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Europe Thursday, 12 July, 2001, 10:38 GMT 11:38 UK
Immigrants transform the Emerald Isle
Beni Oburu
Beni Oburu, a Kenyan who has become so Irish that she even speaks Gaelic
By Hugh Levinson

David was in fear for his life. The danger of political and religious persecution at home in Nigeria meant he had to flee - like a hunted rabbit.

"That rabbit begins to run," he says. "It runs from its hole. And it will go into any hole it can find as a refuge."

His refuge was Ireland. David claimed asylum along with nearly 11,000 others last year. This is proportionately more than in Britain and the third-highest rate (compared to the population) in the European Union.

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It's a huge change for Ireland, which nine years ago received fewer than 40 asylum seekers. Combined with an even bigger number of foreigners coming to Ireland with work permits, the country is for the first time facing the realities of becoming a multicultural society.

These month-old twins, born to a Nigerian mother, can become Irish citizens
One reason for Ireland's attractiveness to asylum seekers is the law. The Constitution states that any baby born on Irish soil can take citizenship - a rule which has become unique in the EU.

And other laws mean that parents of an Irish baby will probably be allowed to stay in the country.

Ireland is now experiencing a foreign baby boom. At Dublin maternity hospitals like the Rotunda, one in five babies are born to non-national mothers.

Eilish McDonnell, the hospital's head medical social worker, says that some of these arrive heavily pregnant - sometimes in their last week - give birth and then immediately claim asylum.
Eilish McConnell of the Rotunda Hospital helps refugee mums

Yet she says the new mums deserve more sympathy than condemnation. "They're alone. They're stressed. They're physically exhausted. And they're trying to work out all the things that people normally take 10 years to work out - like how you're going to live, how you're going to maintain yourself - in a week."

Far from being cynical abusers of the system, many asylum seekers seem to have arrived in Ireland against their will. "People smugglers" tell many of their customers - including David - that they were bound for England.

When he arrived, he was so confused that he thought at first he was in Northern Ireland - and he became concerned that he had left one sectarian conflict for another.

The arrival of these new faces has been a huge shock for Ireland, one of the most homogenous countries in Europe; white and Catholic. Beni Oburu from Kenya who came with a work permit seven years ago says her neighbours in rural Cork were astonished to see her.

"There was a lot of curiosity. A lot of people staring sometimes," she says. "In fact some actually came up to us and said can I touch your hair? Or could I touch your skin?"
Residents Against Racism campaign in Dublin

Others have experienced stronger reactions. Nasser Diaby from the Congo was attacked in a street in Dublin in broad daylight last year by three men who had told him to "go home." Three more men joined in the assault and attacked his girlfriend as well. There have been many similar reports of racial abuse and violence.

But Mr. Diaby says the situation is improving and that the government has moved to curb racial conflict. Mrs. Oburu agrees and says that most Irish are uninformed rather than intolerant. She is also keen on doing her part to integrate, by dancing at ceilidhs and learning to speak Gaelic.

Irish politicians have generally avoided using asylum and immigration as election issues - at least compared to their British counterparts. Nevertheless, the Irish government has toughened conditions for asylum seekers.

New arrivals are now sent out of Dublin to smaller towns around the country. And the government pays directly for food and lodging, giving each asylum seeker as little as 15 in cash per week.

Father Michael Murray helps asylum seekers cope with the Irish system
These rules have been opposed by a clutch of charities and nongovernmental organisaitions that have sprung up in the last few years to help the newcomers. Many of the organisations are run by Catholic missionaries, like Father Michael Murray.

He detects a "certain sense of fear of the unknown" among the formerly monocultural Irish population towards the new arrivals. Father Michael stresses that asylum seekers make up only a minority of foreigners in the country, as the booming economy attracts overseas professionals with work permits.

The government is now even filling vacancies by actively recruiting people abroad, such as nurses in the Philippines.
Father Brian Moore baptises a new Irish citizen

Father Brian Moore, another priest working with refugees, says that Ireland now must face the transition from a country of emigration to one of immigration. "I think there's no choice in the matter," he says; Ireland must become a multicultural society.

"If we're going to be part of a European Union then we must embrace the differences that other nations in the EU have embraced."

Also in this edition of Crossing Continents: the vanishing world of traditional Irish pubs, a visit to the place where they make the Euros and a mouthful of "gob music."


We hear stories of torture and stories of abuse
I feel very at home here
the 100,000 welcomes has not been extended to asylum seekers
Ibo hymn
sung at a christening at St. Peter's church, Dublin
See also:

19 Feb 00 | UK
04 Feb 00 | N Ireland
09 Feb 01 | Newsnight
05 Apr 01 | Country profiles
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