22.3.2013 | Von:
Lisa Breford


With regard to migration movements within the European Union, Ireland poses an especially interesting example as it only began to experience a period of prolonged immigration from 1996 onwards, “making it the last EU Member State to become a country of net immigration” in 1996 (Ruhs, updated by Quinn 2009).

Fig. 1: Ireland - Net migration, 1987 – 2012Fig. 1: Ireland - Net migration, 1987 – 2012 Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/ (bpb)
Until then, Ireland’s migration experience had been dominated by emigration (see Figure 1). One event that developed a major impact on the country’s immigration experience at the beginning of the 21st century was the EU enlargement in 2004 and the consequent immigration of citizens of the new member states. In 2004, Ireland was one of three EU member states that decided not to apply any restrictions to the immigration of nationals from the new member states (Kahanec et al. 2010, p. 4). Consequently, Polish nationals became a major driver behind the significant rise in Ireland’s net migration rate, which peaked in 2007.

Immigration of Polish Workers

Fig. 2: PPSN allocations to Polish nationals, 2003-2009Fig. 2: PPSN allocations to Polish nationals, 2003-2009 Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/ (bpb)
A major source of data about the actual numbers of Polish migration to Ireland can be found in the allocation of Personal Public Service Numbers (PPSN) [1] to Polish citizens. Figure 2 gives an overview of the annual number of allocations to Polish citizens from 2003 to 2009. As the graph shows, Poland’s EU accession and the free movement for Polish citizens to Ireland had an immediate effect on PPSN allocations, leading to a rise from only 3,824 in 2003 to more than seven times as many (27,292) in the following year. This trend continued until 2006, with 93,615 allocations. After this, numbers began to drop, with the most significant decrease from the year 2008 (42,475) to the year 2009 (13,765).

While these figures give a general impression of how many Polish migrants came to Ireland initially, they do not provide an indication of how many stayed in the country or chose to leave again, especially after the start of the economic recession in 2008. [2]

Effects of the Economic Crisis

Ireland has been hit hard by the economic recession with the unemployment rate rising from 4.7% in 2007 to 14.8% in 2012 (Central Statistics Office 2012b). On the whole, immigrants were affected by the economic downturn to a larger extent than Irish natives, with “the rate of job loss in most sectors [being] higher for immigrants than natives” (Barrett and Kelly 2010, p. 12). The worsening economic situation lead to a rise in emigration among EU-12 (see Figure 3) but also among Irish nationals, resulting in a return to negative net migration in 2010 (see Figure 1). While emigration numbers for EU-12 migrants peaked in 2009, emigration numbers for Irish nationals have been rising continuously from 12,900 in 2007 to 46,500 in 2012 (Central Statistics Office 2012a, Table 3) (see Figure 4). The main destination countries for Irish emigrants are Australia [3], Canada and the UK (Gilmartin 2012, p. 12).

The fact that the economic recession has had a significant impact on migration from Central and Eastern Europe to Ireland also becomes visible in the activity rate of PPS numbers allocated to migrants from these countries. Here, data shows that activity rates for migrants from the EU-10 states, of which Poles form the biggest group, have declined significantly (Central Statistics Office 2011). The activity rate for EU-10 migrants that arrived in 2007 dropped the sharpest from 68% on arrival to 46% in 2009 (Central Statistics Office 2011). This suggests that a number of Eastern European migrants left the country during this period. Such an assumption is also supported by the official estimates of emigration published in 2012 (Central Statistics Office 2012a). Overall, emigration numbers for migrants from all EU-12 countries are presumed to have peaked in 2009 at 30,500 and to be around 14,800 in 2012 (see Figure 3). At the same time, immigration rates for EU-12 nationals were estimated to have decreased to 10,400 in 2012 from their peak of 85,300 in 2007, which means that the estimated net migration has been negative since 2009 (see Figure 3). While the recession is likely to be the major reason for these developments, other explanations may be “improved labor-market conditions in Poland and the fact that the pool of potential emigrants [in Poland] has diminished” (Krings et al. 2013, p. 90). Also, labor market restrictions in other member states such as Germany ceased to exist in 2011, which might have lead to Poles migrating to these countries rather than to Ireland (see also Office for National Statistics 2012, p. 12).

Despite the drop in immigration and a rise in emigration numbers, Polish nationals now form the largest group of non-Irish nationals living in Ireland, accounting for 2.7 per cent (122,585) of the overall population according to the Census 2011 (Central Statistics Office 2012c, p. 33). The Census also showed that the gender composition of Polish migrants in Ireland has become more balanced compared to the last census in 2006. One reason for this might be that Poles in Ireland are “re-uniting families” (Central Statistics Office 2012c, p. 30).

Fig. 3: Estimated immigration and emigration of EU-12 nationals, 2006 – 2012Fig. 3: Estimated immigration and emigration of EU-12 nationals, 2006 – 2012 Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/ (bpb)
Fig. 4: Estimated emigration by nationality, 2006 – 2012Fig. 4: Estimated emigration by nationality, 2006 – 2012


Barrett, A./Kelly, E. (2010), ‘The Impact of Ireland’s Recession on the Labour Market Outcomes of its Immigrants’, ESRI Working Paper No. 355, September 2010. http://www.esri.ie/UserFiles/publications/WP355/WP355.pdf (accessed 1-7-2013).

Central Statistics Office (2011), Foreign Nationals: PPSN Allocations, Employment and Social Welfare Activity, 2009, 27 May 2011. http://www.cso.ie/en/media/csoie/releasespublications/documents/labourmarket/current/ppsn.pdf (accessed 12-13-2012)

Central Statistics Office (2012a), Population and Migration Estimates April 2012 (with revisions from April 2007 to April 2011), 27 September 2012. http://www.cso.ie/en/media/csoie/census/documents/populationestimates2012/popmig_2012.pdf (accessed 12-12-2012)

Central Statistics Office (2012b), Seasonally Adjusted Standardised Unemployment Rates (SUR). http://www.cso.ie/en/statistics/labourmarket/principalstatistics/seasonallyadjustedstandardisedunemploymentratessur/ (accessed 1-7-2013) Central Statistics Office (2012c), This is Ireland – Highlights from Census 2011, Part 1, March 2012. http://www.cso.ie/en/media/csoie/census/documents/census2011pdr/Census%202011%20Highlights%20Part%201%20web%2072dpi.pdf (accessed 12-13-2012)

Gilmartin, M. (2012), ‘The Changing Landscape of Irish Migration, 2000-2012’, NIRSA Working Paper No. 69, October 2012. (accessed 1-7-2013)http://www.nuim.ie/nirsa/research/documents/WP69_The_changing_face_of_Irish_migration_2000_2012.pdf (accessed 1-7-2013)

Kahanec, M./Zaiceva, A./Zimmermann, K. F. (2010), ‘Lessons from Migration after EU Enlargement’, in Kahanec, M./Zimmermann, K. F. (eds.), EU Labour Markets After Post-Enlargement Migration, Berlin: Springer, pp. 3-45.

Krings, T./Bobek, A./Moriarty, E./Salamońska, J./Wickham, J. (2013), ‘Polish Migration to Ireland: ‘Free Movers’ in the New European Mobility Space’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 39 (1), pp. 87-103.

Office for National Statistics (2012), ‘Migration Statistics Quarterly 2012, Report November 2012’, Statistical Bulletin. http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171778_288105.pdf (accessed 12-11-2012).

Ruhs, M., updated by Quinn, E. (2009), ‘Ireland: From Rapid Immigration to Recession’, Migration Information Source, Country Profiles, September 2009. http://www.migrationinformation.org/Feature/display.cfm?ID=740 (accessed 12-10-2012)

This text is part of the policy brief on "Does the Crisis Make People Move?".


The Personal Public Service Number is allocated to individuals by Irish authorities and “used by state agencies for identification purposes, so it is needed, for example, to pay tax, avail of social welfare payments, or to use public health facilities” (Gilmartin 2012, p. 8).
As already mentioned, PPS numbers can provide an indication of initial immigration to Ireland of those who want to work or avail of any of the state services such as public health care or social welfare. However, once a PPS number is allocated, there is no system in place which would allow authorities to track whether a person leaves the country or not, as a deregistration in such cases is not required. The only indication of whether people might have left is to look at the activity level of PPS numbers. If a number is inactive this might be an indication that this person left the country. However, there might be other situations where numbers are inactive, such as circular migration. Overall, these limitations indicate that data from PPS numbers has to be treated with caution in the context of analyzing migratory movements (see also Gilmartin 2012, p. 9).
A large part of Irish migration to Australia is based on Australian Working Holiday Visas which means that it is temporary, as the Working Holiday Visa only allows migrants to stay in Australia for a certain amount of time (Gilmartin 2012, p. 12).
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