Why don’t migrants vote?

The first seminar on the Voice of Migrants in Irish Politics, organised by Dialogue and Diversity, took place this week at Trinity College and was a very enriching experience. The seminar room was full of people from many different backgrounds who engaged in the conversation through passionate speeches, even taking the attention away from the main speakers. At the end, everything revolved around a central question: why don’t migrants participate in politics?

Lack of confidence

During the session, many participants stated that one of the main problems for migrant people to integrate in Irish society is a lack of confidence at many levels. Some of these people come from very difficult backgrounds (especially refugees) and when they arrive they might be subject to verbal and even physical attacks, furthering their isolation. This circumstance is worsened when the “racial” element is at stake, as pointed out from one of the attendees, from Eritrea. “The racial element is at the core of this issue, and we should be represented in events like this”, he said, also pointing out the fact that there were no black speakers at the table.

There’s also a lack of confidence towards the authorities, from security forces to government agencies. The Gardaí were strongly criticised during the seminar for not being “sensible” to problems such as racial abuse. According to Stephen O’Flynn, from the Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland, “the Gardaí tend to dismiss accusations of racial abuse and encourage to prosecute on different grounds”. Public institutions were also pointed at for dismissing accusations of labour exploitation and blaming the exploited for “working more hours than their visa allows”, as well as for establishing barriers such as naturalization fees. “I’m entitled to citizenship but I can’t spend 1000 euros in it”, a Brazillian woman explained.

Waste of resources

According to Professor Bryan Fanning, one of the event speakers, who has conducted several surveys with Irish political parties as part of his research, the idea that “migrants don’t vote” is an understatement in Irish politics. Therefore, migrants are considered by most political parties as a “bad allocation of resources”. To express it in simpler words, they are not worth the effort, especially in general elections like the one we’re approaching. The fact that political candidates are not trying to approach migrants is quite worrying in a country like Ireland, where 12% of the population are migrants, although it is certainly difficult to appeal to something as diverse as the “migrant population”.

On the other hand, the political arena is very network-oriented. That means that, in order to have an influence in politics you need to know people, to attend public events, and that makes it very hard for an outsider that seeks to actively participate in politics. As some of the participants stated, political parties need to understand the beneficial effects of getting migrants to participate and vote, not just for themselves, as the migrant population represents a fair share of votes, but also for society in general.

Voting for what?

Together, the lack of confidence in society and the fact that politicians are not doing enough to reach out to migrants has created a vicious circle that is very difficult to break. Migrants don’t vote because they don’t feel welcome and politicians don’t talk to migrants because they don’t vote. The idea was best explained by the attendees: “When everything works like this, how do they expect me to engage? What am I voting for?” As a result of this, migrants tend to develop what Fanning called “a sense of self-reliance” and focus in their communities.

Possible solutions

Apart from criticism and grief, many solutions and positive ideas were pointed out during the talk. Everybody agreed in the need to “get out of these rooms”, unite and take such issues to the public arena, to “push from the communities” and create a space for them in the political agenda. But how to do this? Zoryana Pshych, one of the attendees, spoke about her experience in Co. Kildare, where a collaboration between the Integration Council and local groups was established to transform “issues into action”. The initiative, which is supervised by a “voluntary monitoring body” seeks to target and integrate “isolated people” through meetings and activities.

At the end, it remained clear that there are many possible strategies to tackle these issues. Success or failure will result from the capacity of both parts (migrants and institutions) to collaborate. In this sense, the institutions seem to bear the biggest responsibility, as it is their job to treat all citizens equally, but in reality, it will depend on the capacity of the migrant community and Irish civil society in general to make them do it.


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