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The Beginning of the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland

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Fr Bobby Gilmore SSC was one of the founders of the MRCI in 2001 and remains President of the MRCI to this day. Since his ordination in 1963, Bobby has worked in the Philippines, Jamaica, the USA, and with Irish migrants in the UK. Here, he writes about when and why the MRCI was founded.

Migration was hitting the headlines in Ireland in 1999. However, it wasn’t the kind of migration that Ireland had experienced for more than 150 years. That type of migration was emigration, involuntary economic migration. It seldom made media headlines because it was too painful to admit a national failure – the inability to offer citizens access to the economy by way of a job.

The migration headlines of 1999 were about the arrival of foreigners in Ireland. It became clear the vast majority of newcomers to Ireland were economic migrants similar to Irish emigrants in Britain and elsewhere. Many were coming from outside the European Union, invited here by both public and private enterprise. There was general misinformation that these new arrivals were getting all kinds of benefits. There were the age-old anti-immigrant accusations of taking jobs, housing, and draining public services.

These racist remarks were similar to those directed against Irish people in Britain. On reflection, Ireland, having developed a culture of departure, found it difficult to cope with the experience of arrival. In some instances the hostility directed was palpable. There were concerns that this climate of hatred would lead to isolation, marginalisation and ghettoisation.

Due to a lack of information about the networks of life in Ireland, many of these immigrants were contacting retired missionaries who had worked in their countries – but they were as misinformed about modern Ireland as those calling them. Recognising the fact that migration operates on anecdotal information, it was imperative that a response was formulated to prevent or at least minimise the repetition of past failures in the migration process, and to ease the experience of leaving the familiar home and dealing with the culture shock of the unfamiliar.

It was obvious that these immigrants needed information. However, there was no agency that offered objective information to economic migrants. A group of us decided to put in place an organisation to enable immigrants to relate to the networks of Irish life, contribute to and benefit from the economy, integrate and settle.

The ethos of such an organisation would be rights based, empowering immigrants to be the subjects of their own destiny rather than the objects of other’s needs.

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Migration is the human heart on a journey of hope. To be effective this organisation would need to match the hope in immigrant eyes and walk with them in their journey of hope.

With funding from the Columban Mission Society, the MRCI was set up in a basement in Beresford Place, Dublin 1. The staff and volunteers brought energy and creativity as well as a spirit of welcome. Essentially, non-verbally, they sent out a message to the immigrant coming in the door that “you are welcome and not out of place.” This message is counter-cultural in an Ireland and Europe that for centuries treated the outsider as different and in deficit. Like it or not, Ireland – though colonised – was part of the British and other European colonising projects under-pinned by racism.

Migrant Rights Centre Ireland has a clear motivation to empower migrants using objective information, community work, advocacy and networking. Working in solidarity with trade unions, the community and voluntary sector, the government and others to create an atmosphere of respect, dignity and equality for all has also been at the heart of its work.  Exploitation should not be a characteristic of the 21st century.

But while immigrants and their integration is the dominant aspiration of MRCI, it is essential to recognise the truth the immigrant tells us about ourselves since s/he sees more than we know. Ireland needs to constantly be reminded to treat immigrants in Ireland the way it wishes other countries to treat Irish immigrants. Welcoming the stranger is as challenging today as it was in biblical times and is a critical message that MRCI has carried through the years.