Ireland Strains Under Influx of Refugees

Island Struggles to Handle, and Accept, Newcomers

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DUBLIN, Ireland, MAR. 15, 2001 ( Ireland, world famous for one of its adopted son, St. Patrick, is now facing an another type of newcomer: the refugee.

Ireland, for years a nation unto itself, has stumbled into the new millennium with an age-old problem — unprecedented numbers of refugees and a native population that only grudgingly accepts them, according to a CNN report.

The recent flow of refugees to Ireland vexes much of the country. The government was caught off-guard by the influx. A high-tech shift in the economy may have raised Ireland´s profile in the refugee community.

The country of 3.6 million has since become a safe haven for many Africans fleeing war in their homelands, as well as Europeans seeking better jobs. In 1992, only 39 people applied for refugee status in Ireland, CNN said. In 1999, more than 7,000 sought residency. By 2000, the number jumped to 1,000 a month, according to Ireland´s justice department, which handles immigration and refugee affairs.

Between 1990 and 2000, about 30,000 asylum applications were filed. The country did not have nearly enough social workers and state employees to handle the newcomers.

Until recently, only 22 state employees worked on refugee cases, leading to a backlog. The country has increased its asylum work force to 600, and officials say they hope the average wait time — now about two and a half years — will soon be down to six months.

Along with the influx, Ireland has seen an economic turnaround in recent years. Unemployment is about 4%, down from 17% in the mid-1980s. Companies like Microsoft, Intel and Dell Computers have set up shop in Dublin, an up-and-coming high-tech capital where cybercafes hug street corners. Last year, Ireland surpassed the United States as the world´s top exporter of software.

Despite the large number of refugees, some jobs still go begging. «Ireland has never had greater difficulty finding employees,» says Peter O´Mahony, chief executive officer of the Irish Refugee Council and a critic of how the government handles the asylum process. «We had to import 18,000 employees from outside the European Union last year,» he told CNN.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reports that most immigrants to Ireland come from five countries — Nigeria, Romania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya and Algeria.

The influx has forced the government to confront some unpleasant truths, says Philip Watt, director of the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism. «Up until three years ago, racism wasn´t perceived as a problem in Ireland, although it has always been here,» Watt says. «Black people are much more visible on the streets and asylum-seekers are dispersed. It´s a much more visual issue.»

Watt´s committee, a five-person panel created by the government in 1998 to deter Irish xenophobia and racism, also sees the inherent hypocrisy in residents´ reaction toward their latest immigrants. «Irish people have emigrated in the hundreds of thousands and they have experienced these same types of racism,» Watt says.

Sister Breege Keenan, a social worker at the Vincentian Refugee Center, sees firsthand the frustrations of the refugees, as well as those of her fellow Irish citizens.

Some Irish may feel the refugees are taking advantage of the system, she says. Asylum-seekers in Ireland are given accommodation, three meals a day and a weekly allowance — services that cost the government about $60 million in 2000.

Recalling days when their nation staggered under the twin burdens of high unemployment and homelessness, many Irish watch and fume as some refugees live off the state without being allowed to take jobs immediately.

«Irish people have never experienced asylum-seekers coming into their country,» she says. «This generates fear and insecurity. … Many feel the asylum-seekers take their jobs and social welfare. But this is only because of a lack of information.»

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