Ciara Kenny

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

‘Emigrants seldom admit failure at home or abroad’

A recent study revealed most emigrants left ‘by choice’, but the reality is often much more difficult than that phrase implies, writes Bobby Gilmore

Tue, Oct 1, 2013, 00:05


Bobby Gilmore

When things fall apart, the children  of the land scurry and scatter like birds escaping a burning sky. (NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names)

Much of the findings of the recent research by University College Cork’s Emigre project on emigration are welcome as they confirm what most people were already aware of. For example, there was always a wide gap between the views of the left and the bereft in the emigration experience.

It is necessary to keep in mind that emigration implies a break in primary relationships. Piaras MacÉinrí, research leader, affirms this when he says “When we asked households where families had been left behind, nine out of 10 said emigration was negative and had a bad effect on the family, the community, and Ireland as a whole.” Emigrants leave the family home, friends, neighbours, the street, the village and the country.

Since the State’s foundation, annually on average half of those coming into the labour market have had to emigrate. While voluntary migration is the choice between a viable opportunity at home and a similar opportunity abroad, the only choice in involuntary economic migration is between a dole queue and a perceived better life in another country. And in states like Ireland, there is a culture of involuntary migration reaching back for more than two centuries.

Over the past 100 years Irish people left because they had to. It is the same in the vast majority of newly-independent, small-populated economies, particularly island economies like Ireland. Just look at the profile of immigrants in the former European colonising empires: Britain’s immigrants originated in their former colonies, as is the situation in Holland, France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Italy and others.

Demographic deficits due to wars and economic expansion denuded the colonies and continued to do so after independence. The former empires got young, energetic, healthy and idealistic people into their economies; they got an asset for free while the home countries were robbed of an asset – their “energy band”.

Developed economies in Europe and North America regularly highlight the aid they extend to developing countries that have lost the energy band in the population. Yet developed economies still fail to see that the presence of immigrants from other less developed nations was and is in actual fact a form of aid. They keep economies abroad going through their work and at home through remittances. 49 per cent of Irish emigrants remit money to their families at home, the UCC study found.

Irish people in the past and present realise that mass emigration indicates a failure of the State’s economic policies. So, it is not a surprise they would see emigration in a negative way. They always did, and were left to cope with the loss. Just listen to Irish emigrant music, read poetry and the published literature on this issue. There is in Ireland and in other emigrant nations a lot of unresolved grief.

During the years of affluence, politicians, economists and media were loud in their declarations that emigration was a thing of the past. Now, there is a hesitancy about admitting that emigration is a reality just as it was in the past. Like emigrants, governments do not admit failure.

Another characteristic highlighted in the research is the response of emigrants that they did not “have to” emigrate. That is not new. Many who had to emigrate in the past would have made similar statements. Emigrants seldom admit failure at home or abroad. If there were job opportunities at home, why would so many people have left in the past, and be leaving now?

Also, emigrants in dealing with departure and breaking primary relationships have to cope with loss and change too. While those left behind have more time to grieve, emigrants have to keep their antennas up to grasp the opportunities that may arise. The major difference between those at home and away is that those who chose emigration are on a journey of hope, hope for a better life and hope of return if the opportunity arises. They have less time to reflect on the past, they have to look at the future as they cope with the discomfort of unfamiliar surroundings. Those left behind are apprehensive when they hear and read about the exploitation of emigrants – like that reported just this week from Qatar.

Many commentators now highlight differences between the past and the present: they say today’s emigrants are different because they are better educated. Emigrants in the past were as well-educated and skilled as the people in their destination countries. Of course there are more graduates emigrating, but they always did: look at the origins of those staffing services in developed economies over the past century.

For example, 85 per cent of Haitian graduates work abroad. Comparative percentages apply in other emigrating countries. At present 62 per cent of Irish emigrants are third-level graduates. Then ask the question – why are developed economies developed and others underdeveloped? Answer: the “energy band” in the population of the latter has left. And as someone said during Irish emigration in the 1980s, “the houses and the countryside are quiet because the young have left again”.

Listening to present-day emigrant stories one is given the impression that emigrants journey alone, and in isolation get employment and succeed. And many do, through agencies and advertisement. However, chain migration (going to places where one already has family members, relatives and friends) is still common, as was borne out by this research. Networks are important in the process of settling, even in this age of communication. It is important to be met by a familiar face after the experience of going through a myriad of security checks.

In times of emigration those left behind and those leaving try to comfort each other by suggesting emigration is just temporary. “You’ll be back when the economy improves,” is a constant refrain. Surprisingly, one also hears such expressions from institutional leaders, but history does not bear out such pious chatter promising false dawns. Many Irish have returned in the past when there was passing economic improvement only to have to re-emigrate when the economy failed. Return migration is a strong ideology and one would think easier today than in the past. There may be opportunities for some to return, but for the majority permanent return will be a mirage. If return was easy there would be no diasporas.

Return migration is as difficult as emigration. The tourist brochure memory of home, the economic and social reality of home do not always concur. Unfortunately, in planning to return many emigrants fail to seek objective information about the consequences of uprooting and re-rooting. The property one has invested in abroad may not be adequate to purchase a property at home; even if it is, the property at home may lose value as has happened in the past and present. So, if one has to re-emigrate one is burdened with negative equity. Therefore, beware of anecdotal information! New restaurants and property price increases are not signs of prosperity: jobs are.

Lastly, there are those who say that modern communications supplement for being “at home”. Sure, they are a great ease to separated people. But a time comes when people have to decide where “home” is. Hovering between home and away is not a comfortable place to be. Emigration has changed over the decades but the constant in the migration experience is the human heart’s desire to be at home, somewhere.

Fr Bobby Gilmore is a founding member and president of the Migrant Rights Centre in Dublin, and has written articles for Generation Emigration on the importance of letting emigrants know they are remembered,  how emigration breaks relationships, and how emigrants must decide where home is to them.