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Background Information | Ireland |

Ireland Background Immigration Migration Policy Irregular Migration Integration Issues Current Issues References

Background Information

Emma Quinn

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Traditionally Ireland has been a country marked by a declining population and high rates of emigration. Within the last two decades this situation has reversed dramatically. Immigration has increased significantly in the context of rapid economic growth.

At first, flows were driven by returning Irish emigrants, but from the early 2000s non-EU nationals began to arrive in significant numbers for the first time, mainly to work but also to seek asylum. The scale of these developments put Irish policy-makers under pressure and the response was often ad hoc. Asylum policy was developed first and even today much of Ireland's immigration policy remains on an administrative rather than statutory basis. Attempts to clarify Ireland's immigration and asylum policy in a new Immigration, Residence and Protection bill have been frustrated by repeated delays in passing the bill through the legislative process.

Background InformationIreland

Capital: Dublin
Official languages: English, Irish
Area: 6 825 km2
Population (2006): 4 239 848
Population density (2006): 60 inhabitants per km2
Population growth (2002-2006): 8.2 %
Foreign-born population as percentage of total population (2006): 15 %
Foreign national population as percentage of total population (2006): 11 %
Labour force participation rate (December, 2009): 62.5 %
Unemployment rate (December, 2009): 12.5 %
Religions (2006): 87 % Roman Catholic, 3 % Church of Ireland (incl. Protestant), 1 % Muslim, 9 % other religions

In many respects, Ireland has now entered a new phase in its immigration history. As a result of severe economic contraction, immigration has declined significantly since 2007 and Ireland may soon return to net emigration. It remains to be seen whether migrant workers already in Ireland will return to their countries of origin, but it appears likely that at least some will stay. Although migrants who have lived in Ireland for only a short period are excluded from Ireland's social welfare system, those who are entitled to support still represent a significant portion of the social welfare burden. Perhaps surprisingly, given the rapidity of recent population changes, Ireland has not yet faced serious integration problems. However, international experience shows that there is potential for tensions to develop as competition for work increases; a situation not helped by the fact that Ireland´s integration policy is as yet poorly developed.

Historical Trends

Over much of its history Ireland has been a country of emigration. In 1841 the population of what is now the Republic of Ireland stood at over 6.5 million. By 1901, mainly because of emigration and the deaths that followed the Great Famine of 1847, it had fallen to about 3.25 million. Population decline continued, although at a slower pace, and in 1961 the population level reached its lowest recorded level ever: 2.818.000. The majority of Irish emigrants who left in the nineteenth century and in the early part of the twentieth century went to North America. These flows ended abruptly with the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s. From this point onwards most Irish emigrants travelled to the United Kingdom particularly during and after the Second World War as large numbers of Irish men sought employment in the British war effort and the subsequent reconstruction. Estimates indicate that between 1946 and 1951 nearly 83 per cent of Irish emigrants went to the United Kingdom.

During the 1960s increased domestic economic growth slowed the pace of emigration and the population began to rise. The 1970s were remarkable in that net immigration was seen for the first time. This trend could not be sustained, however. Poor global economic conditions in the early 1980s impacted severely on the Irish economy, resulting in a recession that lasted well into the second half of the decade. By 1986 the unemployment rate had reached over 17 per cent, significantly higher than that in the United Kingdom and a disparity that led to large-scale emigration. In 1988/89 net emigration stood at 45.000, or 13.0 per thousand of the population.

Inward, Outward and Net Migration 1987-2008 (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/2.0/de

The figure left shows that the beginning of the 1990s marked the start of a new phase in Irish migration history. Outward and inward flows were more or less balanced and from around 1996 immigration accelerated significantly as Ireland experienced unprecedented economic growth. This boom, which became known in Ireland as the "Celtic Tiger", resulted from a range of long and short-term factors. Among the long-term factors that began to have an effect were the gradual dismantling of barriers to foreign trade and the encouragement of foreign direct investment, the introduction of free secondary education in 1967 and membership in the European Community in 1973. The short-term factors included membership in the European Monetary Union (EMU) in the 1990s. Investment in education resulted in large numbers of highly skilled Irish graduates who were able to benefit from the growth in the Information Technology, pharmaceutical, medical and other sectors in Ireland and abroad. Employment increased by almost 30 per cent between 1996 and 2001 and widespread labour shortages emerged which attracted large numbers of immigrants.

In general terms the recent history of Irish migration (1990s onwards) can be characterised as having had four phases:

  • Economic growth resulted in increasing immigration from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, driven largely by returning Irish nationals. There were also dramatic increases in the number of asylum applicants.

  • In the period 2002-2004 new peaks were reached in non-EU immigration flows and in the numbers of asylum applications. Asylum applications fell quickly from a 2002 peak and stabilised at a much lower level from 2004.

  • Between 2004 and 2007 a substantial part of non-EU immigration flows converted to EU flows after the 2004 EU enlargement. New highs were reached in overall immigration, driven by nationals of the enlarged EU.

  • Reduced but still significant net immigration has been experienced since 2007/2008, the fall largely resulting from economic contraction and associated decreased flows from new EU member states.



  1. See Sexton (1996).

  2. See O'Connell (2008).

  3. See Hughes and Quinn (2004).

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Emma Quinn is a Research Analyst at the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) and National Coordinator of the Irish National Contact Point of the European Migration Network.