Ireland: A Nation Of Immigrants?

Foreigners are flocking to the nation's jobs and schools -- but the welcome may cool

Sidle up to the bar in almost any of the numerous pubs lining Fleet Street in Dublin's trendy Temple Bar neighborhood, and behind the tap is likely to be an immigrant from China. Go into a Spar convenience store in Dublin's suburbs, and the clerk is often Chinese. As many as 60,000 Chinese now live in Ireland, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao noted during a visit to Dublin in May.

The influx of Chinese across this island nation illustrates two trends of globalization: the outward spread of China's people as well as its goods, and the transformation of Ireland to a nation of immigrants. While most Irish welcome the hardworking Chinese, the overall increase in the number of immigrants from around the globe, especially asylum seekers, is proving contentious now that the economy is starting to slow. On June 12, 79% of voters approved a referendum to tighten the rights to Irish citizenship.

To Americans, the number of immigrants to Ireland may sound low. According to the 2002 Irish census -- the first time the question of nationality ever appeared -- there were 47,500 registered immigrants, among them 18,000 returning Irish. But for a country of only 3.9 million, the figure is huge. On a per-capita basis, it's more than four times the immigration rate of the U.S. And the official data underestimate the true scale of immigration.

Ireland's booming economy, still growing despite a recent slowdown, has been the biggest lure. But Dublin's campaign to promote the nation's schools is also a factor. Each year more than 200,000 international students come to Ireland to study, says Frank O'Conor, manager of education services at Enterprise Ireland, the Irish development agency. The estimated 200 schools that specialize in teaching English, which attract the vast majority of Chinese, generate an estimated $500 million a year from tuition and money paid to families hosting foreign students. The clampdown on student visas by the U.S. has benefited the Irish as well. "It's easier to come here," says Bin Xia, a 30-year-old from outside Shanghai who is getting a PhD in food engineering at University College Dublin.


Victor Huang certainly was vulnerable to the Irish sales pitch. The 22-year-old Beijing native planned on getting his undergraduate degree in Britain or the U.S. Then Irish officials at an education fair convinced him he could get a degree more cheaply in Ireland. So in 1999 he enrolled at the Athlone Institute of Technology -- as the only Chinese student. "Everyone thought I was Japanese," he recalls. The school today has more than 100 Chinese students. Huang is studying for a master's at the Michael Smurfit Graduate School of Business at University College, and working part-time at ORL Consultancy helping small and midsize Irish businesses forge links with China. "I can see myself staying here," he says.

But there's a division between advanced students like Huang and Bin and thousands of other Chinese. The number of Chinese students in Ireland has mushroomed from a few hundred in 1997 to more than 30,000 now. Under work-study visas, students can legally work up to 20 hours a week. Faced with high living costs, many work far longer hours, sometimes dropping their studies or staying to work long after their visas have expired. "An awful lot of students coming here have little interest in learning English. They are coming as economic migrants," says Detective Superintendent Gerry Cadden, a senior official at the Garda National Immigration Bureau (GNIB).

Despite the mixed feelings of some Irish, a new study says Ireland will need skilled immigrants to fill some 400,000 jobs in the next five years. Huang Qin, 36, a nurse from Nanjing studying at Dublin's Eurocollege, which specializes in medical English, hopes to help fill the gap. Eurocollege is run by Irishman Ray Gunning and Lin Lin Li, a former English student from Inner Mongolia. "As a woman in China, I could never have run my own business," Li says. "Here in Ireland, I'm taken seriously." Very seriously indeed.

By Kerry Capell in Dublin

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