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Brazilian migration into Ireland: ‘There’s a mutual compatibility with the Irish’

Erik G

IRELAND’S PAINFULLY EXTENSIVE experience of emigration can crowd out discussion of the less well-trodden road in.

But it would be hard not to notice the increasing migrant population: 13% of the population is now made up of foreign nationals, compared with 9% in the UK.

One particularly visible group – at least on the streets of Dublin – is Brazilians. It’s not, on the face of it, a natural fit: non-EU, Portuguese-speaking, totally incompatible weather.

So what is it about Ireland that has attracted a big Brazilian population?

Are there really that many Brazilians here?

The 2016 census recorded 13,600 Brazilians living in Ireland, triple the number a decade before.

That might not sound like a lot in a total population of 4.8 million: just 0.3%. But Brazilian was the only non-EU nationality in the top 10 of foreign national residents, coming in sixth between Latvian and Spanish. There were more Brazilians than Americans (10,500) or Indians (11,500); they accounted for one in every ten non-EU residents of Ireland.

They’re also highly concentrated in certain areas, making them much more visible. Around two-thirds of Brazilians lived in Dublin at census time, making them the most geographically concentrated of any major nationality.

A good chunk of the rest were living in certain towns: Roscommon, Naas and Gort, Co Galway.

In any case, the population today is likely way higher than the census. Last year, over 5,800 PPS numbers were issued to Brazilians. That’s one in every 12 issued to a foreign national. Strip out the countries that have free movement with Ireland – those in the European Economic Area, plus Switzerland and the UK – and the figure is one in five.

In 2019, there were over 27,000 valid residence permits for Brazilian citizens in Ireland (the sixth highest in the EU).

The pandemic has naturally affected this, with the number of Brazilian residence permit holders falling to 22,500 in 2020, according to the Central Statistics Office. But that’s only a return to 2018 numbers, so all in all it’s pretty much guaranteed that next year’s census will show a very big increase in the Brazilian population.

Why Ireland?

“Broadly, there were three waves of Brazilians coming into Ireland,” says Paulo Azevedo of the Brazilian embassy in Dublin. “Meat factory workers in the 1990s until today; English language students from the 2000s until today; and in recent years workers and engineers for the IT and the civil construction industries.”

One of the first factories to recruit Brazilians was the Duffy Meat Plant in Co Galway, which first brought workers from Goiás to Gort in 1999. By 2006, around 40% of the town’s population was non-Irish.

“A large community of Brazilians now live, work and attend school in Gort, gradually altering the appearance and the character of the town,” wrote migration researcher Claire Healy that year.

The local football team has naturally benefited from Brazilian talent and experience, while the main thoroughfare now boasts two Brazilian shops, ‘Sabor Brasil’ on Georges Street and ‘Real Brazil’ on Crowe Street.

Most never intended to stay forever, and didn’t. The closure of the Duffy factory in 2007 was quickly followed by the financial crisis and the drying up of work generally; many Brazilians left. But others had put down roots and wanted to stay.

“Certainly in the early days, when times were good before the economic crash, people came, they saved, they built a house back in Brazil, they had enough to establish a business back in Brazil. It was very much like that,” recalls Annie Rozario of Gort Resource Centre.

“On the other hand, relationships develop, children start school, you’d have children here whose Portuguese might not be that fluent and they’re Irish kids, they feel Irish.”

For those who had started families and ended up staying, a major worry today is immigration documentation.

“Work permits were tied to employment. If you lost your job, you lost your work permit, you lost your right to be here and you became undocumented,” Rozario says. “People fall through the cracks through no fault of their own, really”.

The resource centre started the Gort Justice for the Undocumented Group five years ago to lobby for an amnesty – a campaign that’s now about to bear fruit via a proposed Regularisation Scheme.

The English language study route

Although Gort is the poster town for Brazilian immigration, it’s also unrepresentative. Many more residence permits are issued for study than for work, with the typical Brazilian getting their first taste of Irish life on an English language course. While other English-speaking countries are available, Ireland’s visa system is more welcoming than most.

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“Brazilians are non-visa-required nationals in Ireland,” says immigration lawyer Karen Berkeley of Berkeley Solicitors. “This means they can travel to Ireland to apply for permission to enter the State at the point of arrival, without first going through a lengthy visa application process at a local Embassy.” That’s a point of contrast with the USA, for example, which does require Brazilians to get visas in advance.

Once here, English language students can upgrade to a residence permit for €300 and legally work for 20 hours a week (40 during holidays). The UK’s short-term study visa designed for English language students doesn’t allow work.

“Brazilians usually get part-time work easily, and many are working as child minders,” Berkeley says. “So they can study and improve their English, while working and making money, for a relatively low initial investment.”

Carolina Pessoa took just this route when she first came to Ireland in 2012.

“I think Ireland has a very open approach for non-Europeans that want to come to study and work as well,” she tells The Journal. 

Obviously to study abroad you have to save a huge amount of money to spend on school and accommodation and so on. Ireland gives us the opportunity to work as well so you can kind of make up for what you spend”.

Originally from Rio, Pessoa had no prior links to Ireland but was convinced to come for a visit by a friend.

“She would always talk about Irish actors and bands and it was all new to me,” Pessoa recalls. “She came in October 2011, and I was planning to come in January 2012. And then, in those three months she was telling me all the wonders of Ireland, and it just made me want to come and spend 12 months instead of a short trip. So I changed plans.”

And then, of course, the old Irish charm kicked in. As Berkeley puts it, “there is a mutual compatibility between Irish and Brazilians, and the communities tend to get on well together”.

“The reason that I fell in love with Ireland was the people – obviously not the weather,” Pessoa jokes. “Once I was here, I knew I wasn’t going to go back. I didn’t want to say that for sure but I just felt it in my heart. In the first couple of months, I knew.”

“They’re travelling with hope, and that’s about it”

Migration isn’t all about what the boffins call “pull factors”: the attractions of the country you’re emigrating to. As Irish people know all too well, “push factors” – a grim life back home – are important too.

Rozario says that the last few years have seen an unacknowledged fourth wave of Brazilian immigration: those driven out by the economic and political conditions, taking the paths trodden by friends and family in the 1990s and early noughties.

“The young people feel that there’s no hope there. The older people feel that there’s no future for the younger people.”

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Youth employment is far below the average for rich countries, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and income inequality is extremely high. President Bolsonaro, dubbed the Trump of the Tropics, has been criticised for refusing to rein in the pandemic and recently suggested he won’t accept the result of next year’s election if he loses.

“People are still arriving,” Rozario says. “They’re travelling with hope, and that’s about it. You’re getting low income groups, borrowing money to come. Perhaps they don’t have great English skills but they’re just hoping for a better life.”

Pessoa herself had a degree and taught English back home, but spent her early years in Ireland doing less skilled work.

“I worked in cafés, pubs, as a minder as well. So I spent two years doing that and once I decided I wanted to stay, I thought, well, I’d have to go back teaching so I was teaching in a Montessori school for four years.” Today she’s a data analyst for a major supermarket chain.

It isn’t all sweetness and samba. Brazilians working as Deliveroo drivers in Dublin have complained of street violence and many new arrivals find themselves in cramped accommodation.

“I ended up living in a house in Dublin 8 with 14 other people,” Ana Marta Gonçalves wrote on The Journal in 2019. “For four long months, I shared a room with three other girls, sleeping on the bottom bunk – and it felt like an eternity.” The 2016 census, sure enough, found that one-third of Brazilians households was a house share.

While Pessoa hasn’t experienced much racism in her personal life, she has experienced discrimination in the labour market. “Some companies underpay you. I’m a woman as well, but you can tell when it’s sexism and when it’s because you’re a foreigner,” she says.

Mainly, though, as for so many of Ireland’s Brazilian community, it’s been a happy time.

Irish citizenship beckons, and she can’t see herself moving on any time soon. “Not at the moment,” Pessoa says, her accent now tinged with Irish inflexions. “I love this country.”

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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