Policy contradicts rhetoric on rights of migrant workers

The Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) recently launched a report that critiques Ireland’s political leadership on migration, and its commitment to equality in the current recession.

'Hidden Messages: Overt Agendas' was written by Niall Crowley (pictured left), the former CEO of the Equality Authority. It compares the messages political leaders have been sending out regarding migrant workers, with the policy decisions that they have made. The findings highlight a significant gap between what politicians say about migrant workers, and the actions that they take.

“All the international evidence highlights that migrant workers tend to be particularly badly hit in an economic recession,” according to Mr Crowley. “This is the experience of migrant workers in Ireland at this time. To make matters worse, in Ireland we have a political leadership on migration where the positive rhetoric of politicians is contradicted by their actions, where new policy has undermined equality for migrant workers and diminished their potential to contribute to economic recovery, and where international best practice is blatantly ignored. This does not bode well for migrants and their families, just as it does not bode well for Irish society and the Irish economy.”


Siobhán O’Donoghue, Director of MRCI said: “On the one hand political leaders have broadly acknowledged the contribution of migrant workers, while on the other they oversee policy developments that are extremely harsh and have a damaging impact on migrant workers and their families. In addition, commitments are not followed through on that would give effect to their positive public statements."

Ms O’Donoghue continued: “We hope this pamphlet will stimulate much-needed discussion on the importance of political leadership and action that supports equality for migrant workers.”

The full report appears in the following pages. Or click here to download a pdf of Hidden Messages: Overt Agendas.


Political messaging and political action often do not work in synergy  and can lead to confusion, misunderstanding and distrust, ultimately resulting in a negative fallout for some of the more vulnerable groups in society. In addition, periods of recession are notorious for generating a
public discourse that is founded on fear, blame and counter-blame.

MRCI is acutely aware of the vulnerabilities facing migrant workers at this time. We commissioned this report to draw attention to the dangers of political rhetoric that sends out mixed messages; on the one hand it broadly acknowledges the contribution of migrant workers, while on the other it oversees policy developments that are extremely harsh and have a damaging impact on the lives of migrant workers and their families.

It is our hope that this pamphlet will provide a solid basis for discussion and dialogue, which we would very much welcome. I would like to thank Niall Crowley who, true to form, has presented a hought-provoking and stimulating paper. I would also like to acknowledge the contribution of Ciara Eustace, as well as Raluca Anucuta, Delphine O’Keeffe and other MRCI team members.

Siobhán O’ Donoghue
Director, Migrant Rights Centre Ireland

Migration and Recession

The April 2006 Census identified that there were 419,733 non-Irish nationals living in Ireland. These people came from 188 different countries and were present in all of the Census geographical areas across Ireland. The Census provided a picture of great ethnic diversity in Ireland. The scale and range of this diversity is a product of economic boom, however ethnic diversity has always been a feature of Irish society.

Migrant workers and their families have made a significant contribution to this economic boom. The 2006 Census identified that 10.7% of the Irish workforce was made up of migrants from both European Union and non-European Union countries. The Migrant Rights Centre Ireland has estimated that migrant workers and their families contribute €3.7 billion to the economy annually through taxes, PRSI, work permit fees, Garda National
Immigration Bureau registration fees, higher education fees and personal consumption.

This contribution of migrant workers and their families has not been limited to the economic sphere and is equally evident in the social and cultural life of Ireland. In 2007, a European Commission Eurobarometer survey found that 62% of the Irish population thought that people of different ethnic origin than the rest of the population living in Ireland enriched Irish culture.

The experience and situation of migrant workers and their families in a time of recession can be difficult. The recession can impact on them with greater severity, due to the sectors that many migrants typically work in. Migrant workers and their families can become a focus for scapegoating. Racism and discrimination can grow in scale and virulence. Political leadership is important in ensuring that recession does not disproportionately impact on any one vulnerable group in society, and that society does not become fragmented and divided along lines of ethnicity or any other lines. It is important, therefore, to track this political leadership, in terms of what is said and what is done by Government, and to monitor the manner in which this political leadership is deployed in the current context of recession.

Political debate has largely avoided expressions of overt racism or a direct scapegoating of migrant workers and their families, although some statements made have skirted close to such an approach. In 2008, Leo Varadkar, Fine Gael spokesperson on enterprise, trade and employment, suggested that migrant workers be paid six months’ social welfare on the basis that they would leave the country. In June 2009, Fianna Fáil T.D. Noel O’ Flynn called on the Government to support this proposal, suggesting that decisions of migrants were being influenced by access to social welfare benefits. He stated that ‘our social welfare
system is the most generous in the world and it makes sense for them to stay’. Such statements are nevertheless exceptions to the general public political debate.

What is emerging, however, is a system of hidden messages but overt agendas. Political debate is characterised by the ‘politically correct’. Government Ministers make statements that are carefully positive about the valuable presence and contribution of migrant workers and their families in Ireland.
However, they have communicated another set of more hidden messages in the policy proposals they bring forward, messages which run counter to the positive public statements made. These hidden messages are further underpinned by administrative actions taken by public sector bodies. An overt agenda emerges that is based on a misunderstanding of migrant workers and their families as temporary residents whose position is entirely dependent on economic circumstances. Migrant workers and their families are thus actively encouraged to leave Ireland, or not to come here in the first place.

This pamphlet seeks to launch a debate on the quality of political leadership for an Ireland characterised by equality and where ethnic diversity is valued, in these times of economic recession. It identifies the overt messages coming from Government Ministers in relation to the value of migrant workers and their families. It also sets out the more hidden and damaging messages evident in policy proposals made, and administrative actions taken. It seeks new forms of political leadership with new messages in relation to migration, migrant workers and their families in a context of economic recession.

The Irish Context

International literature on migration and recession suggests that economic recession has a more serious impact on migrant workers and their families in the country experiencing that recession. Migrant workers are employed in occupations and sectors that are typically hit hardest in a recession, and are thus mostlikely to lose their jobs. They become more vulnerable to exploitation. Many migrant workers are not eligible for statutory benefits or income supports, or can be reluctant to avail of these benefits or supports lest they negatively affect their legal status. Unemployment, increased hostility and growing racism present barriers to equality, and undermine the wellbeing of migrant workers and their families.

In the short term, it is suggested in this literature, economic recession is likely to lead to an immigration slowdown. There are reduced levels of inward migration. Some migrant workers return to their countries of origin, and remittances back to countries of origin are reduced. However, the long-term effects are harder to predict.

In the Asian economic crisis of 1997 to 1999, employers discovered that many nationals of their own countries were unwilling to take on the jobs previously held by migrant workers, even in a recession. Employers then sought an end to policies seeking to move migrant workers back to their countries of origin. In the recession following the oil crisis of 1973, forms of guest-worker migration ended in

Europe. The process of family reunification and permanent settlement started, which led to the consolidation of ethnic diversity in those societies. Likewise, in the world economic crisis of the 1930s many migrant workers did not return home. They became a permanent part of the population of the countries where they were working. Similar patterns and experiences are evident from the Irish diaspora.

Migration is not a phenomenon that can be switched on and off to suit the needs of the host economy. Migration does not occur merely to provide labour at times of economic growth in the host country, and cannot simply be reversed in times of economic recession. Migrant workers and their families are not just
economic actors. They are also social beings, who put down roots and form relationships in the host country. Economic and social factors will shape any decisions made by migrant workers and their families. The global nature of the current recession will also influence the decisions of migrant workers, given the
absence of alternative destinations in which to find work, and the economic difficulties in their countries of origin.

Political leadership in a time of economic crisis needs to take account of the history of migration in previous times of economic recession. Migration policy and administrative practices could then better reflect the following:

Migrant workers are likely to be disproportionately vulnerable to exploitation and job losses in a time of economic recession.

Increased fears and insecurity within the general population are likely to lead to scapegoating of migrant workers and their families.

The economy will continue to need migrant workers in a time of economic recession.

The decisions of migrant workers and their families in a time of economic recession will be based on a wide range of factors, and not solely on an economic logic.

Migrant workers and their families will continue to form a more permanent part of the host society in a time of economic recession, and a particular policy focus on equality is required.

The ‘Politically Correct’

Ireland is experiencing significant economic recession and financial crisis. Economic growth has stalled. The numbers in employment are decreasing. Consumer confidence is low. The banking sector is in peril. The public finances are in serious deficit. This is a situation creating hardship for many Irish people, including migrant workers and their families.

There are fewer migrant workers coming to Ireland. The number of Personal Public Service (PPS) Numbers issued to non-Irish nationals in 2009 was 79,986. This represents a drop of 48.7% on 2008, when 156,151 non-Irish nationals registered for PPS Numbers. The number of employment permits issued to non-EU nationals in 2009 was 7,942. This compares with 13,565 employment permits issued in 2008, a fall of 41%.

Some migrant workers and their families are leaving Ireland. The Quarterly National Household Survey for quarter three in 2009 identified 432,800 non-Irish nationals aged 15 and over in Ireland. This compares with 477,600 non-Irish nationals present in the same quarter in 2008. This is a fall of 44,800 people, or 9.4%. It is equally clear from these figures that most migrant workers and their families are remaining in Ireland, despite the economic recession.

Unemployment is rising to unprecedented numbers. Quarterly National Household Survey data for the third quarter of 2009 shows a national unemployment rate of 12.4%.

There were 423,595 people on the Live Register for December 2009. Of these, 77,519 or 18.3% were non-Irish nationals. This disproportionately high level of unemployment among migrant workers reflects their concentration in areas of the economy that have been hardest hit in the recession, including construction, hospitality, retail and manufacturing.

In previous recessionary times, women and older people were encouraged off the live register. The male breadwinner tradition was emphasised in political debate and in public policy. Women should not be competing with men for the few jobs available, it was suggested. Women were to be sustained as dependents of their male partners. They were thus kept off the live register. Similarly, older people were deemed to be at the end of their working lives in political debate and in public policy. They were encouraged to make way for a younger generation, and were sustained in economic dependence on pension payments.

This kept them off the live register. In this way, unemployment was minimised by managing the unemployment figures. Any ambition for equality for women and for older people was seriously compromised.

This recession is taking place in a more equal Ireland. Women are more present in the labour market, and social welfare policies have progressed. The male breadwinner tradition is not as widely present nor as acceptable as in previous recessions. Older people enjoy greater life expectancy. They have articulated new labour market ambitions that have challenged mandatory retirement ages. Ageism is no longer as acceptable to be called upon in political debate and public policy. However, there is already evidence that both these themes are beginning to be called on in the current recession.

A new and equally problematic mechanism to manage the live register figures is available to Government in this recession: Migrant workers have a significant presence in the Irish economy, and they are experiencing high levels of unemployment. The possibility is offered to Government to manage the unemployment figures by encouraging migrant workers to leave Ireland.

The publication of the Government’s Pre-Budget Outlook in November 2009 provided a telling indicator in this regard. The Pre-Budget Outlook included positive signals in relation to unemployment: it predicted a rise to 13.75% in 2010, rather than the previously-predicted 15.5%. Media coverage of the Pre-Budget Outlook attributed comment to a Department of Finance official that this more positive perspective was predicated on significant numbers of non-Irish national workers returning to their home countries in 2010 (Irish Times, 11 November 2009). The ESRI prediction of a net outflow of at least 40,000 non-Irish nationals in 2010 was referred to. Unemployment, it would appear, is now to be managed by encouraging
migrant workers to leave Ireland.


There has been a consistent series of positive statements from political leaders in Government in relation to migrant workers and their families. These are set out below before they are examined for coherence with the policy initiatives taken by this same political leadership.

In February 2009, Mary Hanafin, Minister for Social and Family Affairs, stated that ‘We’ve all heard that they are taking our jobs, that they’re all scamming the welfare – it’s not true. But it is what people are saying’. She continued, ‘There is always a danger, when you have jobs being lost in the country, that people see that if migrants are taking those jobs, they resent that. That can lead to comments being
made against people and can lead to racism. It has happened in other countries and it is something that we need to be very careful of.’ The Minister was speaking at the launch of a study, ‘Social Portraits of Communities’, which included a focus on the rise in the number of migrants in Ireland from 1996 to 2006.

Conor Lenihan, then junior minister with responsibility for integration, in a statement to mark International Day Against Racism in March 2009, spoke of the need for investing in schemes to ensure that the type of social tensions between migrants and the indigenous population that were seen in some European Union countries did not happen in Ireland. He emphasised that, ‘This is especially important now during a time of economic downturn when such tensions have a tendency to surface.’

In the same month, Conor Lenihan met senior FÁS officials to discuss how to respond to the major increase in unemployment among migrant workers. He stated, ‘The increasing level of unemployment is a major cause of concern and is seriously affecting both Irish and migrant communities’. In April 2009, speaking at the launch of an integrated strategy for the co-ordination of services to immigrant communities in County Clare, he said that, ‘Immigration and integration are issues for the long term in Ireland and for very good reason too: 12% of our population is non-Irish, 16% of our workforce is non-Irish, 10% of our primary school population is non-Irish, 7% of our secondary schools is non-Irish, and 20% of our unemployed are non-Irish.’

Mary Coughlan, Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, stated in April 2009 that, ‘Our immigrant population have and continue to make a significant contribution to our economy and to society as a whole here in Ireland. We need to ensure, however, that our flexible migration policies remain as a successful tool of Irish economic policy, that they are adapted on an ongoing basis to reflect the changing realities of the Irish labour market.’ This statement was made as part of the announcement of revisions to the employment permit regulations.

John Curran was appointed junior minister with responsibility for integration in early 2009. In July 2009, he stated that, ‘It is important that, despite the economic downturn, we acknowledge that our economy will continue to attract non-Irish national workers. The successful integration of migrants into Irish society is a key priority’. He was speaking at the launch of a research report on ‘Issues and Challenges in the Recruitment and Selection of Immigrant Workers in Ireland’ by WRC Social and Economic Consultants.

In August 2009, Dara Calleary, Minster for Labour Affairs, said, ‘I am happy there is enough protection in place. We have inspectors who have a key knowledge of the migrant sector, so we are responding to the challenge.’ He emphasised the need for protection in his response to criticism that the National Employment Rights Authority had not been given all the inspectors originally promised by Government.

In September 2009, Dermot Ahern, Minister for Justice Equality and Law Reform, stated that ‘Now that we are in more difficult times we cannot simply discard law-abiding migrant workers who have been working
legally in Ireland for years when they become redundant’. He was speaking at the announcement of an extension of the time period allowed to migrant workers to find new employment.

Later that month, Dermot Ahern published a discussion document on reform of the student immigration system. He stated that, ‘We need to take a fresh look at how we are dealing with non-EEA students’ and, ‘International education is a vital industry with significant growth potential and we will only achieve that potential by having a visibly strong regulatory environment’.

There is a consistency to these public statements from Government ministers. They communicate positive and important messages about migrant workers and their families in a time of economic recession. These messages include that:


  • We need to be careful about racism and ensure that social tensions between ethnic groups do not arise.
  • Unemployment is a shared problem for migrant workers and the wider population in Ireland.
  • Migrant workers should continue to be protected against exploitation.
  • Immigration and integration are issues for the long term in Ireland.
  • Migrant workers and their families have made, and are making, a valuable contribution to the Irish economy and to Irish society as a whole.

However, it is important to assess not only what the political leadership is saying but also what that political leadership is doing or enabling their administration to do. It is necessary to explore if there are hidden messages behind these positive communications, hidden messages that reflect a different and more hostile agenda in relation to migrant workers and their families in a time of economic recession.

Hidden Messages from the Politicians

The Government is right to be concerned about racism and exploitation and the potential for these issues to increase in a time of economic recession. Ministers are correct to be careful in what they say, so that they give no room or stimulus to this racism and exploitation.

The Equality Tribunal launched its Annual Report 2008 in August 2009. Discrimination claims received by the Equality Tribunal were up by 21% in 2008. The race ground remained the largest ground on which discrimination was alleged under the Employment Equality Acts. The race ground accounted for 359 of the 842 cases lodged with the Equality Tribunal in 2008. This was up from 306 cases lodged on the race ground in 2007, 146 cases in 2006 and 82 cases in 2005.

These figures should also be read in the light of findings from the special Central Statistics Office survey on equality, published in 2005. This survey found that most people who experience discrimination do nothing about it (a high 60% of those who report discrimination) and that few people who experience discrimination take any formal action, including legal action, in response (a low 6% of those who report discrimination).

The survey also found that Black and minority ethnic people recorded the highest rate of discrimination. It also noted that those most likely to experience discrimination were least likely to take any action in response to that experience. The figures of the Equality Tribunal therefore do not measure the discrimination experienced by migrant workers, however they do provide a strong indicator that this is a growing issue of significant scale.

The annual report of the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency, published in 2009, found that Ireland was one of only five European Union countries where an increase in racist crime was reported during 2007. It noted that racist crime is under-reported, under-recorded and under-prosecuted by law enforcement agencies across the European Union. It highlighted that, in 2007 there were 224 cases of racist crime
reported in Ireland. This was an increase of 29.5% on the previous year.

In April 2009, the Teachers Union of Ireland published a survey of teachers in post-primary, higher and further education. More than a quarter of teachers in these sectors were aware of racist incidents in their schools over a one month period. 45% of the teachers said that the current level of resources in
relation to minority ethnic students was not adequate. 30% of the schools had no formal procedure to respond to racist incidents.

The 2008 annual report of the Employment Appeals Tribunal reported 5,457 workers took cases to the Employment Appeals Tribunal during the year. This compared with 3,137 in 2007. The greatest increases were in cases about unfair dismissal and redundancy disputes. A breakdown by ethnicity of claimant is, unfortunately, not available.

In 2008 employment inspectors from the National Employment Rights Authority (NERA) detected 4,629 breaches of employment law. This is an increase of 97% on the number of breaches detected in 2007. Contract cleaning firms, hotels, retail outlets, security companies, catering companies and construction firms were prominent in these cases. These are all sectors with a significant migrant worker presence. NERA, unfortunately, does not break down its figures by nationality or ethnicity.

A number of public attitude surveys are available to provide some insight into wider public perceptions in relation to ethnic diversity in Ireland. The European Commission published a Eurobarometer report on ‘Discrimination in the European Union’ in 2009. The survey found that 46% of the Irish population thought that discrimination on the basis of ethnic origin was very or fairly widespread. It found that 69% of the population thought that the economic crisis would contribute to an increase in labour market discrimination against people on the basis of their ethnic origin. This was above the European Union average of 57%. Only 50% of the Irish population felt that enough was being done to fight all forms of discrimination. This compared with Finland where the highest level of satisfaction was found and 68% of the population felt that enough was being done to fight discrimination.

In December 2008, Social Market Research published a survey conducted for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment on ‘Public Attitudes to Equality Issues in Ireland’. The survey was based on a nationally-representative survey of 1029 adults aged fifteen or over. The survey concluded that 56% of the population believes that discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity is widespread, with 41% believing that it has increased over the past five years. 59% of the population supported more action for equality at a European Union level. Most of the population expressed positive attitudes towards migrant workers and people of different ethnic origin. 10% of the population, however, said that they would mind having a
migrant worker as a work colleague and 7% said the same in relation to people of different ethnic origin. 12% of the population said that they would mind if a migrant worker became a neighbour and 9% said the same in relation to people of different ethnic origin.

This data reveals a picture of racism in Ireland that is challenging, in that:

  • Discrimination on the race ground in the workplace is increasing.
  • Reported racist crime is increasing.
  • Racism is a significant issue in schools.
  • Employment law breaches are increasing, particularly in sectors where there is a significant presence of migrant workers.
  • The data also reveals a picture that can be a source of some optimism, in that:
  • A majority of people in Ireland are supportive of more action on equality.
  • A large majority of people express positive attitudes towards minority ethnic people.

However, it is also clear that there is a significant minority of people ready to express hostility towards minority ethnic people. It is clear that the positive messages from the political leadership reflect a majority viewpoint.

It is necessary to explore the more hidden messages in policy and administration to assess which viewpoint these reflect.

Hidden Messages from the Administration

With the budget of October 2008, the government silenced and dismantled the statutory infrastructure developed to promote equality, and to secure accountability from the public and private sector for standards in relation to equality. The Equality Authority was rendered unviable with a 43% cut in its core budget. The National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism was abolished.

The Irish Human Rights Commission was rendered unviable with a 24% cut in its budget. The Combat Poverty Agency was subsumed into the Department of Social and Family Affairs. A clear but unstated political message was communicated that equality is not important.

In January of 2009, the term for the National Action Plan Against Racism came to an end. The final report of the group established to monitor the plan is still being examined. No strategy to replace it was put in place. A clear but unstated political message was communicated that racism has been dealt with.

Mary Coughlan, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, announced new regulations governing employment permits in April 2009. More job categories became ineligible for new permits and no first-time permits would be given for jobs paying under €30,000 a year. The period in which migrant workers could not apply for jobs advertised by FÁS was doubled to eight weeks. Importantly, migrant workers made redundant were now also prohibited from taking up a new job unless advertised for two months, regardless of how long they had lived and worked in Ireland. These changes were never going to make much difference to the overall labour market as they only affected 30,000 people, less than 1.5% of the workforce. A clear but unstated political message was communicated that migrant workers were not welcome and those already here should be going home.

This particular hidden message was somewhat mitigated in August 2009 when Dermot Ahern, Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, announced the extension of the time period allowed to migrant workers to
find new employment from three to six months. He also announced that migrant workers who have worked in Ireland for five years in the work permits system will be granted permission to live and work in Ireland without requiring another work permit. This was not unconditional, as they would be expected to work and to support themselves and their families. However, the eight-week period during which migrant workers could not apply for a job when made redundant was only revoked for current and future employment
permit holders who are made redundant.

There was a further mitigation of the message when Dermot Ahern, Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, announced a scheme to give non-EEA migrant workers who have fallen out of the work permit system and become undocumented through workplace exploitation, deception, or unexpected redundancy, the opportunity to apply for a four-month temporary residence permission. During this period, individuals were permitted to apply to re-enter the work permit system.

These mitigations do send out a different and positive message. However, they were only brought forward in the face of significant public opposition to, and a strong Migrant Rights Centre Ireland campaign against, policy decisions previously made that had already communicated the more consistent and negative message about migrant workers. These mitigations do, however, demonstrate that the Government has choices in relation to policy decisions on migration. The negative policy decisions recorded here are not inevitable. They reflect choices made by a political leadership, choices that are detrimental to migrant workers and their families and that do not take account of any learning about migration in previous economic recessions elsewhere.

In June 2009, Mary Coughlan, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, ordered what the media referred to as a ‘crackdown’ on 5000 Romanian and Bulgarian nationals they suspected of working illegally in Ireland. Inspectors from the National Employment Rights Authority were given powers to check whether companies had complied with employment permit legislation. Romanian and Bulgarian nationals are unique among migrant workers from the EU Member States in that they are required, at least until 2011, to have work permits to work in Ireland.

The use of the National Employment Rights Authority in this ‘crackdown’ unhelpfully transformed an agency that was established to protect employee rights into a source of fear and anxiety for some migrant workers. This ‘crackdown’ communicated a clear but unstated political message that migrant workers should return home.

The Department of Social and Family Affairs, under Mary Hanafin as minster, disclosed figures in July 2009 which stated that up to 11% of non-Irish nationals claiming social welfare were not resident in the State. Between October 2007 and February 2008, 776 cases suspected of fraud were examined, and 76 of these were in fact found to be fraudulent. A second investigation involved checks on a further 3,665 non-Irish nationals and found that 403 were living outside the State. This announcement generated significant negative media coverage of migrant workers and their families. It sent out a damaging and inaccurate message that migrant workers and their families were fraudsters taking advantage of the generous Irish social welfare system, and that they were undeserving of these supports.

The Irish Independent headlined the matter as ‘Non-Nationals Cheated the State out of Millions of Euro’. It is relevant to note that both investigations involving non-Irish nationals yielded relatively low savings, equivalent to 0.84% of the €476 million savings made in 2008 from anti-fraud measures in general, or 0.6% of the overall target of €600 million set by Minister Mary Hanafin to be saved through anti-fraud measures during 2009.

In August 2009, it was reported that the Government had failed to meet its own target of employing sufficient labour inspectors to address the exploitation of migrant workers. There were only 77 labour inspectors, which was below the target of 90 inspectors set two years ago by the Government. This communicated another clear but unstated political message that racism and exploitation are not as big a problem anymore.

This message has been exacerbated by the extraordinary delay in enacting the Employment Law Compliance Bill. The Bill includes measures to establish the National Employment Rights Authority on a statutory basis, to strengthen powers in the area of labour inspection, and to provide for greater penalties for offences arising under employment law. The Bill was published in March 2008 and referred to the Select Committee during the same month. Debate only started on the Bill in February 2009 and it has yet to be enacted.

Dermot Ahern, Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, published a document in September 2009 on reform of the student immigration system. This proposed a five-year time limit for students coming to Ireland from outside the EEA. It seeks to target incentives at the upper end of the academic spectrum. It proposes tighter inspection of educational institutions. It suggests an ‘immigration levy’ that students would pay for any children they have in the Irish education system. Existing rights for these students to take up a limited number of hours of paid work will be the subject of further analysis according to the document. Again, an unstated but clear political message is communicated about migrants being involved in fraudulent entry into the State through making inappropriate use of access provisions for students, and about the importance of keeping migrants out. This policy initiative has, however, since been dropped.

In July 2009, the Report of the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes was published. This group was chaired by Colm Mc Carthy and worked on the basis of documents provided by Government Departments. It recommended that the Office of the Minister for Integration should be discontinued and replaced with a requirement on each Department to report annually on the promotion of cultural integration. The number of staff in the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (INIS) is proposed to be reduced to between 450 and 500 from the current level of over 750.

The number of English language support teachers in primary schools is proposed to be reduced from 2200 to 500. There are clear messages in this report that the efficient management of immigration and investment in integration are no longer required.

These hidden messages stand in contrast to the positive public statements on migration being made by the political leadership. The hidden messages are based on a very different and hostile agenda in relation to migration. They reflect the negative attitudes of what are found to be a small minority of the population in the public attitude surveys quoted above. They risk further stimulating such attitudes and creating a situation where migrant workers and their families are scapegoated and subjected to racism.

These hidden messages suggest:

  • That equality is not important, integration is no longer a necessary policy priority, and racism and exploitation are not significant issues.
  • That migration can be stopped, migrant workers and their families need to return to their country of origin and further migration is to be discouraged.
  • That migrant workers and their families are fraudsters in terms of securing entry to Ireland and in terms of availing of Irish social welfare benefits.

Towards a New Deal for Migrants

Practice in the public sector in the administration of immigration processes also serves to communicate hidden messages that are at odds with the positive, ‘politically correct’ messages coming from Government Ministers about the presence and participation of migrant workers and their families in Irish society.

The Department of Social and Family Affairs issued a circular on 15th June 2009 which restricted the rights of migrant workers from the European Economic Area (EEA) to Supplementary Welfare Allowance and supplements – social welfare provisions for minimal means of subsistence. EEA former workers who are involuntarily unemployed after being in employment for less than one year will now only receive Supplementary Welfare Allowance and supplements for a period of not more than six months.

New anti-fraud measures targeting migrant workers and their families in relation to Child Benefit were also introduced by the Department of Social and Family Affairs. European Union/EEA citizens now have to certify every three months that they continue to work in the State. Significant delays of up to two years in approving Child Benefit applications are also reported by the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland.

Figures provided by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform in answer to a Dáil question in August 2009 revealed that 10,885 citizenship applications were received in 2008. 3117 certificates of naturalisation were granted and 2795 applications were refused. This is a very high rejection rate of over 47%. Anecdotal evidence suggests that refusal can be for seemingly petty reasons, such as minor motor traffic offences.

During 2008 there was an average waiting period of 23 months for citizenship applications to be decided, according to figures released by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform in May 2009. In August 2009, a Refugee Information Service report found that there was an average waiting time of 24 months for decisions on applications for family reunification for refugees and beneficiaries of subsidiary protection. Anybody legally resident or working in Ireland for more than five years is entitled to apply for long-term residency. In August 2009, it was revealed that there were 8000 people waiting to have their application for long-term residency decided. The average waiting time is 22 months.

In September 2009, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform announced, by way of advertisement in the national media, that a charge of €500 would be made for successful applications for long-term residency. Previously there was no charge for these applications.

The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform released figures in August 2009 that revealed that 602 deportation orders were issued during the year up to August 2009, an average of 75 per month. This compares to 2008, when 776 deportation orders were signed during that year, an average of 65 per month. This increase only serves to communicate a harsher environment in relation to migration.

Data produced in relation to migration is limited. Inadequate data in relation to the presence of migrant workers and their families can lead to false assumptions in relation to the numbers of migrants living and working in Ireland. Limited data focuses media coverage on decreases in the numbers of non-Irish nationals applying for Personal Public Service Numbers, or in the numbers of non-EU nationals applying for mployment permits, to the exclusion of any ongoing acknowledgement that migrant workers continue to come to Ireland and continue to live here in significant numbers.

These administrative practices and failures underpin the hidden messages emanating from the political leadership. New restrictions on migrant workers, administrative inefficiencies and delays, new charges and inadequate data combine to reinforce the hidden messages that migrant workers and their families should be leaving, that they are not to be trusted, that migration has to be discouraged and that migration is no longer a policy issue requiring attention.


In June 2009, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published their International Migration Outlook 2009. This report highlighted that migrant workers and their families tend to be particularly badly hit by economic recession, as they tend to work in those sectors that are more sensitive to economic downturn. It notes that migrant workers who become unemployed have particular difficulties reentering the ranks of the employed on a stable basis. The report finds that not only has economic recession dampened labour migration but it has also rolled back most of the labour market progress achieved by migrant workers in recent years. It states that vigilance is required to ensure that deteriorating labour market outcomes for migrant workers, ‘do not mortgage the possibility of further migration when growth resumes’.

The report emphasises that integration programmes need to be maintained and anti-discrimination measures need to be reinforced. It suggests that migrant workers should profit from active labour market policies for the unemployed. It highlights that migration policy should recognise the demand for lower-skilled migrant workers as well as facilitating the recruitment and retention of high-skilled migrant workers.

The European Commission has also emphasised the need for an ongoing policy focus on migration in the current context. The Commission Working Document, ‘Consultation on the Future “EU 2020” Strategy,’ sets out the initial parameters of a successor to the current Lisbon strategy for employment and growth. It identifies ‘Empowering people in inclusive societies’ is one of three key drivers for EU 2020. This document notes that, ‘despite its substantial contribution to growth, the potential of migration is not fully factored into policy making at EU or national level’. It highlights the challenge to improve employment rates for migrants, in particular for migrants ‘with low levels of education, women and those recently arrived’.

The United Nations Development Programme published a report entitled, ‘Overcoming Barriers: Human Mobility and Development’ in October 2009. The report explores how better policies towards human mobility can enhance human development. It makes the case for governments to reduce restrictions on movement within and across their borders so as to expand human choices and freedoms. It notes that migration boosts economic output and that remittances sent back to family members by migrant workers are important for the country of origin.

The report identifies the need to mitigate the disproportionate costs of economic recession born by current and prospective migrant workers. It argues that the current downturn should be used as an opportunity to institute a new deal for migrant workers – a new deal that will benefit indigenous and migrant workers, and that will address the possibility of any protectionist backlash. It recommends six different areas for action:

  • Liberalise and simplify regular channels of migration that allow people with lower skills to seek work abroad.
  • Ensure basic rights for migrant workers.
  • Reduce transactions costs, such as fees or costs of meeting administrative requirements, associated with migration.
  • Improve outcomes for migrant workers and their families and destination communities. The need to ensure individual migrants settle in well on arrival is emphasised, as is the importance that the communities they settle in should not feel burdened by additional demands placed on key services.
  • Enable benefits from migration to be secured through internal mobility.
  • Make mobility an integral part of national development strategies.

This new deal agenda stands in stark contrast to the current response to migration from the Irish Government:

  • Instead of liberalising channels for lowerskilled migrant workers, new restrictions are established such that no first-time work permits are to be issued for jobs paying under €30,000.
  • Instead of ensuring basic rights, the statutory infrastructure established to support migrant workers and their families to exercise these rights has, in part, been rendered unviable and has been compromised.
  • Instead of reducing transaction costs for migrant workers and their families, new charges are being introduced.
  • Instead of improving outcomes for migrant workers and their families, national action plans to combat racism are being discontinued, public services specifically addressing migrant workers and their families are being cut back, and lengthy administrative delays are evident in processing applications by migrant workers and their families in relation to their legal status.

The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Social and Family Affairs published its first report on Social Welfare Fraud in October 2009. The report is of concern in that it emanated from an all-party committee. It suggests an all-party consensus behind the hidden and harmful messages that are being communicated by the current political leadership. It communicated a message that migrant workers and their families are a drain on resources rather than significant contributors to economic wellbeing, and that they are undeserving of support rather than having rights as EU citizens. This does not bode well in terms of a new political leadership emerging with new messages in relation to migration, migrant workers and their families. It does not bode well for the emergence of a new deal for migrant workers and their families under any new Government in Ireland.

The report included a specific focus on Child Benefit provision to non-Irish parents. It noted that there are only 6,851 EU nationals claiming benefit on behalf of non-resident children. This is a small proportion of the 100,162 non-Irish nationals in receipt of child benefit.

The report acknowledged that it is under EU Regulations that citizens of other member states can claim benefit for children who are resident outside Ireland. Despite the small size of the group and despite being bound by EU regulations, the Committee still went on to recommend that the Minister should pursue this matter at EU level with a view to amending the underpinning legislation so that child benefit would only be paid where children are resident in Ireland. This rather pointless recommendation was deemed important enough to be one of only fourteen key recommendations and it received extensive media coverage.

The mayor of Limerick, in November 2009, called for the deportation of EU nationals who fail to secure employment. Fine Gael Councillor Kevin Kiely initially stood over his comments despite accusations of racism and being offensive. He eventually withdrew his remarks after a meeting with Fine Gael
leader Enda Kenny. The Fine Gael leader was quoted as saying that Kevin Kiely ‘was big enough and strong enough to withdraw this unreservedly and there the matter ends’.

This limited and ineffectual response to this incident offers further evidence that there can be little optimism about a new political leadership developing new messages on migration or a new deal for migrant workers and their families.

Justice and equality for migrants will require new messages on migration, migrant workers and their families from any political leadership, current or future. Popular support for equality and for further action against discrimination, international experience, and the analysis by international bodies of migration in times of recession, the current and future needs of the Irish economy and Irish society, and the ongoing reality of migration all suggest the need for these new messages.

These messages could usefully underpin a new deal for migrant workers and their families in Ireland and could reflect a commitment to:

  • Providing leadership for, and a new vision of, an ethnically diverse Ireland characterised by equality.
  • Acknowledging that migration will continue and is important for the economic, social and cultural wellbeing of Irish society.
  • Acknowledging that migration into Ireland is needed both now and into the future, and that migration will include people with low skills and with high skills.
  • Developing policy based on the situation and needs of migrant workers and their families, with a articular focus on needs specific to migrant workers in lower-paid, less regulated sectors and migrant women, rather than developing policy as a reaction to what might be perceived as popular opinion.
  • Investing in equality policies and programmes that address the particular barriers to equality for migrant workers and their families posed by economic recession, and that create a society at ease with its ethnic diversity.
  • Establishing transparent, equitable, efficient, and accessible institutional systems for migration into Ireland.
  • Ensuring adequate, effective and accessible protection for migrant workers from exploitation, discrimination and breaches of employment law.
  • Taking effective and appropriate political responsibility for these messages and holding all party members to account for the consistency of these messages.


Migrant Rights Centre Ireland

55 Parnell Square West, Dublin 1

T: (01) 889 7570 E: info@mrci.ie
F: (01) 889 7579 W: www.mrci.ie