Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 1 October 2014
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade
Emigrant Register: Crosscare Migrant Project
I welcome the witnesses. The purpose of the meeting is to meet representatives of Crosscare Migrant Project. Members will be aware that Crosscare is a non-governmental organisation which receives funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to provide information and advocacy service to intending Irish emigrants and returning Irish emigrants. That is an important service for people going out and returning home also.
The committee is well aware both of the positive contribution that Irish emigrants have made to events worldwide but also of the problems that some of our emigrants have experienced. We have heard of those problems recently in certain countries. Earlier this year we specifically referred to the role of the diaspora in our contribution to the Department's review on foreign policy and external relations. We had a very good session in the Dáil for which most members turned up. Part of the report stated that the joint committee approves the programme operated by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in support of organisations working on behalf of emigrants, including those who help people whose experience of emigration has not been as successful as others. These programmes should continue. It considers, nevertheless, that further means might be explored by the Department and the Government to ensure that the diaspora feels itself engaged not simply as a resource to be exploited, but as a cherished part of the Irish community overall.
Today we will meet Crosscare Migrant Project. In the previous correspondence from Crosscare, we note its proposal for an Irish emigrant register. It will form the centrepiece of today's presentation.
Before I invite Crosscare to make its presentation I remind members, witnesses and those in the public gallery to ensure their mobile telephones are switched off completely for the duration of the meeting as they cause interference even on silent mode with the recording equipment.
I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment, criticise or make charges against any person or body outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. If witnesses are directed by the Chairman to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I welcome Mr. Joe O'Brien from Crosscare Migrant Project who is accompanied by his colleagues, Ms Sarah Owen and Mr. Richard King. The format of the meeting is that we invite a presentation from the witnesses and proceed to a question and answer session. I invite Mr. O'Brien to make his presentation.
Mr. Richard King:
I thank the committee for the invitation to appear before it today. We are happy to make this presentation.
Crosscare Migrant Project is funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's emigrant support programme, the HSE and Crosscare to provide an information, support and advocacy service to Irish emigrants and returning emigrants. Crosscare is a social support agency of the Dublin Archdiocese and works with people across a wide spectrum in the areas of homeless services, young people's services and older people's supports and community services.
Since the 1940s, Crosscare has worked with Irish emigrants. In 1987, our predecessor, Emigrant Advice, was established which worked with people leaving Ireland in the 1980s. In the 1990s we started to work with the people returning home and, more recently, we have broadened our remit to include all Irish emigrants wherever they may be. We have a long history of providing support to individuals and families. We work closely with organisations such as the Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas, homeless services in Dublin and the other emigrant support programme-funded groups.
In addition to our face-to-face and information provision work, which is a huge part of our work, we have conducted much research on policy related issues in the past six years, including presenting to another joint committee on the issue of access to social welfare for returning emigrants. In 2012, 2013 and 2014 we conducted research into new emigration, including people accessing welfare and homeless services in the UK, recent emigrants to Canada and the mental health needs of recent emigrants through a global online survey promoted through social media.
We would like to welcome the review of the diaspora policy initiated earlier this year by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. I very much look forward to the outcome. We would also like to acknowledge the very significant development of the appointment of the first dedicated Minister for the Diaspora, Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan in July 2014.
I will hand over to my colleague Mr. Joe O'Brien.
Mr. Joe O'Brien:
Emigration has been with us for hundreds of years and for the foreseeable future it is likely to remain an aspect of Irish life. It is important to remember that even in years of growth, thousands of Irish people have emigrated. Emigration and recent emigration, in particular, has been problematic. One of the persistent challenges over the centuries has been the legacy of disconnection.
Emigration creates disconnected lives, disconnected families and communities and yet we are led to believe that as a society and globally we are more interconnected than ever before. Since April 2008, some 250,000 Irish people have left the State, the equivalent of the populations of Ennis, Tallaght, New Ross, Limerick city, Cavan town, Kenmare, Drogheda and Ballinasloe being emptied out. Most worrying, the recent CSO statistics show that in the year up to April 2014, we have the lowest rate of return immigration of Irish people since records began in 1996. It could well be that those who have left are deciding increasingly to stay away.
As a pre-departure information service for emigrants we have seen that the recent wave of emigration has been substantially different from previous times. It has been the first wave of Irish emigration in the Internet age. This has transformed the emigration experience significantly and has allowed for a far higher degree of pre-departure preparation. For example, it is now possible to search for, view and finalise accommodation online before departure. Successful job interviews are often held via web based video link for jobs on the other side of the world and communication options with home have improved dramatically with e-mail, social networking, photosharing and live video linking via Skype, all available at extremely low cost.
Last year's UCC Emigre report, Irish Emigration in an Age of Austerity, found that 75% of Irish emigrants use Skype regularly to maintain contact with family and friends in Ireland with 90% using Facebook and other social networking sites. In particular from the point of view of what the State can do, the Internet has not been maximised in terms of its capacity to minimise the damage, the loss and the disconnection caused by emigration. This view is echoed in a more recent report by UCD Clinton Institute on supporting the next generation of the Irish Diaspora.
From the UCC Emigre report, it is very significant that more than 70% of emigrants frequently read Irish newspapers online and another 16% read them sometimes. At the same time Irish emigrants abroad continue to feel forgotten about by the Irish State. Some 48% of emigrants disagreed with the statement that the Government provided adequate support for them.
In short we believe there is a lack of reciprocity of interest. Once people have left the State, it will have little if any interaction with them unless they return home. What we are proposing is a remarkably simple idea, the creation of a State managed e-mail based database, whereby emigrants would simply log minimal information such as e-mail address, name, country of residence and periodically they would receive an e-mail or a newsletter from the Irish State. The Irish emigrant register, as we are calling it, could be used in a number of ways to improve the connection between the State and our ever growing diaspora. A very practical initial purpose of the emigrant register would be to facilitate return migration by connecting Irish emigrants abroad and a developing labour market in Ireland. The State could, for example, contact emigrants directly with a list of job vacancies and emerging skills needs in the Irish labour market as part of a regular update or newsletter. The Department of Social Protection has sent welfare recipients in Ireland notifications of job advertisements for countries as far away as Canada. Today I found a total of 68 advertisements for jobs abroad on INTREO Jobsearch database. We say that the Irish State should be also notifying Irish emigrants abroad about jobs in Ireland. The Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, in particular the expert group on future skills, needs could feed into such updates by providing information on current and emerging skills needs. The following skills deficits were identified in a recent report by them in the areas of ICT, science, engineering, sales, marketing, business, finance and health care.
This is information that our emigrants should have as soon as it becomes available. I attended a national youth council conference on return migration two weeks ago, where a representative from the Construction Industry Federation expressed concern that the industry was unable to fill emerging technical posts. In the context of unemployment and austerity measures, some people feel there is an implied invitation to leave the country by the State. Whatever amount of truth is in this, many would agree that there should be an explicit invitation to return.
The availability of jobs is one of the most common factors cited by emigrants abroad that would influence the chances of an emigrant returning home according to the aforementioned UCC report. The establishment of the Irish emigrant register would be a very clear way of saying "we want you back". However, it could also be used for other purposes such as informing citizens about relevant embassy and consular services, and passport and travel advice issues. It could also be used as the basis of a consultation tool in the development of various relevant Government policy. In the Internet age, our citizens abroad can be as connected with and invested in the political, economic and social issues in Ireland as those of us living here. Their views could and should be elicited and invited in a more direct manner that the Irish emigrant register could facilitate. In essence it would act as a connecting mechanism between the Irish State and its citizens abroad.
We propose that the register might be best managed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade with inputs from the Departments of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, INTREO and the Department of Social Protection. While the proposal is relatively simple, we have identified some issues that need to be overcome. We have broken them down into three. The first challenge would be populating the register, followed by keeping it updated. Second, like any database or register resources will need to be dedicated to its maintenance and expansion. Third, data protection, the usage parameters of the register should be very clearly defined and communicated up-front.
In respect of the first challenge, populating the register, we have a few suggestions on how that might best be done. We believe the Irish emigrant register would need to be marketed by Government at a very high level and globally, for example, St. Patrick's Day 2015 could offer an ideal platform for the register to be launched and promoted in a global manner. It also offers a reasonable yet swift timeframe to get the register up and running. Irish embassies, consulates, NGOs businesses and media globally should be engaged in the promotion of the register. At another level the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade could negotiate with the Australian and Canadian emigration services with whom we have reciprocal visa agreements to amend their working holiday visa application forms for Irish people to include a mechanism whereby they would agree to their name and e-mail address to be sent to the Irish State for direct inclusion on the register. This measure alone could potentially add 20,000 to 30,000 people automatically to the register every year, at current rates of emigration. For this to work, it is important that requested data is kept to a minimum and evidence is shown on a regular basis that it is working and people are actually benefiting from it.
Our ask is simple, although there are a couple of aspects to it. We ask the committee to champion this proposal. We ask members to write to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan and the Minister of State, Deputy Deenihan, requesting them to progress the proposals by four specific actions, setting up of a cross-departmental working group between the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and Social Protections; ensuring that funding is available to do this in budget 2015; marking 17 March 2015 as a possible launch date for the actual register; and asking the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to open negotiations with Australia and Canada in terms of the option to give information to Ireland on the e-mail addresses of people emigrating by working holiday visas.
The Irish emigrant register will not transform emigration into something easy. It will not make forced emigration more acceptable, but what it does have the capacity to do is to serve as a link between the State and its citizens abroad, many of whom still feel poorly supported and forgotten about. Ultimately, we believe it can help to improve our relationship with our diaspora, not in an ethereal way but in a very practical and tangible sense by, for example, making the Irish labour market more connected to Irish emigrants abroad. The proposal will need a modest amount of funding compared to its potential gain, it will need focused co-operation between a number of Departments and it requires dedicated responsibility being assigned and persisted with. Many of our emigrants abroad are only waiting to get the call home and are only waiting to feel more connected with their country. In a globalised world, we suggest that we should take the lead in showing other global nations how to stay connected and prove how much our diaspora means to us, by establishing the Irish emigrant register.
I thank Mr. O'Brien and Mr. King for their presentations. Before I hand over to Deputy Smith I wish to ask a few questions. How much funding is needed to set up the register? At this time of year budgets are prepared and the Department seeks extra funding. The committee could write to the Department requesting it provide funding for the register because, in theory, it is a very good idea. At present many embassies have a voluntary register. The suggested date of St. Patrick's Day 2015 is a good one because it is the day when all the Irish tend to gather and go to Irish functions and events taking place all over the world. What is the estimated cost?
Like the Chairman, I welcome the proposal and consider it to be very worthwhile. I presume minimal funding would establish the project. Often as a State we are reluctant to use universities, institutes of technology, business schools and research units in colleges to carry out specific work on behalf of Departments. The project could be delegated, within reason, to a college, institute of technology, business school or whatever. Minimal costs would be involved, as Mr. O'Brien said. I am sure, as a committee, we would support the proposal being made to the Minister and Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The delegation welcomed the appointment of the first Minister of Strate with responsibility for the diaspora, Deputy Deenihan. There is no better man to do a good job and I wish him every success in that role.
One of the things we want to ensure, and hoping the proposal can be progressed, is that we reach as many people as possible. Many of the people that Crosscare deals with, whether emigrants abroad or returned emigrants, are the more vulnerable. Unfortunately, many of the more vulnerable people will not have access to the Internet. We must ensure that it is not just the people who are most literate, technology friendly and can access all modern means of communication, who can access the service.
Over the years many of us have worked in different continents, in Britain, the States and elsewhere. I have noticed in more recent years when I interacted with county associations from my constituency of Cavan-Monaghan, as others will have done so with their own counties, the age profile of the county associations, who have done marvellous work over the years, has risen considerably. When one attends one of their functions one finds the older emigrant attends. In general, the younger emigrant gravitates towards Cumann Lúthchleas Gael, the GAA, and probably Comhaltas as well. We have also discussed the Irish in Britain and the huge amount of valuable work done by the two organisations with H.E. Dan Mulhall, the Irish ambassador to Britain. From the point of view of maximising the potential of this very good proposal, we must ensure Crosscare has every support from those particular organisations because they have huge databases. We also want to ensure that the most vulnerable - the people who live a very lonely and isolated existence - can be reached as far as is possible which I know is not always easy to do.
In my county of Cavan, some years ago, a time when there was no pressure on public housing, we initiated a programme to provide housing to emigrants who wanted to return home. Unfortunately, there was not a big take-up and I do not know if the scheme was rolled out in other counties. Some people did come back and the small number of people that I knew who returned, under the initiative, enjoyed a new lease of life.
With regard to social welfare and giving assistance to people who return here, a constant obstacle that I have encountered, which I am sure has been experienced by all of my colleagues in the Oireachtas, is the habitual residency clause. I have seen instances of adults returning home to care for an elderly parent or sibling having given up their jobs in Britain or wherever but who could not get social welfare payments here. Those people cared for their family member at home instead of leaving them in a nursing home. The habitual residency clause does not seem to be as big an obstacle today as it was a number of years ago. I do not know if it still is. Perhaps Crosscare has some suggestions we could pursue that would solve the issue and ease that particular difficulty for returning emigrants. I am sure we would be glad to support worthwhile proposals.
Like the Chairman, I compliment Crosscare on its work that it does on an ongoing basis. I am well acquainted with its work which is very welcome. The proposal has great potential.
I welcome the delegation. We share the same position in that we all see the positive elements in the proposal.
Crosscare has two jobs to do. First, it must sell the register to us and to the Department. I presume the only difficulty the Department will have with it is the cost. There are positives regarding the proposal.
Second, a body of work must be done to sell it to emigrants. As the delegation said, 48% of emigrants felt there was not adequate support for them. There is also an element who feel they were forced to emigrate and, therefore, are resentful. Crosscare must reconnect with them, if nothing else. We must maintain contact and re-enforce the idea that emigrants are not seen as a cash cow or having failed Ireland in some way. These are big issues in the discussion. All of that must be part of the register.
The register must be relevant. People will not register if it is just a standard one and not kept up to date. The issue is how to make it relevant and attractive.
A positive point was made about jobs. The initiative will provide news from home and all those other elements. People will say they can get news online from The Irish Times or other websites but there is other information that is relevant.
The delegation answered the queries about costs. Does it know of any other country that has a similar register? Ireland is unique in that it has a long history of its people leaving. Can we study other registers and seek out best practice?
Voting is an issue that crops up all the time and is about the feeling of disconnection. The issue arose at the Constitutional Convention and it will be discussed in the Dáil tomorrow. Will the delegation consider such debates and information? As shown by the groups involved, there is a huge amount of interest in votes. Is it a good idea to factor votes into the register?
Deputy Smith mentioned the forgotten Irish. The groups who deal with the Irish in Britain and so on can attest to the fact that there is a disconnect. A lot of the groups have mentioned that part of the problem for housing, for example, was that one had to approach four or five different Departments and there was no person to co-ordinate things. Now we have an individual to do the work and I hope progress will be made. Does Crosscare have a proposal that will run in tandem with the register to reach out to elderly emigrants? Many of them may not be familiar with computers. Perhaps I am being dismissive and they are more up to date than the younger element.
The latest figures on emigration claim people who are much younger are going abroad.
Figures released in recent days also show that young graduates are emigrating. Those young emigrants as well as the older emigrants will find it difficult abroad. The young people almost expected the days of emigration were over although those who are a little older might have a different view on that. Those are some of my ideas.
This area presents huge potential. We would all be singing from the same hymn sheet in agreeing that there is great deal of positivity in what our guests have suggested. The difficulty will be to sell it to the Minister. In monetary terms, the cost involved would be buttons having regard to the potential in this area. We are using the ConnectIreland initiative and other such initiatives. We are starting to outreach to people who are travelling to and from this country and to those who have left this country, and this proposal is another part of that.
Mr. Joe O'Brien:
I will try to address some of the issues raised. On the costs involved, there would probably be a higher up-front cost because much of this could be done automatically by people who could register themselves online and that would mean that somebody in the Department would not have to do that work. It could be easily done through the use of various types of software.
Both Deputies raised the issue of engaging with people who are on the more vulnerable side. This is the reason we specifically mentioned that Irish NGOs abroad need to be engaged in the process as well and we need to get the involvement of the people working there and to ensure that they would be aware of it to some degree.
Deputy Smith mentioned getting a college to do some of the initial work and we would not be averse to that idea. It is very important that the message that goes out from the register is from the State and that it is a direct message from the State. That is what people find is missing and what they are still feeling a little bit burned about, which is a point Deputy Crowe mentioned. This register will not solve people's dissatisfaction with their situation but it is the start of a long-term process in making the relationship a better one.
On the habitual residence condition, we lobbied and pushed for change on that issue, probably in this committee room, several years ago and things have improved since then. Now there is specific mention of returning emigrants in the habitual residence guidelines. If an emigrant is clearly returning home, he or she should not be refused based on the habitual residence condition. We still deal with cases like that and if the members come across cases like that where there is a difficulty they should feel free to contact us and we can advise them on what generally works and what does not.
The connection with this register with respect to the possible extension of voting rights to emigrants was raised. We would be at pains to separate the two to some extent because we are aware that while there are moves to extend voting rights to emigrants, it is progressing slowly, but we believe this register could be put in place and up and running within a few months if there was the will to do it. It could be used to inform people of developments and get their input on how extending voting rights to emigrants should be developed and, as an information tool, it could and should be used in that respect. I am not sure if there any other point I have not addressed.
Mr. Richard King:
I thank both Deputies for their recognition of the position of the more vulnerable and elderly Irish emigrants abroad. To a large extent, the emigrants support work programme funding would have been set up to deal with those people. Some 180 organisations around the world, which are supported by the Government, work with a broad range of people and those organisations, especially in the UK, would be much more in touch with the older emigrants there. We expect they would be involved and would play a large role in promoting this proposal. We work closely with those emigrants who return home and we understand the issues they have. The register would be designed for everyone but a much broader group of people who have emigrated more recently may not be connecting in with Irish groups to the same extent. They might be much more inclined to be in contact online, as Mr. Joe O'Brien mentioned. We view this as the beginning of a long process. There is huge potential for linking in with many issues to promote any type of matter, be it news, voting rights or whatever, as a starting point and in that respect to meet people through the jobs medium would be very useful. It is an offer, not an ask, which is a point which was also raised. We need to offer something to those people who feel like they have got a bit of a hard deal. It is something that must be pushed and promoted.
I and the other members would be interested to hearing the response of our guests to Deputy Crowe's question on whether other countries have such a register in place. Have other countries also gone down that route with their diaspora?
Mr. Joe O'Brien:
In short, the answer is "No". The nearest thing to it is the electoral registers in other countries. We have done some light research on it and we have not found anything akin to this register. The consular services in the Department of Foreign Affairs operates a citizens' register for people who go to locations where there might be a level of risk. It is in such circumstances that it is generally most used. That requires a high level of information and it is not available in the common travel areal. Again, we would be at pains to separate this register from that function. The citizens' register has a very different function; it is used to contact people in the event of family emergencies and other situations, but this register has a much broader function and it would be easier to start up.
Mr. O'Brien mentioned the use of that register for people who go into areas where there is a level of risk but that register would be a useful contact for people who go to the United States in the event of situation arising during the hurricane season or some other such situation. A newspaper in the United States organised for Irish people to go into a traditional Irish place in New York following one of the recent hurricanes and that provided a sense of community and connectedness. Perhaps that is too broad a use for this register but the representatives could develop it in that direction. It is about our sense of Irishness as well.
I thank our guests for coming in to speak with us and renewing old acquaintances. In a previous incarnation I interacted with emigrant groups when I visited them in Boston, New York, London, Manchester, Birmingham and all the other places. I discovered at the time that there are two types of emigrants. The first group comprises those who have been forced to emigrate where they had no option but to do so in dramatic circumstances, often very dramatic for those who emigrated and for their parents and friends who they left at home. There second group comprises those who are better educated, who voluntarily emigrated and those for whom new opportunities have opened up. They are better at using electronic media for communicating, on a daily basis if necessary.
In canvassing recently in the Roscommon by-election I spoke to the mother of someone who had recently emigrated. She told me she could not use Skype because she found the experience traumatic. I found that interesting.
The register is a good idea and it should be put in place as a means of communication, recognition and to facilitate developing a sense of togetherness and being part of the Irish State. At the same time we must plan ahead. With the ups and downs in our economy during the past 50 years, this country should have enough experience to be able to do that. We must learn from that experience and ensure that we expand economically in such a way that will allow us plan for a time when the areas of the country more seriously affected by emigration are focused on in a meaningful way that will ensure investment takes place to stop that emigration. It is ironic that Irish emigrants end up in far-flung regions of the world in areas where, if they were at home, they might object to the technology all around them. It should not be that way, and it is sad.
To adequately plan for the future we need an economic plan different from any plan we have proposed previously to identify those sensitive areas and provide the necessary infrastructure to encourage investment.
The day when we could encourage investment in a green field, with nothing added on to it, has gone. Investors now look for major infrastructure like water, energy, telecommunications and sanitary services, all of which are absolutely necessary. Local and international investors will go to sites where those infrastructural investments have already taken place. That is something we can do. We can relate it to the work of the witnesses with regard to the register by looking at the areas where people with various capacities and qualifications are coming from and at how they have fared in their new countries. When I visited them, I found that some of them have integrated in their adopted country to a huge extent but others have not. Some of those who emigrated in the 1950s are harking back to the old days as if nothing had ever changed. Unfortunately, everything changes. As we know, everything moves on. It is sad and harsh, but that is the way it is.
In a previous incarnation, I supported the valuable work of the witnesses in acknowledging and interacting with our emigrants. Supports are particularly essential for those who have been forced to emigrate. They need a shoulder to lean on. Perhaps they need a shoulder to cry on sometimes. It is important that there is something there for them. The witnesses are right to separate these issues from the campaign for voting rights, etc. This is something that can be done regardless of anything else.
I would like to give a slightly upbeat contribution on the merits of emigrating for a set period of time. I recently attended a celebration in the RDS that was organised by the United States Embassy. I gather the Chairman was there too. If my memory is right, we were celebrating the fact that J1 visas have been taken up by 150,000 students over the years. The figure may have been 250,000. I am open to correction. It was one of those two figures. The consensus view is that it is an outstanding scheme. Young kids love to move away from this country for various reasons.
I suppose I can speak personally because I married an immigrant into Ireland. She was not an economic immigrant. I left Ireland - I never saw myself as emigrating - to travel extensively in Africa. I lived in Africa for four years. Neither I nor my travelling companions ever thought of ourselves as emigrating. I have two daughters, one who lives in New York while the other lives in London. I would like to put it on the record that the days of the Liverpool bar on the docks, and the Munster ship with all the cattle and building workers travelling to Holyhead or Liverpool, are dead. They are not the people we are talking about today. My uncles were all construction workers - plasterers, builders and plumbers. They went as the construction industry was in peak and boom. They stayed in digs and had their food served up to them. That is so old-fashioned now that I do not fully understand how it worked.
I applaud the work the witnesses have produced. I read the report and the recommendations with fascination and interest. The statistics that have been produced are mind-boggling. If I understand it correctly, it appears that 47%, or almost half, of those who are emigrating have full-time employment in this country. I do not know whether the word "emigrating" should be applied to these highly qualified men and women, who have been to third level education. We should consider that cohort of people in the context of the development of the world today. There are 28 countries in the EU. We have a common currency. We are Europeans. We are not just Irish anymore. We live in a global world. There is a contrast between the period of mass emigration of construction and agriculture workers to England, where they built the roads and railways, etc., and the current era. When we are talking about those who leave now, we are really not talking about the same people. The witnesses mentioned some huge technological advances. My first grandchild was born in America. I speak to my daughter on Skype regularly. We are always clicking and talking on our mobile telephones. It is as if they were across the road. It should be borne in mind when we are talking about emigration to England that it is an hour away. It would nearly take one the same amount of time to travel up to Donegal.
We need to put it in that context. It might be blasphemous to say so, but I would encourage every school leaver to leave this country for at least two years at some stage. That might not be deemed to be politically correct. Those who are going to come back will come back with far better life skills, experiences and open-mindedness. There is a contrast between the global world of today and the world that people were living in when they were emigrating many years ago. When I was growing up, Ireland was a white, Roman Catholic country. It was essentially run by the bishops, who always used to throw in the ball at GAA matches. Certain powerful organisations were running the political establishment. That was the society in which I grew up. Everyone will be familiar with the Archbishop McQuaid-type scenario.
We should look at what inward immigration has achieved for Ireland today. It has brought about a marvellous cultural diversity. This Government has given citizenship to between 30,000 and 60,000 members of new communities from 120 countries. We are a phenomenal country. These people are moving. The amount of movement in the world today is phenomenal. Many of those who are staying here are happy to become Irish citizens and work here. Everything has changed, and I applaud this because it highlights effectively some of my views about emigration. When the American Embassy recently held an event at the RDS to celebrate the issuing of 150,000 J1 visas, which is a fantastic figure, it made me think. Who would not want to go? Would any person who has the ability to do so not want to leave, spread their wings, grow, learn and travel?
Of course there is a role for support agencies like the Crosscare Migrant Project. Not everyone will be a happy returnee like I was. I have some pointed questions in that context. I am worried about certain aspects of the campaign. The witnesses might provide an explanation with regard to Canadian visas that are restricted to two or two and a half years. I do not know whether they have them in Australia too. The report tells us that just 10% of people intend to obey the laws of these countries by returning after the cessation of their visas. The same approach left us with 50,000 or 60,000 illegals in America. I do not think the people in the American or Australian embassies would like to hear that just 10% of people will return when their visas expire. It is there in the report.
The witnesses mentioned that 69% of people would like emigrants to have the right to vote. They will be aware that we are undertaking an in-depth examination of the diaspora question. We now have a Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora. This complicated issue has been debated at this forum and at the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs. It is hard to decide who should be given the right to vote. Nevertheless, I welcome the reference to this issue in the report.
I wish our education system could recognise that we are Europeans as much as we are Irish and therefore teach European languages. Even though kids might feel isolation in far-flung locations like Australia, or parts of America like New York, they go there because English is spoken. If we could change the education system, they might be able to work out of Germany, Belgium and Spain. Anyone who travels regularly will know it is nearly impossible to get a seat on an aircraft. The Chairman does a great deal of travelling, so he will have seen for himself the huge movement of people from Ireland to Europe and vice versa. It could be said that those who are based here but working in Europe are bilocating.
I support the register. I am not joking or playing cheap politics. I congratulate the witnesses on the two excellent reports they have given us.
I join colleagues in welcoming our guests here today. I compliment them on the significant report they have provided to us.
I agree with much of what my colleague, Deputy Eric Byrne, said in regard to the changing nature of emigration. A figure I plucked out of the report was that emigrants gave an average rating of 5.5 out of ten for their quality of life while at home but that figure increased to 7.9 out of ten when they moved abroad, which is quite significant.
Deputy Bernard Durkan made some very significant points on how we should organise our efforts in regard to job creation and investment in order to ensure we reduce the significant emigration numbers. We talked about the 250,000 people who left in recent years and the impact that has had on our towns and villages. Irrespective of whether people are doing exceptionally well or are not doing so well, we should have a connection with them. That is why I strongly support the idea of the emigrant register. We now have a Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora. Knowing him, he is a man who will see the bigger picture in this regard and I certainly hope the witnesses make significant progress in their discussion with him on this.
It is true technology has made it much easier for us all to remain connected but the State should have a connection with people. Many families say they speak more frequently to family members who are now abroad than they did when those same family members were at home. I would have to concur with that. I have a number of nieces and nephews and I tend to make more contact with those who are out of the country than with the ones who are still at home.
It is appropriate that as more job opportunities become available at home, our emigrants should be aware of those possibilities and opportunities. We have skills shortages and it certainly would be an opportunity to highlight some of the hi-tech opportunities at home. Now that the construction sector is beginning to recover, I hope many people who have skills and who are dispersed throughout the world will find opportunities at home over the next number of years.
I hope the organisations working with people who might not be users of technology or who might be in more disadvantaged situations will take responsibility for registering them, or will help them to register, so that we are aware of them. It is important that people who might like to return home in their later years know about the availability and cost of housing at home and that they are kept informed. if people were thinking of moving back now, there is real value to be had in parts of the country. If we had a national register which provided that kind of information to people and kept people up-to-date on news from at home in the jobs area, it would be very useful.
The concept is good and would be made easier now that technology is much more advanced. I do not think it would require a large budget to achieve what the witnesses spoke about. I look forward to supporting the concept in my future discussions with the Minister of State. I thank the witnesses for a very fine presentation, which was very positive, although it contained some issues which we need to address as a country.
Mr. Joe O'Brien:
We expect, and hope, there are Irish people abroad looking at the proceedings today. At the moment, we are in the middle of conducting an analysis of a mental survey we did online with 500 Irish emigrants. It occurs to me that while some people emigrate out of choice, and there is a lot to be gained by voluntary emigration, a lot of people did not leave voluntarily over the past five years. In the mental health survey we are conducting at the moment, many people abroad are suffering in a very personal way. It is heartbreaking to read some of the accounts people give about the difficulties of being away. One does not necessarily have to have visa issues not to be able to return home. People have repeatedly cited not being able to attend family events - births of children, marriages and funerals - and visits to people who are sick. It is very hard for people to deal with this. Certainly, social media can take the edge off sometimes but the majority of people who left over the past five years did not want to go and they might dispute some of the points made in terms of the positive aspects for them.
I thank and acknowledge the members' support for us. We ask all the members to do what they can to push this idea on. It is very simple and doable and the potential impacts could be very significant. As is the way with a lot of things, pressure needs to be kept up at a persistent level.
As a committee, we follow our diaspora very closely. Year after year, the diaspora are very much part of our programme. In our visits abroad, we always ensure we visit some of the diaspora centres. We have been to the Aisling centre in New York and to the emigrant support centres in San Francisco. All of these centres are doing good work and we are proud to be associated with them. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade supports these centres as well as the centres in London.
As the witnesses said, Irish people are travelling to many destinations. We have heard of reports of incidents in Australia where Irish people have run out of money after a month. As some members said, not everybody is lucky when he or she goes abroad. There are issues in regard to people who get into trouble.
We are following immigration reform in the United States very closely as well as the plight of the 50,000 undocumented Irish. I was in Washington recently and held talks with senior politicians in regard to that issue. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, is in the United States at the moment and he has raised this issue also. The work Crosscare is doing is to be commended. We appreciate it and will write to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to support Crosscare's recommendation for a register and to ask it to include extra funding for this because is a resource issue and a cost issue in anything one sets up.
I thank the witnesses for appearing before the committee. It is good to make us aware of the work they do. As Mr. O'Brien said, there are probably people abroad watching these proceedings on television and it is important we remind them that we are thinking of them and that groups like Crosscare are also thinking of them and are providing support to them. We will communicate with the witnesses following our contact with the Department and the Minister. The Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, will appear before the committee before the end of the year to outline his work and what he plans to do for the diaspora. It is an issue on which we are focused. We will keep in touch with the witnesses. I again commend them on the work they are doing.
We will go into private session. Is that agreed? Agreed.