DUBLIN - The Republic of Ireland, where the emigration has been a fact of life for generations, is now a destination for tens of thousands of immigrants attracted to the EU member state that has been enjoying steady economic growth.
Ireland, which will hold the presidency of the European Union for the next six months, has not had to draw up a policy on immigration like many of its European partners. This is because of one simple reason: apart from Britons or expatriates of Irish origin, very few people immigrated before the mid-1990s to an island considered poor and isolated.
"Ireland, along with Denmark, remained one of the most ethnically homogenous countries in Western Europe until the late 1990s," said Piaras MacEinri, director of the Irish Center for Migration Studies.
Now, however, around 45,000 people immigrate to Ireland every year, mainly to answer the demand for labor spurred on by a buoyant economy.
The country enjoyed an economic boom when it joined the European Community in January 1973, and thus commenced the virtual disappearance of emigration of young Irish. A move away from farming to industry, plus a sharp focus on education, resulted in significantly improved productivity.
Ireland benefited from huge inward investment, particularly from multinational pharmaceutical and chemicals groups and big-name U.S. technology giants such as Intel, Dell, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and Google.
The number of foreigners remains small in comparison with other European countries, but it is beginning to show in the country of 4 million residents.
"It happened suddenly. We were an island of emigration. We considered ourselves homogenous. There was a predictability about Ireland 20 years ago," said Sister Stanislaw Kennedy, head of the Immigrant Council of Ireland.
"Nothing has been as hard as this because it's so new and there's no policy" on immigration, Kennedy said.
Ireland needs a strategic long-term approach to end public debate on immigration issues, she added.
Peter O'Mahony, who heads the Irish Refugee Council, explained that people were unaccustomed to the new trend. "Unfortunately even though people have been used to emigration, they are not used to immigration," he said.
"From the Great Famine of 1845 to the 1950s, the natural increase in the population was continually offset by out-migration on a scale which was relatively higher than any other European country, leading to an almost continuous decline in the population for more than a century," added Mac Einri.
O'Mahoney said that there was now an average of 10,000 asylum seekers a year in Ireland.
"Fifty percent of those coming to Ireland drop out of the asylum system officially. We think they leave the country."
O'Mahoney said the Irish public had "little sympathy" for immigrants, even though many families had relatives residing illegally in the United States.
Ireland's National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism listed 48 incidents of a xenophobic nature between November 2002 and April 2003. It is asylum seekers, banned from working but receiving social security, who are afforded the most negative welcome, the committee said.