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Migration and Migration Policy in Ireland

Irial Glynn

/ 11 Minuten zu lesen

For most of its history, Ireland was a country of emigration. In the last twenty-five years, however, it has gone from being a largely homogenous country to an increasingly heterogenous country in which almost one in five people living in Ireland today was born abroad.

Opening of the Integration and Inclusion Conference in Dublin. Almost one in five people living in Ireland today was born abroad. (© picture-alliance, empics | Brian Lawless)

Emigration history, immigration actuality

Until the mid-1990s, Ireland was generally considered a country of emigration. The rate of Irish emigration was more than twice that of any other European country (per capita) from 1850 to the outbreak of the First World War. In 1922 the island was divided into what later became the Republic of Ireland (referred to as 'Ireland'), which covered approximately five-sixths of the island, and Northern Ireland, which remained part of the United Kingdom. The scope of this paper is limited to the developments within the Republic of Ireland. Here, out-migration continued to dominate even after partition. Initially, the United States was the main destination for Irish emigrants, but after the U.S. government established strict immigration quotas in the 1920s and with the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s, Britain became the most popular destination for Irish emigrants. In the 1950s, Ireland was the only country in Europe, apart from German Democratic Republic, that saw its population decline as a result of massive emigration. As the economic situation in Ireland improved in the 1960s and 1970s, emigration decreased but the onset of serious economic problems in the 1980s led to hundreds of thousands leaving once more. Again, Britain remained the most popular destination but many also went to the United States (often staying on irregularly), Australia and Western Europe.

Current migration trends

Until the 1990s, immigration to Ireland consisted mostly of Irish emigrants returning home and a small number of Britons arriving. In the 1970s, some Dutch, German and French lifestyle migrants also moved to the rugged but beautiful west coast. However, there was no pressing need for foreign workers due to a largely stagnant economy. This began to change in the mid-1990s, when Ireland experienced an unprecedented period of economic growth which lasted until 2007 and in which Ireland was commonly referred to as the ‘Celtic Tiger’. This economic prosperity attracted new immigrants and Ireland came to host a larger proportion of immigrants than many Western European states that had experienced immigration already for several decades. While in 1991, less than 55.000 of Ireland’s residents were born outside the Republic of Ireland or the UK; by 2016, this had risen almost tenfold to over half a million. Today in Ireland, 17,3 per cent of residents were born abroad and 11,6 per cent of the population have a nationality other than Irish.

Two strands of migration to Ireland have dominated since the mid-1990s: First, people in search of asylum and second, labour migration. Asylum applications rose considerably between the mid-1990s and early 2000s (see Figure 1) whereas labour migration increased significantly thereafter, especially with the expansion of the EU in 2004. There were also other important movements, such as family and student migration from a range of countries, including the arrival of young and skilled migrants from a variety of global locations to work in some of the many multinational companies that use Ireland as their European headquarters because of its low corporation taxes, such as Apple, Google and Facebook. Many Irish and foreign citizens left Ireland after the economic crisis in 2008, although a considerable proportion of Irish emigrants later returned. In the following sections I will concentrate mostly on asylum seekers, refugees and labour migrants, since these are the most prominent groups of migrants.

Asylum seekers and refugees

Figure 1: Asylum applications in Ireland, 1992-2019 (Interner Link: Download figure) (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/

Over 100.000 applicants for asylum came from outside the EU between the early 1990s and 2020. Annual asylum applications increased from just 31 in 1991 to over 10.000 by 2000 (as demonstrated in figure 1). In the late 1990s, asylum applications outnumbered new work permits provided to labour migrants. Romania and Nigeria were prominent countries of origin in the 1990s and early 2000s. While earlier, there was a significant number of applications from former European Soviet bloc states, this number decreased after the entry of twelve new countries into the EU in 2004 and 2007. More recently, Nigeria, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, DRC, as well as Georgia and Albania are more prominent countries of origin.

A huge backlog of asylum applications began to build up when state infrastructures struggled to process applications in the late 1990s. In response to this and resembling its West European neighbours, Ireland introduced a 'Direct Provision' policy which saw the state disperse asylum seekers to random accommodation centres around the country, where food and a small weekly allowance were provided to asylum applicants. There has been consistent criticism of the Direct Provision system over the last twenty years with the Irish Ombudsman in 2013 terming the ‘arrangements’ for asylum seekers "damaging to the health, welfare and life-chances of those who must endure them". Critics often highlight that many asylum seekers must stay in poor accommodation for extended periods. Also the small weekly allowance remained static from 2000 to 2019 (€19,10 for adults and €15,60 for each dependent child), despite the cost of living increasing substantially during this period.

In contrast to most other EU states, in the 1990s and early 2000s, children born in Ireland could claim Irish citizenship from birth (jus soli). Due to children’s right to belong to a family in the Irish Constitution, the Irish Supreme Court ruled that the foreign parents of an Irish child were "entitled, on their children’s behalf, to choose the place of residence of their minor children". This policy allowed foreign families to remain in Ireland even when their asylum request was refused. The 2004 Citizenship Referendum, which the public comprehensively supported, changed this. New legislation consequently stipulated that a person born on the island of Ireland to non-Irish nationals was only entitled to citizenship if one of his or her parents had resided legally in the country for three of the previous four years – a rule which still applies today. As part of this change, the government granted permission to reside in the country to all the parents of children born in Ireland by 31 December 2004. Consequently, nearly 16.700 asylum seekers received leave to remain on this basis.

From 2003 onward, asylum applications declined significantly. This reflected a general EU trend but unlike many other countries, Ireland and the UK did not later experience an enormous rise in asylum applications from Syria and elsewhere in 2015/2016 because it had become harder to enter the Common Travel Area that Ireland and the UK shared (both had opted out of Schengen). Although the state only bestowed refugee status on approximately ten per cent of asylum seekers in the late 1990s and 2000s, the vast majority of applicants managed to remain in Ireland since the state only succeeded in deporting a small proportion of those unable to attain refugee status.

Labour migrants

Asylum became less important for Irish migration policy throughout the 2000s. This was mostly due to the high rise in economic immigration that took place in those years. Ireland’s enormous intake of immigrants occurred mostly as a direct response to an acute shortage of labour generated by rapid domestic economic growth. This is illustrated by the unemployment figures that dropped from over 15 per cent in 1993 to just above four per cent by 2000.

Figure 2: New work permits issued in Ireland, 1999-2019 (Interner Link: Download figure.) (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/

Until 2003, local employers could recruit as many non-EU workers as they wished, from whatever countries they wanted, and for any job, regardless of the skill level required. With no ties to former colonies, Ireland received migrants from an enormous range of countries. Approximately three out of four work permits were issued for low-skilled and low paid jobs. Migrants worked mostly in the services sector, particularly catering. The number of new work permits issued annually rose rapidly after 1999 before decreasing markedly, especially in the early 2000s because, in light of the Eastern enlargement of the EU, the state prioritised the recruitment of new EU citizens (see figure). It did rise again in recent years, although not to the same extent as the early 2000s.

The enlargement of the EU in 2004 guaranteed free movement to citizens of the ten states joining the EU. This provoked the most significant demographic transformation in the modern history of Ireland. Between 2004 and 2007, almost 400.000 people from the EU10 registered to work in Ireland. In 2002 there had only been approximately 8.000 nationals from these countries residing in Ireland. In relative terms this means that the country received a population boost of approximately ten per cent from immigrants in just three years. Unlike most EU15 states, Ireland allowed new EU citizens full immediate access to its labour market. Migrants from Poland, the largest EU member state to join in 2004, featured most prominently amongst newcomers. The UK immigrant population remained stable between 2002 and 2016, measuring just over 100.000, whereas the number of Poles went from slightly over 2.000 in 2002 to more than 122.000 by 2016 to overtake Britons as the largest immigrant group in the country. Whilst immigration from EU15 countries rose in the same period, it remained miniscule compared to the inflow from the accession states. As can be seen in table 1, by 2016, for example, roughly the same number of Lithuanians lived in Ireland as Spanish, Italians and French combined.

Top-ten countries of origin for immigrants in Ireland, 2016

Country Number
Poland 122,515
UK 103,113
Lithuania 36,552
Romania 29,186
Latvia 19,933
Brazil 13,640
Spain 12,112
Italy 11,732
France 11,661
Germany 11,531

Source: Central Statistics Office, Census 2016 Summary Results - Part 1 (Dublin, 2017), 46.

At the same time as Ireland developed its liberal labour policy for new EU citizens in 2004, its work permit scheme for non-EU citizens became more selective. In 2007, Ireland introduced a 'Green Card' system that enabled skilled non-EU migrants working in such industries as healthcare, IT and finance to come to Ireland. Various occupational categories became ineligible for permits, including a lot of construction-related jobs. In these sectors, employers were encouraged to give preference to migrant workers from EU states. While some countries saw a drop in permits after 2004 because of the policy changes, such as South Africa and European countries outside the EU, others saw notable rises, such as India and the Philippines.

Figure 3: Net migration to Ireland, 1987-2019 (in thousands) (Interner Link: Download figure.). (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/

The onset of the economic recession in late 2008 encouraged some migrants to return home and Irish citizens also began to emigrate in substantial numbers again. Nevertheless many immigrants chose to remain in the country and those who left were replaced by new immigrants. Consequently, Ireland’s immigrant population continued to rise, albeit not on the same scale as in the years immediately after the expansion of the EU. This is reflected in figure 3, which shows net migration to Ireland; that is, the difference between the number of people leaving and arriving in Ireland.


In 2006, the National Economic and Social Council (NESC) released the first major official publication examining the effects of immigration on Ireland. The report argued that the state should be proactive rather than reactive when dealing with the issue of integration. Following the general election in May 2007, a new 'Programme for Government' document contained a number of commitments related to the suggestions put forward in the 2006 NESC report, such as plans to develop a national integration policy and to establish a junior minstry in charge of integration. In 2008, the newly established Minister of State for Integration launched another important report entitled Migration Nation. Drawing on Ireland’s emigration past, the report affirmed that Ireland had a "unique moral, intellectual and practical capability to adapt to the experience of inward migration". The report demonstrated the state’s adoption of an intercultural approach to immigration and called for continual dialogue and interaction between immigrant groups and the Irish state to effectuate successful integration.

Migration Nation envisaged, amongst other aims, the establishment of: 1) a pathway to citizenship for immigrants; 2) funding to support diversity strategies for local authorities; 3) enhanced legislative measures to tackle discrimination; 4) new structures to promote integration; and 5) more targeted support for dealing with diversity in schools, especially language support.

Unfortunately, many of these plans were scuppered by the economic crisis that took hold later that same year. As the state grappled to cope with the fallout from the various economic and social problems resulting from the effects of the crisis, many of the suggested integration proposals were abandoned or shelved. The most notable change in integration policy that has occurred relates to the marked increase in non-EU nationals attaining Irish citizenship through naturalisation. In 2013, for example, 97.6 per cent of the nearly 30.000 applications made for citizenship were granted, with people born in Nigeria, India and Philippines making up the top three countries of origin for these new Irish citizens. Ireland allows for dual nationality and by 2016, over 100.000 residents in Ireland held dual nationality, with Irish-Americans being the most prominent group.

Immigrants have spread far and wide across Irish cities, towns and villages. Almost one in five inhabitants in Galway and Dublin city has a nationality other than Irish and immigrants make up on average of approximately 15 percent of the population of towns in Ireland. Racism and discrimination are present in Irish society, especially towards black Africans. Public hostility towards immigration remains muted, partly because of mainstream political parties’ tendency to refrain from discussing the issue. Additionally, immigration has been framed within a "developmental nation-building narrative" suggesting that immigration enables sustainable economic growth. Whether the public and political atmosphere continues in this way in the future remains to be seen.



  1. Timothy Hatton and Jeffrey G. Williamson, The Age of Mass Migration: Causes and Economic Impact (Oxford, 1998), 75

  2. Mary Daly, Slow Failure. Population Decline and Independent Ireland, 1920-1973 (Madison, 2006), 183.

  3. Pete Lunn and Tony Fahey, Households and family structures in Ireland: A detailed statistical analysis of census 2006 (Dublin, 2011), 27.

  4. Data for 1991 comes from the Irish Central Statistics Office’s 1991 census. Data for 2016 was calculated using the Central Statistics Office’s online StatBank (EY020: Population Usually Resident and Present in the State 2011 to 2016 by Sex, Birthplace, Age Group and Census Year).

  5. Central Statistics Office, Census 2016 Summary Results - Part 1 (Dublin, 2017), 46 and 50.

  6. Mark Hilliard, ‘Where do Ireland’s asylum seekers come from?’, Irish Times, 19 November 2019.

  7. See Zoë O’Reilly, ‘‘Living Liminality’: everyday experiences of asylum seekers in the ‘Direct Provision’ system in Ireland’, Gender, Place & Culture 25:6 (2018): 821-842, 824. For the Ombudsman’s comments, see Emily O’Reilly, ‘Asylum Seekers in Our Republic: Why Have We Gone Wrong’, Studies. An Irish Quarterly Review 102 (2013), 131–148, 133.

  8. Fajujoni v Minister for Justice, Supreme Court, 8 Dec 1989.Taken from Dug Cubie and Fergus Ryan, Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Law in Ireland: Cases and Materials (Dublin, 2004), 255-256.

  9. Section 6A(1) Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act 2004; see also John Handoll, ‘Ireland’, in Rainer Bauböck et al.(eds.), Acquisition and Loss of Nationality. Volume 2: Country Analyses (Amsterdam, 2006), 289-328, 311.

  10. See Michael McDowell (Minister for Justice), Dáil Éireann, Vol. 622, 27 June 2006.

  11. Martin Ruhs, ‘Managing the Immigration and Employment of non-EU Nationals in Ireland’, Studies in Public Policy (Dublin, 2005), xii.

  12. Ibid.

  13. Calculated from CSO, ‘Foreign Nationals: PPSN Allocations, Employment and Social Welfare Activity, 2009’ (Dublin, 2011), 4.

  14. Calculated from figures presented in CSO, Census 2011 Profile 6: Migration and Diversity (Dublin, 2012), 7.

  15. See CSO, Census 2011 Profile 6: Migration and Diversity, 7.

  16. Bryan Fanning, Migration and the Making of Ireland (Dublin, 2018), 201.

  17. Martin Ruhs and Emma Quinn, ‘Ireland: From Rapid Immigration to Recession’, Migration Policy Institute (Washington, 2009).

  18. Irial Glynn and Philip O’Connell, ‘Migration’, in William K. Roche, Philip O’Connell and Andrea Prothero (eds.), Austerity and Recovery in Ireland: Europe’s Poster Child and the Great Recession (Oxford, 2017), 290-310, 292.

  19. NESC, Managing Migration in Ireland: A Social and Economic Analysis (Dublin, 2006), 173.

  20. Office of the Minister for Integration, Migration Nation: Statement on Integration Strategy and Diversity Management (Dublin, 2008), 7-8.

  21. Office of the Minister for Integration, Migration Nation, p.9.

  22. Bryan Fanning, ‘Immigration, the Celtic Tiger and the economic crisis’, Irish Studies Review 24:1 (2016), 9-20, 17.

  23. CSO, Census of Population 2016 – Profile 7 Migration and Diversity (Dublin, 2017), 5.

  24. See Philip O’Connell, ‘Why are so few Africans at work in Ireland? Immigration policy and labour market disadvantage’, Irish Journal of Sociology 27.3 (2019): 273-295 and Bryan Fanning, Migration and the Making of Ireland (Dublin, 2018), 197-199.

  25. Eoin O'Malley and John Fitzgibbon, ‘Everywhere and Nowhere: Populism and the Puzzling Non-Reaction to Ireland's Crises’, in Hanspeter Kriesi and Takis S. Pappas (eds), European Populism in the Shadow of the Great Recession (Colchester, 2015).

  26. Bryan Fanning, Immigration and social cohesion in the Republic of Ireland (Manchester, 2011), 17.


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Irial Glynn is a lecturer at the School of History in University College Dublin. His research focuses on post-1945 migration history. E-Mail Link: