Policy, Politics and Participation

April 17th, 2013

How does policy influence the political integration of migrants in Europe?

Cities of Migration asked Fidele Mutwarasibo, Integration Manager of the Irish Immigrant Council, to comment on his Institute of Public Affairs report, The Challenge of Dealing with Third Country Nationals’ Political Participation (Warsaw, 2012).

You describe diversity as the norm in many European cities and towns, yet note that this diversity has not been reflected in urban political institutions so far. What is the impact of leaving diverse communities out of the picture?

In many European cities, there is diversity in a descriptive sense –  you can see diversity in the streets and neighborhoods. This is not the case when it comes to acknowledging diversity in a normative sense, i.e., in some quarters within the majority situation, and in many European countries the imagined identity is based on ius sanguinis , or identity based on the blood line.

In terms of the visibility of diversity in urban political institutions, there are a few challenges, including the fact that some countries in Europe don’t allow migrants to vote and stand in the local elections. Even in countries where the migrants are allowed to vote, they may be excluded from becoming candidates unless they meet certain criteria.

Some cities have been creative and set up migrant forums in the interest of  some form of migrants’ political participation. There other factors that one has to keep in mind such as the lack of political education during the integration process that results in a low level of understanding of political rights of migrants even in countries where they are allowed to vote. The diversity within the migrant population also implies that even in districts where there are many migrants, there is no reason to believe that they will vote for a migrant candidate per se.  This is why most successful migrant candidates in Ireland, for example, have stood for issues that are espoused by the wider public. Another important element is that political cultures are different in various countries and this has implications when it comes to migrants’ political participation.

You explore arguments for and against migrants’ voting rights. What can your experience in the City of Dublin teach us?

Allowing migrant to vote in local elections enables migrant to acquaint themselves with the political culture and the political institutions in the countries of residence. A survey conducted by the Immigrant Council of Ireland in 2012 revealed that 73.3% of the naturalized citizens who participated in the survey had participated to some extent in possible elections; only 26.7% had not participated in any elections in Ireland. The general voter turn out in Irish general elections was 70.05% in 2011, 67.03% in 2007 and 62.57% in 2002. Based on the data available, being on the voter register soon after arriving in the country of residence may influence positively political participation of migrants in the long run.

The election of Rotimi Adebari and Dr Taiwo Matthew to the Portlaoise and Ennis town councils respectively in 2004 was widely reported in the Irish media. As a result there was a huge increase in the numbers of migrant candidates in the 2009 local elections. The election of Rotimi Adebari to the position of mayor of Portlaoise in 2007 was also widely reported and was seen as a good example of political integration. Overall, allowing migrants to participate in the local election is a very good indicator of migrants’ inclusion in society and demonstrates the need to move away from too much focus on economic and social integration (and to some extend cultural integration). It also helps in starting the important debate on national identity in diverse societies.

Much is made in Europe of the distinction between EU nationals and non-EU, or third country nationals. How relevant is this distinction? If you live and work (legally), pay taxes, shouldn’t everybody have the right to vote on decisions that affect daily life such as schools, roads, and safety?

The distinction between EU nationals and third country nationals is enshrined in the EU Treaty Rights. The EU Treaty Rights provide for mobility within the European Union and, as such, give more rights to migrants from the EU who choose to move to other EU member states. Note that they have to be economically active to avail themselves of these rights. As to whether third country nationals with residency should have the same rights as EU nationals, this would mean changing the legislation and this is not likely to happen soon. Moreover, the right to vote in local elections for all the migrants (including third country nationals) is recommended by the European Commission and the Council of Europe. If it were to come into effect in all EU member states, I don’t see why third country nationals would feel politically excluded because the only elections where they would be excluded would be the general elections, the European elections, the referenda and the presidential elections where they are provided for. In 2009, the Immigrant Council of Ireland made a presentation to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution and called on it to examine ways to extend voting rights to migrants who are established residents in the State. In my view, there is a case to be made for those who have permanent residency but I am not sure I can sway the public on this!

You list some of the main arguments for extending voting rights to resident foreigners – such as no taxation without participation; equal treatment over time; more political participation of the whole society; immigrants are permanent members of society; and pathways to citizenship. Which of these arguments is most persuasive?

I have to highlight the case for and against voting rights in local elections. In terms to the argument I feel strongly about, the permanency of diversity is very important. The Rotterdam Charter drawn up in 1996 highlights the importance of ensuring that public institutions especially the police should mirror society at large. It is interesting to note that in countries like Canada, the USA and the UK when you arrive at the immigration desks you find immigration officers who reflect the diversity in these countries — whereas in other countries you don’t get the same sense of diversity when you land. The visibility of diversity in the police, politics, media and classroom highlights to the current and next generations of migrants that they are part of society. Symbolic representation in my view is very important.

 You write, “Non-electoral political participation and representation is important, but political participation through the electoral process brings migrants into mainstream political institutions and decision-making circles.”  What is the distinction between migrant “voice” and “vote?”

There is a difference between the migrant voice and vote in so far as you can have a voice without having necessarily a vote — for example through an elected migrant forum at the level of the city, or through trade unions and other civil society platforms. For me, the vote implies voting and standing in mainstream elections. This does not necessarily lead to representation, especially if and when the candidates you vote for are not elected. We also have to distinguish the elected representatives in two broad categories – the trustees (representatives who act in the national interest) and the delegates (agent of the constituents). Having delegate representatives might offer representation (voice) on migrants’ issues even when migrants don’t have the right to vote and stand in the elections.

In Ireland most of the Irish elected officials are delegates in their practices and on the national issues they tend to follow the party whip. That is why there is a vacuum when it comes to political leadership on  issues pertaining to immigration, integration and diversity. Finally, it is important to note that having visible minorities in elected position doesn’t necessarily means a voice for these communities because the visible minority elected officials might act according to what they feel will get them votes next time around. Having said that, there is no doubt that descriptive representation is very important though! Look at the effect of Obama’s election on the visible minorities in the USA for example.

Gaining the right to vote for all residents, regardless of status, requires great political will. What argument is most likely to sway local leaders?

When it comes to winning the argument, it is very simple! By including current migrants, we are including their children. By promoting political inclusion today, we will reap the benefits in 20 years time. The riots in France in 2005 and 2007 and in the Northeast of England in 2001 and the most recent riots in London highlight why we need to have channels of communications with all the citizenry. Failure to include the migrants in the long term leads to infra-politics (i.e.,  “any individual practices that resist the elite’s domination on a material or symbolic level, by adopting low profile and using its weaknesses strategically” (Scott, 1990:183)). It is argued that “the incentive for immigrants to vote tends to strengthen in tandem with the degree of an individual’s psychological and material investment in a given society… Alienation and/or apathy, undoubtedly, play a role in depressing voter turnout among immigrants. Alienation often springs from the failure of the political system to deliver the desired symbolic and material outcomes to immigrants” (Messina, 2004:8). Furthermore, “the promotion of migrants’ and refugees’ involvement in mainstream civil organisations is the duty of the whole society: legislative bodies should reduce hindrances for the civic and political engagement of migrants and refugees. Civic organisations should develop strategies to encourage migrants’ and refugees’ membership and active engagement. Political parties should be more active in trying to attract migrants and refugees and offer training in political processes” (ECRE, 2007).

Most of us vote daily one way or another, usually with our hearts. Who are you “voting” for in…

…the FIFA World Cup. If people are included they will identify themselves with society and will not necessarily identify themselves with the countries of origin. Furthermore, it is possible to have multiple identities at any given time. For example, being a parent, supporting the same sports club, members of a gym, sharing political views (liberal or conservative), liking the same kind of food, being in the same profession and so forth. So supporting the Mexico team in the world cup especially when they are playing against a team other than Canada (if you are a Canada resident) should not be an issue. For example, I support Brazil because of their flair (in the past that is) and yet I have never been to Brazil and indeed I don’t have any member of my extended family in Brazil. Feeling included in the country of residence would enhance identification with the national team in the case of the world cup –  remember only 32 team qualify – and I have to say it is a fraction of the countries we have in the world.

Fidele Mutwarasibo is an advocate, activist and public academic based in Dublin, Ireland. His main areas of interest are: human rights; equality; immigration; integration; diversity; inclusion; representation; and participation. He works currently as the Integration Manager at the Immigrant Council of Ireland. He holds a PhD in Sociology (University College Dublin) and is an alumni fellow of the Transatlantic Forum on Migration and Integration, an initiative of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Robert Bosch Foundation.

Read the full report: Mutwarasibo, Fidele.  The Challenge of Dealing with Third Country Nationals’ Political Participation. Warsaw: Institute of Public Affairs, 2012.

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