Ireland to fight racist attacks with new campaign

Asylum-seekers lured by Celtic Tiger economy face assaults and abuse, say immigrant support groups
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The Independent Online

The Irish government is mounting a campaign against racism amid fears that the growing number of attacks on ethnic minorities will harm the booming economy.

The Irish government is mounting a campaign against racism amid fears that the growing number of attacks on ethnic minorities will harm the booming economy.

This month, a black Briton was driven out of Ireland by racist persecution, weeks after his father was stabbed in a separate assault in Dublin. The incidents are seen as part of a trend which is embarrassing a country that has traditionally prided itself on its hospitable image.

Immigrant support groups cite racism as one of the biggest problems their nationals will encounter in Ireland, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has accused the government of "falling down seriously" on its responsibility towards incomers. "Ordinary people take their tone from their leaders and the government needs to be seen to be condemning racism," a spokeswoman said.

Although some tourist brochures still sell Ireland as a sleepy backwater of Europe, recent prosperity has brought rapid modernisation and forced the country to embrace multi-culturalism as reliance on foreign labour has increased.

The strength of the "Celtic tiger" economy has brought an unprecedented number of asylum-seekers and other immigrants to Ireland. The home affairs department processed 39 applications for the whole of 1992; now it is handling up to 1,000 residency applications a month. For Ireland, with no history of colonialism or heavy industrialisation, the extent of the demand is new.

Government and support agencies have criticised the processing of applications, which can take up to two years, as "painfully slow". The recent suicide of a young African woman who had been waiting for a date for her appeal has been seized on by refugee groups who say that the system is inhumane. Asylum-seekers, unable to work while their documents are being processed, are given an allowance of £IR15 (£12) a week, and their enforced unemployed status fuels accusations that they are sponging off the state.

Gabriel Olugboyega OhKenla, director of the Dublin-based Pan African Organisation, said asylum-seekers' problems did not stop at economic hardship. "People are so hostile to us here, the way they look at you. You have to think they don't want us around."

Apart from increased reports of physical assaults, racist graffiti has been daubed on walls and right-wing literature pushed through doors in the working-class areas where most immigrants live. Verbal attacks are common.

"Racism is a very real problem in Ireland but it's naïve racism, based largely on ignorance," said Philip Watt, director of the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism. "People say racist things, not really understanding what they're talking about. That's why a public-awareness campaign at this stage could have a real impact."

The government is planning an advertising campaign promoting the benefits of multi-culturalism, and an information programme aimed at school children. Mr Watt said coming to terms with racism depended partly on acknowledging that it was not a new problem.

"It's always been here; the recent influx of people has just highlighted it. We had pogroms against the Jews in Limerick at the turn of the century; we've always had tight immigration laws and you only have to look a the way we treat our own community of travellers."

The recent outbreaks of racism have not been confined to urban areas or aimed only at asylum-seekers. In villages along the scenic western seaboard foreigners in search of the good life can account for up to one-third of the population. The tendency of a few to erect high walls and security fencing around their properties has infuriated some locals.

In response to the influx, Aine Ni Chonaill, a school teacher from Cork, has established a political party aimed at stemming the flow of foreigners into rural Ireland. She won 293 votes in the last general election but insists that her "Ireland for the Irish" ethos will gather momentum as the country becomes "saturated" with non-nationals.

Politicians from the mainstream play down Ms Ni Chonaill's significance, but some expatriates say that there is very strong local feeling against them. Several rural authorities have moved to stop outsiders building new houses in their areas.

The government, mindful of a past in which Irish people endured centuries of discrimination abroad, is anxious to quell xenophobia and reform legislation concerning asylum-seekers. Practically too, the continued success of the economy will depend on non-nationals coming to work in the country, which is at present near full employment.

A recent report by the Irish Chamber of Commerce acknowledged the irony of asylum-seekers not being allowed to work. "We have a surplus of job vacancies and many of these people have third level skills which we sorely need. It doesn't make sense," it said.