Time to recognise strength in diversity

One in eight of our population are migrants, but our political system is woefully homogenous and would be enriched by greater diversity, writes Salome Mbugua

Time to recognise strength in diversity

One in eight of our population are migrants, but our political system is woefully homogenous and would be enriched by greater diversity, writes Salome Mbugua.

Most people probably don’t realise that one in eight of the Irish population are migrants. It is a little-known fact that Ireland is not a country preparing for diversity — it is already diverse. Ireland is a beautiful, heady mixture of backgrounds, faiths, skin tones, languages, and accents.

The reason so many people don’t realise this is because of a lack of representation at certain levels of society. How many people from an ethnic minority background do we see teaching our children? How many hijabs are on television? How many people with non-Irish accents are running for political office? Sadly, not nearly enough.

Migrants bring additional values, enterprise and initiative, and in order to actively participate in Irish society, migrants must be visible in all spheres of Irish life. We don’t just want to feel we belong, we want to be seen to belong — a central human need. We want to engage in the political systems and feel our voices are not just heard but count too.

International research has found there are three main reasons why people do not participate in politics:

Because they do not want to; Because they cannot; or Because they do not know how.

For those from a minority background, each of these three responses can be easily linked to a barrier denying participation rather than an inherent desire to disengage.

Not wanting to participate indicates a lack of political identification and interest — in Ireland there are extremely few political role models from a migrant background. Not being able to participate implies a lack of resources, such as time, money and civic skills. We know people from a migrant background are more likely to be in low paid jobs and unstable housing. Lastly, not knowing how to participate suggests an ineffective recruitment network aimed at mobilising citizens in the field of political participation.

Organisations such as the Immigrant Council of Ireland, AkiDwA, and Places of Sanctuary run political participation training and programmes tailored for migrants, but government bodies and local authorities need to do much more to engage with immigrant communities.

To date, Irish politicians have done little to reach out to immigrants during elections, although things are beginning to improve. Nevertheless, the importance of proactive policies to improve integration tends to be low on the list of priorities for political parties, and indeed barely gets a mention in too many party manifestos.

At the most basic level, many people, including migrants themselves, don’t realise most people from a migrant background living in Ireland have the right to vote. Ireland is pretty progressive on this front. Since 1963, Ireland has allowed migrants to vote in local elections, and since 1974, migrants have been allowed to stand for local election.

Anyone who has been a resident of the country for six months can vote and run for local election. And anyone can join a political party. There is a job of work which must be done to promote these rights to the migrant population.

As well as exercising our right to vote, we also want to be physically represented in decision-making roles by people who look and sound like us, in proportion to our number in the Irish population.

Migrants are severely underrepresented in politics and despite mobilisation campaigns, the numbers running have not improved over the years.

Currently, just three out of 949 councillors (0.2%) are from a migrant background. Ireland has just one TD from a migrant background, who is a naturalised Irish citizen. One of the main reasons for this is a lack of interest from political parties in actively recruiting migrant candidates. For too long, and for too many parties, the default recruitment process has been through personal connections or membership drives, with no pro-active programmes focusing on recruiting migrants.

There were some attempts made in to support migrants to run in local elections in 2009, but unfortunately, none of the migrant candidates was elected, nor were they approached again for the 2014 election. This low turnout resulted in a decrease of mobilisation efforts by political parties.

However, recent initiatives from some of the political parties provide hope that the political arena is changing its mindset. In order to effectively mobilise the migrant community, both a top-down and bottom-up approach is needed. That means efforts from the current political elite to positively promote and engage migrant participation plus engagement from migrant community leaders with established political structures. Any migrant mobilisation scheme must also acknowledge the challenge of racism as a factor affecting participation, and adopt measures to pro-actively combat it.

This lack of representation is why a group of migrant-led and migrant rights organisations got together to hold a political mobilisation conference. The Migrant Mobilisation Conference was jointly organised by AkiDwA, Immigrant Council of Ireland, New Communities Partnership, Places of Sanctuary, International Organisation for Migration, Cairde, Wezesha, and Forum Polonia, with the support of Office for the Promotion of Migrant Integration.

Providing a platform for mutual learning was the key to its success. Its dual goals of the event were to encourage more people from a migrant background to get involved with local politics, learn about voter registration and how to run for local elections. Concurrently, we also want those already involved in the political system to learn from the migrant community leaders who attended.

Our political system is woefully homogenous and would both benefit and be enriched by greater diversity.

Increased diversity and different perspectives will build a stronger, more diverse and ultimately more reflective political system, benefitting the whole of society. Hopefully, we will see more events like this which will inform, motivate and mobilise the migrant population to such an extent that political parties will actively recruit from the migrant community.

People from a migrant background are a permanent feature in Irish society. We belong, and we want to participate in the decision-making structures that dictate ours, and everyone’s, lives.

    Salome Mbugua is Wezesha head of mission, honorary president of AkiDwA, and nominated commissioner with the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission.

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