Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Great expectations – and hard times – down under

Not all Irish emigrants are living the dream in Australia, a new report reveals

Land of sun and surf? Not all Irish emigrants are living the dream in Australia. Photograph: Tim Wimborne/Reuters

Sat, Aug 16, 2014, 00:00


Ciara Kenny

From single twentysomething nurses to unemployed labourers and their young families, Australia has offered tens of thousands of Irish people the opportunity for a new start since the recession hit in 2008. Almost 80,000 people moved from the Republic to Australia between 2008 and 2013, with just 35,000 moving in the other direction.

The lure of Australia is as “a new version of the American dream, played out in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth”, according to a recent report by the Clinton Institute at University College Dublin, but the move down under has gone more smoothly for some than for others.

Madeleine Lyes of the Clinton Institute travelled to Australia last November to find out how this new wave of emigrants are getting on and to identify emerging needs and vulnerabilities in the Irish community. Welfare organisations working with Irish people in the main cities all identified young, unprepared Irish people arriving on working-holiday visas as those most in need of support.

The scheme was designed as a way for Australia to capitalise on the popularity of gap years, by getting foreign backpackers to take on seasonal jobs in rural areas desperate for workers. But the visa has been used recently by underemployed Irish people as the easiest way into the Australian job market.

“Before the crash, Irish people were travelling over on these visas after graduation, with money in their pockets, an education behind them and a good head on their shoulders. Generally they prospered,” says Lyes. “But recently it has been seen as a way for people who had no hope of employment in Ireland to try for work somewhere else. People used to come over with a bit of a nest egg, but now they are likely to have been on the dole for a period before travelling. Some are arriving with just the clothes on their backs, and finding themselves underprepared and destitute.”

The conditions of the visa mean the worker cannot stay in one job or area for more than six months, and some struggle to relocate or find employers willing to give them work for such a short period. To stay for a second year they must do 88 days of “regional work” in agriculture or construction in a rural area. These jobs are often for food and board only, leaving workers financially strapped when the placements finish.

Lyes says a “Celtic Cub narrative” came up time and again in the interviews, describing young emigrants who are not used to looking after themselves, and have a lack of responsibility and a sense of entitlement that wasn’t prominent before.

“Some employers who have been working with Irish communities for decades said they have had to take a step back because [these young workers] just weren’t turning up on a Monday morning, or they had had someone rob them. This could be down to numbers, of course, but the stories are of a different kind of trouble.”

Permanent residency

Despite the myriad problems with the working-holiday visa scheme, most of the Irish workers setting up in Australia are thriving, especially those on four-year employer-sponsored “457 visas”, which offer the smoothest path to permanent residency for employees with skills in demand and their families. Overall, Irish workers are the best-paid European migrants in Australia.

Young graduates increasingly see a stint in Australia as a stepping stone on a career path that will eventually lead them back to Ireland. More and more events and associations for Irish professionals are developing around the country, helping new arrivals to network with more established, successful businesspeople.

The east of the country, especially the cities of Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Brisbane, is the destination of choice for white-collar professionals “seeking cosmopolitan lifestyles”, as well as for backpacker groups looking for short-term work in the service industry. Irish communities in these regions are long-established and flourishing, with good support systems for new arrivals who need help.

The construction and mining boom in Western Australia has lured a huge number of Irish workers and their families over the past few years, with 34 per cent of all Irish 457 visa holders living in the territory in the year to last September. Irish community groups in Perth are struggling to meet the new demand for their services.

Many Irish living in the region are working in the mining industry on a fly-in, fly-out (Fifo) basis, spending three weeks on sites thousands of kilometres from their homes in Perth – a lifestyle that takes a toll, Lyes found. Among Fifo workers, divorce rates are higher, and children are more likely to have behavioural issues at school.

Young, single Fifo workers earn very good wages – about $130,000 (€90,000) a year, twice the average wage – but “don’t put down roots for healthy living”, according to a report last year by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. They often have no permanent accommodation, have trouble forming relationships, and often develop alcohol- and substance-abuse issues. (Read more about the challenges of life on Fifo for Irish workers)

Mental health

Fifo workers were identified by every organisation Lyes spoke to as being particularly vulnerable to depression and anxiety, but mental health emerged as a problem for Irish communities all over Australia. Financial concerns and a lack of preparation were identified as contributory factors, along with the burdens associated with moving country, such as loneliness and isolation.

“Some people are not able to cope with the loss of support networks their home environment had given them, and being thrown into a strange place exposes vulnerabilities that may not have come to the surface at home,” says Lyes.

Social media is helping many people to negotiate that sense of dislocation after moving country. Facebook groups such as Irish Families in Perth and Irish People Living in Australia offer forums for Irish people to share advice, offer everyday support, and provide a sense of community and shared Irishness for people far from home.

For many, social media makes migration easier by facilitating new connections and offering cheap, regular communication with friends and family in Ireland, but its role can often be overplayed, Lyes found. “For example, having their first baby in Australia creates a crisis point for a lot of young women around how they are going to cope without mothers, sisters and close friends. These perennial problems are no less stark for people just because they have Skype.” But meet-up groups for mothers and babies which are run through Facebook are growing rapidly, and do help. There are two sides to it.

Return often

The biggest difference Lyes observed between this generation of Irish immigrants in Australia and previous waves is the expectation that they will move back to Ireland eventually, or at least be able to return often to visit. “Older people who had been out there for decades thought in a way it had been easier for them, because the move had been so final. They couldn’t afford to go home very often, and couldn’t communicate every day. They felt not being able to constantly look back helped them to settle more easily,” she says.

“On online message boards you see a lot of discussions now about whether people should move home, or people talking about having gone home and come back again. The ability to move back and forth and being in constant contact with home creates an odd ambivalence: Australia is not as far away as it was 50 years ago, but that’s not necessarily making the process of emigrating there any easier for people.”

Are your experiences of moving to Australia reflected in the Clinton Institute’s findings? Let us know in the comments section below.

This is the second in a series of country profiles based on the Clinton Institute report, and appears in Weekend Review today. Read more:

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