Ireland must parade itself as a model of successful migration
Adventurousness and ambition of young Irish migrants is a strength not a failure
President Michael D Higgins and others at Epic, the Irish Emigration Museum, at the CHQ Building, Dublin: We should be proactive in sharing our positive migration story – the successes of the Irish diaspora and the flourishing diversity of a new Ireland. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Few nations on earth have been as marked by migration as Ireland over the past two centuries. Millions have left these shores and been scattered all across the world, forming a diaspora many times larger than the population of the island itself.
Over the past two decades, we have also seen dramatic shifts in Ireland’s migration experience, first from net emigration to net immigration during the Celtic Tiger economic boom, and then back to high emigration after the financial crash in 2008. Today, Ireland has an almost unique migration profile for a developed country, with approximately 17 per cent of Irish people living abroad, and approximately 17 per cent of the people in Ireland originally from elsewhere.
We should be proactive in sharing our positive migration story
We are a migration nation, and in a world increasingly defined by mass migration, we have the opportunity to exercise a small but distinctive voice. Our foreign policy and international image are currently those of a “Global Island”.
In both European debates on the Mediterranean migration crisis and free movement, and the forthcoming negotiations on December 10th and 11th in Morocco for a Global Compact on Migration, we should be a strong voice for a more humane approach to mass migration. We should be a voice for migrant nations in a western debate dominated by xenophobic opposition to the kind of migration that has long characterised the Irish experience.
We should also be proactive in sharing our positive migration story – the successes of the Irish diaspora and the flourishing diversity of a new Ireland – in the image of Ireland we share with the world.
Irish emigration today is both much the same as in past generations, and also very different. As in the past, emigration has heavily affected rural and western areas, is tied to limited opportunities for young people at home, follows economic problems at home, and (as in the 1930s, 1950s, and 1980s) is centred on Britain.
Lack of opportunity
Yet, as noted by Prof Piaras Mac Éinrí who headed UCC’s Émigré study, today’s emigrants are also very different from their predecessors: they are very well-educated, many were working before they left Ireland, and they left a wealthy Ireland rather than a poor one.
With so many recent emigrants young, well-educated and/or in employment, lack of opportunity is a central issue in understanding the reasons people choose to leave home. Nearly a decade after the economic crash and high-profile cuts to younger staff’s pay and conditions, high levels of emigration in sectors like teaching and nursing are still directly related to the barriers and disadvantages younger entrants face in their professions.
Addressing structural issues of opportunity for young people is a central task for tackling the causes of high emigration. While emigration affects all areas of the country, it is also a regional phenomenon. The UCC Émigré study found that families and communities in western rural areas were proportionately the most directly affected by recent emigration. A more balanced regional policy is essential for emigration not to remain what the Commission on Emigration called in the 1950s “a part of the generally accepted pattern of life”.
While emigration can often be a difficult experience for both emigrants and those they leave behind, it is also often a very positive one: the benefits of living in different places and cultures, and of the opportunity to pursue careers, talents, and vocations. Small countries the world over tend to have higher rates of emigration, and the adventurousness and ambition of young Irish people is a strength not a failure. It is a great asset to modern Ireland that so many Irish citizens have experience living and working abroad, especially if they return or remain in economic or cultural contact with home.
Cost of housing
Opportunity and regional issues affect both the decision to return and where in Ireland to come back to. There are challenges for emigrants from western and rural areas seeking to return to their home communities rather than Dublin. And the cost of housing in particular remains a major concern for young people both at home and abroad, and it is concerning to many that political leaders continue to refer to emigration as a route to saving for a deposit on a house. Other cost-of-living issues – particularly education, healthcare and childcare – are of particular concern given that most recent emigrants are now in their 30s and many will be deciding where to raise children.
The diverse stories of Irish emigrants and Irish immigrants show that both are living different parts of an experience that continues to define our nation: migration. Not only can sharing those stories promote greater understanding behind home and abroad, local and newcomer, but they also emphasise the perspective that Ireland can offer in a world where migration is increasingly feared, controlled and criminalised.
We are a small country, but the global Island can offer a unique voice as a migration nation.
Historian, journalist and writer on migration Dr Christopher Kissane will moderate at the Other Voices Ireland’s Edge conference featuring discussions on emigration in Dingle on November 30th and December 1st