Integration: What's Done? A Lot More to Do

Written by Eugene Quinn on Tuesday, 01 April 2003. Posted in Issue 44 Ireland: Facing up to a Multicultural Future?, 2002

Ireland: A transition to multi-ethnic society


In the last ten years Ireland has experienced dramatic changes that have transformed the political, economic and cultural landscape. The Celtic Tiger years have brought hitherto unknown wealth and prosperity. They also turned the tide of emigration. Ireland for the first period in its history experienced substantial immigration. This was not simply a flow of returning emigrants. Between 1996 and 2001 around 80,000 migrant workers were issued with visas and permits to service the labour demands of a booming economy. There was a dramatic rise in the number of asylum seekers from a mere 39 applications in 1992 to in excess of 10,000 in 2001.


Ireland was unprepared administratively, institutionally and culturally for the new arrivals. The procedures for processing asylum claims were outdated and inadequate. The institutions responsible for status determination were woefully under resourced. We can recall the chaotic scenes on Mount Street with almost endless queues of asylum seekers as the system ground to a halt. On the street the response was equally unexpected. Irish society was revealed to have an ugly underbelly of racism.  Almost without exception asylum seekers reported incidences of abuse, either verbal or physical. It was clear that the transition to a multi-ethnic society was not going to be smooth. Irresponsible media coverage inflamed the situation further. It was clear the Government was going to have to act.

A series of legislative measures were passed through the Dail: the 1996 Refugee Act detailing the asylum process and rights of asylum seekers and those granted status, the 1999 Immigration Act prescribing the deportation process and the 2000 Illegal Immigrants (Trafficking) Act outlining the penalties and procedures for trafficking in people. Other policy responses followed with in 2000 the introduction of policies of “dispersal”, under which asylum seekers would be assigned to designated accommodation centres around the country, and the replacement of supplementary welfare cash payments by so-called “direct provision” whereby accommodation and food would be provided directly with a small residual cash payment of £15.

Meanwhile an interdepartmental working group was commissioned to produce a report on integration. In 1999 it published its report “Integration: A two way process”. Arising from recommendations in that report a statutory body, the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA), was established in 2001. It is responsible for coordinating the implementation of integration policy for refugees and persons given leave to remain in the state, and the reception system for those still in the asylum process.

As a lasting benefit of EU Year Against Racism in 1997 the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism (NCCRI) was established in July 1998. In response to the growing concerns about racism in Irish society the National Anti-Racism Awareness Programme was launched in October 2001, with the overall framework outlined in ‘Know Racism’. This awareness program is mandated to coordinate activities to address racism both at national and local levels

Understanding Integration


The ‘Integration: A two way process’ report defined integration as:

“Integration means the ability to participate to the extent that a person needs and wishes in all of the major components of society, without having to relinquish his or her own cultural identity”.i

Integration is in essence about equality and respecting difference. The ideal at the end of an integration process is that a person from an ethnic minority background is recognised legally and socially as an equal member of society, while maintaining their freedom of cultural expression.

There are two tracks to integration occurring in tandem, legal and cultural. Legal integration is process whereby residency status and legal entitlements are attained. Cultural integration is a process of adjustment and growing mutual respect and acceptance between mainstream society and ethnic minority communities.

Integration: A history of conflict


The experience of history has shown that the process of integration of ethnic minorities is fraught with difficulties frequently resulting in conflict. Racism and xenophobia have often found fertile breeding grounds in states in transition. Political expression of this hatred and distrust of ‘non-nationals’ has been found in support for parties of the Far Right. In times of economic hardship this opposition becomes more virulent and occasionally violent, perceiving the immigrant community as the cause of this hardship. But racism is not the sole preserve of extremists and many people fear difference, a fear that can find expression in racial discrimination. Racism can also arise from perceptions of racial and cultural superiority that originated in colonial times, these attitudes affect treatment of immigrant minorities right through to the present day.

Models of multi-ethnic states were developed to guide state policy in integrating ethnic minorities. The primary aim from a state’s perspective is to reduce the possibility of conflict.


Models of Multi-Ethnic Communities


Assimilation was a model employed in France. This model envisages that ethnic minorities will be incorporated fully into the society and state through a process of individual change in which individuals abandon their distinctive cultural, linguistic, faith or social practices. Essentially people learn to do things the “French” way and in the process are assimilated. The role of the state is limited with no change required in State legal, educational, welfare or health institutions. Conflict is avoided it is argued because ethnic groups are completely absorbed into mainstream society.

A differentialist model is one that avoids conflict through a process that eliminates or minimises contact with ethnic minorities. The institutions of state are not required to accommodate members of the ethnic communities or in certain situations parallel institutions are developed. This would have been the experience of Roma communities in Europe or of Travellers in Ireland.

A multicultural approach to policies accepts the potential and legitimacy of ethnic minorities. The multiculturalism model envisages that individuals and groups can be fully incorporated in to the society without either losing their distinctiveness or being denied full participation. This process of full participation is the key to the absence of ethnic conflict. The state plays an active role in sponsoring institutional change, and supporting minority groups to preserve their linguistic and cultural identities.ii


Scope of integration


‘Refugees’ is often used colloquially as a label that describes all immigrant groups present in Ireland. It is important to understand the different categories of groups, why they have come, their residency status and their rights. An understanding of the diverse categories of immigrants is important in assessing the adequacy and appropriateness of policy responses.

Unregistered and undocumented immigrant workers: Foreign immigrants who enter irregularly deprive themselves of the two most important sources for attribution of fundamental rights: citizenship and regular residenceiii. Many of these workers are in low-paid, low-skilled jobs in the black economy. They are among the most vulnerable category of people on the island, open to exploitation without the possibility of legal redress. They have no access to education, health or social welfare services because of their status, ensuring that both they and their family are hugely at risk. There is not universal agreement about how many people are in this position because by definition they are not countable, but some estimate the number to be around 20,000.

Refugees and Asylum Seekers: The rights of this category are determined by whether they have been granted status or whether they are in the application process. Refugees are entitled to the same rights as other Irish citizens except for voting and running for political office. Asylum seekers however are crucially denied the right to work and to vocational training. Furthermore social welfare benefits are prescribed by direct provision and the right to travel restricted. The right to housing is also prescribed through dispersal.

According to the RIA almost 40% of applicants for asylum are now disappearing from the system within ten days of lodging their claims.iv Presumably they have either left the State or are working illegally, an action that leaves them open to immediate deportation if discovered.

Immigrant workers: Immigrant workers are given permission to work in Ireland in two ways. In excess of 80,000 visas and permits were issued in the period 1996-2001.

Work permits are granted to an employer for a maximum of twelve months and are only for specific posts. The application is made while the potential employee is still in their home country. The employer must demonstrate that no European Economic Area citizen was available for the post in question. Rights are restricted. There is no right to free medical care, social welfare entitlements and education. Family reunification is not permitted.

Work visas are granted to individuals wishing to come to Ireland for certain high skill labour categories that are in short supply. IT skills are an example in recent years. Individuals can choose to change jobs. Rights are similarly restricted with limited family reunification permitted.

Irish Policy Response: A barrier to integration


In considering the Irish policy response to integration, there appears to be a large gulf between the rhetoric and the practice. In essence the model of integration is a multicultural one. Implicit in that model is the assumption that the state plays an active role in sponsoring institutional change. But there has been no real change in key institutions such as education and health that cater for culturally diverse client groups. It is hard not to conclude that while there is undoubted progress particularly in anti-racism and development education that State policy as it currently operates erects considerable barriers to integration.

Integration Scope: Integration policy concentrates simply on those who have been granted refugee status or leave to remain, thus ignoring a majority immigrant population that does not fall into that category. Racism does not discriminate between categories of immigrants. I know of tourists who have been spat on and abused simply because of their colour. If integration is to succeed it needs to include all persons from ethnic minorities on this island: asylum seekers, refugees, immigrant workers on visas/permits, illegal immigrants, tourists, students, Travellers and other ethnic minority groupings.

There is an absence of a coherent immigration policy. It is market driven with the onus in the permit/visa process on the potential employer and the applicant.

Basically the Department of Enterprise Trade and Employment

acts like a tap on the flow of immigrant labour. They can increase or decrease the flow as the economy demands. The rights of immigrants appear to be a distant second to economic demands. Mary Harney TD is record as saying “If unemployment were to rise in Ireland because of the slowdown globally, then we just wouldn’t issue the work permits”.v The experience of gastarbeiter or guest workers in Germany has proved that controlling the flow is not so easy. Once a worker is trained and experienced it is not practical to rotate the role every time there is an economic change. The result in Germany was that short term stays were first extended and then ultimately became permanent.

The absence of rights to health and social welfare for these immigrant groups poses serious questions. Imagine a situation where an immigrant worker in low paid employment becomes seriously ill. In the likely absence of private insurance they will be liable for the full cost of private medical care. A cost they will certainly be unable to afford, leaving them in a dire situation. We have witnessed in the recent court case concerning Brazilian cleaning workers how vulnerable immigrant labour is to exploitation. Furthermore, immigrant workers on visas may have to pay PRSI but are not able to claim any social welfare benefits. This is simply unjust.

If integration is a two-way process it appears that for migrant workers it is decidedly one-sided. The situation for unregistered and undocumented migrant workers is even more tenuous. An integration policy that maintains its current narrow scope is doomed to fail. It is shortsighted in the extreme that the Government refuses to learn from the chaos of the asylum situation a couple of years ago and devise a policy for the wider migrant population in advance of a crisis.

Reception: For those groups fortunate enough to be included in the scope of integration policy it is not all a bed of roses either. The process of asylum is a necessary precursor to being granted status. This period of reception, prior to status determination, is critical to future integration. The conclusion of the NCCRI in 1999 regarding the reception of asylum seekers was “There is a form of partial integration which takes place, but this integration is unplanned; uncoordinated; and largely unsupported, except for the work of the community sector and the basic safety net entitlements for health, social welfare and education.” vi

With the introduction of dispersal and direct provision the possibility of integration took a large retrograde step. In ‘Refugee Lives’ (Comhlamh,2001) the dispersal policy is heavily criticised for its impact on the quality of life and health of asylum seekers. Asylum seekers find themselves isolated and lonely in accommodation centres as access is restricted. Accommodation in dispersal centres is often overcrowded and unsuitable, particularly for family needs. Food is of variable quality and refugees are denied the opportunity in many centres to cook for themselves. Direct provision ensures that supplementing their diet is restricted. For those who have suffered trauma the boredom and inactivity exacerbates their condition. It can be difficult to find service providers in remote areas who are skilled to deal with such traumas. The segregation of asylum seekers stigmatises them as a group and affects how they are perceived in the wider public domain.

The dispersal policy is motivated, in part, by a broader problem of housing in Ireland. Even for those fortunate enough to be granted status a combination of sky-high rents and lengthy local authority waiting lists means there is a little hope of finding affordable and suitable accommodation. It can also be a source of conflict with members of the local communities who are competing for the same limited housing resources. While acknowledging the problem that exists with availability of housing particularly in major cities it is clear dispersal is not the answer. “There may therefore be a case for proactive policies to encourage new refugees to live in other areas and towns, however the key feature is choice not enforcement”vii.

A further element of reception policy that impedes integration for asylum seekers is the right to work. In denying asylum seekers the right to work there is a huge loss of self-esteem. Working enables an asylum seeker to contribute to and not just to receive from the economy. A major way of establishing social networks is closed. Even more demoralising is for those with skills or qualifications to see them rendered redundant through inactivity. This inertia is compounded by a ban on vocational training for asylum seekers.

Integration: A way forward


The wider impact of asylum policy is currently outweighing the positive intentions of integration policy. The thrust of asylum policies such as dispersal, direct provision and the denial of a right to work combined with recent readmission agreements, Operation Hyphen (the Garda swoop on ‘illegal immigrants’) and proposed legislation introducing carrier sanctions suggest policy is more concerned with keeping asylum seekers out of the country altogether rather than creating an integrated multi-ethnic society.

The policy scope of integration needs to be broadened to include the entire immigrant population. Ireland benefits economically from immigrant labour. But from the immigrant perspective equality demands that there is not simply a paternalistic belief that being allowed to reside in Ireland is adequate reward. A two way process demands that immigrants are granted equal rights over an acceptable time period. Special attention has to be given to the precarious position of unregistered migrant workers.

Undoubtedly an important variable in the integration equation is an individual’s capacity to adapt to new situations and environment. I know of one unaccompanied minor asylum seeker who within weeks of arrival had joined a soccer club, was singing in a choir and had settled into school. By contrast I was told of another instance where an asylum seeker after two years could not get five people to say he was of good character because he did not know five Irish people.

Integration is thus not simply about policy it is about individual choice. It is also about

opportunity. Did the asylum seeker choose not to know five Irish people after five years or did he not have the opportunity? We must also question whether the ethnic minority voice is being equally heard and listened to within the integration process so that it informs the planning and delivery of services, both at voluntary and statutory level.

Despite the issues raised above there has been without doubt ‘a lot done’ over recent years. State support for anti-racism education and awareness initiatives has been especially welcome. The diverse and ever expanding membership of Integrating Ireland is a measure of the scale and the extent of work that is been carried out by voluntary and community groups in support of refugees and asylum seekers throughout the country. However, the way forward will require the cooperation of all stakeholders (the state, the voluntary and community sector and all the people who reside on this island) to create a society that is equal, harmonious and respects cultural diversity. Integration is happening despite the shortcomings of government policy, it is obvious however there is “A lot more to do”.





i Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, (1999) ‘Integration: A two way process’ pg. 9

ii ‘Multiculturalism: New policy responses to Diversity’

iii ‘The integration of immigrants: Social cohesion and Quality of Life’

iv Comhlamh, (2001), Refugee Lives p.19


vi ‘Submission to the Working Group on the Integration of Refugees’, February 1999

vii As in Note vi.


About the Author

Eugene Quinn

Eugene Quinn

National Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service (Ireland)

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Working Notes is a journal published by the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice. The journal focuses on social, economic and theological analysis of Irish society. It has been produced since 1987.