As a Tenants’ Union Grows, Can It Draw in More Migrants?

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, a small crowd camped outside Dimitar Angelov and his father’s house in Phibsboro.

Angelov nervously walked in and out of the house and drifted in and out of conversations. Some had brought food and snacks, eating and offering to others.

A man wearing grey shorts and a jumper danced with the music that played out of a boombox he’d brought. Then, a little later, he hung back and rolled a cigarette.

Two older men and a woman with sunglasses huddled together, settling into a long chat, barely looking outside their small circle.

They were all there to stop Angelov and his father’s eviction from the house they had lived in for 10 years. Angelov said his landlady probably drove by but got scared off by the crowd.

Everyone at the scene, including Angelov, was a member of the Community Action Tenants Union (CATU).

“I’d heard of CATU before, but only recently I managed to join them,” said Angelov, who is happy with the union’s support.

Migrants like Angelov – who moved to Ireland with his father from Bulgaria when he was about 12 – are more likely to live in the private-rented sector than people born in Ireland and more likely to live in overcrowded conditions, or be pushed into homeless shelters, says an April 2022 report by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI).

All that is making members and former members of the housing union CATU ask themselves how they can effectively get migrants more involved. A migrants’ caucus may be coming, they say.

How Many?

CATU, which was founded in October 2019, has nearly 1,700 members, according to its national administrator, Naoise Faogáin.

As with other unions, people looking for housing support must join them first, said Faogáin in an email.

CATU coordinators don’t know how many of its active members have migrant backgrounds and, among them, how many are from outside of the European Union.

It doesn’t ask about people’s nationality when they join, Faogáin said. Plus, “it is difficult to estimate the active membership full stop, given how peoples’ commitment can wax and wane based on personal circumstances”.

Juliana Sassi, chair of CATU’s Finglas-Ballymum branch, says they tried to find out through an online survey once, but it can be hard to get people to fill out online forms for stuff like that.

Two of the 11 members of the union’s national committee are migrants, says Faogáin. “We also have a migrant member of staff on what is an even smaller staff team.”

People can join working groups on the national level unconditionally, Faogáin said. But to run for the national committee, they must be in a local group with at least 15 members, they said

The requirement “secures operability and sustainability of the local group”, said Faogáin.

Problems singular to migrants – from precarity of immigration status, to language issues, to particular traumas – are barriers to people having time to get engaged in the union and run for leadership positions, they said.

“To ultimately tackle the root causes we need to build our power as tenants and working-class communities of all backgrounds,” Faogáin said.

Housing Challenges

In Ireland, migrants are more likely to be renters, to live in apartments, to live in overcrowded accommodation and to be homeless than Irish-born people, according to the ESRI report.

Over half of all migrants were living in private-rented housing in 2016, compared to 13 percent of Irish-born people, the report says.

Migrants from Poland were most likely to be renting (75 percent were), as well as people from other parts of Eastern and Central Europe, and Central and South America (73 percent).

Migrants are also more likely to live in overcrowded accommodation: over 30 percent of Eastern Europeans (excluding Polish nationals) did, and 41 percent of South Asians. Black migrants were twice as likely to live in overcrowded accommodation as White migrants.

And living in the rental sector is expensive and precarious, the report says.

“On the whole, long-term reliance on the private rental sector may have consequences for migrants’ housing quality, security, family formation and quality of life,” the report says.

Migrants are more likely to experience poverty and find themselves unable to afford rent, the report says. That is especially true for non-EU and Eastern European migrants, it says.

“[I]n 2019, 50 percent of families entering homelessness in the Dublin region did so as a result of issues stemming from being in private rental accommodation”, the report says, drawing on a report from the Dublin Region Homeless Executive.

CATU members outside Dimitar Angelov's home in Phibsboro. Photo by Shamim Malekmian.

Some migrants are more vulnerable to homelessness than others, the ESRI report says, including asylum-seekers and non-EU women and children fleeing domestic violence who fall undocumented.

And migrants’ share of homeless figures is likely to be more than what available data suggests, the report says. Several factors stymie proper documentation of migrant homelessness, it says.

“Including language barriers, information gaps regarding migrant rights and entitlements, difficulties navigating the social welfare system, and the immigration status of certain persons,” says the report.

Ways to Empower

Emily Waszak, a former member of CATU and a non-EU migrant who recently became an Irish citizen, says the union should do more to connect its migrant members, especially those from outside the European Union, to each other.

That could empower them, she says. “Non-EU migrants have specific housing issues and legal issues based on their immigration status,” said Waszak on a Zoom call recently.

Without power within the organisation and community, Waszak says, concerns around people’s immigration statuses, or about experiencing racism, might go unheard.

Faogáin, CATU’s national administrator, says they consider people’s backgrounds when advising about resisting eviction, to avoid getting migrants into trouble.

The Department of Justice considers people’s behaviour and encounters with the Gardaí when judging their character for citizenship, but what counts as good character has been ill-defined.

Some immigration permissions, like the humanitarian leave to remain that is granted at the discretion of the Minister for Justice, often after an application for asylum fails, also has a condition that people be of “good character”.

A CATU few staff members and national reps have teamed up with the Irish Council for Civil Liberties lately to get legal and practical advice on protecting the right to protest for those who are in vulnerable immigration situations, Faogáin said.

But sometimes, they said, people can choose to take calculated risks and telling them not to can be patronising.

“For non-migrants to be telling migrants what risks they can or cannot take, or prevent them from engaging in resistance to injustice,” said Faogáin.

They said that if there’s a decision to go ahead with an action, union members show up in numbers to cushion confrontational situations.

Faogáin says there’s already an LGBTQ caucus in CATU and a Latin American working group in its infancy, working on turning into a caucus.

Waszak points to the importance of having a people of colour caucus within the union.

Said Faogáin: “Caucuses are formed when minority group members come together to form one.”

The national committee members can’t set them up, but can push for their formation, they said. So, CATU is trying to translate material into different languages to attract minority members and is giving free membership to those living in direct provision, Faogáin said.

“With the intention of facilitating the formation of a People of Colour caucus being formed by members so long as that is what the affected members wish to do,” they said.

The Barriers

Some migrants come to meetings but struggle to follow the discussions because of language barriers, says Sassi, so she supports the idea of a migrant caucus, the CATU chair for Ballymun-Finglas.

“People are speaking fast, or the accent is difficult, and sometimes the vocabulary is very specific,” says Sassi.

Some people might not know that RTB stands for the Residential Tenancies Board, the regulator for private rentals, she says – or what other acronyms of housing places and things mean.

On 8 August at a table in a café in Phibsboro, João Gabriel Aperibencio Amorelli told a story about how his landlord had thrown his family’s belongings down a flight of stairs as his 13-year-old brother-in-law, who was alone at the house, watched and filmed the attempted eviction.

CATU helped him negotiate, he said in Portuguese as Sassi, sitting opposite, interpreted.

Later, by text, Amorelli says that he doesn’t attend union meetings. He doesn’t have the time, he says.

Attending meetings could probably help improve his English, he says, but a translator would be another option. “That would be nice too.”

CATU is “working to eliminate language barriers within the union”, Faogáin said. “[W]e are working on providing interpreters, language classes, and language exchanges to facilitate those who may face language barriers,”

Sassi says initial efforts to form a migrants’ group haven’t yet panned out but they’re working on it.

“The idea was to always have, like, a migrant person to meditate when something’s in regard of a migrant person,” said Sassi.

That is, she says, to make sure there’s always someone around in a group to relate to and understand the other’s experiences.

It is vital to engage migrants and make them feel like they belong with initiatives like that because housing issues already racialise and alienate people, says Sassi.

She gets up, opens the door to a tiny storage room, and pulls out a poster from the National Party, that she had torn off a wall in her neighbourhood. “HOUSE THE IRISH ! NOT THE WORLD ! ” the ripped-up sign reads.

“Because this is a working-class area, sometimes they flyer here,” says Sassi. All reminders to some that they can’t fit in or feel welcome here, she says.

The ESRI study from April 2022 points to discrimination that migrants face when trying to rent, from landlords stereotyping some groups as wealthy and trying to charge them more, to those “grounded in prejudice and resentment towards minorities, and a desire to minimise contact”.

Sassi says when she first moved to Ireland, living in overcrowded homes and how it was accepted as normal among other Brazilian students racialised her. “Our identities change.”

All of this makes forming migrants’ groups where people can relate to and understand each other’s experiences essential, Sassi says.

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Author:

Shamim Malekmian: Shamim Malekmian covers the immigration beat for Dublin Inquirer. Reach her at [email protected]

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