I thank the committee for the opportunity to make a presentation on the theme of youth emigration. I will base my input on the research referred to by the Chairman and published last May entitled Time to Go? It is a qualitative research study that explored the experience and impact of emigration on the current wave of new young emigrants who left Ireland in the past two years and emigrated to the UK and Canada.
The study identifies the push and pull factors influencing Ireland’s young to emigrate and explores the policy implications of sustained emigration of young people from Ireland. For details on the background to the research, the research methodology, the key research findings and all of the report's recommendations, I refer the committee to the report that was circulated to Members in advance. Given the time limitations I shall focus on the most salient and relevant aspects of the research. There are seven report recommendations but I shall focus on the three most relevant to the work of the committee. They are as follows: the appointment of a ministry with responsibility for responding to and connecting with the Irish abroad; the need to develop and adopt a new strategic approach to meet the needs of new young emigrants; and the needs for centralised and ongoing data collection on emigrants.
As the Chairman has said, we all know emigration has become a prevailing part of Irish society. It is worth reflecting on the statistics in this regard. According to the most recent estimates compiled by the Central Statistics Office have revealed that 177,000 young people aged between 15 and 24 years of age have left the country over the past five years, and 89,000 people left the State in the year up to April 2013. At the start of the recession, outward migration was mainly accounted for by workers from new EU member states. Since 2010 emigration by Irish nationals has increased significantly and now accounts for more than half of total emigration.
Data collected by the NYCI have revealed that over the past two years over a quarter of the population has been affected by the emigration of a close family member and 51% of 18 to 24-year olds would consider emigrating. It is widely acknowledged that the number of people emigrating is concentrated heavily on the youth population.
Despite high levels of unemployment, poor labour market status and increasing emigration by Irish nationals, Ireland still receives significant immigration.
Dr. Mary Gilmartin asserts that such immigration reflects a shortage of workers with appropriate skills in some areas.
Another interesting aspect of the recent data on outward migration is the destination of choice of emigrants. The data reveal that 24% of emigrants are moving to the United Kingdom, 17.3% to Australia, 16% to the EU-12, 13% to the EU-15 and 6% to Canada.
I propose to highlight some key findings from a recent study by University College Cork, which was published at the end of September as part of UCC's Emigre project. The findings are pertinent to the discussion and reinforce some of our findings in respect of the brain drain. The study found that 62% of recent emigrants hold a third level qualification, which suggests graduates are over-represented among those leaving. More than 17% of emigrants worked in construction or construction related industry prior and 47% were in full-time employment prior to departure. Under-employment was a major driving factor, with 13% of emigrants working in part-time jobs before their departure. Almost 23% of those leaving were unemployed before departing and the vast majority, more than 70%, of emigrants are aged in their 20s when they depart.
Emigration is a very emotive issue arousing many different feelings, emotions and perspectives. When it comes to the topic of emigration there is a tendency to bemoan the fact of emigration, dwell on how terrible emigration is and deny that for some emigration is an escape from unemployment and limited opportunities at home. Our research reveals this journey often has many twists and turns and highs and lows and that it can be a positive or negative experience. Regardless of how we perceive emigration, we have a responsibility to support emigrants before and after they leave, maintain links with our citizens abroad and facilitate their return in future if they so wish.
Two key points contained in the analysis of the Time to Go? report were the social and economic implications of large-scale youth emigration. Notwithstanding the significant social costs of emigration, which are outlined in great detail in chapter 8 of the report, emigration costs the State money in the long term. While it may temporarily help alleviate the problem of unemployment, in the long term the prevalence of large-scale emigration produces a significant loss to the State in terms of the public funds invested in the education system and the brain drain of highly skilled and educated young people. Any future upturn in the economy requires a pool of well-educated young people to attract investment and stimulate and sustain economic growth. The question of how to reduce the loss and increase the gain to the economy as a result of emigration is a key policy issue that requires further consideration. Moreover, for those young people left with no option but to emigrate, every effort should be made to attract them back to Ireland when jobs in the labour market arise. I will return to this point.
On the impact of demographic changes arising from emigration, the estimates of the numbers currently emigrating are alarming as they indicate that if emigration continues at the current pace, it will result in a significant change in the age structure of the population. Prior to the economic crisis, Ireland exhibited one of the largest youth cohorts in the OECD, with young people accounting for 16% of the population. As a result of rising emigration, this figure currently stands at 12%. This alteration in the age structure, combined with an ageing population, has profound and long-term consequences for many aspects of social policy. For example, in the case of pensions the ratio of people of working age to people of pension age is expected to fall. The increase in life expectancy and in the number of people of retirement age will call into question the sustainability of funding State pensions to an adequate level.
How should the Government respond? The State must continue to work towards economic recovery to provide a stable economic environment that can attract migrants back when the economy recovers. One of the positive aspects of emigration is that many young people who emigrate acquire skills and knowledge while abroad. The vast majority of young people interviewed in our study expressed a strong desire to return if job opportunities become available to them. The improved skills and expertise they possess have the potential to provide a significant return to the State. This needs to be recognised and harnessed. The Government needs to maximise the rate of return of emigrants when the economy starts to improve. Not only does this make economic sense but it is vital for future economic growth and the social fabric.
I will focus on the three recommendations of our reports that are of relevance to the remit of the joint committee. The first is the recommendation to appoint a Minister with responsibility for responding to and connecting with the Irish abroad. The research highlights the need for the Government to ensure greater connections are made and sustained with young people who are leaving the country. Emigrants suggested one way of responding would be to appoint a Minister with responsibility for connecting with the Irish abroad. The Minister would have specific responsibility for ensuring long-term planning in the development of public policies, responding to the needs of emigrants and liaising with key public employment services to facilitate return migration to fill gaps in the labour market as they arise in future.
Engaging with the diaspora was thought by research participants in the Time to Go? study to be extremely important. One emigrant proposed that the Government ensure greater connections are made and sustained with young people who are leaving the country. In the absence of local or national representation of the Irish abroad, the appointment of a dedicated Minister to respond to and connect with our emigrants and diaspora is extremely important. Aside from the moral imperative to meet the needs of emigrants, a ministry of this nature would also benefit Ireland greatly in terms of exploiting the potential social and economic gains that can be derived from emigration. When one considers that approximately 70 million people of Irish heritage and 1.2 million Irish born citizens live overseas the argument supporting the appointment of a Minister for the Irish overseas becomes most compelling. Such an appointment would serve to greatly enhance and build on existing connections with our emigrants and diaspora throughout the world. This is even more relevant in the current context of large-scale emigration of young people, many of whom wish to be included in Irish life and society and return home some day if they have an opportunity to do so. I cannot emphasise enough the extent to which we need these highly educated and skilled young people to return.
The second key recommendation is to develop and adopt a new strategic approach to meet the needs of young emigrants. The Government needs to develop and implement a new strategy for emigrants. The strategy requires an action plan and the necessary supports to take account of the diversity of needs and provide structural supports at home to inform and assist young people who are emigrating. The strategy must also include ways of incentivising emigrants to return when the economy recovers. It is vital that the State develop a long-term plan which is responsive to changes in migration and demography and the needs of those who have emigrated. It should, for example, provide for adequate housing and social services that are equipped to respond to returning migrants. Ireland should not be complacent about return migration. In its recent report, the OECD cautioned that "international competition to attract workers with specialised skills has become fiercer and the automatic return of migrant workers should not be taken for granted".
The third recommendation relates to data collection and the need to inform a public policy response and strategy. Reliable and robust data on the profile of emigrants have been absent to date. Data collection and profiling is integral to future policy planning and the maintenance of good links with our citizens abroad. While the recent UCC Emigre study has contributed significantly to addressing the data deficit, a commitment is needed that such data will be collected on an ongoing basis and will be used to inform a policy response. A more long-term policy perspective must be incorporated in policy planning to take account of changes in demography and migration.
Tracking emigrants and investing in the facilitation of return migration could reduce the risks of a permanent loss of valuable qualified workers from the labour market. As I noted, more robust data on the profile of emigrants is required.
Emigration needs to be recognised as having a significant impact on society and the economy. While it is often considered as a panacea to addressing the problem of unemployment in the short to medium term, it should be recognised that in the long term, the impact of emigration can cause significant problems in terms of skill and labour shortages, salary costs and long-term economic growth.
Our research on youth unemployment reaffirms the importance of prioritising emigration in all aspects of public policy. The way in which we respond to prospective and current emigrants and support them before and after they leave Ireland will determine the type of country we will have. Our recommendations are informed by the qualitative research on the experience of young Irish people who have emigrated. It is important that we listen to them, learn from their experience and take on board their advice on meeting the needs of the current wave of emigrants.
We acknowledge the Tánaiste’s commitment to reviewing the existing policy on emigrants and developing a new global diaspora policy, which we understand will include a focus on meeting the needs of new young emigrants. We believe such a strategic review of policy has the potential to respond to the changing needs of younger and older Irish emigrants and our diaspora throughout the world. The development of such a policy requires the support and commitment of all political parties and sufficient resources to ensure it is fully implemented. Such a policy should provide for rigorous review and monitoring to ensure it is effective. A new global diaspora policy is not only timely but also provides an opportunity to consider how we respond to the needs of Irish emigrants throughout the world. We welcome the initiation of this policy review by the Tánaiste and his officials in the Irish abroad unit of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. We look forward to contributing significantly to the formulation of a new strategic policy framework in 2014.