Posted tagged ‘migrants’

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.

Ireland’s welcome

March 25, 2009

Last week the Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), Brian Cowen, announced that Ireland was willing to resettle a ‘small number’ of released prisoners from the US detention centre in Guantanamo Bay. This immediately drew a warm welcome from both the Obama administration and from Amnesty International. And it should be seen as confirmation that Ireland continues to be a country that is open to migrants and refugees, within the limits of what is reasonably possible.

Of course, I have reason to feel this way. As I have mentioned before, I am myself a migrant. I was born in Germany, and lived there for the first few years of my life; my father’s family, going back a bit into history, had a Polish origin, while my mother’s family was German.  When I was seven years old we moved to Ireland, and I spent a good bit of my childhood and youth in County Westmeath. Back then, we must have been quite an exotic sight. My father was fond of dressing in traditional German clothes, Lederhosen and all, and when I walked down the streets of Mullingar with him so attired I was often amused to watch people’s reactions on seeing him. But he was very good at what we now call ‘networking’, and he fitted in just fine, and all of us were welcomed warmly. I became an Irish citizen myself, now more than 30 years ago.

But back then Ireland was not a multi-cultural country, and it was not until the Celtic Tiger arrived that any significant immigration of people who did not have an Irish origin or Irish roots. When migrants did start to arrive in large numbers, there were fears that Ireland’s tolerance and, generally, lack of racism and xenophobia might come under stress, but apart from generally quite isolated incidents this did not happen. And even now, with economic conditions worsening and unemployment rising, there are still no major signs of hostility to non-nationals.

About three years ago I gave an address at a graduation ceremony in which I suggested that immigration was important for Ireland’s future, both economically and culturally, and that we should be open to migration while, of course, maintaining many of the traditional values of Irish culture. My comments were widely picked up by the media. I did receive one letter in response to my comments, from a writer who denounced me for undermining the traditional culture and who declared that I was ‘wholly evil’ and should ‘go home’. But interestingly this anonymous letter had been stamped in London; in Ireland itself, the only sceptical comments I heard were from one or two people who thought I was unwise to raise the issue in case the discussion brought out some latent xenophobia. It never did.

Interestingly, the signs are that many of those who came to Ireland from other countries in the course of this decade are staying put. It appears that Ireland will stay a multicultural country. I believe that this will help us greatly when we come out of the recession, and when the availability of a willing and cosmopolitan workforce will again be an issue.

Of course we also need to value and keep alive Irish traditions and values; but these will be enhanced in the setting of an outward looking country at ease with its identity and inclusive in its approach.