Immigration: More Than Just Numbers

on Thursday, 31 July 2003. Posted in Issue 36 Cherishing our Old Folk, 1999

Tony O\'Riordan, SJ

December 1999

The recent trend of immigration

Much of the focus on immigration has been as a result of the growing number of asylum seekers arriving in Ireland in recent years. However the recent trend of immigration in Ireland shows that apart from asylum seekers there are a considerable number of immigrants each year. (see Table 1). In fact even with the increase in asylum seekers there are 10 times more immigrants arriving in Ireland than those seeking asylum.



Table 1


Year Immigrants
(Non- Asylum Seekers)
Asylum Seekers
1994 30,100 362
1995 31,200 424
1996 39,200 1179
1997 44,000 3883
1998 44,000 4626


The arrival of most immigrants is a matter of chance rather than policy. For example the number of immigrants for 1999 is estimated to be 47 500. As 85% of this migration inflow is made up of returning Irish emigrants and nationals of other EU countries the Government does not have any significant discretion in relation to their admission or their departure.

Non EU nationals

Entry for non-EU nationals is very limited at present. Entry is in large part confined to an employer in Ireland requesting a work permit for a particular worker from such a country. Residency permission is then obtained from the Department of Justice. In 1998 a total of 3670 new work permits were issued and 1881 work permits were renewed. In this area the Government has total discretion in determining who will be allowed admission, how many will be admitted and for how long.

Asylum Seekers and Refugees

The Government is obligated to allow any non-national who seeks asylum the right to remain until a determination is made in relation to their status. If the asylum seeker is recognised as a refugee then the Government is obligated to offer protection to that person. For people whose asylum application has been rejected the Government can use its discretion to allow such people to remain in the State. So far in 1999 35 people were allowed stay on that basis.

Asylum and work permit immigration of non-EU nationals

It is interesting to compare the number of work permits issued to non- EU nationals with the number of asylum applications (Table 2).

Table 2


Year Work Permits Issued* Asylum Applications
1996 3730 1179
1997 4476 3883
1998 5630 4626
1999* 4845 4446


As can be seen from the above table, people entering the state or remaining in the state on foot of being issued with a work permit each year outnumber asylum seekers. The point of the controversy over asylum seekers is not the issue of numbers per se, but the visibility and lack of self-sufficiency of asylum seekers compared with those holding work permits.

The greatest challenge we face in common with many other countries is striking a balance between a system which is fair and one which is efficient, and between a system which offers protection to those who need it but whose processes do not attract those who have no need of protection.

The difficulty in achieving this balance is apparent from the continued attractiveness of our refugee determination system to non-genuine claimants. Yet, should we be surprised by this fact? The demand for immigration far exceeds our willingness to take immigrants. In these cases the only realistic choice for the migrants is to make a refugee claim and hope that permission to remain will somehow be granted. Careful processing to ensure that the case for protection can be properly made and considered takes time, and it is this time which makes refugee claims attractive to non-genuine claimants.

While the Department has not ignored the situation it has introduced a number of measures on an ad hoc basis with the following objectives:

· To provide adequate services for those in the system

· To provide an efficient system for processing applications

· To provide a system of deportation for those not recognised as refugees

· To provide an adequate system to facilitate integration of those granted refugee status

· To reduce the numbers coming into the system

The desire to control the numbers that enter the asylum system is influenced by the belief in Government that up to 90% of those applying for asylum are not \'genuine refugees\' but people who leave their own countries in search of better economic conditions. It is argued that we should not be wasting administrative resources intended to protect people who \'fear persecution\' on those who should be applying for our immigration programmes.

It is important to stress that in the longer term a policy of issuing more work permits, and issuing work permits to individuals rather than employers, will not of itself ease the pressures on the asylum-seeking process. For instance if work permits in the future are to be issued on a quota basis to those countries whose citizens are already in demand because of particular skills, then few of these permits are likely to go to the countries that most of the current asylum-seekers are coming from. 52% of asylum seekers currently come from Nigeria, and 30% from Romania, but only 2% of work permits have been issued to people from these countries in recent years. (The breakdown of work permits issued in recent years is given in Table 3).

Table 3


Country 1997 1998
USA and Canada 1416 1687
India 267 450
Pakistan 199 224
Hong Kong 142 149
Romania 23 60
Japan 249 256
Nigeria ----- 51
Rest of World 2196 2804


Given this trend, it is unlikely that many Nigerians and Romanians will be given work permits if quotas are drawn up on the basis of current employer preferences. This, however, will not stop people coming from these countries in roughly the same numbers as at present and seeking asylum. If it is desired to reduce the pressure on the asylum system while still maintaining a humanitarian response, the government would need to be proactive and take current immigration trends into account in setting country quotas for work permits. They would also need to make training available to those issued with work permits to ensure that they will be able to access the jobs available.

Objectives of an Immigration Policy

The current drive to develop an immigration policy, is driven by two sets of objectives:

· economic and social

· humanitarian or moral

In broad terms the objective of a socio-economic driven immigration policy is to facilitate entry for persons who would enhance Ireland\'s cultural and economic well-being. So for example many employers and economists look to increased immigration as one of the key strategies to fill gaps in the Irish labour market and no doubt we will continue to welcome immigrant-investors

The objectives for a humanitarian or morally inspired policy, on the other hand, reflect Ireland\'s international and moral obligations and the will of the majority of our citizens to provide protection on Irish territory to persons who need it.

The objectives in both categories also address the necessity for protecting our society from those whose entry into Ireland could result in harm or danger to others.

To date various groups have advocated specific adjustments to the way we deal with immigration and have looked to models in other countries. For example, the Small Firms Association have called for the establishment of a quota system similar to that as applies in Canada based on the skills needs of the Irish labour market.

What a Comprehensive Immigration Policy Might Look Like: The Canadian Model

Examination of the experience of Canada may be very useful for two reasons:

· Canada has many years of experience implementing a broad ranging immigration policy that includes a progressive approach to asylum seekers.

· Canada has recently engaged in a comprehensive review of its immigration policy

Canada accepts more immigrants and refugees than any other country, close to 7.8m. since the Second World War. Since 1990 the annual intake has been just under 230,000 or about 0.7% of the population. Canada remains one of the few countries in the world with an active programme for permanent immigration.

Canada\'s current Immigration Act and Regulations date from 1976. The Act is based on several broad policy objectives: the attainment of demographic goals, the enrichment of Canada\'s cultural and social fabric, the facilitation of family reunification, the fulfillment of Canada\'s international obligations and maintenance of its humanitarian traditions, the fostering of a strong and viable Canadian economy, the protection of the health, safety and good order of Canadian society and the promotion of international order and justice.

The importance of immigration to Canada is evidenced by the resources allocated to the Department of Citizenship and Immigration which is responsible for the immigration programme. This is a department of about 4600 staff, including 200 Canadian based officers and over 800 local staff overseas. The budget is Cn$645m. of which Cn$315m. goes to settlement services for new arrivals.

There are a number of features in the Canadian refugee policy that we could learn from:

· Canadian refugee policy has two aspects, an inland refugee determination programme which meets its obligations as a signatory to the Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees and an overseas refugee selection programme. Applications for refugee resettlement can be made at any Canadian High Commission, Embassy or Consulate outside the applicant\'s home country.

· Canada has a recognition rate for asylum applications made in Canada that is 4 times that of Ireland. In 1997, 24,973 refugee claims were made and 40% were accepted.

· A noteworthy feature of Canada\'s refugee system is the ability of private groups to sponsor refugees. In 1997 through the overseas refugee selection programme Canada accepted over 7,700 government-sponsored and 2,600 privately-sponsored refugees.

· In its overseas programme applications are assessed by a Canadian visa officer, who interviews the applicants to determine their eligibility and admissibility. If accepted, the refugee is given a visa and becomes a permanent resident of Canada upon arrival.

· Canada does not restrict itself solely to the Convention refugee definition in these cases but selects as well persons in war-like situations, women at risk, and special large movements of people such as victims of natural or man-made disasters, but who are not Convention refugees

Comprehensive Review

The Canadian Government established an independent advisory group to review legislation relating to immigration and the protection of refugees, and they issued their report in 1998. The Advisory Group made 172 recommendations dealing with almost every aspect of immigration and refugee policy and law. One of the significant achievements of the Advisory Group was to pull together the multiple threads of the immigration and refugee systems into a coherent, comprehensive, holistic package.

The following is a brief overview of the key directions proposed in the Advisory Group report:

· a simpler legislative framework to ensure clarity, transparency and accountability, and the involvement of regional state bodies and other NGO\'s;

· a selection model for independent immigrants based on generic attributes for success in a dynamic labour market rather than specific occupations; a business immigration programme with more obvious economic benefits for Canada; and an openness to the entry of temporary foreign workers;

· the creation of a Protection Agency with protection officers responsible for refugees in Canada and abroad, and measures to increase protection and diminish abuse;

· a reinforcement of the family as the traditional cornerstone of Canada\'s immigration programme;

· a greater provision of information to educate Canadians regarding differences between refugee and other forms of immigration.

Ireland would benefit greatly from a process similar to that engaged in by the Canadian Legislative Review Advisory Group. This could be achieved by the establishment of a National Immigration Forum similar to the National Crime Forum established in 1998. The forum should be established by the Minister for Justice Equality and Law Reform.


A full version of the Canadian document - Not Just Numbers can be viewed on the Canadian Government Website

My thanks to Bill Toner SJ for comments on an earlier version of this article.


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