Archive for Irish Emigration

Irish Times Article – Return Migration


Returning to Ireland? Don’t expect things to be as they were

While emigrating is difficult, moving back home can be surprisingly harder. Feeling like a stranger in a place you once felt totally at home can be very unsettling and shocking…




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‘I’ve watched men cry about their children emigrating’ Irish Times, Nov. 2014.

‘I’ve watched men cry about their children emigrating’

Finally the impact of loss on the people left behind by emigration is being recognised, writes Alan Hilliard.

Irish Times Generation Emigration. published 19th November 2014

There is something unnerving when you watch a grown man cry. He was in his mid-50s, dressed in overalls and work boots, and spoke to me through the kitchen window as he took a short break from his job. He tried his manly best to hide the tears and the choke in his voice in the mug of tea he was drinking from.

Tonight, he told me, he was bringing the second of his emigrant progeny to the airport. Though adults, these two people were still his “children”. They came home for a family wedding. There was great intensity in their homecoming but there was even greater intensity in their departure.

As families get smaller, the echoes of emigration grow louder in homes throughout the island. Parents will tell you that all the talk about modern communications easing the distance is farcical. Technology is more often a reminder of loss rather than a connector of presence.

The recently published research from The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (Tilda), entitled The Emigration of Adult Children and the Mental Health of their Parents, is to be welcomed. Of the 2,911 parents involved, 361 saw at least one child emigrate. This amounts to one in eight parents, and is representative of the total population we are told. Put simply, the report tells us that emigration is not just about “them over there” but it is as much about “those left behind”.

It is interesting that the impact of emigration is being talked about now. The initial bright excitement of moving abroad is dimming and now the reality of it all is settling in. Weddings, births, deaths and birthdays are occurring, and as the years pass since emigration started to rise again in 2009, there are fewer opportunities for people to return home for these events. The phrase “maybe next year” is being heard more frequently.

Certainly emigration is not all about pain and loss, but neither is it all about opportunity and adventure. The dominant language of our political and economic systems has mechanisms that squeeze the human heart out of the migration narrative. Isn’t it extraordinary that these same institutions can tug at the heart when they speak the language of “diaspora”, but the heart of the person who emigrates is largely ignored?

During the American Civil War, soldiers were often allowed access to leave because they were diagnosed with “nostalgia”. This was another word for homesickness. The only cure for them was a brief holiday with their families. Both armies supported this measure because the soldiers were made to feel that they fought on behalf of their families.

This didn’t last. As World Wars came to pass it became impossible to repatriate those who were homesick. They were no longer fighting for families, but for a flag. Anyone who remembers M*A*S*H* may recall that visits home to the US by the characters were never recorded. Those in the camp were family. The army provided medical care, chaplains, entertainment and places for occasional R and R. Nostalgia and thoughts of family and friends at home were the enemy of order, stability and focus.

Our globalising world is benefiting from this evolving phenomenon. The market place does not want to hear about homesickness or nostalgia. Feelings of loss and depression are your own fault and it is unthinkable to blame it on a market driven world that wants you to mobile, flexible and loyal.

Multinationals go out of their way to create soft landings. Your office in London, Dublin, Sydney or Rio is decorated with the same colours and furnished with the same furnishings. You can “log-on” anywhere with the same password. These corporations provide “family” where you work. Sports facilities, classy canteens, socials and even places for you to nap fill the gap.

International students who are now the fodder of the globalising universities are told how wonderful the experience is, how travelling is a great opportunity to experience different cultures and become a citizen of the world. But nobody has said it is ok to be homesick; that it is normal to miss your parents, or feel sad when you miss your little sister’s birthday.

The concept of “migratory mourning”’ is one that is emerging in psychology today. It is most likely a clinical name for nostalgia and homesickness. This concept tells us that mourning occurs in those who go, those who are left behind, and those who return. The findings are only giving expression to what we always knew but what we continually find hard to face.

Emigration tears at the heart of families, communities and societies. Emigration – and especially the loss of our young – grinds a country down. We are ground down socially, culturally and economically because as every person emigrates we are losing possibilities for our future.

When the last of the islanders left the Blasket Islands in the 1950s, they said they could no longer stay because all their young folk had gone. Life, in the fullest sense of the word, was no longer sustainable.

The Tilda report is brave; it is saying what many have suppressed. Finally, people are being given permission to say they miss people they love. Finally, scientific research has acknowledged the impact of loss on the people who go and people who are left behind. Finally, loss that many can’t speak about is beginning to be recognised as significant and damaging. Finally, we can see the desire among emigrants to leave in search of a place where they can “be more” leaves others with an emptiness within themselves that may never be filled.

Fr Alan Hilliard is coordinator of the Chaplaincy Service in Dublin Institute of Technology, and a board member of the Irish Episcopal Council for Emigrants.

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We Bring Home With Us: Ireland and her Diaspora

We Bring Home With Us: Great Imagination and expertise is needed of we are to engage the Irish Diaspora.

The recent Global Irish Forum the visits of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and President Barack Obama to Ireland and the increasing numbers of people emigrating bring attention once again to the Irish Diaspora. Ireland continues to refer to their vast Diaspora, yet attempts to connect with the larger community, lauded as a great resource can be difficult and cumbersome.

Alan Hilliard (Fr.) M Soc Sc
Bolton St.
Dublin 1

Member of the Board of the Irish Council for Emigrants at the Irish Catholic Bishop’s Conference and former Director of the Irish Episcopal Commission for Emigrants.
We Bring Home With Us: Great Imagination and expertise is needed of we are to engage the Irish Diaspora.

The recent Global Irish Forum the visits of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and President Barack Obama to Ireland and the increasing numbers of people emigrating bring attention once again to the Irish Diaspora. Ireland continues to refer to their vast Diaspora, yet attempts to connect with the larger community, lauded as a great resource can be difficult and cumbersome

It struck me that distant cities are designed precisely so you can know where you came from. We bring ‘home’ with us when we leave. Sometimes it becomes more acute for the fact of having left.
(McCann, Colum, Let The Great World Spin, (2009), p 59.)

There has been a sizable increase in attention to the vagaries surrounding the emigration. The recent publication of the Irish Bishop’s Council for Emigrant’s Resource Pack highlights that once again those at the grass roots of the Irish Catholic Church are called upon to address the subject of emigration. Opinion columns are divided as to whether emigration is a good or a bad thing. Bottom line is that it is all too early to have an opinion. If emigration proves to be a short term rite of passage with a choice to return to favourable employment it could well be a positive and enriching experience. On the other hand if the emigration option is seen as the only option, then the experience is a different matter entirely.

Ironically, while the institutions of the country foster ties with the diaspora, thousands of emigrants are leaving our shores. There is no doubt that it is hugely advantageous to the country if appropriate links are fostered with those who claim Irish heritage across the world. How this is achieved is significant. For a country with a long history of emigration, Ireland is a relative newcomer to diaspora politics. There remains a glaring need to understand the diaspora, engage with the diaspora and to be imaginative if Ireland is to create diaspora policies that prove beneficial to Ireland and to those they claim to reach out to.

These matters provide an insight into the vagaries of the global phenomenon of migration which is of increasing importance to policy makers. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates that by 2050 seven per cent of the total global population will be migrants. For a short and unprecedented period of our history Ireland experienced net inward migration. As we return to the more normal net outward migration that Ireland has experienced over the centuries it is fair to say that based on IOM figures our experience of migration will be above the global average. In this climate the IOM recommends that countries take migration more seriously, stating that there is a need to develop policies that adequately deal with migration so that the negatives can be turned into positives. This includes policy for diaspora communities. Considering our experience of migration, Ireland should be leading the field in migration and diaspora policy. While we may not be lagging behind, we certainly are not a world leader in this area when compared to other countries that have large populations abroad.
Understanding our Diaspora.

The term diaspora is used now with increased frequency. Ireland is a case in point. For many years Ireland has experienced emigration. Those who left our shores were seldom referred to as ‘diaspora’. Diaspora does not carry the harshness and weighty baggage of the term emigration. Diaspora is less evocative of the pain and necessity of forced emigration. There remains the further emerging challenge which is to keep a link between the diaspora and the emigrant; they are two aspects of the one reality we call migration. Diaspora denotes those that look in from afar while emigration brings unwelcome attention to a portion of our population that are forced out. Policies for emigration are more challenging than diaspora policies as they demand that a country faces up to the causes behind the push factors of emigration. For a country like Ireland, emigration has acted as a safety valve whereby ‘emigration dispensed with the need to do anything about its causes’ (Fanning, 2009). Talk of diaspora policies can ignore or distract from the painful reality of emigration.

For many years and for a variety of reasons respective governments were slow to address the needs of Irish emigrants and the Irish Diaspora. Apart from the global interest in diaspora policies promoted by organisations like the World Bank, a number of local factors have contributed to the emergence of diaspora initiatives in Ireland. One such factor is the signing and implementation of The Good Friday Agreement. This landmark in Irish history has provided a welcome opportunity for the Irish Government to engage with Irish communities abroad. Prior to the Agreement (and viewed from an Irish institutional perspective) elements of the Irish Diaspora were seen to be cultivated to provide support and funding for Republican organisations. Writing in the Catholic Herald (19/04/2011) William Oddie believes that the support from sentimentalist Irish organisations abroad contributed to the deaths of people during ‘The Troubles’. Another factor that contributed to interest in the Diaspora was the setting up of the Unit for the Irish Abroad at the Department of Foreign Affairs whose brief it is to engage with Irish individuals, organisations and groups living overseas.

While trying to understand the Irish Diaspora one must realise that diasporas generally preserve many aspects of an Ireland they left behind and which may no longer exist in the contemporary experience of those that remain in Ireland. The author Colum McCann describes this when he says ‘we take ‘home’ with us when we leave’. Diasporas not only take their own home place with them but they carry the political and cultural landscape that they were enmeshed in when they or their antecedents departed. What some one sees as sentimentalism is in actual fact a substantial slice of Irish life from another time. These values are more than mere sentiment. For Irish settlers to the United States in the early part of the nineteenth century, Catholicism was practically outlawed by the dominant white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, W.A.S.P. culture. Similarly, in the early days of settlement in Australia, officials such as Dunmore Lang and Sir Henry Parkes argued for limiting Catholic influence and Catholic migration. These adverse circumstances forced people to rely on deeply held beliefs and values that gave hope and strength in difficult circumstances. A valuable coping mechanism, these beliefs and values are often preserved in families and communities across generations. While their slice of Ireland remained largely unaffected by changing social circumstances in the home country, diasporas can express views, opinions, practises and sentiments based what their parents or grandparents passed onto them and less on the current values, beliefs and practices of contemporary Ireland. For instance, those in countries like American and Australia who claim Irish heritage have preserved an Irish Catholic or a Nationalist identity find it hard to understand young immigrants who do not hold the values that their families have preserved over generations.
This aspect of the Diaspora has certain advantages. There are many instances where the survival and continuity of a nation are dependent on the action of Diaspora communities and individuals. When countries experience political turmoil, the Diaspora can offer stability and leadership both during the turmoil and when the turmoil comes to an end. The members of the Diaspora can hold on to a vision for the country based on the values that pre-existed strife and warfare. Oftentimes a future leader can be chosen from the diaspora. Such a leader may have been expelled by those that caused the political discontent or may have chosen exile. One example that comes to mind immediately is that of Liberia. Following a tragic Civil war the new President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, emerged from the Liberian Diaspora community in the United States. Other examples of people who brought ideas back to their home country after spells abroad include Mohandas Gandhi, Kwame Nkrumah and Ho Chi Minh . Indeed Archbishop Diarmuid Martin was brought to the Archdiocese of Dublin as an Irish exile who was perceived as having something to offer a Church whose local management was tarnished by allegations of mismanagement of Child Abuse Scandals. Furthermore recent Episcopal appointments to Down and Connor, Killaloe and Ossory followed this pattern. As The Economist (2003) once observed, ‘now something new is taking place: diasporas are increasingly exerting influence on the politics of the countries they have physically, but not emotionally, abandoned’.

Engaging our Diaspora
In the mind of the diaspora community, Ireland inc. extends beyond the current travails. As a matter of fact the difficulties and troubles of life in the past often preoccupy memories and stories among families and communities abroad. Marketing Ireland means marketing the Ireland that ‘was’ as well as the Ireland that ‘is’. This may go against the grain of our modern sophisticated ways as those who wield power and influence may want to promote to the model of a modern, secularist, value free Ireland that’s currently open for business. Let’s be mindful that if today’s Ireland is to be marketed to our diaspora it needs to connect with the intrigue that members of the diaspora have with the Ireland that formed the character of previous generations. Even modern diaspora studies admit that it is difficult to detach religious sentiments and beliefs from other cultural aspects of diasporic identity. While modern Ireland may want to downplay religious identity, diasporic communities may want to cherish this aspect of Ireland Inc.

A marked absence at the two Global Irish Economic Fora is the voice of the religious organisations who continue to serve emigrants and the broader diaspora communities. While the current administration may value the input of religious based organisations in local communities abroad, they appear not to value the legacy that religious based organisations have made to emigrant and diaspora policy in the past. The Department of Foreign Affairs may want to ‘dumb down’ the pastoral input of some centres it is worth noting that most Irish institutions provide funding for specific Pastoral Care Services. This includes hospitals, schools, colleges and prisons. If one is in any doubt as to the contribution that Irish Church based organisations have made to emigrant and diaspora policy, one only has to refer to a study undertaken by Dr. Patricia Kennedy of the Department of Applied Social Policy at UCD which charted the contribution of service by the Irish Chaplaincy in Britain over a fifty year period . The report specifically documents the contribution the Irish Chaplaincy in Britain made to public policy for emigrants and the diaspora. This work is awaiting publication and will be warmly received considering the renewed interest in emigration and diaspora policy. A further reason for involving a broader range of voices including that of the church is that one of the successful outcomes of the first Global Irish Forum namely Ireland Reaching Out (IrelandXO) is parish based. The basic concept which has been developed by the businessman Mike Feerick has encouraged parishes in the South-east Galway region to establish links with the descendants of those that left the parishes in previous generations. Twenty-five parishes have expressed an interest in the project for 2012 .

To understand the nuances of the Irish Diaspora one must realise that like any Irish town or village it has all shades of life. There are those that have power, wealth and influence and those whose power, wealth and influence may not be as obvious. Just as there is the temptation to engage with one end of the town in Ireland so the same temptation might exist when dealing with the Irish Diaspora. The Exclusive events such as the recent meetings in Farmleigh and Dublin Castle should not distract from the influence and support of those who may not frequent these formal gatherings. There are many lives that have created a web of connections and extended family networks that are proud of their Irish heritage. These connection and networks thrive at local level and may not receive the attention they deserve. While it may be important to attract business people to conferences and summits, it is the other cohorts that bring in the tourist dollars.

Compared to the era prior to the setting up of the Unit for the Irish Abroad at the Department of Foreign Affairs those working with and for the Irish abroad have much to be thankful for. The Unit has created a one-stop-shop for emigrant issues and funding by government has increased. However, as with all organisations, further developments are necessary. Firstly, the benefits that arise when people gather together have been lauded by the organisers of the Global Irish Economic Forum. The organisers of the recent forum have widely advertised the positive effects of the engagement of minds and the power of networking for the economic development of Ireland. However, similar events aimed at gathering together those involved in front line emigrant care were discouraged by the Unit for the Irish Abroad. When the Emigrant Advice Network (ÉAN) was in existence two such successful events were organised in Dublin in 2004 and 2005, however the Board was advised that further funding would not be available for future events. At this point in our history when emigration figures are growing steadily a similar engagement of those involved in front line emigrant care could provide immense benefits for those preparing for emigration. Such an event would provide first hand information on the opportunities, procedures and pitfalls for the modern day emigrant. Secondly, the Global Irish Economic Forum has created opportunities for members of the diaspora to sit on boards on companies in Ireland thus underlining the importance of good governance. One of the major shortfalls in policy for the Irish abroad has been the failure to provide funding and training for board members of Irish Emigrant groups and centres. The failure to insist in proper governance has created problems and has contributed to situations of confused accountability. Indeed many of these centres would reap untold benefits if some of those that attended the Global Irish Economic Forum were involved with local emigrant centres. Such a measure would foster good relationships between emigrant communities and what could be perceived as the more elitist diaspora organisations.

Imaginative Policies
The number of diaspora institutions has increased dramatically across the world in recent years. A large number of countries in the Developing World have ministries dedicated to their diaspora communities. No doubt they have an eye on remittances which aid development. Many other countries have sub-ministry level diaspora institutions and others have national and local level institutions. An overview of these organisations and a review of the various diaspora policies undertaken by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) highlight five important elements in diaspora policies. Firstly a countries policy must have a clear set of goals. Secondly, the information about the diaspora is vital. Though difficult to achieve, policy cannot happen without knowledge of the whereabouts, capacities and characteristics of diaspora communities. A communications network that is mutually beneficial to the home country and those living abroad is of the utmost importance. Modern methods of communication offer untold opportunities for the future but they must be engaging and creative to make an impact. Fourthly, coordinated efforts are particularly important when the client group is so widespread and diverse. Policies, information and communications need to have a professional coordinated focus avoiding duplication and providing easy access to resources. And finally, new initiatives must have something concrete to offer to the diaspora communities.

Initiatives such as the one announced by the Taoiseach in New York offering a three thousand euro reward for every job created by individuals will not engage the diaspora. Creating benefits is a necessary step in cultivating diaspora links but they must hold a deeper significance. While members of the diaspora may be motivated by financial reward they are also motivated by recognition and identity that rises above the tackiness of nostalgia and sentimentalism. It must be remembered that the global scene is changing rapidly, emigration is no longer viewed as disloyalty, host nations are more supportive of dual citizenship, and governments of sending countries work more closely with receiving nations on behalf of their diaspora communities. These factors amongst others provide more opportunities than ever to cultivate links with our diaspora; however, one must not underestimate the difficulties involved in creating diaspora policies. The most notable trait in the efforts of various countries to bridge the gap between the homeland and those living abroad is the distance between ambition and capacity. It is difficult for any country to operate outside its borders which in turn contributes to the inconsistency and ineffectiveness of diaspora policies. History shows that there is something quite unique about the Irish Diaspora that recent administrations have lacked the imagination to harness. Looking back at support among the Irish Diaspora for Republican causes and the feverish activity generated by the Irish Hospital Sweepstake (once described by the American edition of Reader’s Digest as ‘the greatest bleeding heart racket in the world’) there is immense potential to make imaginative leaps to cultivate the support of the Diaspora as we chart our way through uncertain waters.

The present focus on business generated links may suit economic agendas but it will not on its own merits capture the imagination of those who claim Irish heritage. Future policy needs concrete measures fuelled by imaginative initiatives that will reach to the hearts and minds of the potential client base of 80 million. Teams comprising people other than business leaders and civil servants are required to share their expertise if these endeavours are to successfully engage the Irish Diaspora. There are many reasons why initiatives should be taken, some of which are offered in this article. There remains however one good reason; it is time to establish if the 80 million whom we constantly refer to actually exist.

Ends /3000 words

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CAVEAT EMPTOR: (e)Migrant Beware

CAVEAT EMPTOR: (e)Migrant Beware

People who are emigrating from Ireland, and indeed any migrant, needs to be aware that while counties are more willing to take workers they are constantly seeking ways of evading their responsibilities towards those same workers. As in any transaction there is a caveat; Migrant Beware…

Every evening, one of our many television channels air programs in the reality TV genre featuring scenes at border control points. Airports are the most frequently depicted locations. Uniformed Customs and or Immigration Officers provide off camera comment on operational cases. People are investigated for drug possession, importation of illegal substances such as plants that are deemed harmful to the local environment and visa violations. Some are found guilty and are passed over to the authorities, others are returned on the next flight and those found innocent of the allegations made by Customs or Immigration are allowed travel onwards to meet their friends or family members.

Those who are allowed to continue on their planned itinerary are usually very relieved and despite all the arguments and prior protestations with officials they end up leaving on very good terms. In some cases you would be forgiven for thinking that the previously accused person just stops short of hugging the officer; at least that is how the program depicts the event.

While these programs may attract large ratings; they provide us with valuable insights into the vulnerability of those who travel.  The ‘no man’s land’ between national borders is not a pretty place to be under investigation. Simply put, if a person is arrested for similar crimes on the street they have rights. While in a customs or immigration zone, a person has few rights with little access to third party assistance until they are passed over to other civil authorities; there is no on the spot right to appeal; there is no dictate that a person is entitled to a phone call, and furthermore, there is no recourse to governance structure or accountability structure for one who accused or detained regardless of guilt or innocence. Normal rules similar to those relating to the freedom of information legislation do not apply in ‘no man’s land’. In short when a person is in a pre-immigration clearance zone they have few rights.

Whatever about the rights and wrongs of these realities they indicate the vulnerable position of those who migrate. It also highlights how policy at borders is out of step with many basic human rights. This has not occurred by accident. Let us be under no illusion that migration policy is seldom about the well-being of the migrant – the needs of the receiving country are top of the agenda. Evidence of this is to be found in our own history. For example, improvements made to living conditions for passengers on the ships used for Trans-Atlantic crossings from Europe to Canada and America via Ireland by shipping companies in the nineteenth century had less to do with the rights of those travelling and more to do with the fear of the outbreak of infectious diseases in the receiving countries.

One might rightfully expect in the era we live in, that policy for migrants ought to be more advanced and humane in our world today. However, policy situates the migrant in a place of secondary importance.  Countries attract migrants because the migrants fill a deficit in the labour market. Their capital needs people’s labour. Whether it is an airline company, the mining sector, nursing or the provision of farm labourers; this work is often work that local people consider to be unrewarding or too difficult. Immigrants willingly and conveniently fill the space.

One important learning point from these observations is a person contemplating migration needs to be aware that they are often unimportant in the equation. Some people working for large multinationals are well insulated from these realties. Their companies often deal directly with departments of immigration to secure visas for their workers. The ordinary migrant, however, needs to identify and examine possible loop holes that may lead to exploitation. As stated previously the sector governing migration is largely ungoverned and the possibilities for exploitation are rife leaving little place for recourse to an appeal or reimbursement if a person is exploited or is a victim or fraud.

This occurs in practise when private companies promise visas and are unable to deliver on their promises. Some countries license a number of visa companies or immigration lawyers to act their behalf; this is a good thing where it happens and protects against a certain amount of exploitation. However, there are many companies who promise visas and who may not be certified by the countries for which they claim to offer visas. These companies may not be able to deliver despite taking large amounts of money from customers.  Furthermore, and unbeknownst to many, a country is not obligated to inform a person why their visa application was refused. There are many reasons why an application might not be successful. An error made by party who acts on your behalf is enough to have your application rejected.

Due to advances in technology our modern world, many countries only allow on-line visa applications. A visa refusal, therefore, could also be based on an error made by you on an on-line application, which is perfectly understandably considering the complexity of some of these sites and the ambiguity of some of the questions.  The bottom line for the person applying is they may never know why their application was rejected. A further weakness in the system is due to a lack of proper governance and policing by countries of the on-line applications. In some cases visa offers are taken up by people who may not intend to use the visa; the cancelled or unused visa is not re-issued. Others avail of the opportunity provided by the visa to obtain a summer job stealing the opportunity of long term work and even future settlement for a potential applicant. These scenarios only open the windows on other shortcomings in the management of migration. In case we think that it only other countries that we travel to that exploit people; Ireland is not without her faults.

Many Irish returned during the Celtic Tiger years or have returned to look after parents in their old age amongst other reasons only to discover that their workplace credentials were not recognised here. This is particularly true for those in the trades sector. The present campaign by the Migrants Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI ) highlights that gaps in our immigration laws are excluding the children of migrants access to third level education despite the fact that they have lived in Ireland for many years. This campaign identifies a growing worldwide trend affecting migrants; countries are creating an ever increasing gap between people and welfare.

Governments are finding ways to create a global worker scheme whereby a person’s contribution to the work force is a given but the countries responsibility towards that person is no longer part of the deal. Indeed the growth of undocumented population world-wide suggests that the presence of these labour forces is quietly tolerated by the host nation. The countries in question, including Ireland, have a ready supply of labour while they have little responsibility or duty towards them. Recent schemes such as the International Experience Canada and the Australian 457 (as highlighted in Pádraig Collins’ Sydney Letter in the Irish Times on March 18th) visa programs are examples of this. Further study would in no doubt reveal that there is a very thin line between the status of undocumented workers and those who are permitted to stay in jurisdictions with work permits. For instance many Irish people working in Middle Eastern countries will be stateless once their work permits expire. They may even be homeless if they haven’t little provision for life beyond their expiry date.

Knowing how vulnerable the migrant is, it no wonder migrant NGO’s worldwide charged with emigrant care spend their time preparing information for those intending to emigrate. The old catch cry still applies i.e. the three most important things for those emigrating are: prepare; prepare; prepare.  Furthermore it is even less of a wonder why groups working with immigrants are constantly highlighting gaps in policy and status between immigrants and the general population.

The casual observer might say, ‘sure this doesn’t affect me, this only matters to migrants’. How wrong can you be! Firstly, and according to the International Organisation for Migration, migration is on the increase because people need to migrant form poverty and countries that have decreasing birth rates need migrants to carry out essential services to society. Secondly, bad policy creates discontent in society. We all want to live together well; polices that create inequalities militate against social cohesion. Thirdly, and this has been proven and referred to by many scholars; the migrant highlights what is ahead for us all. If governments can reduce their responsibilities to migrants they will soon extend that approach to its citizens. Whether it occurs through ideology or austerity doesn’t really matter; the migrant is like the scout of old; they may find a way through new territories but in doing so they will meet the hazards first.

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Emigration: It’s not getting any easier.

There’s a story told of a man from the west of Ireland stepping onto the platform in Euston Station, London after a long trip on the mail boat and the train. Like most arriving in London, he’s left the pain of emigration somewhere on the Irish Sea and he successfully suppresses these feelings with the belief that untold opportunity and wealth await him. He is laden down with his cardboard suitcase which contains a change of clothes and a few other rudimentary items. Under the same arm is a turkey that hasn’t been plucked, its limp head hanging out of the newspaper that it is wrapped in. His other arm delicately balances a smoked ham and a tin of Jacob’s biscuits, all destined for the relations of various neighbours from his home parish. He takes two steps up the platform and spots a twenty pound note on the ground. Finding it difficult to pick up the note with his excess baggage, he mumbles to himself, ‘‘ah sure, I’ll come back tomorrow to collect a few of them”.

Emigrants today may not have turkeys and hams under their arms but they still carry what we have come to know as a cultural identity which can be a burden and a gift, depending on circumstances and context. One can become aware of one’s cultural identity when placed in a new environment. The way I work, sleep, eat, drink, learn, sustain friendships and the values that I hold dear are often only highlighted when I encounter someone or somewhere different. Subsequently, the migrant journey is a constant conversation between what is new and what is familiar. This conversation gives you a sense your own difference, a difference that can only be explained by your cultural identity which is exposed to you like never before because of your new environment. Furthermore you question whether you want to retain or left go of your difference. This process can be referred to as the dialogue between integration and particularity. In this context ‘integration’ is the desire to become part of the place you now hope to call home and ‘particularity’ refers to the cultural identity that you can’t really shake off because it is who you are.

Settling down, never mind emigrating, has unique challenges these days. In times gone by people got on with things, there was little else to do. Their heart often tugged them homewards but their surroundings soon brought them back. Today there is an expectation that a person can occupy two spaces at the same time with ease. Technology has us living in two times zones at any one point in time. As a result ‘getting on with things’ can be more difficult.

Technology use can inadvertently cause distress: you can wake up in the morning to a missed call from a friend or relative who was overexcited as they relayed in their message how much ‘craic’ you are missing at such and such a social event at home. When you are told not to worry about a sick parent, you can’t put it aside that easily anymore; ‘they’re fine’ doesn’t wash with the fact that you haven’t seen them on Skype for the last few weeks. Sometimes you’d love to be free just to get on with settling but technology keeps pulling you back, tugging at your heart strings, drawing you into a different time zone when you are trying to ready yourself for action in a world of new opportunities.

When our Euston Station character stepped off the train, there is no doubt that he knew something about the country he was travelling to. This information gave him a sense of security which helped to get him over the first few hurdles until he began to listen and learn. As we face a new phase of Irish emigration people would be foolish to think that today’s more technology literate ‘sophisticated’ generation won’t encounter their own problems. Indeed the dialogue between integration and particularity may be more difficult for them than it was for previous generations.

Many others stepped off trains thinking they knew the way things worked in their new country. From the many stories that were told at home, the letters that were written, the programmes that were watched or listened to, the potential emigrant created a sense that they had it ‘sussed’; that they knew what they were heading into. Present waves of emigrants have more access to information about destination countries than past generations. They may not believe that the streets are paved with gold did but they still have expectations and dreams that will eventually engage a new reality.

Whilst preparation is very important for the new emigrant, no amount of research time spent on online search engines can give the smells, tastes and hazards of a new land. No amount of guidebooks prepares you for the interactions with people of another land where frankness can be confused with rudeness and laughter seen as dismissive and uncaring. No amount of self-help books can capture the right way to say that final good bye in the airport to those that matter. Neither will these books help you overcome the sense of sheer confusion when you wake up midway through a long-haul flight realising you are not going home in two weeks time. This confused, uncomfortable semi-slumber finds you asking yourself ‘what the hell am I at?’ for the first time.

Whatever about the personal struggles that the emigrant experiences there is no doubt that external factors such as immigration policies can inhibit or enhance this struggle. Policy regimes are much stricter than those that existed in the past. Today, policies focus more on protecting the possessions and welfare benefits of the residents of a country than supporting opportunities for potential immigrants. In previous eras countries that needed immigrants had, for the large part, open-door policies. Where this was not the case there were opportunities for sponsorship by a family member who was already a citizen or resident of the country. Today the scenario is quite different. Borders are less porous and citizenship is more difficult to achieve. People still take risks. They travel on holiday visas, overstay and become illegal. If caught they are deported and receive a bar which means they are not allowed to enter that country for many years. This is particularly tragic when many of those that are illegal could have entered their chosen country legally if they had taken time to carry out some basic research.

This inability to learn from the mistakes of past waves of emigration is in evidence in various ways. One group that comes to mind is the many Irish emigrants to Britain in the 1950s and 1960s who made very little provision for their later years. Those that worked for ‘the lump’ followed the work wherever it would take them. Being paid in cash in a public house meant that the wage was short lived and quickly absorbed by the cash register. One might think that such circumstances are a thing of the past. Today many Irish working in the Middle East are there for as long as their work permits are valid. As soon as their employment comes to an end, they have no status and will have to leave the jurisdiction. Where do they go? We are all too familiar with the scenario whereby when you reach a certain age your prospects of employment are lessened. But what is the emigrant has made no provision for the day when there is no pay cheque? The country that offered employment with little hope of integration is no longer concerned for the emigrant’s well being. These subtle policies are signals to emigrants that it is time to move on. If the emigrant is Irish and has lived outside Ireland for a long number of years it is most likely that the emigrant has made no social welfare contributions in their original country.

Despite these challenges, fans of globalisation advocate the benefits of living in two places in the world at the one time. However the ultimate question lurking behind the ups and downs of the migratory process is the existential question which asks ‘to whom do I belong?’ The answer to this question is not found in technology or policies but in the human heart. The challenge to today’s emigrants is the same challenge that faced emigrants in the past. At the end of the day if an emigrant is fortunate enough to live in a place where they can put their hand on their heart and proclaim ‘I belong here’ then they can safely say that they have found their home in the world.

Alan Hilliard (Rev)

(An edited version of this article was published in the Irish Times on March 17th 2011)

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