Refugee flood brings race tension to Dublin

Click to follow
THE IRISH government moved quickly this week to counter claims of racism over its treatment of thousands of refugees. After enduring centuries of discrimination, the Irish are being accused of widespread, institutionalised racial intolerance towards the unprecedented numbers of foreigners hoping to take advantage of the island's booming economy.

This week, as asylum-seekers queued outside the home affairs department, a government minister described its policy on refugees as a "shambles". The Republic is one of the last countries in Europe to adapt to multiculturalism and human rights organisations have been quick to point out that it is "woefully unprepared". In 1992, 39 people sought asylum in Ireland.

Seven years later, that figure has climbed to more than 8,000, seven of whom have been granted legal status this year.

The Dublin centre which processes refugee applications was closed temporarily earlier this month after staff expressed fears that the number of applicants was too great to handle safely. Outside, hundreds of refugees continued to wait, occasionally chanting "justice".

Government promises this week to speed up the application process were met with scepticism by refugee groups and opposition leaders.

A prominent backbench member of the ruling Fianna Fail party inflamed the issue when he suggested that Ireland had become a "soft target" for illegal immigrants. Ivor Callely told parliament that if people are known to be abusing the system, "we must be tough and throw them out".

In inner city areas of Dublin, where immigrants cluster in shoddy rented accommodation or rundown bed and breakfasts, there are other problems. Racist graffiti has been daubed on walls and right-wing literature has been pushed through doors in the working class areas where most refugees live. African and eastern European refugees, who were at first a source of curiosity, are being physically attacked.

The government can take up to two years to process applications for residency; in the meantime, immigrants are not allowed to work. Many wander the city streets by day, taking refuge from the weather in libraries and museums, their unemployed status fuelling public accusations that they are sponging off the state.

The irony that the Republic is undergoing a labour shortage crisis is not lost on the Dublin Chamber of Commerce, which yesterday called for refugees to be processed quickly in order to help fill the city's 20,000 job vacancies. "Many of these people have third-level skills which we sorely need. We appeal to the government to let them work," its report stated.

However after a long history of exporting its own people through economic necessity, Ireland's reputation as tolerant and welcoming appears to be wearing thin. While most people have benefited from the "Celtic Tiger" economy, there is a sizeable urban underclass. Competition for local authority housing and benefits is fierce, and the arrival of thousands of refugees has provoked tension.

Police in the capital are investigating a rare case under the Incitement to Hatred Act, after staff at a refugee drop-in centre received death threats. A message left on its answering machine said: "We're going to burn that building down and every nigger in it."

"There is racism in Ireland, yes," Sara McNeice, legal affairs officer with the Irish Refugee Council, said yesterday. "We've had reports of people being attacked. There is a need for the government to develop a strategic long-term plan for immigrants, particularly in terms of housing, and they need to implement it quickly."

In Dublin's north inner city, about 30 young African men are gathered in a makeshift pool hall. Moses Joseph, from Lagos, is on a day off from his job with a multinational computer company. "I'm one of the lucky ones," he says. "Most of these guys are waiting to be processed and can't do anything. Ireland has been very different to what I expected. Most of the people are easy-going, but every day we get some annoyance from someone. The poor ones especially. Even the police, they tell us we should be very grateful to be here."