Going north: new trends in emigration

Canada’s up. Australia’s down. The age profile of emigrants is rising, as is the number of families emigrating. Part one of a Generation Emigration special looks at changing migration patterns

Ready for take-off: the 6,350   working-holiday visas for Canada available to Irish people were allocated within two days. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

Ready for take-off: the 6,350 working-holiday visas for Canada available to Irish people were allocated within two days. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire


At the Working Abroad Expo in the RDS in Dublin this month, mechanics and plumbers lined up alongside bankers and nurses looking for information about opportunities abroad. Graduates chatted excitedly about working holidays abroad, couples pushing buggies asked about schools in places they had never been, and men in their 50s inquired about emigrating for the second or third time in their lives. It was as close a snapshot of current migration trends as you could find.

David Walsh started the event nine years ago to provide young graduates with advice about working in Australia. Now it’s a major jobs fair, featuring companies from all over the world.

A Canadian immigration official attended in 2009 and liked what he saw, and the following year a small delegation of immigration officials and employers was sent to represent Canada. This year Canadian companies took up more than half of the exhibition stands.

“The most noticeable trend over the past 12 months has been the swing away from Australia towards Canada, which has been driven by the demand from employers and from the Canadian department of immigration,” says Walsh. “They are going through a skills shortage, and in Calgary, the economic heartland of Canada, 19 of the 25 skillsets most in demand are readily available in Ireland. ”

The interest in Canada among potential emigrants has been increasing in line with Canadians’ interest in us. Six hundred and sixty-two Irish people were granted permanent residency in Canada in 2011, up from just 314 in 2006, and 5,293 temporary workers entered the country from Ireland in the same year, up from 1,970 five years previously.

When the application system for Canadian working-holiday visas for this year opened to Irish people at the end of January, the quota of 6,350 was filled in 48 hours. The quota for 2014 will be expanded to 10,700.

Cathy Murphy, the director of the Irish Canadian Immigration Centre in Toronto, estimates that more than half of the visa quota went to Irish people already in Canada who were applying to stay for a second year.

There have been notable changes since the centre opened, 12 months ago. “The number of people coming in looking for information about permanent residency even since January has been incredible,” says Murphy. The centre is also dealing with more queries from families in Ireland looking for information about schools and housing. “There has been a definite shift in the last six months towards people in their late 30s and early 40s.”

Rising age profile
Everyone who speaks to The Irish Times for this article says the rising average age of emigrants and the number of families leaving are the most notable trends of recent months.

Of the 527 people at the Working Abroad Expo who responded to a survey by University College Cork ’s Emigre project that traces recent emigration patterns, 44 per cent were over 30, and 14 per cent were 40 or older. More than one in five had mortgages in Ireland, and 27 per cent had children.

“The striking thing to me when we compare this cohort with the emigrants of the 1980s is the age profile,” says Dr Piaras Mac Éinrí, who leads the Emigre project. “More couples with young children are leaving as a family unit, which is not a traditional feature of Irish emigration.

“They might be less likely to return. Those who leave in their early 20s are likely to be only in their early 30s if and when the economy turns around, and there’s more of a chance they will come back if circumstances are favourable. About half of those who left in the 1980s did. But a family who are in their 30s already, whose kids are growing up in another place, are much less likely to come back.”

Another finding of MacÉinrí’s survey was that almost half of all respondents were in full-time employment in Ireland, but two-thirds cited dissatisfaction with their career prospects as one of the main reasons for emigration.

Mac Éinrí, who is 58, was also struck by the number of men of about his own age at the fair. “It would be very tough for them to get visas for Australia or Canada. They are looking at a pretty bleak future. To emigrate is very tough for a lot of people, but to do so in your 40s or 50s, when you’ve never lived abroad, is a huge culture shock,” he says.

The Irish migration agency VisaFirst has also noticed significant trends over the past 12 months. The number of applications from teachers, welders, solicitors, mechanics and IT professionals, as well as from articulated truck drivers looking for jobs in Canada, it has dealt with has increased significantly, according to its manager, Edwina Shanahan.

The number of architects using its services has dropped by 80 per cent over the past 12 months – “They have all gone already,” says Shanahan – and the number of plumbers and electricians seeking help to move to Australia has fallen by about 20 per cent. “People in construction still form the highest proportion of our business, but teachers, nurses, people from civil service backgrounds and business managers from the banking sector are certainly on the rise.”

Despite the swing towards Canada, Australia remains popular, though there have been some significant demographic changes over the past 12 months or so, with the Irish population there maturing and becoming more permanent. With about 15,000 Irish people in Australia on working-holiday visas, Ireland has the fifth-highest representation of any country, though numbers might be declining.

Statistics published by the Australian department of immigration and citizenship last month show 6,504 Irish people were granted working-holiday visas for the first time between July and December last year, a decrease of 28.8 per cent on the same period in 2011.

According to Shanahan, young people are finding it harder to save money to go away on working holidays, and parents cannot afford to fund them to the same extent as before.

Desire for permanence
The numbers successfully applying to stay on in Australia for a second year rose to 3,735 in the latter half of 2012, an increase of 33.7 per cent on the same period in 2011, indicating a desire for more permanence among the Irish population there.

The number of Irish workers granted four-year, employer-sponsored 457 visas is also on the up, increasing by 18.4 per cent to 3,670 in the second half of 2012. Significant numbers of sponsored Irish workers are also bringing their spouses and children to Australia, with more than 2,000 secondary 457 visas issued to their dependants during the same period.

Tomorrow, on St Patrick’s Day, 44 Irish people will be granted Australian citizenship, at ceremonies in Perth and Sydney, allowing them to stay in Australia indefinitely.

This will bring the total number of Irish who have secured Australian citizenship in the past six years to more than 7,000.

Australia, Canada and New Zealand are often the most talked-about destinations for Irish people looking to emigrate, but the UK still attracts the most migrants from Ireland. CSO f

igures show 19,000 Irish and other foreign nationals moved there in the 12 months prior to April 2012. It is likely that the UK has remained the most popular destination for migrants from Ireland in the year since then, although as visas are not necessary for Irish people it is difficult to know exactly how many are going.

Crosscare, an information and advocacy service for migrants run by the Dublin archdiocese, notes the growth of commuter migration over the past 12 months. It is becoming very common for workers to travel to the UK during the week and return to family at weekends or every few weeks, says Joe O’Brien, its policy director. “In most instances, the family are tied to Ireland because of a mortgage or it is seen as the preferable option to uprooting children and emigrating as a family unit. They can see it as a temporary arrangement, but often it lasts years.”

The Gulf states are attracting increasing numbers of experienced and highly skilled construction professionals lured over alone or with families by the promise of tax-free salaries and work on billion-dollar infrastructure projects. The Irish population in the United Arab Emirates has increased by 30 per cent, to an estimated 6,000, people in the past 18 months, while the number of Irish in Saudi Arabia has also risen, to about 3,000. Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain are popular for similar reasons.

What is certain is that Irish people are still emigrating in large numbers. The most recent CSO figures show 46,500 Irish people left the country in the 12 months to April 2012, a rise of 16 per cent on the previous year and up from just 12,900 in 2007. We will have to wait until September for figures for the past 12 months, but a significant change seems unlikely.

Generation Emigration is the Irish Times forum by and for citizens abroad. Website: irishtimes.com/generationemigration. Twitter: @genemigration
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