and mass emigration that had defined the country for generations. Between 1988 and 2000, the number of jobs in Ireland grew by nearly 50 percent. For the most part, they were being filled by returning Irish expatriates, and by people from other EU countries. By 1999, when the economy began to contract, unemployment had dropped to about 4 percent. Irish returnees composed 55 percent of immigrants.

Then the dot-com bubble burst. Suddenly there were fewer and fewer “good” jobs available to returnees and to immigrants from the EU and the United States, and their numbers dropped off sharply. Other immigrants—from what the Irish government classifies as the “rest of the world”—quickly began to fill the void. Their numbers soared, from 4,200 in 1999 to 16,400 in 2002. Often faced with poor prospects at home, they weren’t put off by the weakening economy. The safety net of the Irish welfare state was one attraction. And Ireland’s status as the “back door’” to the United Kingdom (and its still-thriving economy) was another: there are no passport controls between Ireland and Britain.

Caught off guard, Ireland didn’t begin properly managing immigration until three years ago, when it began issuing work permits and visas to immigrants in special employment categories, such as architects, IT professionals, dentists and others. Until then the country barred virtually all EU outsiders from immigrating legally. As a consequence, would-be immigrants chose the one avenue open to them: they showed up and applied for asylum. The numbers who did so rose dramatically over the past decade: there were 39 applications for asylum in 1992 and 11,634 last year. The work permits and visas, on the other hand, allowed the government to meet key employment needs. Last year, for example, more non-Irish than Irish registered as nurses in Ireland; three out of every four immigrant nurses that year came from the Philippines.

Irish laws are still playing catch-up with immigration. And they reflect the conflicted views the Irish have. Even as the country welcomes new workers, it is cracking down on immigration in other ways. Last year lawmakers modified legislation so as to deny automatic citizenship to children born in Ireland. This year the Supreme Court ruled that non-EU immigrant parents of Irish-born children are not automatically entitled to residency. This has left the status of thousands of parents and children in an anxious limbo and, as Dublin immigration lawyer Hilda Becker says, “created a great panic.”

Along Moore Street, the range of opinions about Irish immigration is as diverse as the many ethnicities one sees. At the nearby Immigration Council of Ireland, which she founded only a year ago, Sister Stanislaus Kennedy says the important thing is for the Irish to acknowledge that immigration “is our future. We need to accept it and to embrace it for its potential.” {snip}

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