Posted tagged ‘integrating immigrants’

Immigration and reason

April 11, 2010

As many readers of this blog will know, and others will suspect, I am an immigrant, and indeed this has defined much of my life. My family migrated to Ireland when I was 7 years old and I remember being acutely aware of my very different cultural and national background as I first went to school here. It did not stress me, but it was there. Then, when I was 13, we returned to Germany, and because by now I had become Irish I felt myself to be an immigrant there, too, and oddly enough the cultural assimilation was more difficult this time. And then, at the age of 20, I returned to Ireland, and was an immigrant all over again. Not to mention how it all worked out when I migrated to the UK, twice, and back again to Ireland, twice. You get the idea.

Nowadays when people ask me what country I identify with, I answer that I am an Irish citizen and that this defines me most. But of course I carry within me the influences and tastes of the places I have lived in. So I find it difficult when people push a nationalist agenda (see my recent post). Equally, I understand the importance of a cultural anchor, and I understand the desire or need to keep hold of traditions and values that have grown out of a place.

However, migration has always been a part of human history. As far back as we have records, there have been huge migratory movements, and these have come to define who we are. The people we now call ‘Irish’ are the descendants of wandering tribes and peoples, some from faraway places. The same is true of the English, some of whom today try to argue that they have a specially defined unique island heritage; but they are Saxons, Celts, Romans, Normans and goodness knows what. If the British National Party had been allowed to determine immigration policy from the time of Christ onwards, then there would now be none of the people who make up the BNP.

So what is it that makes immigration such a sensitive topic? Those who try to defend anti-immigration views (or views seeking a restriction of immigration) tend to frame it in terms of the capacity of a country to assimilate migrants and maintain adequate levels of employment for the ‘indigenous’ population as well as the migrants. But in reality that is just a front. Fear of immigration is not fear of unemployment (particularly as much of the evidence shows that immigration boosts employment and reduces demographic stresses in matters such as pensions). Rather it is fear of the culturally unknown or unfamiliar. Talk of being ‘swamped’ by migrants is really an expression of fear of things as important, or maybe as trivial, as unfamiliar food and hearing languages we do not understand.

Of course migration must be sensitively managed, for example through measures that avoid the ghettoisation of migrants. But migration is here to stay, not least because this global community cannot be as easily compartmentalised geographically any more. Furthermore, countries with a demographic deficit – where the existing population cannot satisfy the need for people or for skills – actually need immigration in order to maintain an economic balance and make growth possible. Ireland is now one of these.

Five or so years ago I suggested in a widely reported graduation address that immigration is good for Ireland. I received some hate mail as a result, and have been severely criticised on some pretty weird websites. One of these, citing (though not quite correctly) what I had said, concluded that I was ‘possibly the most evil person in the world’. I believe it is time that we become more mature about migration, and better at managing our cultural heritage in a way that lets migrants join in it so as to keep it fully alive. But if we allow migration to become the political issue of the day (as it is always threatening to be in a number of European countries), then we are in deep trouble, and the values we think we are defending will become mean-spirited.

Properly managed migration should not be threatening. It is time for us to handle this in a sensible manner.

Arrivals – the continuing story of immigration

August 16, 2008

This morning I was standing in the arrivals hall in Dublin airport, waiting for a friend who is visiting from the United States. It was the usual Dublin airport experience – big crowds, lots of commotion, a sense of excitement and occasionally of tension. My visitor’s flight was slightly delayed, and so I passed the time watching my fellow arrivals-waiters; and suddenly I realised that, at least where I was standing, almost nobody around me was speaking English (or Irish). Right next to me was a young Polish family, and next to them again what I think were Latvians; on my other side, two young Czech men, and then a young couple who were possibly Rumanians. And then another young family emerged from the customs hall, and my Polish neighbours greeted them with great excitement, with a loud ‘Céad Mile Fáilte!’ (Irish for ‘a hundred thousand welcomes’).

We have come a long way in Ireland. A long way from when my German family, with its part Polish roots, was something very very exotic in 1960s Mullingar. Now we have people from every part of the world, and we can experience their view of us and of themselves and their cultural perspective. And this has helped to turn Ireland into a citizen of the world, with on the whole an open and tolerant outlook. Not only that, the prosperity of recent years would have long evaporated without this migration, as companies would have ceased to invest in Ireland because of our rather small available labour force.

There has been some speculation that, with more challenging economic times, immigration would decrease or even cease and migrants would return home. Of course some will, whatever the economic climate. But many won’t, and on today’s rather anecdotal evidence, backed up by some statistics released this week, we will continue to have immigration, and we will continue to need it.

Most countries that have experienced sudden surges of immigration have also experienced various social problems – but so far, on the whole, that has not happened here. The cancer of racism, while not totally absent, has not been widespread, and equally we have done reasonably well integrating immigrant communities (though not always, as some of the school admissions stories told us last year).

But this is now one of the vital national priorities – to ensure that manageable levels of immigration continue so that we remain a viable location for foreign direct investment; and to ensure that we provide a viable social and cultural home for the migrants, and a welcoming indigenous community that does not fear that either its economic prospects or its culture are being excessively corroded. None of this is easy, but there are few things more important for us if we are to prosper in the times ahead.