Interculturalism and Immigration Reform? Integration Policy in Ireland

Migration Nation1It has been an interesting time for asylum and immigration policy in Ireland. Last week saw the publication of the MacMahon Report on Direct Provision (read Liam Thornton’s analysis here), then, at the weekend, leaked documents  provided some insight into Ireland’s “hands-off” approach to early EU negotiations on search and rescue in the Mediterranean. Yesterday, the Immigrant Council of Ireland published research on the experiences of young migrant men, which suggests that the Gardaí and other public servants should undergo anti-racism training.

Against this background, the following post addressing the long-term question of Ireland’s approach to the “integration” of migrants may be of interest. It was written as a guest column for “Immigrant News”, the ICI’s daily epaper.

In May, the Immigrant Council of Ireland and the Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX) launched the MIPEX 2015 findings for Ireland, which involved a comprehensive measurement of policies to integrate migrants and the outcomes of these policies. We did not fare well, ranked 19th of 38 countries surveyed and below all Western European countries except Austria and Switzerland. These results came only a short time after census figures suggested that the Irish school system is becoming increasingly segregated and ghettoised.

The Immigrant Council of Ireland is now calling for (among other things) the development of a comprehensive National Integration Strategy. So where does Irish integration policy currently stand, and where should we go from here?

The Rise and Fall of Integration Strategy in Ireland

To date, integration policy has been largely piecemeal, with various government departments and public bodies producing diversity and intercultural strategies (for example, intercultural strategies in the areas of education and health, and a diversity strategy for An Garda Síochána). The first formal strategy for integration was produced in 2008 by the newly-established Office of the Minister for Integration. This document, called “Migration Nation”, outlined the principles intended to underpin Irish integration policy.

The central features of the policy statement are its mainstreaming approach to the provision of services for new communities; its situation of integration policy in the context of the general social inclusion and equality framework; and its insistence on a two-way model of integration. Other notable features include the emphasis placed on respect for cultural differences and the lack of emphasis on identity or “values” issues.  The practical areas of language education; interpretation and translation; information provision; and funding arrangements information are identified as the key areas crucial to integration success, rather than areas relating to culture or values.  This was welcome, especially when seen in the broader European context of a retreat from multiculturalism and an exclusionary focus in integration policy on “shared values”.

While, broadly speaking a mainstreaming, intercultural approach drawing on EU integration policy is endorsed in the policy documentation, a more developed specific vision of integration still seems to be lacking.  Aside from Migration Nation, the only integration-specific document to emanate from the Office for the Promotion of Migrant Integration (“OPMI”) related to the specific group of resettled refugees.

Since its establishment, the OPMI’s role has been centred on facilitating integration at grassroots level through the funding of sporting groups, NGOs and faith-based community groups rather than developing an overarching integration framework which could be used to inform the action of other state bodies.  It also has “a cross-Departmental mandate to develop, lead and co-ordinate migrant integration policy across other Government Departments, agencies and services”. The decentralised approach taken to date to integration is reflected in the focus on the development of integration strategies by local authorities rather than by the OPMI.  This is a rather narrow approach to integration which suggests a political reluctance to tackle the deeper issues, particularly those which might require public spending.

The main reason for the lack of progress in the field of integration has been the impact of the financial difficulties which Ireland has been experienced since late 2007.  The financial crisis and dramatic rise in unemployment resulted in April 2009 in a return to net emigration for the first time since 1995.  These developments have meant that integration is no longer as immediate an issue as it was between 2000 and 2007 and it slipped down the political agenda.  The harsh budgetary measures accompanying the financial crisis have impacted on the equality and integration infrastructure through, for example, the closing of the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism and the cuts in funding for the Human Rights Commission and Equality Authority (now the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission).

The plans set out in Migration Nation to establish new integration structures, including a standing Commission on Integration and a Task Force to establish future policy needs, were shelved, and the Ministerial Council on Integration is defunct. The provision of language teaching was hit hard by budget cuts, and immigration reform under the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill 2010 was abandoned. In 2011, the position of Minister for Integration itself was abolished. The combined effect of these measures has meant that integration policy has effectively been on “pause” for the last number of years.

A New Integration Plan: The Importance of Immigration Law Reform

There is clearly a need for a more developed, nuanced and long-term approach to integration than that in existence in Ireland at present.  This has been recognised by Government, and a new integration strategy is expected later this year. The current review of integration strategy has involved a public consultation and engagement with key stakeholders.

As mentioned already, the absence of focus on “cultural integration” in Migration Nation was hugely positive and should be replicated in the general philosophy of any new strategy. However, a key element of the development of a comprehensive strategy is that it also needs to be acknowledged that “integration” encompasses core constitutional and other legal rights and issues, including a secure migration status and family rights. Any new integration strategy must expressly recognise the impact of immigration law on integration, and be accompanied by immigration reform, in order to be meaningful. While Ireland scored well in MIPEX in the areas of political participation and anti-discrimination, a particular area of weakness identified was the discretionary nature of access to family reunification and long-term residence. We currently have among the most discretionary (and least favourable) policies in the developed world in these spheres. These entitlements need to be placed on a secure, transparent, statutory footing to ensure certainty, efficiency and equality of access.

Unless the importance of migration and citizenship law to integration is formally recognised, it is unlikely that Ireland will progress beyond being a country which is, to use MIPEX’s scoring system, “halfway favourable” to the integration of immigrants.

Interculturalism and Immigration Reform? Integration Policy in Ireland

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