If Ireland can keep improving its migrant-integration strategies — particularly in the labour market — then the country has real long-term growth potential, writes Kyran Fitzgerald.

Immigrants are playing an increasingly important role in a tight Irish labour market.

But a report by leading think-tank, the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), shows that they should be knitted more strongly into Irish society.

The employment gap between Irish and non-Irish nationals has disappeared. Indeed, the employment rate among people born outside the country is now actually higher than it is among the Irish-born.

Given that the non-Irish are younger and at peak working age, this is to be expected. We should all welcome this development.

At a time when skilled people are in increasingly short supply, all available sources of labour should be tapped. Moreover, the best way of ensuring maximum integration is work.

This should avoid the development of the ethnic ghettos that have triggered radicalisation among young immigrant males in countries such as France, Belgium, and Holland.

Ireland’s demographic make-up is changing fairly rapidly.

In 2017, the percentage of foreign-born residents in the country stood at 17%, one of the highest in the EU. The corresponding figure 15 years ago was barely 5%.

We have a growing complement of Irish-born people from non-white ethnic backgrounds.

According to the ESRI study, 185,683 reported an ethnicity other than ‘white Irish’.

One-third of those of black African origin — just under 22,500 — were born here.

Almost 370,000 of people resident here report that they speak a language other than English or Irish at home. However, of those non-Irish nationals who arrived in the mid-to-late 1990s, 80% say that they now speak English.

One of the key findings in the report is that the unemployment rate among African nationals living here stood at 16% in 2017, having risen from 14% in 2016.

This group had an employment rate of just over half of adults, causing the authors, Philip O’Connell and Éamonn Fahey, to conclude that “racism and discrimination may be major causes of African labour market discrimination in Ireland.”

There are other factors. African mothers tend to have large families, and, given that they often lack family back-up and find the cost of childcare here to be very high, it is easy to understand why they might be deterred from taking jobs.

Cultural factors could be holding them back, not least the traditionalist attitudes of partners/husbands and of the wider family unit.

Many women from Africa or Asia have been held back in their personal development. Others are reluctant to break out from established patterns of behaviour centred on the home and the care of children.

The challenge is one of persuasion. Obstacles must be negotiated with care to avoid antagonism. The spectre of
discriminatory behaviour on the part of employers, sometimes prompted by customers, is real.

Many studies of race discrimination in labour markets have been carried out in the US. Twenty years ago, the Nobel prize-winning economist Kenneth Arrow wrote extensively on race discrimination persisting long after the enactment of civil rights laws.

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More recently, a young academic, Devah Pager — subsequently a professor at Harvard University — dispatched a group of young male testers, as part of a carefully balanced control group, half white and half black, across the city of Milwaukee, to assess what happens to people of differing races responding to job ads.

Half of the testers supposedly had a criminal record, while the other half did not.

Her findings caused something of a stir. Some 34% of whites with no record were called back by the employer for interview, compared to just 14% of the black men. Furthermore, 17% of whites with a criminal record were called back, as against just 5% of the black ‘testers’.

The Irish government attracted much criticism over what some academics regard as its laissez faire approach to integration during the noughties.

Even NESC, the government body, concluded, in 2006, that “it is beyond the capacity of the government to make integration happen.”

After the financial crash, various supports were unwound for reasons of cost.

Some of the new Irish citizens at a citizenship ceremony hosted by the University of Limerick last year. The employment gap between Irish and non-Irish nationals has disappeared, an ESRI report has found. Picture: Oisin McHugh
Some of the new Irish citizens at a citizenship ceremony hosted by the University of Limerick last year. The employment gap between Irish and non-Irish nationals has disappeared, an ESRI report has found. Picture: Oisin McHugh

In 2010, the Government did launch an ‘intercultural educational strategy,’ but this ended five years later.

There are real signs, however, that the Governments are raising their game, now that the State coffers are filling up, once more.

A migration integration strategy was published early last year. This contains a lengthy series of targets.

By 2020, it is hoped that education and training programmes specifically targeting migrants will be in place.

There should be measures to boost the number of non-Irish born public servants, along with initiatives to boost the number of migrant-background entrepreneurs.

The focus on difficulties faced by Africans should not detract from the real issues faced by eastern Europeans or those in the fast-growing Muslim community — up from 2,000, in 1990, to over 60,000 today.

Many young eastern Europeans, for example, leave school early to work in areas such as farming and construction.

Difficulties with English remain considerable, as teachers in areas of high eastern European concentration will attest.

The ESRI researchers believe that the focus on integration should not be confined to the national level. What is happening at the level of communities is just as important.

Ireland’s immigration population is highly diverse.

On the whole, this is a good thing, as it means that there is less scope for polarisation of relationships between the recent arrivals and the indigenous population, but the complex nature of our new Irish population brings its own challenges.

If handled correctly, the migration integration challenge can result in longer-term opportunities — for example, in accessing consumer markets in some of the fastest-growing regions of the world.

The rapid changes across much of urban Ireland, and in Europe, can be jolting, if not frightening, but contained in all this change are the seeds of real potential growth.


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