So you’re thinking of emigrating? You haven’t a lot of options

Borders are closed and visa programmes on hold - but there are glimmers of hope

During the post-2008 recession, Irish people became used to hearing how emigration was a “safety valve” for the labour market, wicking underemployed people away to other countries that offered better jobs and quality of life. Between 2008 and 2014, almost a quarter of a million Irish people left the country.

Even as the economy recovered here, prospects overseas remained enticing for Irish people. The most recent figures from the Central Statistics Office show that in the 12 months to April 2019, 29,000 Irish citizens emigrated, once again overtaking the numbers returning to live here. Working abroad is an attractive option for the Irish in bad times and in good.

Post-coronavirus, the world has changed utterly. Unemployment in Ireland has rocketed – 22.5 per cent in June, far higher than the post-2008 peak of 14 per cent – yet emigration is no longer the default option for those looking for an alternative. International travel, while not quite at a standstill, is actively discouraged by most governments, Ireland included, with no indication of when restrictions may lift.

So what is the outlook for those who had already been planning to emigrate, or whose changed circumstances in recent months have them thinking about moving away? Here, we look at the situation in four of the most popular visa-restricted countries for Irish immigrants: Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US.



Outside the UK, Australia is the most popular destination for Irish emigrants; 6,500 Irish moved there last year, up from 4,500 in 2018.

In the short term, very strict travel restrictions are in place, with only Australian citizens, permanent residents and exempt critical skills workers permitted to enter the country. Everyone leaving Australia (with the exception of temporary visa holders) must apply for permission, even if they are departing permanently.

Net overseas migration in Australia is expected to be down 30 per cent this year as a result of the Covid-19 crisis. The Australian government’s department of home affairs issued a statement last week committing to continue its permanent migration programme at the same level for this coming year, at 160,000 places.

The statement recognised that “migration continues to make substantial contributions to Australia’s economic prosperity, national wellbeing and social cohesion”, but that the situation would be closely monitored to ensure that immigration policies “do not displace job opportunities for Australians”.

"Visa processing has been very slow in the last four months – in part due to department of home affairs staff being seconded to other areas," says John McQuaid of Arrive Australia Migration Services in Sydney. "We are now seeing visa applications for onshore applicants (those already in Australia on temporary visas) approved in increasing numbers."

Employer-sponsored visas (“subclass 482”, similar to the old 457 visa which accommodated tens of thousands of Irish at the height of the migration wave post-2008) are continuing, “but getting extra scrutiny due to the current economic situation,” McQuaid says.

“We are seeing some employers holding off sponsoring for a few months as they wait to see how business returns, for example in hospitality and personal services. Other sectors like engineering and civil construction are continuing to sponsor.

“Working holiday visa and visitor visas holders will be waiting until sometime in 2021 to be permitted to travel.”

Danielle McLaughlin of Crosscare Migrant Project, a Dublin-based information service supporting Irish emigrants, believes migration from Ireland to Australia “could go either way”.

“We may see a downward trend in long-term Irish citizen residents as a result of fewer young adults coming out to Australia on the working holiday visa this year and possibly into next year. We may see an increase in people seeking to emigrate to Australia if we see a slow economic recovery in Ireland. We may also see those who are in Australia on work visas seeking further extensions where work is available and the country seeks to retain temporary workers.”


All travel into Canada has been banned, with the exception of citizens, permanent residents and those with a job offer to work in Canada.

Canada has not been inviting people to apply to the International Experience Canada (IEC) Working Holiday programme, popular among Irish people aged 18-35, since mid-March, although applicants approved before then with a job offer are still eligible to move there now.

The Federal Skilled Worker Programme, part of the Express Entry points-based system popular with skilled workers over the age of 35, reopened last week. Applications for permanent residence are also being accepted, but those already in Canada on temporary work or student visas are prioritised.

“Covid has impacted new arrivals and younger immigrants more, given they tend to work in casual or less stable employment. Many newcomers were encouraged to return to Ireland if their employment situation was unstable or they were concerned for reduced flight options between Ireland and Canada,” says Hugo O’Doherty, editor of

In the longer term, O’Doherty is hopeful migration between Ireland and Canada will continue. “The government has been clear that the pathways to Canada popular among Irish people, including the Working Holiday and Express Entry, will be around. Canada has also launched new programmes aimed at tech workers, as well as programmes to settle people outside the big cities, over recent years. If anything, the number of ways to immigrate will increase over the coming years, and Canada’s overall immigration intake will inch up.

“The question continues to be whether Canada or Ireland can offer better opportunities for Irish citizens. Canada will always tend to trump Ireland over standard of living and economic opportunity, but the pull of home is an X-factor for many emigrants.”

Cathy Murphy of the Irish Canadian Immigration Centre in Toronto says their recent employment webinars are still proving popular with people in Ireland investigating their options to move. "We continue to take calls and emails from individuals who went home and want to return, and from individuals desperately trying to secure jobs here so that they can activate their IEC permits," she says.

New Zealand

Due to current border restrictions, only New Zealand citizens, residents and their direct family members are able to travel in to the country.

Those already working in New Zealand on employer-assisted visas have been granted a six-month extension, but this does not apply to working holiday visas, popular with young Irish immigrants.

“One of the biggest concerns we are hearing is from people who are coming to the end of working holiday visas and have offers of permanent work in New Zealand but require a new visa to accept it,” says Caolan Keegan, head of the Wellington chapter of the Irish Business Network New Zealand.

“In many cases, immigration [authorities] are pointing to the increased number of New Zealanders unemployed locally, and making it more difficult to get a visa approved. An added stress is the increased cost of flights back to Ireland, and the limited availability.”

Keegan says one of the biggest impacts of the Covid-19 crisis on the Irish community is a “realisation of the true distance between Ireland and New Zealand”.

“Travel between Ireland and New Zealand had become easier; with more direct flights to the Middle East and then on to Dublin, people were finally able to make the trip in under 30 hours. Prices had also come down significantly. I can certainly see some Irish people in New Zealand reconsidering being so far from home now that travel is not as easy.”

But New Zealand will still remain a popular destination.

“The ability to emigrate from Ireland will open up back to as it was here before Covid, and long term New Zealand will continue to be one of the favoured destinations for Irish people looking to emigrate. The realisation that air travel can grind to a halt will change a small percentage of people’s views on living here long term.”

United States

Donald Trump made a high-profile announcement in June, banning a number of popular visa programmes until the end of the year, which "may be continued as necessary".

More than half a million people who had planned to move to the US to work under the J1, H1B and other visa programmes are likely to be affected. A significant proportion of these are Irish.

Officials said the move would protect American jobs at a time when the US economy was under strain due to the coronavirus pandemic, but it is widely viewed by Trump’s critics as an effort to revive the anti-immigration platform the president ran on in the 2016 election.

Polly Dennison analyses the situation in the US in more detail in her accompanying article here.