Immigrants are good for us

Many Irish are hypocritical, intolerant, and ignorant, especially about social welfare
Owen Corrigan


How quickly we forget: Ellis Island, circa 1920
How quickly we forget: Ellis Island, circa 1920

Negative attitudes towards immigrants in Ireland are unlikely to soften in the context of continued public misconceptions and misrepresentations, with potentially damaging consequences for Irish society in the long term. An opinion poll in recent months (Irish Times, Nov. 24th) recorded a severe hardening of attitudes towards immigrants in Ireland with the vast majority of people surveyed (72%) indicating that they want to see a reduction in the number of non-Irish immigrants living in the state. Three in ten people want to see “most” of our immigrant population leave, while negative sentiment towards immigrants is strongest amongst the young, with eight out of ten 18 to 24 year olds reporting that they would like to see a reduction in the number of resident immigrants.


To blame this reversal in previously tolerant public opinion simply on ‘the recession’ is facile. The recession merely provides the context in which a number of widely held, and usually erroneous, assumptions concerning migrant behaviours and intentions come to gain traction and feed into public opinion. These assumptions usually amount to suspicions that immigrants abuse the welfare system, that they tend to be disproportionately welfare-dependent, and that they ‘steal jobs’ which would otherwise have gone to Irish natives. Unfortunately, such misperceptions are not helped by exceedingly rare, though newsworthy, instances such as the case where a group of Polish nationals was allegedly flying in every month to claim welfare benefits before returning to Poland (‘Welfare inquiry centres on non-resident Poles’, Irish Times, Nov 13th 2007).

The boom in Ireland’s economic fortunes in the last decade was accompanied by a boom in our non-national population, with non-nationals accounting for approximately 10% of total population at the time of the last census. This situation has presented myriad new opportunities for research into the effects that immigrants have had on Ireland, and vice versa, in recent years. The Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) has found that in 2004 immigrants here earned up to 18% less than Irish natives on average, despite their generally high levels of education. Migrants’ likelihood of claiming any social welfare payment was seen to be only half that of natives.

My own research in this area, forthcoming in the Journal of Social Policy (JSP), found no evidence to support the contention that immigrants in the middle of the decade were abusing welfare. Looked at comparatively, immigrants in Ireland used less welfare than similar migrant cohorts elsewhere. Also, despite the incentives offered by Ireland’s relatively more generous welfare system, immigrants in Ireland showed no greater likelihood of being entirely dependent on welfare than similar migrants in Britain’s less generous welfare state. Further research from Trinity College Dublin academics, Timonen and Doyle (JSP, 2008), in fact suggests that, for many immigrants, the formal social security system is simply irrelevant. Ignorant about their entitlements in the first place, and motivated more by a desire to save money for investment in their home countries, migrants have been drawn to Ireland by the possibilities offered by its labour market and not by any desire to eke out a subsistence on welfare benefits. Subjected to this kind of empirical scrutiny, assumptions that immigrants are ‘welfare scroungers’ simply do not stand up.

For non-economic migrants – those seeking humanitarian refuge here – state supports are precariously low. Unlike in other European countries, asylum-seekers in Ireland are forbidden to work while their applications are processed, and are instead reliant on ‘direct provision’ housing (a recent report labelled one such housing centre “inhumane”) and a subsistence welfare benefit of less than €20 per week. While this obviously minimises public cost, the approach seems at variance with the very humanitarian idea that underpins the asylum system. This is to say nothing of the shameful fact that five children per month seeking asylum went missing from these housing centres last year.

For migrant workers in the context of economic recession, it is demonstrably the case that they tend to fare disproportionately badly in terms of unemployment. This was made clear by Live Register data from the Central Statistics Office (CSO) released at the end of last year. Far from ‘stealing jobs’, our immigrant population filled gaping holes in the labour market in recent years and were among the first to be shown the door when times got tough. What is ironic is that public sentiment towards those who, in happier times, were termed the ‘new Irish’ should turn against them only when the economic boom they were so instrumental in facilitating should go awry. With a heavy concentration in the construction industry which, for better or worse, was the motor of our economic boom, they built our houses, filled the public coffers with their taxes and paid their social insurance in the good times. Yet many Irish people, it would seem, now begrudge non-nationals the basic social protections that most of us see as our right. Indeed, many of those immigrants who paid social contributions, and so would be entitled to unemployment benefits, may already have left the state. Ireland returned to being a country of net outward migration this year, with non-nationals comprising 72% of emigrants up to April 2009 according to CSO figures. However, many more immigrants have now established Ireland as their home and have no intention of reverse-migrating.

Other red herrings abound in public discussion of migration, with one of the most pernicious involving the issue of child-benefit payments made to EU nationals for children living elsewhere in the EU. Dissatisfaction with this situation has prompted comment from figures as diverse as audience members on RTÉ’s The Frontline to Labour TD Róisín Shortall who has questioned the “appropriateness” of these payments. Such comments blithely ignore the fact that this situation has been enshrined in EU law, Regulation 1408/71, for almost four decades, and say nothing on the obvious point – that the law cuts both ways and so will have benefited any Irish citizens who worked in other EU member states while their children remained in Ireland. While Deputy Shortall acknowledges that changing this situation, given the legal constraints, may be “aspirational” a more honest appraisal would simply be that such change, short of leaving the EU, is impossible. Perhaps the greatest irony to emerge from the aforementionted recent opinion poll concerns the group of 18 to 24 year olds, 81% of whom would like to see a reduction in the number of immigrants, yet 40% of whom admit that they themselves are “likely to emigrate” in the next five years. What is this cultural amnesia that suddenly afflicts us when it comes to emigration? “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs”, the signs read.

Whatever happened to ‘Ireland of the welcomes’? That phrase is more than just tourism industry sloganeering. Continued anti-immigrant public sentiment will almost certainly have serious undesirable consequences for our society, just as the policy failures of our European neighbours led to riotous and violent situations like those witnessed in Bradford and certain Parisian banlieues in recent years, and in Southern Italy last month. There is no easy prescription for defusing anti-immigrant sentiment, but a necessary first step is the rejection and rebuttal of the erroneous stereotypes upon which such sentiment is based.  There is a clear role for the office of the Minister for Integration in this regard, which is why the abolition of that office proposed in the McCarthy Report is both regrettable and short-sighted. Immigration has changed our society irrevocably, not temporarily, and former immigrants are now permanent residents. We must accept this and acknowledge that integrating our migrant population is an ongoing challenge which will only be made more difficult by public misinformation. Social solidarity can be elusive in straitened economic times such as these, when tensions arise between the employed and the unemployed, the public sector and the private sector, the secure and the economically disadvantaged. Immigrants also, unfairly, become an easy scapegoat for the nation’s woes. How we can actively foster a sense of solidarity between native and ‘new’ Irish alike will remain a pressing question for as long as we value the future cohesion of Irish society.

Owen Corrigan holds an MSc in social policy from Oxford University and is currently researching his PhD thesis on migration, citizenship and welfare systems at Trinity College Dublin.