The immigration imperative (and what universities can do)

For most of my life I have ben very aware of my status as an immigrant, though thankfully it has never been an oppressive awareness. Having been born in Germany, my family moved to Ireland when I was seven years old. I spoke no English and had never seen any country other than Germany, so Ireland was a whole new and rather exotic world to me, one into which I integrated quite fast. When at the age of 14 I returned to Germany with my family (not having been there even once in the intervening years), I once again felt like an immigrant and the new/old host country seemed different and strange. I returned to Ireland some years later, and have spent time in England, the United States and Ecuador.

When we arrived in Ireland for the first time in 1961, immigrants of any description were a novelty. My father’s preference for traditional German clothing (including Lederhosen, bless him) made him stand out in 1960s Mullingar, and I remember my older sister and I walking a few feet behind him so as not to be immediately associated with him, and so as to have the opportunity to observe people’s bemused expressions after they had passed him. But Mullingar, like Ireland more generally, was always hospitable, and while nobody could have said that my parents ceased to appear to be German, we all integrated well into local society and were made welcome there.

But even when I was a student in Dublin in the 1970s there were very few signs of other cultures – if you discounted English culture.  It was not until I returned to Dublin from Hull in England in 2000 that I found a completely different society which had now experienced significant immigration. And I must admit that, these days, it is a matter of real delight to me to hear so many different languages and to see visible signs of other nationalities in our midst. But what delights me even more is that, by and large, immigration has not been accompanied in Ireland by growing racism and ethnic intolerance. It’s not that we experience none of this – and when we do it is always shocking – but rather that it has not become part of the national discourse as it is in England, Germany or France.

So from this vantage point, what do we make of the comments by leading politicians in other countries about the failings of multiculturalism? British Prime Minister David Cameron recently said that ‘state multiculturalism’ had failed, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel similarly remarked that German attempts to create a multicultural society had ‘utterly failed.’ What did they mean? Are they right?

The basic argument of Cameron and Merkel is that the immigrant groups have not sufficiently integrated into British or German society and had not accepted local social values (Cameron made several references to women’s rights as part of this). Both were probably thinking of the alleged growth of home grown terrorism as much as anything to do with social values, but nevertheless, does their point stack up? The answer probably is, to an extent. There is some evidence that immigrant ethnic groups living in enclosed communities largely insulated from the host country’s society can become a problem – not just in whatever might breed there politically, but also in terms of their vulnerability to racism and disadvantage. The lesson is in part that integration is matters like housing, schooling and employment contribute significantly to stability.

There may be some evidence that Ireland, having started late as a host country for immigrants, is not performing its task too badly. Though this may seem difficult to believe during a time of recession, but countries in this part of the world need immigration and will continue to need it, to close the demographic gap caused by falling birth rates and to ensure the availability of skilled labour. And as this is so, we need to ensure that it is a country that welcomes migrants and encourages them to become part of the local and national society.

Universities too have their role to play, as they often have easier access to the migrants’ cultures and languages and can provide educational and community supports. DCU’s work in interculturalism and in translation studies is a good example.

We must expect that immigration is part of our future; let us make sure we get it right.

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6 Comments on “The immigration imperative (and what universities can do)”

  1. wendymr Says:

    I’d be interested to know how Cameron and Merckel define ‘multiculturalism’. Canada has had a multicultural policy in place since around the 1960s, and we frequently hear, among some right-wing politicians as well as the type of person who posts comments to newspaper articles, that multiculturalism has ‘failed’. I would argue that it has only failed if you assume that it means the same thing as assimilation.

    Yes, monocultural communities can turn into ghettos – on the other hand, they’re where newcomers can count on getting support and be surrounded by familiar things as they attempt to settle into a new country. This is especially the case for those coming as refugees, who didn’t actually make the choice to immigrate to a new country.

    Your own experience as an immigrant is hardly typical, just as mine was not on the two occasions I immigrated: financially self-sufficient, and in your family’s case (I think) not even seeking employment in the local community. Two complaints in general tend to get lobbed at immigrants: the old they’re taking our jobs argument, even in countries (such as Canada) with skilled labour shortages, or elsewhere (Germany or the southern US, for example) where the migrant labour performs jobs the locals don’t want to do – and even more so in a recession. And then there’s the they come over here and take money from the government, lobbed at those who have no choice but to apply for social assistance because they haven’t been able to find jobs due to lack of [insert country’s name here] experience.

    You’re right that achieving true multiculturalism isn’t just the responsibility of the immigrant. If newcomers don’t feel welcomed by their new communities, if they’re continually shut out of ‘privileges’ such as a decent job and a voice in the community, then why should they integrate? In general, universities do a reasonably good job here, though in many cases they’re catching people – newcomer children and ethnic Canadians – young enough that they’re able to integrate anyway. It’s noticeable, too, here in Canada that second and third-generation immigrants are more integrated and tend to mix with ethnic Canadians as much as with their own communities.

    But it’s an interesting idea that universities could play a role in the settlement process. Another possibility is in providing professional development for people working in settlement: my local community college here is developing a one-year certificate programme for settlement workers, which is a field that’s currently unregulated and with no generally-accepted qualifications for employment.

    But there’s a long way to go, even if you do say that Ireland isn’t doing too badly. How many Irish people could list a non-Irish (and non-British) person among their friends? Among the circle of friends I spend most time with socially, I include a Colombian, an El Salvadorean and an Egyptian – but that’s not at all typical for Canada either. Who knows, though? Maybe in 20-30 years it might be.

  2. Perry Share Says:

    Neither Germany nor Britain practice anything that would be recognised as ‘multiculturalism’ in the countries that have done most to develop the concept – Australia and Canada.

    Ireland’s recent experience of considerable labour-market based immigration had much more similarity with the experience of the ‘immigration societies’ of the ‘New World’ than with the postcolonial experience of countries like Britain and France that are often held up as examples of ‘failed’ multiculturalism.

    We would be well advised to note the very different sociological texture of Irish society from our nearest neighbours, whose social science and social policy tends nevertheless to have a powerful influence on our own.


    • Actually, Perry, I might be a bit slower than you to hold up Australia as a model. Immigration has been a very thorny issue there, and governments have taken some very dodgy anti-immigration measures, egged on occasionally by such crazy figures as Pauline Hanson. It is a country based on immigration, but how to deal with different cultures has not always come easily to them.

      • Perry Share Says:

        Fair enough, it’s a while since I lived there, and a decade of right-wing government undid much of the good that was achieved by the previous Labor administration (and to be fair, the Liberal government that preceded it).

        Nevertheless, the discourse of multiculturalism in Australia (which shares much of that in Canada) is a very different beast to that of Britain, France or the USA, which to me are more about how to assimilate or manage an ethnically identified working – and “underclass” (African Americans in the US, West Indian and South Asians in the UK; North Africans in France). This is why the Irish, for example, have not generally been incorporated in “multicultural” policies in the UK (except by people like Ken Livingston in London – for which he was widely condemned!).

        In Ireland, apart from the work of some NGOs, and academics like Ronit Lentin, the multiculturalism debate has barely touched public discourse (and confusingly, many use the term ‘interculturalism’ which may or may not be a synonym).

        It is amazing that people in Ireland can blithely talk about ‘assimilation’ as if it was unproblematic. I once met a priest who had lived in Tasmania for 50 years and still spoke with a pure Galway accent – I wonder had he been ‘assimilated’?

        Today (17/3) is probably a good day to think about the plasticity and variability of ‘national identity’, whether ‘Irish’ or ‘Italian’ (as it will certainly crystallise pretty rapidly on Saturday afternoon!).

  3. Anna Notaro Says:

    I think that the comments by Cameron and Merkel reflect the confusion which surrounds the issue of multiculturalism. The term itself is often used with little care or consistency, it has been either idealized or dismissed but both its supporters and opponents commonly fail to examine the complex thinking that lies behind the politics of culture (being themselves politicians this is a serious fault!). In other words it is easier to use the facile charge of ‘political correctness’ rather than to address the theoretical, philosophical, pedagogical and political implication of multiculturalism.
    I would say that the ‘golden age’ of multiculturalism, if ever there was one, was in the pre-9/11 world when differences and hybridity were everywhere and no one had completely retreated into tribal enclaves. In the years since we have witnessed a retreat among different ethic communities, which has deepened misunderstanding and ignorance. Still the main question that multiculturalism asks us to address: how much do we give up and how much do we retain of our cultural identity in order to be ourselves has not changed. If anything these issues have become more charged than they have ever been. Enoch Powell (conservative politician,notorious for the Rivers of Blood speech against immigration http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rivers_of_Blood_speech)
    had however a point when he said that ‘the life of nations is lived largely in the imagination’. I think it is worth continuing to ask the awkward question then: how is the nation imagined?
    If ethnic minorities are to become not only citizens with equal rights but also an integral part of the national culture, then the meanings of the term ‘British’, ‘Irish’ (even ‘European’ from a more global perspective) will have to become more inclusive of their experiences, values and imagination. Inclusivity does not imply that we all become ‘equal’, multiculturalism in fact is characterized by an emphasis on difference over equality. At its core there is a positive endorsement, even a celebration, of cultural difference, allowing marginalised groups to assert themselves by reclaiming an authentic sense of cultural identity against what J. S. Mill called the ‘despotism of custom’.
    Against all odds I still feel there is room for optimism though, that a dialogue still keeps going on even while cultures are squaring up to each other. The dialogue happens in film and literature, in the arts and music,in scientific interchange, at street level and of course in universities. These are the ideal places to chip away at entrenched positions, to keep the crucial conversation going.

  4. John Says:

    I recently hosted a visiting academic from Warsaw as part of the university’s European exchange week. She wanted to speak about multicultural groups and teamwork. She enquired if I had any Erasmus visitors in the group, and there were none.

    I returned to the lecture theatre two hours later to find a breathless visitor.

    “You never told me there were so many foreigners,” she exclaimed.

    “There aren’t.”

    “But… they don’t speak English [during groupwork]?”

    “Yes, I know. How did your multicultural group exercise go?”

    “I had to use the ‘f’ word, sorry.”


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