IMMIGRATION is a relatively new phenomenon to Ireland. For decades, this country sent thousands of jobseekers abroad as newspapers were filled with stories about Irish emigrant hardship, exploitation and discrimination. But the flow of migrants changed dramatically as the Celtic Tiger economy saw record jobs growth and wealth unlike anything the state had ever seen. Just as the Irish economy was entering the ‘boom’ period in 2004, the European Union welcomed a host of new member states. Immigration from the former Eastern Bloc countries was the first taste of inward migration Ireland had experienced in living memory. Thirteen years on from EU expansion, Limerick now hosts a variety of immigrant communities. From Poland to Nigeria and as far away as China and Curacao in the Caribbean, Limerick is more diverse than ever. But how are recent immigrants finding life here? How many of our neighbours come from overseas? And can more be done to make our communities inclusive and welcoming?
Recent figures from the 2016 Census give us some insight into the state of immigration in Limerick. Though a precise breakdown of population by country of origin is not currently available, a number of statistics provided by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) paint a picture of a Limerick that is diverse and changing as immigrant populations grow.
The largest community, aside from Irish nationals, may be a surprise. Rather than Polish or Nigerian, the second largest resident population in the city comes from the UK. More than 9,000 Limerick residents were born in Britain but their prevalence can be accounted for by the Common Travel Area, a long-standing agreement between the Irish and UK government that grants freedom of travel and residence to citizens of both countries. Nevertheless, the number of British-born residents in Limerick is significantly higher than the next largest group, the Polish. Just 5,295 people claim Polish nationality, compared with 9,074 who say they were born in Britain. It is important to note, however, that birthplace does not necessarily equate to nationality. While 5,648 people claim Polish nationality, only 3,517 claim to be UK nationals. These numbers may have more to do with previous Irish emigration to Britain than an upsurge in British arrivals.
Lithuanians form the third largest group, with 844 claiming that country’s nationality. There is a noticeable gap between the number of Poles and Lithuanians. Though there is no precise way to measure why the gap in Limerick is so large, it is most likely due to the wide differences in population between the two countries. While the Polish population is nearly 40 million, Lithuania boasts just under 3 million people. Despite this obvious disadvantage, there are enough Lithuanians for the CSO to make a specific measurement. The same cannot be said for the rest of the region’s immigrants.
The available census data makes the details of immigration in Limerick difficult to break down. Once the UK, Poland and Lithuania are excluded, the number of residents whose place of birth is not Ireland comes to 12,072. Of these, 3,521 were born in the other 28 EU member states while 8,551 were born in the rest of the world. These numbers give us little insight into the origin of Limerick’s immigrant communities and we are forced to rely on anecdotal evidence.
It is clear that Limerick has significant communities from Nigeria and China, as well as the Middle East and other parts of Africa. This is reflected in census figures recording ethnicity. Those listing themselves as ‘Black or Black Irish’ numbered 1,993, while ‘Asian or Asian Irish’ numbered 4,243. Interestingly, 2,212 respondents ticked the ‘Other’ category, while 4,980 left the question unanswered. This information clearly does not provide precise or in-depth information about Limerick’s immigrant communities, but it at least gives some indication of the racial and national diversity that is plain to see on Limerick’s streets.
Census figures on religious affiliation are not particularly helpful in understanding Limerick’s new arrivals. While 13,650 people stated that they had a religion other than Roman Catholicism, there is no breakdown. Anecdotally, Limerick has Muslim and Evangelical Christian communities, among others, but the CSO sheds no light on this. One interesting takeaway, however, is the number of foreign language speakers in the city and county. While Polish is the most common foreign language, with 6,326 speakers, French is a surprise second place. This may indicate a significant number of immigrants from North and Sub-Saharan Africa, where French is widely spoken.
The Polish Experience
As the largest and most well-known immigrant community, Limerick’s Polish experience is illustrative of the problems and opportunities that new arrivals have faced over the last 10 years or so. Poles began arriving in Ireland following their country’s accession to the EU in 2004 and they have quickly become a prominent part of Limerick’s day to day life. Polish immigrants work, own businesses, marry locals and have become a major part of Catholic congregations in the city. Uniquely, the Polish government operates a consulate on O’Connell Street that both assists Polish nationals and represents their interests in the community at large.
Patrick O’Sullivan is Honorary Consul for Poland and though he is Irish, he has won a special place in Limerick’s Polish community for his advocacy and straightforward nature. Mr O’Sullivan spoke to Limerick Life about the people he represents and what he thinks the future might hold.
“We’re working on guesstimates but people are entitled to know how many immigrants are here,” O’Sullivan says. “Polish citizens are EU citizens, they have a total legitimate right to be here. But there are realities about immigration not spoken about that should be. The Polish government was very wise to open a consulate here.”
O’Sullivan says the Polish experience has been largely positive, including with most local politicians. He stressed the economic contribution Polish immigrants have made and said that most local leaders recognise that.
“Local politicians, by and large, are positive,” he said. “They’re conscious of the need for votes.” Polish nationals, like other EU citizens, have the right to vote in local elections. This may give them some advantage over non-EU nationals, who are not automatically entitled to vote. However, O’Sullivan was critical of some regrettable, anti-immigrant comments reported recently. One Limerick councillor caused a small scandal with a statement that many deemed racist.
“There have been hate crimes,” O’Sullivan said. “People have been treated less than fair and equal. The consulate has been graffitied. Really horrible things were written.”
There is little legislation in place to deal with hate crimes in Ireland. Though crimes specifically aimed at immigrants appear to be low compared with other countries, O’Sullivan was keen to stress that many acts of racist abuse go unreported. It seems that the Polish community, at least, would rather emphasise the positive about life in Ireland rather than highlight the negative.
Integration is an increasingly common word in discussion about Ireland’s growing immigrant population. But pinning down what integration is meant to be has posed a problem for legislators and immigrants alike. O’Sullivan is sceptical about heavy-handed integration policies.
“We’ve got to understand what integration is,” O’Sullivan said. “None us wakes up on Monday and thinks ‘We must integrate!’ We don’t call it ‘community relations’ and ‘integration’ [at the Polish consulate]. Some integration programmes can create a bubble that doesn’t penetrate the wider community.”
O’Sullivan believes the best way to integrate is for immigrants to take part in the everyday activities of the society they live in. The consulate encourages Polish people to take part in local sport, in the Civil Defence, in social clubs and a number of other activities. Moreover, the consulate provides advice to Poles who want to start their own businesses, giving them information on banking and the legal requirements of doing business here. Local Poles offer English classes to those with less experience. These lessons cost as little as €5 a class and are tailored to the job needs of students.
“It’s the community helping the community,” O’Sullivan said. “We have weekend schools for Polish students and we’re hoping to open a Polish community centre – somewhere we can respect and remember Polish traditions.”
The Polish consulate’s work may be a model for other immigrant groups trying to make the most out of life in Limerick but O’Sullivan was clear that integration cannot be forced from the top down. Good relations between immigrant and native populations cannot be artificial.
“This is not something you can legislate for,” O’Sullivan said. “How many people from the new communities have you invited into your home? That’s the real question of integration.”
Dealing With Discrimination
Doras Luimní is a charity devoted to helping migrants and fighting racism and discrimination. Since 2000, Doras has worked with immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees, promoting and defending human rights. Doras also deals with non-EU migrants, whose experiences are often markedly different from those of the Polish or Lithuanian community.
Leonie Kerins, Chief Executive Officer at Doras Luimní, told Limerick Life about the difficulties that immigrants still face in modern Limerick. Despite more than a decade or immigration into the city and county, race-based discrimination is still common.
“European integration is relatively easy,” Kerins said. “It’s easy for Europeans to find work and get to know people. It’s an easier transition and the cultural transition is easier.”
The statistics and anecdotal evidence support this view. Both Polish and other Eastern European immigrants slip more easily into life here, thanks to similarities in religion, culture and social life. But the same cannot be said for those arriving from outside Europe.
“Non-EU migrants have more hoops to jump through,” Kerins explained. “They must have a job. If they lose their job, they’re in trouble and may not be able to stay. Housing is also a huge issue. There’s been a huge increase in housing problems.”
Housing issues are affecting communities throughout the country, immigrant and Irish alike. A lack of affordable and social housing has driven rents to new levels. The average rent in Limerick is now €919 per month and Doras Luimní believes that finding somewhere to live is harder for non-EU immigrants.
“Nationality and race affect people’s ability to rent,” Kerins said. “But discrimination is hard to prove. It’s very difficult to find statistics on hate crimes. Ireland doesn’t have proper legislation for hate crimes, there’s no system in place.”
While Doras Luimní would welcome a better organised system for reporting and punishing hate crimes, Kerins echoed Patrick O’Sullivan’s view on the lack of reporting from those affected.
“There is a reluctance to report,” she said. “We provide an alternative reporting system and we encourage people to report. We work with the Hate Crime Research Group in UL.”
Doras Luimní is part of the Irish Network Against Racism, part of the European Centre Against Racism (ENAR) and the charity provides an online service for immigrants to report hate crimes. However, Doras’ reporting system has been so successful that it may not be a guide for the level of hate crimes in general. The number of reports makes it an outlier. Only a comprehensive system of hate crime reporting, supported by the government, could give accurate national figures about race-based abuse.
“We are in favour of stronger hate crime legislation,” Kerins said, citing the success of Doras Luimní’s own system and the lack of comprehensive figures nationally. Hate crimes aside, Kerins had some thoughts on how to build better relationships between immigrant communities and the larger population.
“I advise people to inform themselves,” she said. “Look at things closely. Be informed and don’t take things for granted.”
Limerick’s immigrant populations are still relatively small but through new businesses, cultural activities and developing ties with older communities, migrants are becoming part of the fabric of our society. Despite the apparent success of immigrants over the last decade, there are still serious challenges, with racism and discrimination chief among them. How the relationship between widely differing communities will develop remains to be seen but diversity is a fact of life in today’s Limerick.