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September 1998, Volume 5, Number 9

Ireland: Romanian Asylum Seekers

Ireland has traditionally been an emigration country. However, in 1997, 29,000 people left and 44,000 arrived in the country. In 1987, by contrast, 40,000 departed and 20,000 arrived.

In 1992, Ireland had only 39 asylum applications; in 1997, there were 3,883. In the summer of 1998, about 100 Romanian asylum seekers a week have been arriving on ferries from Cherbourg, France. The Romanian charge d'affaires said that his countrymen arriving in Ireland "are illegal immigrants who are only here to live on social welfare." Once in Ireland, asylum seekers anticipate at least a two-year process of application and appeal before removal.

A Romanian who calls himself the "King of the Gypsies," told the Sunday Times on August 8, 1998 that he plans to settle in Ireland, describing it as heaven an earth; asylum applicants receive L65 ($100) a week or L3600 a year, compared to L1000 a year in earnings in Romania. Bulibasa Ioan Munteanu, who lives in Heudin in western Romania, says that 100 of the village's 1,000 gypsies have moved to Ireland. He described Ireland is the "new Germany," a place where his people can stay for a long time while their asylum applications are being processed.

While waiting for a decision, they can earn "a fortune," by Romanian standards, through welfare, work and begging. One gypsy reported that she made DM1000 ($555) a day begging with her handicapped child in Germany, and wants to go to Ireland.

In 1993, West Germany and Romania signed a repatriation agreement, which effectively ended the influx of Roma to Germany. In 1997, the Roma began entering Britain after a television show depicted the UK as a country with a generous welfare system and lax regulations. The flow stopped after the British home secretary: (1) pressed for tightened regulations at French ports; and, (2) reduced the period of appeal for refugees refused the right to stay from 28 to five days.

There are about two million Roma, most in Romania. One observer said that there is strong evidence that the movement of gypsies is seasonal, in part related to a shortage of agricultural and other work in the rest of Europe. The "flood" of Czech and Slovak gypsies to Britain in 1997 stopped almost as quickly as it started. Most of the Roma arriving in Ireland use tourist passports to travel to Hungary, then move to Poland, cross illegally into Germany, and then go to France and Ireland by hiding in containers that are taken by ferry. Most report paying about US$84 to be smuggled in a container from the French port of Cherbourg.

Ireland's Minister of Justice has proposed a Trafficking and Employment Bill that would impose sanctions, including a US$14,000 fine and the confiscation of planes, ships, and trucks bringing foreigners without proper authorization into Ireland. The ferry companies blame French immigration officials for not taking appropriate action to prevent foreigners from entering containers at French transit points.

An Irish official says that "It is no secret that a large number of Eastern European nationals have set up shanty towns close to Le Havre and Cherbourg, using them as jumping-off points to get out of France." At least one UK company has added identifying and repatriating stowaways to its services: />
French officials counter that they have been observing a "well-organized immigrant smuggling ring" for over a year, but have been unable to stop the flow. Most of the Romanians arrested on French ferry docks are found to hold French residence papers. Most have applied for asylum in France; they try to leave France for Ireland while their cases are being considered.

The Irish Times on August 8, 1998 reported that several Romanian asylum seekers, after having asylum applications rejected in France, were told to return to Romania or go on to Ireland. About 5,000 asylum seekers have arrived in Ireland since the Dublin convention went into effect in September 1997. The Dublin convention requires foreigners to apply in the first EU country they reach, and makes that country's decision binding on all EU countries. However, Ireland has been able to return only five Romanians to France; France says that Ireland must prove that the Romanians caught in containers left from France.

The Department of Justice added 70 staff members earlier this year in order to deal with the backlog of more than 5,000 asylum applications. Another 70 will be recruited by the asylum branch. By the end of 1998, a staff of nearly 200 will be working on asylum cases, and the minister of justice hopes to cut processing time for cases from about six months to three months.

The influx of asylum seekers has divided the Irish, who are 99 percent white and 97 percent Catholic. Many agree with a Nigerian asylum applicant, who asserted: "Nobody, but nobody, becomes an exile, leaves their country and everything they have, to go to a foreign land, unless it is for fear of persecution, of torture." Migrant advocates note that there are only 7,000 asylum applicants in Ireland.

Many others agree with the Irish Minister of Justice, who says that only five to 10 percent of the applicants are genuine refugees who will be granted asylum. In parts of inner-city Dublin the police have advised migrants not to go out on their own at night because of racist attacks.

Phelim McAleer and Mariana Gavrila Romania, "Romanian gypsy king dreams of new paradise home in Ireland," Sunday Times, August 9, 1998. Kathy Sheridan, "Refugees met with mix of generosity and envy," Irish Times, August 8, 1998. Paul Cullen, "French 'directing' refugees to Ireland. French authorities have not only turned a blind eye to asylum-seekers heading illegally for Ireland but have actively encouraged the traffic, according to the testimony of several Romanians who have lodged applications for asylum here." Irish Times, August 8, 1998. Patrick Bishop, "Jaded welcome on the Emerald Isle," Daily Telegraph, August 1, 1998.