As Europe wrestles with its relatively new status as an immigrant continent, an unlikely leader is emerging: Ireland.
Historically known for its high emigration rates, the island nation has exploded with newcomers from 150 different countries in the past decade – and taken some innovative steps to help its new residents settle in.
In the past ten years, Ireland has experienced a greater rise in the percentage of immigrants than Britain experienced over the past half century. In 1999, fewer than 6,000 work permits were granted to non-Irish migrant workers; last year, 48,000 were handed out. According to the 2006 census, which has been gradually released over the summer, 420,000 foreign nationals, or about 10 percent of the population, now live here.
In some primary schools in Dublin, some 50 percent of the children are from nonnational backgrounds. In some districts, the number of immigrants has risen by 120 percent since 2002.
A combination of low and highly skilled workers, the newcomers have fueled the Celtic Tiger economic boom – as well as social upheaval. But while Ireland has struggled with racism and other tensions, it’s experienced nothing like the Paris riots of 2005 or the homegrown-terrorist attacks that rocked London in 2006 and Madrid in 2004. Some newcomers credit the proactive stance of the government, which has allowed noncitizens to participate in local politics and join the police force.
Bryan Fanning, editor of Immigration and Social Change in the Republic of Ireland, also applauds the efforts of Ireland, which allows nonnationals to vote in local elections.
But many immigrants don’t feel welcome, let alone integrated. A 2006 report from the Irish-based Economic and Social Research Institute found that 35 percent of immigrants were insulted, threatened, or harassed in public because of their ethnic or national origin, a figure that climbed to 53 percent for black Africans. It found, however, that the incidence of racism in Ireland was lower than other European countries.
In recent general elections, there were three candidates representing the Immigration Control Platform, but they received just 1,329 votes. There are no far-right political parties in Ireland, like the British National Party or Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front in France. Attempts to politicize the issue have been largely unsupported.
Still, the Irish government has been proactive. “One of the recommendations from the World Conference on Racism, held in South African in 2001, was for governments to design national action plans,” says Kensika Monshengwo, training and resource officer with the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism. “The Irish government was quick to put in place a National Action Plan Against Racism that is used by the police, education institutions, and service organizations.”
Ireland’s Employment Equality Act outlaws discrimination on nine specific grounds. “You don’t find that in many other countries. Even the European Union directive only has six grounds,” say Mr. Monshengwo.
As part of its response to the National Action Plan Against Racism, the Irish police force, An Garda Síochána, changed its entry requirements to allow nonnationals to apply for positions. Speaking recently, Brian Lenihan said that the Garda “must be broadly representative of the community it serves, and the changes in Irish society are starting to be reflected in the intake of Garda recruits.” At present, it has trainees from China, Poland, Canada, Romania, and Denmark.
But problems have arisen. In July, a member of the Sikh community completed his exams and training for the Garda Reserve, but was told he could not wear a turban on duty. Wearing a turban is obligatory for Sikh men, and police forces in the US, Canada, Malaysia, and Britain allow it.
“On one hand they are being pioneers in opening the door for non-nationals,” says Harpeet Singh of the Irish Sikh Council, “and on the other hand they refuse to follow the example of other police forces in including Sikhs.”