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Last Updated: Sunday, 4 April, 2004, 12:11 GMT 13:11 UK
Ireland struggles with immigration issue
By James Helm
BBC correspondent in Dublin

Asylum and immigration are once again under the spotlight in Ireland.

Dublin and other Irish cities are becoming more cosmopolitan
This week, 60 failed asylum applicants were deported from Dublin and flown to Romania and Moldova.

The men, women and children were sent home after a series of raids across the country.

About 300 failed asylum seekers have been deported so far this year, which is twice as many as in the first three months of last year.

By comparison with near neighbours, especially the UK, the actual numbers of people coming to Ireland is relatively low.

Since 1999, Ireland has received almost 50,000 asylum applications. The figure was highest in 2002, when 11,634 people claimed asylum, but it fell the following year, to 7,900.

But in a country of about four million people, a quick glance through the editorial or letters pages of the Irish Times shows just what powerful social and political issues asylum and immigration represent.

Irish migration

Many commentators believe the whole issue of migration has added resonance in Ireland due to its history.

After all, Ireland experienced mass emigration through much of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Irish immigrants developed large, thriving communities in the US, UK, and Australia. Those communities faced struggles, and often knew how it was to be on the margins of society.

As late as the 1980s, large numbers of young Irish people felt it necessary to leave their home country to find work abroad.

Many Irish people believe the country's history of migration means they have a duty to extend a warm welcome to people coming to settle here.

Through the 1990s Ireland's economy boomed. It was the so-called "Celtic Tiger" era of rapid growth.

To keep pace, Ireland has needed more and more people to keep that growth going.

In recent weeks, Deputy Prime Minister Mary Harney has spoken of the need for migrant workers to continue to come to Ireland and fill a range of jobs.

Citizenship rights

A visit to the centre of Dublin, Cork, Galway, shows how Ireland is changing and becoming more cosmopolitan - with its success and stability proving a magnet for people from Eastern Europe and Africa in particular.

Some in Ireland are concerned about the levels of immigration.

A group called the Immigration Control Platform was set up in 1998, and it claims to have significant support.

"I firmly believe that there's no way the Irish people want to go as far with immigration as Britain has gone," said its spokeswoman, Aine Ni Chonaill.

In recent weeks, the debate over immigration has centred on citizenship rights.

Dublin's maternity hospitals have highlighted the issue of women arriving in Ireland shortly before they are due to give birth.

Under the current system, children born in Ireland automatically receive citizenship.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern says system is being "rampantly abused", with 60% of all asylum seekers being pregnant when they make their applications.

He wants to close the loophole, and a referendum on the matter may take place before the year is out.

Opponents have accused him of playing politics with the issue.

Professor William Binchy of Trinity College in Dublin says any change would simply target the innocent in society.

If a referendum does take place - and no date has yet been set - the whole sensitive area of immigration and asylum will rise further up the agenda.

A country that for so long watched its citizens leave for foreign lands will reflect on how it should deal with people who are now keen to come here.

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