The recent arrival of Romany Gypsies,
or Roma, to Ireland focused attention on this much-maligned ethnic minority
and brought the entire East-West immigration issue into the public domain
for the first time in Irish life. Ireland is a country with a long history
of emigration and for centuries Irish people have emigrated to every corner
of the globe. They have done this to escape the violence of colonization,
the hunger of the Great Famine in the 1840's or simply to seek out a better
life for themselves and their children. Virtually every decade of this
century saw large numbers of Irish people emigrating to Britain, the United
States, Australia, Canada and various countries throughout Europe. This
has changed in recent times. A much improved economy and the general East-West
migration of people has meant that for the first time Ireland now has people
applying for asylum there. In the past five years about 7000 refugees have
arrived in Ireland, the majority of them seeking political asylum. They
have come from Bosnia and other eastern European countries, Turkey and
the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. About 1,500 of these refugees are
from Romania, a substantial proportion of whom are Roma or Gypsies. But
it was the arrival of about 250 Romanians, nearly all Gypsies, to the port
of Rosslare, Wexford, in Southern Ireland in the last two weeks of July
and the first week of August (1998) which really brought the immigration
issue to a head.
The Gypsies arrived on ferries from Cherbourg in France where they had
hidden on container lorries which were transporting goods between the two
countries. The manner of their arrival - one group which was discovered
by police on arrival numbered over 40 people and included two pregnant
women and children, all of whom had been travelling for days with very
little food or water - led to a sense of outrage amongst Irish people and
this was exacerbated by the fear that someone might soon be found dead
in one of these lorries. The Irish Department of Justice came under severe
pressure to combat the problem of illegal trafficking and the formation
of an adequate social policy response to immigration. There is at present
a backlog of asylum applications with some immigrants already waiting the
best part of four years for their applications to be processed. Sociologists
believe that the Gypsies who arrived recently in Wexford may belong to
the monied and mobile minority of Roma who can afford to pay huge sums
- relative to the salary of the average Romanian worker - to be smuggled
across Europe. A senior policeman with Europol confirmed that the trafficking
of illegal immigrants into Europe is increasingly being controlled by highly-organised
criminal gangs, who use routes traditionally used by drug traffickers.
Terezaia Micula, her husband and three children were amongst the group
of 47 people who arrived in Wexford in the first week of August. They told
the Irish Independent newspaper of their arduous journey across Europe
having paid an unknown German 700 German marks ( about £300 Irish
pounds) to be smuggled out of Romania. They said that they left Romania
and stopped in Prague where they changed trucks. "We did not pick Ireland.
We talked to a man in Czech who said he would get us to a free country
where our children will be allowed to go to school and we can get jobs
and earn money." The 13-day journey was not easy for any of the refugees.
A fifteen year old girl who has since given birth to a baby in Ireland
found the journey particularly tough. They are all seeking political asylum
and many claimed that they were persecuted in Romania, particularly by
the police. A boy named Vilmos said through an interpreter that his father
was frequently arrested and that he left primary school to be by his side.
Sabin Cirpaciu who travelled with his pregnant wife and child said that
"In Romania our children were not allowed to go to school, they had no
medical care and we could not get jobs. We were discriminated against,
our families were very poor there and we were considered a different race".
The refugees said that they were willing to learn English, that they
wanted to find work and wished to integrate into Irish society. Unfortunately
they are prohibited from working while their applications for asylum are
being processed under the present guidelines of the Irish Department of
Justice who appear to be taking a particularly tough line on the immigration
issue. European Economic Community (EEC) regulations state that those people
who are proven to have have travelled through a number of EEC countries
before applying for asylum, may be sent back to the first European country
which they entered if their application is unsuccessful. The Gypsies have
emigrated to the West and to Ireland for a variety of reasons according
to Nicolae Gheorghe, a Romanian sociologist who has studied his country's
2-million strong Gypsy population. He told the Irish edition of the Sunday
Times that the Gypsies "want to be in a country where the economy works
well and where there isn't daily predjudice against Gypsies. There is a
perception that Ireland which produces a lot of emigrants is still tolerant".
The reaction in Ireland to the most recent immigrant
arrivals was mixed. In a country which has never had a history of immigration,
legal or illegal it was inevitable that there would be some negative
reaction. Some of the tabloid newspapers tried to whip up racist and negative
attitudes towards the immigrants by speaking in terms of an "influx", a
"wave" or a "flood" of asylum seekers when this was clearly not the case
and warning that many of them were only here to claim welfare. There were
reports in one newspaper that Roma men were trying to befriend local women
in an effort to have a child by them, thereby gaining permission to stay
in Ireland. The same paper also accused the Roma of being given luxury
accomodation, eating in restaurants and digging up vegetables from gardens
because they were hungry - a suggestion that fits oddly with the notion
that they were also patronising the town's finest restaurants.
The Roma request for political asylum was probably not helped either
by an interview (including photo) in one of the "quality" Sunday newspapers
with a self-styled "King of the Gypsies" named Bulibasa Ioan Munteanu from
the village of Huedin in rural western Romania who was said to have described
Ireland as a heaven on earth, where money was easy to make, applications
for asylum were taking a number of years to be processed and the social
welfare system was very generous. The Baro Rom said that a hundred of Huedin's
thousand Gypsies were already living in Ireland and had already telephoned
home with reports of the generosity of the welfare system. Despite this
interview and the scaremongering attempts of a small group titling itself
the Immigration Control Platform regarding a possible "flood" of refugees
the ordinary Irish people treated the Gypsies well. Local people came to
the community centre in Wexford every day with cups of tea and food for
the Roma community until the Gypsies were housed in local apartments. Various
groups of Gypsies were also given accomodation in the counties of Wexford,
Monaghan and Cork.
Crismarita Anghel, his wife and four children who
were staying in a hostel in Monaghan confirmed the welcome of the Irish
people when they told one of the Sunday newspapers "In Ireland, for the
first time, we have been treated equally. The people have been nice, much
nicer than they are in Romania, but then they couldn't have been much worse."
These Romanian Gypsies are not the first Roma to visit Ireland. Some English
Romany families came to Ireland in the 1940s to avoid conscription and
stayed to marry into Irish Traveller families. There is also evidence of
some intermarriage between the English Romanies and the large Irish Traveller
population in England. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century large
numbers of Gypsy families have emigrated from Europe to America, some of
them stopping briefly in Ireland on the way. A few of the Kalderash Gypsy
coppersmith families who caused quite a stir amongst the British population
as they travelled around Britain at the turn of the century also came to
Ireland around 1911. They didn't stay long however, the poverty of the
Ireland of the early 1900's perhaps limiting their opportunties for employment.
There has always been a movement west amongst the Roma searching for a
better life for themselves and their families. Over a thousand Czech and
Slovak Gypsies emigrated to Canada at the end of 1997 and about the same
number arrived in Dover last year to try and claim asylum in Britain.
At present there are approximately 7000 asylum applications in Ireland
compared with 105,000 in Germany in 1997 and 41,500 in Britain. In Ireland
this represents 0.1 percent of the population and brings the country into
line with its European neighbours who for many years have taken in the
refugee burden leaving Ireland untouched. Last year refugees made up 0.13
percent of the German population and 0.07 percent of Britain. It is not
clear how many Roma are presently living in Ireland but it is estimated
there may be anything between a 1000 and 1,500 Roma who have yet to have
their applications for asylum processed.
(August 27th, 1998)
The forty-seven Romanian Gypsies who were smuggled into Ireland in
freight containers at the beginning of August have had their applications
for asylum rejected and have been told to leave the state within two weeks.
The decision was one of the fastest made by the Irish Department of Justice
in recent times regarding asylum applications. It is believed the Department
is anxious to deter more Gypsies from coming to Ireland. All the Gypsies
who come from Arad in Eastern Romania are to appeal the decision but it
is unlikely that their appeal will be successful. The Gypsy group which
included over 27 adults and 20 children were being accomodated at a holiday
hostel in Castleblayney, County Monaghan and were said to be "extremely
upset" at the prospect of being deported. One woman in the group gave birth
to a baby girl while she was in Ireland. The girl, named Micula-Lamita
Elisabeta is an Irish citizen and is automatically entitled to residence
in Ireland. About 200 Romanian asylum-seekers, most of whom were Roma Gypsies
arrived in Ireland during the month of August.
Most of them entered the country by hiding in lorries which arrived
from the French port of Cherbourg to Rosslare in southern Ireland. Since
then, security has been tightened at the French port and very few people
have arrived in Rosslare in recent weeks. It is thought that the Gypsies
may be sent back to France as under EEC regulations asylum seekers must
make their applications in the first country in which they have lived.
Irish police suspect that these Roma may have been living in France for
a time before coming to Ireland as many of the children speak fluent French.
The tough stance taken by the Department of Justice in relation to the
most recent Gypsy immigrants has been severely criticized by many of the
Irish populace including sections of the Irish media and the various groups
campaigning on behalf of the rights of refugees.
(October 8th, 1998)
The forty-seven Romanian Gypsies mentioned above are still in Ireland.
Their appeal against deportation is still being heard.