Dublin: anti-migrant riot

Migrants as a means of diversion

We must reject the scapegoating of asylum-seekers. Anne McShane looks at the facts and figures and issues a call for full citizenship rights and unity

The ongoing row between two governments over responsibility for asylum-seekers reveals a cynical weaponisation of migration politics.

The Irish government is complaining that the passing of the Safety of Rwanda Act by the UK parliament on April 22 has had serious negative repercussions on its ability to control its borders. In other words, Ireland has become an alternative destination for unwanted migrants. Rishi Sunak responded with a disdainful rebuff. The UK will not be accepting the return of any of those who escaped the prospect of forced transfer to Rwanda. In fact he boasted that it showed the success of the legislation as a deterrent.

The Irish government, however, continues to argue about the unfairness, with its Department of Justice announcing that 91% of asylum-seekers - or 6,136 of the 6,739 who applied for protection this year - did so at its offices, rather than at a port or airport. Justice minister Helen McEntee claimed an 80% increase in the numbers entering from the UK across the Northern Ireland border. She pledged that her department would engage more police to counter the influx.

Tánaiste (deputy prime minister) Micheál Martin was later forced into an embarrassing climbdown and admitted her claim was not based on any actual data and that there would not be any physical checkpoints erected. Brexit has already stymied the Irish government in returning those who had previously sought refugee status in the UK. Now the Rwanda Act raises the stakes still higher, with Sunak making it clear that he will not cooperate with any attempt to send asylum-seekers back to Britain.

Meanwhile in Ireland the scaremongering over asylum-seekers has intensified as never before. Local and European elections are dominated by debate on how to prevent the ‘mass influx’. Of course, 6,739 asylum-seekers in four months is hardly a deluge in a country of five million. Populist rhetoric deliberately obscures the reality and makes the scapegoat of migrants after fleeing war, persecution and economic hardship. There have been protests outside ‘direct provision’ centres used to house asylum-seekers, led and encouraged by politicians from right across the spectrum. Sinn Féin has been posting videos all over social media showing how vehemently it opposes open borders. SF president Mary Lou MacDonald has committed to a ‘strong and well organised’ immigration system, with ‘efficient deportations’ of those deemed ineligible for asylum.

The question of immigration is deliberately obscured by both governing and opposition parties anxious for the votes of those inclined to blame migrants for the lack of housing and other shortages. It is true that Ireland’s population is now higher than at any point in the last 170 years, but that is not because of us being ‘swamped’ by asylum-seekers. And it most certainly does not mean that Ireland is ‘full’ - an idiotic claim made by some anti-migrant protestors. The question is actually a great deal more nuanced.

In the 1980s 85,000 more people left Ireland than those who arrived. This was in keeping with the tradition of outward migration, where people were expected to leave in search of work - emigration also being an option for those unable to bear the dominance of the Catholic church and its social and religious oppression. This pattern reversed in 1996 during the Celtic Tiger boom, and the simultaneous decline of the church and rise of secularism. The last years of that decade saw 60,000 more arriving than leaving.

In 1996 Ireland first set up a legislative framework for asylum-seekers. There were 1,179 applicants that year. The upward trend continued into the next decade, with the return home of those who had left in the 1980s and the enlargement of the EU meaning the arrival of mainly Polish migrants in 2004. In 2010 this pattern reversed with the economic crisis. Between 2010 and 2014 there was strong negative migration, with 110,000 more people leaving than arriving.

The media was dominated at the time by scenes of young people heading off in their droves for Canada and Australia, and tearful scenes in airports. Then in 2015, with the arrival of US multinationals and the development of tourism providing job opportunities, inward migration increased again and has remained positive since, albeit variable. For instance Covid-19 produced a drop in net inward migration from 44,700 to 21,800 people in 2020-21.1

2022 and the war in Ukraine meant a very significant increase in migrants, with an estimated 70,000 Ukrainians arriving in the year ending in April 2023. These refugees were quite rightly given the same right to work and benefits as Irish citizens, unlike other asylum-seekers. Inward migration rose significantly overall, with 141,600 migrants - a 31% increase over the previous year. However, emigration also continued to increase, with 64,000 leaving in 2022-23 - a 14% increase from the previous year. This resulted in net migration of 77,600 - a 50% increase from the year before.


The number of asylum claims has also risen and fallen since 1996. In 2022 there were 13,651 asylum applications and in 2023 13,277. This compares to an overall figure of 107,800 migrants in 2022 and 141,600 in 2023. Thus, while the number seeking asylum has risen from 2,649 in 2021, and is still increasing (perhaps because of the Rwanda Act), it is still a very small number when compared with overall migration.

The key problem is the isolation of asylum-seekers from the rest of the population. If they are lucky enough to be housed, it is in direct-provision centres, where they are crowded into dormitories (and can be sleeping in a room with 14 others). Since 2022 disused hotels have been replaced by tents - not a good situation in the long, cold and wet Irish winter. And since 2021 the number not given any accommodation has risen dramatically.

In April there were more than 1,700 male asylum-seekers sleeping on the streets. In a bid to provide safety and security for themselves, these men erected tents around the International Protection Office in Mount Street. The camp was forcibly cleared by Dublin City Council and the men, including teenagers, were forced onto buses and taken outside the city, where they were given tents and told to pitch anywhere in the Dublin mountains. They had no toilets or running water. Some returned to join new asylum-seekers and set up camp along Dublin’s Royal Canal.

Disease has spread among those sleeping out, and conditions are unhygienic. But, rather than express sympathy and demand proper housing, many politicians rage about the ‘eye sore’, as the tourist season gets underway. Fianna Fáil TDs demand that they be removed out of sight and put into camps in border areas. Hide them away - always a popular option for Irish politicians.

We are told that the problem is competition for (unavailable) housing. However, the facts say otherwise - the Central Statistics Office reported that there were 163,433 vacant homes as of the April 2022 census, not including another 70,000 or so vacant holiday homes. Yet homelessness is a major problem in Ireland. In March 2024 there were 13,866 people seeking emergency accommodation - not including asylum-seekers, who are not entitled to this option. Hidden homelessness, sleeping on couches or in cramped conditions affects a quarter of the population. House prices are astronomical, and the rental market is dominated by private landlords, whose interests are well represented at the top. While the government announces ‘economic miracles’, the working class is paying the price.

There was record employment in 2023, with unemployment standing at a mere 4.5% in January 2024. But asylum-seekers are still denied work permits for the first six months. More recently there has even been a clampdown on that, with applicants still being refused work permits. Those from designated ‘safe countries’, such as South Africa, are processed with speed and without legal assistance, and then left to languish for years in the appeal process, without any access to legal employment. And even those who are granted asylum cannot get housing and are being evicted from direct-provision centres.

It is the government which is making a problem out of this small section of migrants - using them as a scapegoat in order to divert the frustration of working class people. It is the government which has isolated them - refusing to allow them any legally recognised role in society.

We therefore need to point to the real problem - capitalism and its political representatives in the Dáil. The challenge for the left is to demand full citizenship rights for all migrants and take up the struggle so that they become part of our movement - join trade unions and working class political parties and fight in a united way for the interests of our class.

  1. www.cso.ie/en/releasesandpublications/ep/p-pme/populationandmigrationestimatesapril2023.↩︎