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Ireland tackles refugee influx

Assimilation into Irish society is difficult for many newcomers  

DUBLIN, Ireland (CNN) -- Journalist Dele Oladayo, who spent weeks travelling by boat from his native Nigeria to Ireland, sits with other refugees in the back room of St. Peter's Church in Dublin.

The church's Vincentian Refugee Centre is one of the many places where asylum seekers like Oladayo go during the long days they wait for their paperwork to be processed.

"It's making me crazy that I cannot work," says the 29-year-old, who fled Nigeria in fear of his life after his father was killed during a political rally. "I love to write. I want to keep writing."

For now, Oladayo and others like him can only wish for work. In Ireland, asylum-seekers are given accommodation, three meals a day and a weekly allowance -- services that cost the government about $60 million in 2000.

But the refugees cannot legally seek employment until their paperwork has been processed by the government.

The refugees may have to wish for patience as well as jobs. Processing an application can take up to two-and-a-half years.

Oladayo arrived in Dublin in February 2000. More than a year later he was still waiting for the papers that will let him seek a livelihood.

Sister Breege
Sister Breege with visitors at the Vincentian Refugee Centre  

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 populace that only grudgingly accepts them.

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. 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 workforce to 600, and officials say they hope the average wait time will soon be down to six months.

"There has been nothing equivalent to this kind of influx in our history," said a justice department spokesman.

Along with the influx, Ireland has seen an economic turnaround in recent years. Unemployment is about four percent, down from 17 percent 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 U.S. 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, CEO 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."

Mounting tension

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 towards their latest immigrants.

"Irish people have emigrated in the hundreds of thousands and they have experienced these same types of racism," Watt says.

Anti-racism poster
A government anti-racism poster in a Dublin train station  

"We need to make sure that these communities that come into Ireland don't experience this same type of discrimination."

Sister Breege Keenan, a social worker at the Vincentian Refugee Centre, sees first-hand 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. 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.

"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."

When Oladayo landed in Cork, he had $6, a coat and wet newspaper clippings that he would later use as proof that he once was a journalist.

He also encountered a people practically ignorant about the dark-skinned newcomers.

"The Irish people know very little about blacks," he says.

He recalls meeting an elderly Irish man in a pub recently. The two struck up a conversation and talked for hours about politics.

When they had drained their glasses and had to leave, Oladayo recalls: "He said to me, 'This is the kind of intellectual conversation I am looking for.'"

Oladayo pauses, looking over the newspaper in his hand. "That's a start," he says. "That's good."

U.N. immigration warning for Europe
February 6, 2001
Nine travel hidden under Eurostar
March 2, 2001

National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism
UNHCR - Ireland
Irish Council for Civil Liberties
Refugee information from RTE Radio
Irish Justice Department

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