Journal Issue

Ireland: Migration: High Mobility

International Monetary Fund. External Relations Dept.
Published Date:
March 2009
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Newly unemployed migrants to Ireland may stay put in recession

RAPID economic growth in the early 1990s transformed Ireland from a land of emigration and few opportunities to one with a high demand for labor. It became a ready destination for foreign workers. Now, the global recession has hit hard in Ireland—harder at the foreign workers than at Irish nationals. But it is unclear whether this reversal in fortune will result in a mass exodus of non-Irish nationals. So far many of them appear to be staying—in part because of generous social benefits and in part because there are few, if any, alternative destinations where they can find jobs.

The Celtic Tiger

In the early 1990s, labor shortages first appeared in high-skill sectors, such as information technology. Many Irish people who had emigrated in the 1980s returned from the United Kingdom and the United States to meet some of this demand. But as the so-called Celtic Tiger continued to grow, other sectors began to experience labor shortages that were filled by foreign workers. Among these sectors was hospitality—restaurants, hotels, and entertainment. Shortages were especially acute in nursing, prompting the Irish government to actively recruit nurses in the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

Non-Irish workers in Ireland represented 16 percent of the population in July–September 2008, according to the Quarterly National Household Survey (QNHS). After 2004, when eight Eastern European countries (the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Slovak Republic, and Slovenia) joined the European Union (EU), the majority of migrant workers to Ireland came from these countries—especially from Poland.

But the global economic recession has dramatically set back the Celtic Tiger. Unemployment has risen sharply, from 4.8 percent in the third quarter of 2007 to 7 percent in the same period of 2008, according to the QNHS. Irish immigrant workers have felt the impact of declining production more than have Irish nationals. Similarly, more immigrants have signed on to the live register—where job-related claims are filed with county welfare offices—than have Irish nationals. The unemployment rate among non-Irish workers was 9 percent, compared with 6.1 percent among nationals. The number of non-nationals signing on to the live register increased by 100 percent between October 2007 and October 2008, compared with a 52 percent rise among nationals.

Heading to the Emerald Isle

Ireland’s once booming economy attracted workers from abroad. But, in the current economic crisis, emigration is up and immigration is slowing. (thousands of persons)

Source: Irish Central Statistics Office.

Note: Data preliminary for 2007 and 2008.

Higher unemployment among migrants comes as no great surprise. The vast majority of the Eastern European migrants to Ireland were lured by the construction and financial sectors—both of which experienced heavy job losses in 2008. But the employment situation is different in some other sectors. Hospitality, a major employer of migrants, is not hiring, but hospitality employers are not cutting staff either. Moreover, job losses are occurring in some high-skill sectors—particularly in those related to the construction industry, such as engineering and architecture. Some Irish nationals are again emigrating, seeking work in Australia, New Zealand, and even the oil-rich countries of the Middle East, according to recent reports.

Migrants may stay

But the reality is that Irish emigration never ceased, even when some highly skilled workers were returning and increasing numbers of foreign workers were settling in Ireland (see chart). And this recent increase in emigration of high-skilled Irish nationals may not be accompanied by large numbers of migrant departures. If the recession in major European countries during the late 1970s and 1980s is a guide, Ireland would not experience an exodus of migrant workers. But times are different and migrant workers lead highly mobile lives. Workers could choose to go where jobs are more readily available or they could choose to return home. But they may just stay put.

Ireland’s relatively liberal social welfare system could dissuade many migrants from leaving. Migrants from other EU countries qualify for social welfare benefits after working and paying taxes in Ireland for two years. Non-EU migrants must have been living in the country for five years and working for the entirety of this period to qualify. Immigration peaked in 2006. As a result, many, perhaps most, immigrant workers qualify for benefits. Because the entire EU is in a recession, as are most major economies around the world, jobs elsewhere might not be readily available and rather than risk a move in search of work, many migrants may choose to stay in Ireland and ride out the storm. Although Ireland’s rate of emigration in 2009 may once again be close to that of the 1980s, as the Training and Employment Authority predicts, Ireland has become an immigration country.

Siobhán McPhee is a doctoral candidate in Public Policy in the School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Policy at University College, Dublin.

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