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.