Emigration: the next generation


In part 1 of a series on emigration destinations, JAMIE SMYTHlooks at where the new Irish emigrants are going, and NIALL STANAGEassesses the prospects of those moving to the US

The figures are stark. In the year to April 2010 65,300 people left the country, about the same number as left in 2009. This is just below the 70,600 people who emigrated in 1989, a year when unemployment stood at almost 18 per cent.

The Eurostat EU statistics agency recently reported Ireland’s emigration rate as the highest in the union, with nine people per 1,000 leaving the State. This is almost double the second-highest, in Lithuania, and a far cry from the halcyon days of the Celtic Tiger when Ireland’s immigration rate was the EU’s second highest.

English-speaking countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US remain favourite destinations with a new generation of Irish emigrants.

Britain, which registers almost 1,000 Irish citizens every month to work in the country, and other EU states are popular because there are no visa restrictions. But people are increasingly following opportunities in states not previously associated with Irish emigration, such as China, eastern Europe and the Middle East.

With unemployment at 13 per cent and further cuts required under the IMF-EU bailout terms, most economists predict the flow of people abroad will continue.

This begs a question: are we back to the bad old days of the 1980s, when 500,000 people left the country to live abroad?

“There is a lot of media hype around emigration, but statistics suggest we aren’t back to the 1980s yet,” says Piaras MacEnri, who lectures on migration at University College Cork. “The 70,000-odd people who left Ireland in 1989 were almost all Irish, whereas the current emigration rate includes many non-nationals – it is a more complex scenario,” says MacEnri.

Of the 65,300 people who left the country in the 12 months to April 2010, 27,700 were Irish citizens. About 19,900 were eastern European; 8,100 were originally from states outside the EU. In the previous 12-month period just 18,400 of the 65,100 emigrants were Irish citizens, while a staggering 30,100 central and eastern Europeans left. So in terms of absolute numbers of Irish citizens leaving, things aren’t as bad as they seem.

Nor is unemployment the sole driver of emigration, a fact underlined by continuing emigration during Celtic Tiger years, when labour shortages prompted many firms to recruit overseas.

“Even during the boom a lot of people, particularly well-qualified graduates, left the country. Not because they had to but because they wanted to,” says Dr James Wickham, director of the employment research centre at Trinity College Dublin.

About 15,300 Irish people left the country in the year to April 2006. The big increase in under-31s taking up temporary work visas in Australia, which peaked at 22,786 in the year to June 2009, also pre-dated the worst of the recession. This suggests travelling abroad for a year or two had become an established practice for many young people.

But a lack of jobs, particularly for the younger generation, is causing many people who don’t want to emigrate to leave their families in search of a new start.

“Most people we deal with don’t want to emigrate but simply have no options,” says Joe O’Brien, policy officer at Crosscare Migrant Project, which offers advice at its drop-in centre. “We deal with a lot of emotional calls and e-mails from people leaving their families . . . It isn’t right that people are forced to emigrate to find a decent standard of living.”

Few hard facts will be known about the people who have left the country until the 2011 census is complete. But preliminary figures from the Central Statistics Office show more Irish men (27,300) than women have emigrated (18,700) in the past two years.

“The massive downturn in construction is a factor,” says Piaras MacEnri. “The bubble in construction drew a lot of young men into the industry. Many don’t have a higher education, and now they have to go abroad to try and find building work,” he says.

Opposition parties warn that the brain drain of highly qualified graduates threatens to delay the economy’s recovery and undermine public services. Probably the best example of this is the HSE, which recently warned that a severe shortage of junior doctors could damage its ability to deliver services this year.

But the experience of the past 15 years also suggests a period of short-term emigration abroad can benefit an economy, too.

“Emigration is clearly not always a bad thing, and it has been recognised that graduates who left Ireland in the 1980s played an important part in fuelling the Celtic Tiger,” says Wickham. “Irish people who emigrated to work in the US software industry in the 1980s picked up skills and expertise. When some of these people returned in the 1990s they contributed a lot to the development of the Irish software sector.”

The real challenge for the next government is to stabilise the economy and create the types of jobs that can lure these talented people back.

Jamie Smyth

I would recommend this 100%

RACHEL DOLAN, a 23-year-old from Carrick-on-Shannon, in Co Leitrim, came to live and work in New York in February of last year. She has a one-year J visa under the intern work and travel pilot programme. She lives in the West Village in Manhattan and works in marketing.

“I’ve always loved the States, even going back to family visits when I was a kid. Then, in 2005, I went out to San Diego on a J1. In 2007 I came over to New York for two weeks and visited my sister, who was living here.

“The new type of visa I have [commonly known as the expanded J1] came out when I was doing my MA. It allows graduates to come and work.

“You have to have graduated within 12 months, and you can only come for one year. When I found out I jumped at the chance. I’ve always imagined myself living in the States.

“It was obviously a different experience, because this time I was coming over and looking for a proper job. The avenue I went down was a lot of networking, connecting with people who were already here.

“Work is still definitely a challenge. A lot of companies are put off by the idea that they might have to do a lot of paperwork if they want to employ you – or, with my visa, they’ll be looking at it thinking, Well, this person is probably going to be going home after a year.

“New York is also a very transient place. You sometimes find that you meet someone, you get friendly and then, a couple of months later, their time is up and they go back.

“I came over on February 21st or 22nd, and I already have my flight home booked for February 21st.

“I’m in two minds about what to do next. I’d love to get sponsored and stay here, but I am thinking about maybe going somewhere else, like Hong Kong.

“Do I ever feel homesick? No, not a bit of it. I think there are a lot more opportunities in other places than there are in Ireland. I’d 100 per cent recommend doing this.

“If I was looking for a job, Ireland is probably the last place I would look at the moment.”

Niall Stanage

Negotiating the US visa minefield

From the horror of the Famine to the bleakness of the last big recession, in the 1980s, Irish people have often tried to escape tough times by crossing the Atlantic. This time, although the US is in better shape than Ireland, it is hardly thriving. The recession and an unemployment rate of almost 10 per cent have taken much of the gloss off the Land of Opportunity.

Those who want to take their chances will have to negotiate thickets of immigration law. Even US visa classifications can be confusing, even intimidating, at first glance.

The picture becomes a lot simpler if you bear two points in mind. First, most people can safely ignore lots of visa classifications, as many are designed for specific applicants, such as diplomats, athletes and journalists. Second, the key division is between non-immigrant and immigrant visas. The terminology aims to distinguish between visas that can lead smoothly to full US citizenship and those that cannot.

All major visas are difficult to obtain – unless you are lucky enough to win the green-card lottery – which the US government prefers to refer to as the diversity immigrant visa lottery program. The deadline for this year’s draw was earlier this month.

Those who want to apply next year should take a realistic view: only 50,000 visas are issued worldwide, of which only about a third go to Europe.

There are two other main ways to get on the track to US citizenship. One is to be sponsored by an immediate family member. This remains the most common way of obtaining a green card, and eligibility is clear-cut: if you don’t have a spouse, a child under 21 or a parent who is an American citizen, you are out of luck, at least in the short term. (There are more drawn-out procedures for less immediate relatives.)

The other main route is to be sponsored by an employer. This can work well, but again it is important to be realistic. The employer will have to be willing not merely to offer you a job but also to prove that no American has the skills to fill the position. The speed with which such an application will be processed also depends on the applicant’s skill level. Green cards for those with “extraordinary ability” or who are “international managers” can be processed quickly. Visas for those on the lowest levels can sometimes take years.

As for non-immigrant visas, one relatively recent development was a September 2008 expansion of the well-known J1 visa. Whereas the J1 was once synonymous with summer trips, Irish students and recent graduates can now live and work in the US for up to a year.

Those who have left their student days long behind should keep in mind that an employer can sponsor an alien for a non-immigrant visa (the H1B) rather than a green card. They may be more willing to do so, as it is a slightly less onerous process, but they still have to vouch for the new arrival. In the current climate it could be difficult to prove that no American can do the job in question.

Overall, the situation is not especially bright. For people who are not students, recent graduates, green-card-lottery winners or relations of US citizens, the hurdles are high.

Some of those desperate for a taste of the American dream may think of moving to the US illegally. They would be better to think again. Getting caught will almost certainly result in deportation and restrictions on returning to the US; even success will condemn the illegal immigrant to years of waiting nervously for a tap on the shoulder.

Your first port of call should be the US embassy in Dublin (dublin.usembassy.gov/ visas.html), which provides a comprehensive rundown of the types of visas available. Then phone for an appointment, on 1580-478472. Calls cost €2.40 a minute from landlines; the embassy warns that some mobile and network providers may charge more. Another option is to pay a flat fee of €16 by credit card. For this, or if you are calling from outside the Republic, phone 01-4360536.

Other useful websites include:

US Citizenship and Immigration Services uscis.gov/portal/site/uscis

US Department of State state.gov

American Immigration Lawyers Association aila.org

Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs dfa.ie (for contact details for the Irish Embassy in Washington and consulates in other cities)

The most widely used site for classified ads – for housing and jobs, say – is craigslist.org.

Niall Stanage

Series continues in Life & Culture next week. Monday: Canada; Tuesday: New Zealand; Wednesday: Australia; Thursday: Germany and rest of Europe; Friday: Britain