The recent publication of Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission research into public attitudes towards immigration and immigrants
from different ethnic backgrounds has highlighted the extent to which the Government has ignored the need to build and foster an inclusive society.
The research shows how attitudes towards immigrants changed once the recession commenced. According to the Economic and Social Research Institute (ERSI), which carried out the research, public perceptions of immigration and immigrants were largely positive from 2002 to 2006.
This changed from 2008 onwards with perceptions being very negative in 2010 and then improving slowly as the economy recovered. This finding demonstrates a correlation between attitudes towards immigration and the state of the economy.
As the Irish economy continues to grow and with employment levels rising, attitudes to immigration appear to be more positive. But we should be deeply concerned that the research highlights differing attitudes towards immigration from specific racial and ethnic groups.
Almost 60% of Irish-born people reported they would allow many or some immigrants from members of the same ethnic group as most Irish people to come to Ireland. But the equivalent figures for Muslim and Roma migrants were 41% per cent and 25% respectively.
“The international literature suggests there is a greater perception of cultural threat around Muslim immigration than to immigrants of the same ethnic group. Resistance to Roma migration reflects a widespread prejudice against this group across Europe. Support for Muslim and Roma immigration is lower in Ireland than the average for the ten Western European countries presented,” it says.
In terms of beliefs about race and ethnicity, just under half of adults born in Ireland believe some cultures to be superior to others, while 45% say that some races and ethnic groups are born harder working. A much lower proportion, 17%, believe that some races or ethnic groups were born less intelligent.
These findings highlight the need to intensify efforts to create an inclusive and integrated society where such racial and ethnic stereotyping can be successfully challenged.
Government policy on asylum enacted through the State Reception and Integration Agency on issues such as direct provision only re-enforce these negative stereotypes, with migrants being located in remote rural areas without proper access to education or employment.
The public perception of migrant asylum seekers is, without doubt, shaped by the restrictions placed on their ability to work and contribute to society.
Recent changes on foot of a Supreme Court ruling have only compounded the problem. In February, asylum seekers were finally given the right to seek employment. But they have to apply for an employment permit from the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation under the Employment Permits Act 2003.
The Irish Times recently reported that the scheme also requires them to pay between €500 to €1,000 for a six- to 12-month employment permit. Asylum seekers living in direct provision currently have a weekly allowance of €21.60 and can buy food using a recently introduced points system.
Applicants must find a job that pays a starting salary of at least €30,000 per annum, while their prospective employer must show they were unable to find a suitable Irish or EU citizen to fill the position. Asylum seekers will also be unable to apply for a job in more than 60 different areas including positions in hospitality, healthcare, social work, childcare, general care services, marketing, sales, administration, textiles, printing, housekeeping, food and construction.
Such provisions continue the effective bar on any asylum seeker being able to play a full role in society and the economy. Whilst an asylum seeker is now legally allowed to work, the Government conditions imposed effectively exclude the vast majority. This, in turn, reinforces the stereotypical view of Muslim asylum seekers allegedly sponging from the State.
The IHREC research makes clear that there is now a real need to challenge such attitudes, and to ensure that much more is done to highlight the significant contribution made by immigrants, including Muslims, to Irish society.
One easy step the Government could take would be to enable those asylum seekers in direct provision to access the labour market without restrictions, and to provide them with the same statutory employment protections as enjoyed by other workers.
Whilst the Irish Government seeks to defend the principle of free movement of people within the EU there is much more that should be done to emphasise the economic benefits of migration regardless of ethnic origin.
Andy Pike is head of division for Fórsa's Civil Service division.