Ciara Kenny

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

Are comparisons to 1980s emigration now justified?

Since 2009, 123,800 more people have left Ireland than moved here, which is on par with the 1980s

Thu, Aug 28, 2014, 12:30


Joe O’Brien

Since 2008 almost a quarter of a million Irish people have left the State. Since the recession began and emigration rates rose we have been slow to rush to comparisons with emigration in the 1980s and the 1950s, as we were aware of significant baseline levels of emigration and return migration during Celtic Tiger years. But following this week’s publication of the CSO’s migration estimates for last year, we can now see that recent levels of emigration are now comparable to 1980s levels.

In the ten years of the 1980s, 206,000 more people left Ireland than arrived. In the last five years, from April 2009 to April 2014, the net figure is 123,800. Our future historians will now not only have to mention the 1950s and the 1980s as extended periods of post-war Irish emigration, but also the “post-2009” period.

Of course, looking only at emigration of Irish citizens in the last five years is only giving part of the picture. There has also been very significant emigration of non-Irish citizens. Taking these figures into account, a total net figure of 143,800 people have emigrated. In this broader context, this wave of emigration is well on course to be worse than the 1980s.

A big part of the story often been overlooked in debates on emigration is the fact that many Irish people return every year. Recently, this can be partly attributed to people returning after their Australian or Canadian working holiday visa expires. However, the recent CSO migration estimates have shown last year to have the lowest rate of return on record at only 11,600 Irish people returning. This is a very worrying figure, especially if it becomes part of a trend.

It could well be that those who have left in recent years are deciding in greater numbers to stay away. So while the recent news that less Irish people left the country last year compared to the year before is encouraging, the problem is they are not returning to the same degree as previously.

There are a few unique characteristics of the “post 2009” wave of emigration that are important to understand in making comparisons to the 1950s and 1980s. This is the first wave of significant emigration in the internet age, and this in itself has transformed the experience. Jobs markets are significantly more interconnected. Interviews can be conducted via video call with an employer on the other side of the world. The internet has facilitated communication between emigrants and their families at home, and between emigrants themselves before departure, while they are away, and after return. It is also the first wave of emigration since air travel became much cheaper.

These developments have meant the UK particularly has almost become an extension of the Irish jobs market, and it continues to be the destination of choice. Our membership of an increasingly larger EU was inevitably going to lead to larger flows of people in and out of the country, economic conditions aside. The crucial aim from Ireland’s point of view is not only that we reduce the need for people to leave, but that we also retain the capacity to pull back our emigrants who have left.

In many respects, the State’s response to emigration has yet to catch up with how the internet in particular has influenced and impacted upon emigration. Next month at the Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, Crosscare will be advocating for an innovative yet simple mechanism that will allow the Irish State to directly call back its recent emigrants, particularly as the jobs market improves in Ireland.

The Irish Emigrant Register would be a database of recent emigrants who wish to get notifications on relevant issues from the Irish State, particularly job opportunities. Whatever about the similarity in emigration figures with past waves, we now have the technology to ensure a greater connection between the emigrant and the State than ever before, and a better rate of return migration.

Joe O’Brien is policy officer with Crosscare Migrant Project, the social care agency of the Dublin Archdiocese which has been providing support to emigrants since the 1940s. See Click here for full coverage and analysis of the CSO migration figures published this week.