Since the April 25th day of action against racism and deportations, the Anti-Racism Campaign has been campaigning to win for asylum seekers the legal right to work. At present, refugees seeking asylum are prohibited from working or taking up full-time education.
They are totally reliant on social welfare, and are denied the chance to contribute, to interact and to put down roots in society. The government would like to go further, and isolate asylum seekers in 'processing centres' - detention camps - while their applications are reviewed, but even as things stand refugees are cut off from the rest of society. This makes it easier for the press to describe them as frauds and spongers, and for the government to deport them.
If we win the right of refugees to work, it will be a significant victory. At the moment, to most people refugees are just a nameless, faceless mass. But when refugees can work, instead of an amorphous mass, there will be the woman who works down the hall, the guy who works in the local shop, and so on.
For refugees, working will bring back some of the self-confidence lost by the flight from their countries and the soul-destroying life on the dole. And it will make it harder for the government to kick them out - when people are working they form new friendships and social networks, refugees will no longer be isolated, they will be part of a community, a community that can rally round when the government attacks.
The 'right to work' isn't as simple as that, of course, as thousands of Irish people will tell you. Despite all the talk of the booming economy, the reality is that most of the benefit is being felt by those who are already rich. But that's why it's important for Irish people that refugees are allowed work.
If we are divided by racism our fight for decent jobs and better wages will be that much harder. The government that stops refugees from working is the same government that is undermining the minimum wage, by postponing it and introducing loads of qualifications. The politicians are the same ones that are happy to have over a quarter of a million people unemployed.
The campaign for the right to work tackles head-on the lies put forward by the government and the media. They've always liked to label refugees as scroungers and parasites, who only came to Ireland to sponge off social welfare. Now we're pointing out their hypocrisy. Refugees don't live on the dole by choice, the government gives them no other option. The harder we push this, the more apparent the contradictions in the government's position becomes, and the harder it gets for them to stigmatise refugees.
While the Anti-Racism Campaign (and the Workers Solidarity Movement!) isn't in the business of looking for support from politicians, we are involved in the Right to Work campaign as part of a broader front. Based around the Asylum Rights Alliance, the campaign is supported by refugee groups like the Association of Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Ireland; and organisations like Comhlamh, Amnesty International and the Irish Refugee Council.
Pulling together a broad grouping like this has its difficulties of course, but it has been worthwhile, giving the campaign more resources to draw on. This means that events like the public meeting and the white-line picket on O'Connell Street in July got more publicity and were better attended than may have been the case had ARC worked alone.
It means too, that ARC has had a substantial influence on the policy of the other groups involved in the campaign. Many of these groups started out with a position that echoed the government's distinction between 'political' and 'economic' refugees. Economic migrants, those who came here fleeing poverty, unemployment and starvation were not real refugees according to this theory - oppression by government counts, not oppression by capitalism. Now these groups are beginning to see that the government does not believe its own propaganda - it does not wish to weed out the economic from the political refugees, it wants to kick out almost all refugees.
In the coming months, that will be the real problem facing the Anti Racism Campaign. Though we may make some ground on the right to work, the government is still scapegoating refugees. The poor and the marginalised are being told, in the media, the Dáil and the social welfare office, that refugees are to blame, making it difficult for us to win support to stop deportations. Winning the right to work is important, but unless we do more to stop deportations, there won't be many refugees left to benefit.