Background InformationCapital: Dublin
Official languages:
English, Irish
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

Historical Trends in Migration

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.1 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.23

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.

Immigration by Nationality

The various phases of recent immigration to Ireland have been strongly associated with particular national groups. In the late 1980s around 65 per cent of the immigrants coming to Ireland were returning Irish emigrants. During the 1990s and 2000s the share of returning Irish dropped significantly and between 2006 and 2008 Irish immigrants made up only 18 per cent of the inflow. As the share of returning Irish migrants continued to fall, non-EU migrants came to dominate the flows, constituting more than half of all non-Irish immigrants arriving in Ireland between 2001 and 2004.

Since the accession of ten new EU member states4 in 2004 and two new EU member states in 2006 Ireland has experienced unprecedented net immigration. Nationals from the new member states have heavily dominated migratory inflows. Between 2005 and 2008 an average of 44 per cent of the immigration flow and 54 per cent of the non-Irish immigration flow, has been made up of nationals of EU States that acceded in 2004 together with Romania and Bulgaria which acceded in 2006. Figure 2 shows the nationality breakdown of the immigration flows between 1998 and 2008. Nationals from the new member states now clearly dominate the inflow rather than returning Irish migrants.

The Immigrant Population in Ireland

Census 2006 provides a great deal of previously unavailable information on non-Irish nationals resident in Ireland. Table 1 
compares the number and percentage of persons usually resident (i.e. all persons present on census night plus those who are usually resident but are absent for a period less than 3 months) in Ireland in 2002 and 2006 classified by nationality. The percentage of persons with non-Irish nationality increased significantly from 6 per cent to 10 per cent.

The most significant increase was seen in the EU category, which accounted for 2.5 per cent of persons enumerated in 2002 and 7 per cent in 2006. In line with recent trends in immigration flows this increase in the proportion of EU nationals was mainly driven by migrants from the 10 EU States that acceded in 2004: 120 500 or almost 3 per cent of the population enumerated on Census night held nationality of one of the EU10 States.5

The majority of non-Irish nationals usually resident in Ireland are in the 25-44 age group (52 per cent). Non-Irish nationals also have a slightly higher representation in the 15-24 age group than Irish nationals (18 per cent and 15 per cent respectively). Census 2006 indicated that Ireland is still quite an ethnically homogenous country. Almost 95 per cent of those who answered the nationality question indicated their ethnicity was White, while Black, Asian and other ethnicities accounted for just 1 per cent each. Of the respondents of Irish nationality, 98 per cent identified their own ethnicity as White, while this was the case only for 71 per cent of non-Irish respondents.

The vast majority of non-Irish nationals in Ireland are first-generation, i.e. were born outside of the country. Census 2006 indicated that just 5 per cent of non-Irish nationals enumerated were born in Ireland.

Irish nationals are also quite homogenous religiously: the vast majority enumerated identified themselves as Catholic. Non-Irish nationals are much more religiously diverse: just over half are Catholic, 11 per cent are Church of Ireland, Protestant, Presbyterian, or Methodist, and 5 per cent are Muslim. A much higher percentage of non-Irish than Irish nationals claim to have no religion (16 per cent and 3 per cent respectively).

Irish Migration Policy Development

Most of the existing Irish migration policy has been developed in the last two decades. The recent immigration increase seen in Ireland has been driven mainly by workers moving to Ireland to fill labour shortages and many of the policy developments relate to labour migration. Policy developments in relation to asylum, citizenship and general immigration are also discussed below.

Labour migration policy
All nationals of the European Economic Area (EEA)6 may migrate to Ireland to take up work without restriction. Managed labour migration policy refers therefore to workers from outside this area. Ruhs7 characterises the Irish work permit system prior to 2003 as laissez-faire as it was almost entirely employer-led with little government intervention.

The number of work permits issued to non-EEA nationals increased dramatically from 6 262 in 1999 to 47 551 in 2003, a more than seven-fold increase. See Figure 3. Most of these permits were issued in low-skilled occupations in sectors such as catering, other services and agriculture. In 2000 a work visa and work authorisation programme was introduced to facilitate the recruitment of highly-skilled non-EU nationals in the areas of information and computing technologies, construction professionals, and a broad range of medical, health and social care professions.

  1. An Intra-Company Transfer scheme for temporary trans-national management transfers.

Asylum-Related Policy
The number of asylum applications made in Ireland was very low prior to the mid 1990s: just 39 applications were made in 1992. In 2000 the number of applicants was almost 11 000, having increased more than nine-fold from 1 200 in 1996. The flow peaked in 2002 at 11 600. See Figure 4. The scale of these increases took Ireland by surprise and policy-makers struggled to cope with the flows, constructing an entire asylum system in the context of rapidly increasing demand. Starting in 2002, the number of asylum seekers declined and has been holding relatively steady at approximately 4 000-5 000 per year since 2005.

As the discussion above showed, both the number of new asylum applications and the numbers of non-EEA immigrants peaked around 2002. The former flow grew particularly suddenly from a very low base and this resulted in problems as the necessary structures for processing asylum applications were hastily put in place. The Refugee Act 1996, which was commenced in 2000, established the Refugee Applications Commissioner (ORAC) as a statutorily independent body that considers asylum applications at first instance. The ORAC is also responsible for investigating family reunification applications made by refugees. The ORAC reports its recommendations to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform who issues final decisions. The Refugee Appeals Tribunal was also established under this Act and hears appeals of negative asylum decisions.

The Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill 2008 is due to be enacted in 2010. If enacted this Bill would also introduce a single protection determination procedure meaning that all protection claims, including claims for both asylum and subsidiary protection, would be examined under a single procedure. Applicants would be required to set out all of the grounds on which they wish to remain in the State at the outset of their claim, and all of these matters would be examined together.

General immigration policy
During the latter part of the 1990s and early 2000s the government placed a deliberate emphasis on addressing the asylum situation first and developments in the immigration area have been put on the back burner.

Policies on other migration flows are not well-developed in Ireland. With the exception of recognised refugees, non-EU migrants may apply for family reunification under an administrative scheme only, with a resulting lack of transparency in decision-making. Non-Governmental Organisations working with migrants in Ireland have called for the introduction of a statutory family reunification scheme with a transparent appeals mechanism.8 In relation to international students Ireland has adopted a relatively liberal approach allowing non-EEA students to come to work without a work permit for up to 20 hours per week during term time and full time during holidays. There are signs however that this system is being misused and restrictions have recently been introduced - discussed in relation to irregular migration below.

Legislative instruments have been introduced in a somewhat piecemeal manner to address specific issues as they arise. Even now most immigration-related services remain on an administrative rather than a legislative basis. Irish immigration policy is strongly influenced by the Common Travel Area shared with the UK.910 If enacted, the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill 2008 will put much of Irish immigration policy on a statutory basis for the first time.

The capacity of the State to manage immigration is diminished in the context of large-scale EU immigration. As discussed above, non-EEA labour immigration is now quite restricted and it is likely that this is a trend that will continue as Ireland continues to seek to meet lower-skilled labour needs from within the enlarged EU while attempting to attract only highly-skilled workers from the rest of the world.

Citizenship policy
There have been very significant policy developments in relation to non-Irish nationals and Irish citizenship in recent years. Like the United States and unlike any other European state, Ireland granted citizenship to anybody born on the territory (the jus soli

Irregular Migration


Exploitation of migrant workers is an ongoing concern. During 2005 and 2006 in particular there were concerns that poorly paid migrant workers were displacing Irish workers. Two high-profile cases involving the companies GAMA and Irish Ferries provoked heated public debate and a resulting tightening of standards.12

Integration Issues

13 Possible reasons for this disparity are proposed: recently arrived immigrants may lack local labour market knowledge and so accept jobs below those appropriate to their skill levels while they search for better jobs. The fact that UK and US immigrants suffer no occupational disadvantage prompts a suspicion that the occupation gap may be related to English language skills. McGinnity et al. found almost two-thirds of work permit holders reported that they are overqualified for their current job.14

Barrett and Duffy suggested that immigrants who arrived before 2004, many of whom were not EU nationals and did not have full right to work, may have been working illegally and that it has proved difficult for them to break out of a weak labour market situation.15 Research has also been undertaken into labour market outcomes measured in terms of wages. Barrett and McCarthy found that immigrants were earning 15 per cent less than comparable Irish workers in 2005.1617, sexual orientation, religion, age, disability, race or membership of the Traveller community.18 However, research has shown that despite these safeguards immigrants do face discrimination in Ireland. Russell et al. found that 31 per cent of those of Black, Asian or Other ethnicity had experienced some form of discrimination in the past two years compared to 12 per cent of the entire population.1920 Black respondents reported more difficulties looking for work than all other respondents from other ethnic groups. McGinnity et al showed that around one third of migrants had experienced harassment in a public place or in the workplace in the past two years.21 A recent field experiment study by McGinnity et al has shown that employers are twice as likely to invite a candidate with an Irish name to interview as an equivalent candidate with a distinctively non-Irish name.

Unlike many other European countries Ireland grants exceptionally wide access to local political participation and has been cited as achieving best practice in the area.22 All resident non-Irish nationals may vote in local elections in Ireland (including those on work permits or visas, asylum seekers and students) provided that they were usually resident in the country on 1st September of the year preceding the election. Local elections take place every five years and the most recent one was in 2009. In those elections all but one of the parties (Sinn Fein) had selected a number of immigrant candidates to represent them in the local elections. In Dublin City Council area 4 per cent of the total number of persons entitled to vote in the local government elections were non-Irish (excluding UK nationals).23 Resident EU citizens may also vote in European elections.

Current and Emerging Issues


  1. See Sexton (1996).
  2. See Hughes and Quinn (2004).
  3. Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia joined the EU in 2004. Bulgaria and Romania joined in 2007.
  4. The EEA comprises the EU plus Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein.
  5. See Ruhs (2005).
  6. See Immigrant Council of Ireland (2008) and Cosgrave (2006).
  7. The Common Travel Area (CTA) arrangement with the UK also includes the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.
  8. On 1 September 2009, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform published a set of proposals for reform of non-EEA student immigration and launched a public consultation process on the issue. While no immediate changes were announced at the time, it was noted that the concession should be the subject of further analysis in a separate review via an Interdepartmental Group on Student Immigration.
  9. See Quinn (2006) for a more detailed discussion of these disputes.
  10. See Barrett et al. (2006).
  11. See McGinnity et al. (2006).
  12. See Barrett and Duffy (2008).
  13. See Barrett and McCarthy (2007).
  14. or for further information.
  15. A traditionally nomadic Irish population group, comparable to Sinti and Roma in other countries.
  16. Russell et al. (2008).
  17. See McGinnity et al. (2006).
  18. See Niessen et al. (2007).

About the author:
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.


    • Barrett, A. and McCarthy, Y., 2007. The Earnings of Immigrants in Ireland: Results from the 2005 EU Survey of Income and Living Conditions. Quarterly Economic Commentary, Winter 2007, pp. 42-62.
    • Barrett, A., Bergin, A. and Duffy, D., 2006. The Labour Market Characteristics and Labour Market Impacts of Immigrants in Ireland. The Economic and Social Review, Vol. 37, pp. 1-26.
    • Cosgrave, C., 2006. Family Matters: Experiences of Family Reunification in Ireland. A Critical Analysis of Government Policy and Procedure. Dublin: Immigrant Council of Ireland.
    • Joyce, C., 2009. Annual Policy Report on Migration and Asylum 2008: Ireland. Dublin: Economic and Social Research Institute.
    • McGinnity, F., Nelson, J., Lunn, P. and Quinn, E. 2009. Discrimination in Recruitment: Evidence from a Field Experiment. Dublin: Equality Authority/ESRI.
    • Niessen, J., Huddleston, T. and Citron, L., 2007. Migrant Integration Policy Index. Brussels: British Council and Migration Policy Group.
    • Office of the Minister for Integration, 2008. Migration nation: Statement on integration strategy and diversity management. Dublin: Office of the Minister for Integration.
    • Quinn, E., 2009. The Organisation of Asylum and Migration Policies in Ireland. European Migration Network. Dublin: Economic and Social Research Institute.
    • Quinn, E., 2006. Policy Analysis Report on Asylum and Migration: Ireland Mid-2004 to 2005. Dublin: Economic and Social Research Institute.
    • Ruhs, M., 2005. Managing the Immigration and Employment of Non-EU nationals in Ireland. The Policy Institute. Dublin: Trinity College.
    • Ruhs, M., Updated by Quinn, E. 2009. Ireland: From Rapid Immigration to Recession. Dublin: Social Research Institute.
    • Sexton, J., 1996. Report to OECD Continuous Reporting System on Migration (SOPEMI). Dublin: Economic and Social Research Institute.

Internet Sources

Migration Research Group
Netzwerk Migration in Europa e.V.