Archive for Irish Emigration

CAVEAT EMPTOR: (e)Migrant Beware

CAVEAT EMPTOR: (e)Migrant Beware

People who are emigrating from Ireland, and indeed any migrant, needs to be aware that while counties are more willing to take workers they are constantly seeking ways of evading their responsibilities towards those same workers. As in any transaction there is a caveat; Migrant Beware…

Every evening, one of our many television channels air programs in the reality TV genre featuring scenes at border control points. Airports are the most frequently depicted locations. Uniformed Customs and or Immigration Officers provide off camera comment on operational cases. People are investigated for drug possession, importation of illegal substances such as plants that are deemed harmful to the local environment and visa violations. Some are found guilty and are passed over to the authorities, others are returned on the next flight and those found innocent of the allegations made by Customs or Immigration are allowed travel onwards to meet their friends or family members.

Those who are allowed to continue on their planned itinerary are usually very relieved and despite all the arguments and prior protestations with officials they end up leaving on very good terms. In some cases you would be forgiven for thinking that the previously accused person just stops short of hugging the officer; at least that is how the program depicts the event.

While these programs may attract large ratings; they provide us with valuable insights into the vulnerability of those who travel.  The ‘no man’s land’ between national borders is not a pretty place to be under investigation. Simply put, if a person is arrested for similar crimes on the street they have rights. While in a customs or immigration zone, a person has few rights with little access to third party assistance until they are passed over to other civil authorities; there is no on the spot right to appeal; there is no dictate that a person is entitled to a phone call, and furthermore, there is no recourse to governance structure or accountability structure for one who accused or detained regardless of guilt or innocence. Normal rules similar to those relating to the freedom of information legislation do not apply in ‘no man’s land’. In short when a person is in a pre-immigration clearance zone they have few rights.

Whatever about the rights and wrongs of these realities they indicate the vulnerable position of those who migrate. It also highlights how policy at borders is out of step with many basic human rights. This has not occurred by accident. Let us be under no illusion that migration policy is seldom about the well-being of the migrant – the needs of the receiving country are top of the agenda. Evidence of this is to be found in our own history. For example, improvements made to living conditions for passengers on the ships used for Trans-Atlantic crossings from Europe to Canada and America via Ireland by shipping companies in the nineteenth century had less to do with the rights of those travelling and more to do with the fear of the outbreak of infectious diseases in the receiving countries.

One might rightfully expect in the era we live in, that policy for migrants ought to be more advanced and humane in our world today. However, policy situates the migrant in a place of secondary importance.  Countries attract migrants because the migrants fill a deficit in the labour market. Their capital needs people’s labour. Whether it is an airline company, the mining sector, nursing or the provision of farm labourers; this work is often work that local people consider to be unrewarding or too difficult. Immigrants willingly and conveniently fill the space.

One important learning point from these observations is a person contemplating migration needs to be aware that they are often unimportant in the equation. Some people working for large multinationals are well insulated from these realties. Their companies often deal directly with departments of immigration to secure visas for their workers. The ordinary migrant, however, needs to identify and examine possible loop holes that may lead to exploitation. As stated previously the sector governing migration is largely ungoverned and the possibilities for exploitation are rife leaving little place for recourse to an appeal or reimbursement if a person is exploited or is a victim or fraud.

This occurs in practise when private companies promise visas and are unable to deliver on their promises. Some countries license a number of visa companies or immigration lawyers to act their behalf; this is a good thing where it happens and protects against a certain amount of exploitation. However, there are many companies who promise visas and who may not be certified by the countries for which they claim to offer visas. These companies may not be able to deliver despite taking large amounts of money from customers.  Furthermore, and unbeknownst to many, a country is not obligated to inform a person why their visa application was refused. There are many reasons why an application might not be successful. An error made by party who acts on your behalf is enough to have your application rejected.

Due to advances in technology our modern world, many countries only allow on-line visa applications. A visa refusal, therefore, could also be based on an error made by you on an on-line application, which is perfectly understandably considering the complexity of some of these sites and the ambiguity of some of the questions.  The bottom line for the person applying is they may never know why their application was rejected. A further weakness in the system is due to a lack of proper governance and policing by countries of the on-line applications. In some cases visa offers are taken up by people who may not intend to use the visa; the cancelled or unused visa is not re-issued. Others avail of the opportunity provided by the visa to obtain a summer job stealing the opportunity of long term work and even future settlement for a potential applicant. These scenarios only open the windows on other shortcomings in the management of migration. In case we think that it only other countries that we travel to that exploit people; Ireland is not without her faults.

Many Irish returned during the Celtic Tiger years or have returned to look after parents in their old age amongst other reasons only to discover that their workplace credentials were not recognised here. This is particularly true for those in the trades sector. The present campaign by the Migrants Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI ) highlights that gaps in our immigration laws are excluding the children of migrants access to third level education despite the fact that they have lived in Ireland for many years. This campaign identifies a growing worldwide trend affecting migrants; countries are creating an ever increasing gap between people and welfare.

Governments are finding ways to create a global worker scheme whereby a person’s contribution to the work force is a given but the countries responsibility towards that person is no longer part of the deal. Indeed the growth of undocumented population world-wide suggests that the presence of these labour forces is quietly tolerated by the host nation. The countries in question, including Ireland, have a ready supply of labour while they have little responsibility or duty towards them. Recent schemes such as the International Experience Canada and the Australian 457 (as highlighted in Pádraig Collins’ Sydney Letter in the Irish Times on March 18th) visa programs are examples of this. Further study would in no doubt reveal that there is a very thin line between the status of undocumented workers and those who are permitted to stay in jurisdictions with work permits. For instance many Irish people working in Middle Eastern countries will be stateless once their work permits expire. They may even be homeless if they haven’t little provision for life beyond their expiry date.

Knowing how vulnerable the migrant is, it no wonder migrant NGO’s worldwide charged with emigrant care spend their time preparing information for those intending to emigrate. The old catch cry still applies i.e. the three most important things for those emigrating are: prepare; prepare; prepare.  Furthermore it is even less of a wonder why groups working with immigrants are constantly highlighting gaps in policy and status between immigrants and the general population.

The casual observer might say, ‘sure this doesn’t affect me, this only matters to migrants’. How wrong can you be! Firstly, and according to the International Organisation for Migration, migration is on the increase because people need to migrant form poverty and countries that have decreasing birth rates need migrants to carry out essential services to society. Secondly, bad policy creates discontent in society. We all want to live together well; polices that create inequalities militate against social cohesion. Thirdly, and this has been proven and referred to by many scholars; the migrant highlights what is ahead for us all. If governments can reduce their responsibilities to migrants they will soon extend that approach to its citizens. Whether it occurs through ideology or austerity doesn’t really matter; the migrant is like the scout of old; they may find a way through new territories but in doing so they will meet the hazards first.

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Emigration: It’s not getting any easier.

There’s a story told of a man from the west of Ireland stepping onto the platform in Euston Station, London after a long trip on the mail boat and the train. Like most arriving in London, he’s left the pain of emigration somewhere on the Irish Sea and he successfully suppresses these feelings with the belief that untold opportunity and wealth await him. He is laden down with his cardboard suitcase which contains a change of clothes and a few other rudimentary items. Under the same arm is a turkey that hasn’t been plucked, its limp head hanging out of the newspaper that it is wrapped in. His other arm delicately balances a smoked ham and a tin of Jacob’s biscuits, all destined for the relations of various neighbours from his home parish. He takes two steps up the platform and spots a twenty pound note on the ground. Finding it difficult to pick up the note with his excess baggage, he mumbles to himself, ‘‘ah sure, I’ll come back tomorrow to collect a few of them”.

Emigrants today may not have turkeys and hams under their arms but they still carry what we have come to know as a cultural identity which can be a burden and a gift, depending on circumstances and context. One can become aware of one’s cultural identity when placed in a new environment. The way I work, sleep, eat, drink, learn, sustain friendships and the values that I hold dear are often only highlighted when I encounter someone or somewhere different. Subsequently, the migrant journey is a constant conversation between what is new and what is familiar. This conversation gives you a sense your own difference, a difference that can only be explained by your cultural identity which is exposed to you like never before because of your new environment. Furthermore you question whether you want to retain or left go of your difference. This process can be referred to as the dialogue between integration and particularity. In this context ‘integration’ is the desire to become part of the place you now hope to call home and ‘particularity’ refers to the cultural identity that you can’t really shake off because it is who you are.

Settling down, never mind emigrating, has unique challenges these days. In times gone by people got on with things, there was little else to do. Their heart often tugged them homewards but their surroundings soon brought them back. Today there is an expectation that a person can occupy two spaces at the same time with ease. Technology has us living in two times zones at any one point in time. As a result ‘getting on with things’ can be more difficult.

Technology use can inadvertently cause distress: you can wake up in the morning to a missed call from a friend or relative who was overexcited as they relayed in their message how much ‘craic’ you are missing at such and such a social event at home. When you are told not to worry about a sick parent, you can’t put it aside that easily anymore; ‘they’re fine’ doesn’t wash with the fact that you haven’t seen them on Skype for the last few weeks. Sometimes you’d love to be free just to get on with settling but technology keeps pulling you back, tugging at your heart strings, drawing you into a different time zone when you are trying to ready yourself for action in a world of new opportunities.

When our Euston Station character stepped off the train, there is no doubt that he knew something about the country he was travelling to. This information gave him a sense of security which helped to get him over the first few hurdles until he began to listen and learn. As we face a new phase of Irish emigration people would be foolish to think that today’s more technology literate ‘sophisticated’ generation won’t encounter their own problems. Indeed the dialogue between integration and particularity may be more difficult for them than it was for previous generations.

Many others stepped off trains thinking they knew the way things worked in their new country. From the many stories that were told at home, the letters that were written, the programmes that were watched or listened to, the potential emigrant created a sense that they had it ‘sussed’; that they knew what they were heading into. Present waves of emigrants have more access to information about destination countries than past generations. They may not believe that the streets are paved with gold did but they still have expectations and dreams that will eventually engage a new reality.

Whilst preparation is very important for the new emigrant, no amount of research time spent on online search engines can give the smells, tastes and hazards of a new land. No amount of guidebooks prepares you for the interactions with people of another land where frankness can be confused with rudeness and laughter seen as dismissive and uncaring. No amount of self-help books can capture the right way to say that final good bye in the airport to those that matter. Neither will these books help you overcome the sense of sheer confusion when you wake up midway through a long-haul flight realising you are not going home in two weeks time. This confused, uncomfortable semi-slumber finds you asking yourself ‘what the hell am I at?’ for the first time.

Whatever about the personal struggles that the emigrant experiences there is no doubt that external factors such as immigration policies can inhibit or enhance this struggle. Policy regimes are much stricter than those that existed in the past. Today, policies focus more on protecting the possessions and welfare benefits of the residents of a country than supporting opportunities for potential immigrants. In previous eras countries that needed immigrants had, for the large part, open-door policies. Where this was not the case there were opportunities for sponsorship by a family member who was already a citizen or resident of the country. Today the scenario is quite different. Borders are less porous and citizenship is more difficult to achieve. People still take risks. They travel on holiday visas, overstay and become illegal. If caught they are deported and receive a bar which means they are not allowed to enter that country for many years. This is particularly tragic when many of those that are illegal could have entered their chosen country legally if they had taken time to carry out some basic research.

This inability to learn from the mistakes of past waves of emigration is in evidence in various ways. One group that comes to mind is the many Irish emigrants to Britain in the 1950s and 1960s who made very little provision for their later years. Those that worked for ‘the lump’ followed the work wherever it would take them. Being paid in cash in a public house meant that the wage was short lived and quickly absorbed by the cash register. One might think that such circumstances are a thing of the past. Today many Irish working in the Middle East are there for as long as their work permits are valid. As soon as their employment comes to an end, they have no status and will have to leave the jurisdiction. Where do they go? We are all too familiar with the scenario whereby when you reach a certain age your prospects of employment are lessened. But what is the emigrant has made no provision for the day when there is no pay cheque? The country that offered employment with little hope of integration is no longer concerned for the emigrant’s well being. These subtle policies are signals to emigrants that it is time to move on. If the emigrant is Irish and has lived outside Ireland for a long number of years it is most likely that the emigrant has made no social welfare contributions in their original country.

Despite these challenges, fans of globalisation advocate the benefits of living in two places in the world at the one time. However the ultimate question lurking behind the ups and downs of the migratory process is the existential question which asks ‘to whom do I belong?’ The answer to this question is not found in technology or policies but in the human heart. The challenge to today’s emigrants is the same challenge that faced emigrants in the past. At the end of the day if an emigrant is fortunate enough to live in a place where they can put their hand on their heart and proclaim ‘I belong here’ then they can safely say that they have found their home in the world.

Alan Hilliard (Rev)

(An edited version of this article was published in the Irish Times on March 17th 2011)

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