Ciara Kenny

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

Returning after emigration

Emigrants can find themselves to be ‘outsiders’ when they move back, writes Bobby Gilmore

Thu, May 29, 2014, 10:00


Bobby Gilmore

I left home young and not till old do I come back,
My accent is unchanged, my hair no longer black.
The children don’t know me, whom I meet on the way,
“Where do you come, sir?” they smile and say.
- He Zhizhang, Chinese poet

Emigrants – involuntary, economic migrants – leave home to find a better life, a life their own countries are unable to offer; they see little future at home. This is the situation in most newly-independent states. For example, Ireland on average has annually shed half of those coming into its labour market since the foundation of the state. Young, energetic, idealistic people do not want to be members of a dole line, so they seek a better life elsewhere.

Leaving home was and still is not an easy task. However, having decided they feel they have to go after informing their near and dear. In this way they leave by the “front door” rather than steal away by the “back door.” On leaving, looking back over their shoulders, a desire to return wells up in their hearts and minds. Their relatives, friends and neighbours try to lighten the departure by saying, “Well, you’ll be back when things get better”; but they know from past experience that the vast majority will return only on holidays. The older generation are aware of the emigrant music from the past that says, “When there are better days in Ireland, I’ll come home and marry you.”

With modern communication, today’s emigrants can assume that return is easy. That assumption may persist for a time after departure but sooner or later emigrants realise that return may not be possible and, even if possible, is not that easy to accomplish. The development of branch, small-populated island economies like Ireland depends on investment from the trunk economies. If that happens, as it does now and then – as in Celtic Tiger Ireland – limited opportunities of return are possible.

But like emigration itself, return migration is a risky business. Frequently, emigrants return without adequate information. Returning on holidays, generally in summer time, gives emigrants a false economic mirage of home and the possibility of return. There is usually a great welcome for those returning on holidays. Returning on holidays one is asked, “Where are you now, when are you going back?” Mentally, for people at home an emigrant has become an outsider, “away somewhere”. They have a tourist-brochure memory of where the emigrant lives now; the emigrant has a tourist-brochure memory of where they have come from and wish to return to. Indeed, an emigrant may still, even after many years, assume home is still where they left. Many work elsewhere but are emotionally “at home” in the country they emigrated from.

So, the experience of return may not be as smooth as one assumed. Returning emigrants will have to describe themselves, just as they had to in the countries they lived in. Emigration challenges one to define oneself, and so too does return migration. In most instances return will be from a developed, trunk economy to a less-developed one. Returning emigrants will define themselves in their conversations as a “Just back from abroad” (JBFA) or a “When we were” (WWW). The locals may describe the returnees as “Blow backs” (BBs) arriving to take advantage of the progress that happened while they were away.

One of the most important aspects of return is the opportunity for returnees to tell their stories of abroad to those who did not emigrate and for the latter to share those stories of what happened at home in the interim. However, returning from abroad brings with it the challenge of re-integration. The country one left – even if only for a couple of years – has not stood still. It may have progressed, or its economy may have regressed as in Ireland’s case. During the settling-in process comparisons are made, irritation is expressed and discomfort with what one thought was familiar surfaces. Usually, differences are seen as irritant inefficiencies. Cultural differences in the networks of life and in getting things done are described in a negative way. Those who have remained at home become irritated by such criticism and may describe such behaviour as arrogant, overbearing and insulting from an “outsider.” We returnees should listen to the advice of Chibundu Onuzo, “We are arriving as partners, not lords and masters. So let tread softly and tread humbly.”

So, for happy landings, we need:

  • Availability of objective information about emigration and return migration
  • A general awareness of migration by both returnee and resident
  • To initiate a forum of welcome in which a dialogue can happen between locals and returnees
  • Local agencies monitor and reach out to returnees
  • Governments to realise that emigration and return are not quirks of human fecklessness
  • As emigrants bring gifts to new economies, returnees bring gifts too
  • Respect, tolerance and humility on all sides helps

The boy came home from a foreign land,
Weary and wan with his staff in hand;
Five years’ absence left their trace
On golden hair, and on sunny face…
He entered his home with footsteps slow-
His friends forgot him, would his parents know?
- ‘The Return,’ Patrick MacGill

Bobby Gilmore is a founding member and President of the Migrant Rights Centre in Dublin. Read his previous articles for Generation Emigration about the meaning of home, valuing emigrants, and more.