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The Department of Justice misled journalists on number of illegal immigrants

The Department of Justice has been briefing journalists with incorrect information about the upcoming regularisation scheme for undocumented migrants/amnesty for illegal immigrants. More specifically, the Department has been telling journalists, both in direct briefings and now in a written press release, that multiple studies support the claim there are 17,000 illegal immigrants in the country.

Most recently the Department put out a press release containing the following claim, “There is no reliable data on the number of undocumented persons in the State but studies suggest there could be up to 17,000 undocumented persons including up to 3,000 children.” That claim, that the figure of 17,000 is supported by multiple studies, has been repeated by a number of national media organisations. Some of those outlets have noted that the claim comes from the Department, but others, including the Irish Independent, have reported the claim as a statement of fact totally disconnected from the Department.

It appears that the claim made by the Department is not true, and that there have not been multiple studies that have estimated that there could be up to 17,000 undocumented persons in this country. The number comes entirely from an estimate put out by the Migrants Rights Council of Ireland (MRCI), an NGO which has been advocated for the adoption of an amnesty for years.

The figure of 17,000 has itself been generally presented by the media as representing some sort of cap on the scheme, but, as we’ve previously reported, it is nothing of the sort. It’s merely an estimate of expected demand upon the scheme, which is uncapped.

We contacted the Department to request the names of the studies that they had been referring to in the press release and, if possible, a copy of each study. The response we got back said that there was no official data on the number of undocumented people in Ireland, and that the Migrants Right Centre of Ireland (MRCI) has “previously estimated that there are some 15-17,000 undocumented people in the State…these are estimates and not official statistics.”

No mention there that the MRCI, in 2018, told the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland that there were up to 26,000 undocumented adults in Ireland, and a further 2-6,000 undocumented children. MRCI have been very reticent to explain exactly what changed between 2018 and now.

It’s possible the Department considers the MRCI estimate to constitute a study, although we have been unable to locate any publicly available publication from the MRCI which lays out the methodology used to get to the figure of 17,000 undocumented migrants, but even in that instance the number comes from a single study, not studies. And again, MRCI very much has a dog in this fight – they responded to news of this amnesty by saying it was a “major victory” and that MRCI had “campaigned for over 11 years” to achieve it.

Later, the Department told us, when asked to specifically name the material they were referring to when they said “studies suggest there could be up to 17,000 undocumented persons” if all they have is the MRCI estimate, that they were “referring to studies by the MRCI” and that we should contact the MRCI about getting a copy of their research.

The MRCI did promise to send us a copy of the work which initially found that there were 17,000 undocumented migrants in Ireland, but they never quite got around to it. When we asked if they could tell us the name of the study which contained the figure, they told us they could not recall its name. We did later get a call from another member of staff at the MRCI, but when we asked what the name of the study was, they said “I might need to get back to you on that one.” Neither of them mentioned anything about the MRCI having conducted multiple studies which backed the 17,000 figure.

It should perhaps not inspire confidence that the people the Department is relying on to inform them of the number of undocumented migrants in the country seem to struggle to recall even the name of the study in which they worked those numbers out.

It may be the case that MRCI are correct in the number of undocumented migrants in the country but, given that no one seems to have seen the original research behind the figure, staff at the MRCI seem either unwilling or unable disclose any details about their work, and given that the Department could name no other study which had examined the area and supported the number of 17,000, it would appear fair to say that the Department’s statements are, at best, misleading. A cynical reading would be that the Department is wilfully lying to journalists.

Having said that, given that media outlets were happy to publish information without any apparent attempt to verify it, perhaps it’s unkind to blame the Department for simply taking advantage of the willingness of certain parts of the Irish media to believe whatever they’re told.

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