Ireland's part in Fortress Europe

December 1, 1999


Ireland's part in Fortress Europe

By Sinead Corcoran

The Irish government has joined the ranks of those taking harsh action against refugees, enforcing draconian laws and planning to deport thousands of asylum seekers.

Immigration became an issue in Ireland for the first time in 1997. Historically a country of sustained emigration, Ireland suddenly became an island of net immigration.

The primary cause for this was the perceived "Celtic Tiger" economic upturn. In that year, the first asylum seekers ever to come in any numbers arrived. With the odd exception, they were also the first non-white immigrants into Ireland.

The tabloid media fuelled hysteria, running headlines such as "Rampaging rapist refugees" and creating the illusion of a flood of immigrants. In a more sinister move, they propelled an obscure Pauline Hanson-like woman, Aine NiChonaill, and her small anti-immigrant organisation to national attention. Within weeks, NiChonaill was on the most popular talk show in Ireland.

In reaction, the pro-immigrant movement took shape. These groups held very different motivations. For example, some conservatives wanted to promote immigration so as to access a "cheap" labour source. Many liberals were in favour of a "fair" and "accountable" immigration policy, based on the Geneva Convention's description of a refugee.

The left argued that the distinction made between "economic" and "political" migrants was simplistic and invalid. While political migrants are (sometimes) seen as legitimate, economic migrants are wrongly seen as illegal, spongers and a threat.

The conditions that cause a person to leave their home are always a combination of the political and the economic. For example, could a person emigrating from East Timor after independence be described simply as an "economic migrant"? Surely not!

Further, the left argued that immigration controls and borders are measures to maintain the uneven distribution of the world's wealth. Capital, and thus influence, is hyper-mobile, whereas labour is restricted, particularly in the "developed world".

One of the most active and radical groups to emerge was Immigrant Solidarity (IS) in Cork. Within weeks, the focus of the group's activity changed from NiChonaill's anti-immigrant group to the state, as increasingly draconian legislation was introduced. The group campaigned against racism, restrictive border controls and all deportations.

Together with the Anti-Racism Campaign (ARC) in Dublin, the IS formed the National Federation of Campaigns Against Racism, which now has 12 constituent members. All of the groups are democratically run, with rotating elected positions. The federation has had a number of successes to date, including large demonstrations and, spectacularly, the halting of deportations on legal grounds.

Not satisfied with the existing powers permitted by law, the minister for justice, John "zero tolerance" O'Donoghue, tried to deport people illegally. The Supreme Court in December 1998 deemed the powers available to the minister to be unconstitutional. The result was that no deportations could occur during the last year.

However, police harassment of asylum seekers has continued, most notably in the case of Belmondo Wantete, who was wrongfully arrested, in his family home, assaulted and then charged with attacking police. His Irish neighbours launched a group called Residents Against Racism in response and are now part of the federation.

Kurdish asylum seekers were also harassed after a protest at the Turkish embassy in Dublin against the arrest of Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan in November, 1998.

In October, the Immigration Act was introduced. This act, a carbon copy of the British equivalent, will enable the government to start deportations again. The minister has said that 98% of the 10,000 asylum seekers will be deported over the coming months.

This act is particularly draconian. One can now be deported from Ireland for being charged, not convicted, with any offence. Both children and adults seeking asylum will now be fingerprinted, thus adding to the government's portrayal of them as criminals.

Transport workers and anyone who helps an asylum seeker into Ireland will now be liable to prosecution. The government is also considering detention centres, a particularly shameful plan. Finally, "direct provision" has been introduced: asylum seekers will now receive vouchers for food and accommodation instead of social welfare payments.

The government has three reasons for behaving in this manner. Firstly, it wishes to use asylum seekers as scapegoats for poor service provision in the country. During recent local elections, candidates blamed the housing crisis in Cork (there are 3000 people on the waiting list) on the 70 or so asylum seekers.

The government also does not want the Roma (Gipsies), one of the major groups of asylum seekers, in Ireland. To acknowledge that they are the victims of prejudice would raise the issue of Irish "travellers", a minority ethnic group who have been victimised for decades.

The most important influence, however, is European Union policy and the Irish government's desire to be seen as tough on the refugee "problem".

The EU now governs Irish policy to a very large extent, including policy on refugees. The Dublin Convention on refugees states that an asylum seeker must apply for asylum in the EU country of their first arrival. As an island, this suits Ireland very well: few of the asylum seekers, mainly Nigerian and East European, arrive there first.

Accordingly, the Irish government will soon deport most of its asylum seekers to the European countries in which they first arrived. In two of these countries, immigration officials have killed an asylum seeker during the last year. In Belgium, Semira Adamu was killed in September 1998, and in Austria, Marcus Omafuma was killed in May. Both died from suffocation during deportation.

Earlier this year, the anti-racist network United issued a "death list", which details and sources 1622 deaths caused by European immigration controls. Many committed suicide before their impending deportation. Others died attempting to reach Europe in makeshift boats or in lorries and ships.

In October, EU foreign ministers met in Finland to develop a common policy on asylum seekers. Pressure was brought to bear on countries whose borders were considered too porous. The governments' agreement on how to deal with asylum seekers is even facilitating the development of the historically elusive common defence policy, as asylum seekers are now defined as one of the major threats to Europe.

Whilst the implications for asylum seekers are dire, there are also implications for all EU citizens. The actions of EU governments illustrate their contempt for the democratic process; there is no popular demand for the kind of legislation that is being introduced. Quite the opposite: as with the Kosovar refugees, when people learn what the new arrivals are seeking refuge from, they can display great generosity and compassion.

Immigrant solidarity can be contacted at: <> or at PO Box 178, Cork, Ireland. The Anti-Racism Campaign has a web site at: <>. United's web site is <>.

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