Migrant statistics and ‘integration’

Since the onset of the recession, it became clear that the state’s integration policies and all the talk about ‘cultural diversity’, ‘interculturalism’ and so on were becoming redundant. What started with draconian cuts in the integration and antiracism sector and the demise of bodies such as the NCCRI very quickly turned into complete silence on the subjects of immigration, integration, and interculturalism, and culminated with the axing of many community development projects. The new Minister for Integration was nowhere to be seen, and even though the government was boasting that Ireland was ‘getting it right’ by avoiding the pitfalls of both (French) assimilationism and (British) multiculturalism, it became clear that in the recession the state was not interested in migrants, no longer seen as the engine of Ireland’s economic boom.

In recent days the media reported somewhat triumphantly that ‘foreign nationals’ were going home. Using PPS statistics, a downward trend was reported across the workforce. According to December 2009 CSO figures, ‘57,112 of the 117,983 foreign nationals who received PPSNs in 2004 were still either working or claiming welfare in 2008’. In the absence of statistics for those who actually left Ireland, it was less clear ‘what happened to the rest, but it is very likely that they left the Republic’.

Last week further reports suggested the halving of ‘foreign nationals’ registering for work or social services. This trend was most apparent among migrants from the 12 new EU members; the number of Polish migrants registering for work went down from 42,500 in 2008 to 13,700 in 2009.

Migration statistics, in other words, are still limited to labour migrants, and depend very much on work permits and PPS numbers; however, according to the Immigrant Council of Ireland, such statistics are misleading. Not all labour migrants need to renew their permits annually, and people originally living here on the basis of work permits now have long term residency rights or citizenship, yet they are still migrants, whose needs – social, cultural, political – go beyond labour statistics.

Polish people living in Ireland deny the impression that all Poles are going home; indeed many prefer to stay here, and others continue to come even now, because surprisingly, they regard life here as gentler, less pressured. Furthermore, according to Piaras Mac Éinri, UCC lecturer in migration studies, many migrants from destinations such as Romania, though not entitled to work in Ireland, work semi illegally, doing jobs that even other East European migrants won’t do, and are often horribly exploited.

And these statistics do not include asylum seekers, many still living in holding camps, not allowed to work and often suffering from serious mental health problems as a result; nor do they include other non EU migrants with citizenship or leave to remain, many of whom live in appalling accommodation, isolated and desperate to make some sense of their life here, safer as it may be than what they had fled from.

Although for these migrants there are no integration or intercultural measures, now so hopelessly last year, many migrants are not waiting for state initiatives, and are busy enacting their own ‘integration from below’ social, cultural, advocacy and service provision networks and organisations. However, with spending cuts and increasing indifference to any contribution they can make, they face a serious danger of disenchantment, which we need to carefully watch out for.