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