Out of exile: return of 'lost generation'
First tentative signs of emigrants coming home, support groups say
After almost a decade of mass emigration, Irish families, couples and single people living in Australia are seeking information about returning home "for the first time", the Sunday Independent has learned. The Irish Australian Support Association of Queensland (IASAQ) has "seen a huge increase" in the number of people contacting it about returning to Ireland "in the coming months".
Orlagh Mc Hugh, co-ordinator at the IASAQ, said: "There are a lot of people having babies and would rather have the family support around them and put their children through the Irish education system.
"Another factor is that work seems to be drying up, especially in the construction and mining industries, or with the rates not being as high as they have been the last couple of years."
Last month, Joe O'Brien, Irish Abroad Networking Officer at Crosscare - the social care agency of Dublin's Catholic archdiocese - travelled across the country visiting the different Irish Australian organisations.
"I got a very good sense of what is going on and there were a lot of questions about returning and particularly about welfare and housing," Mr O'Brien told the Sunday Independent.
"It's pretty clear that there is a movement back from those who left within the last seven to eight years."
However, emigrants are seeking clarity and assurances from back home before booking flights. Access to housing and social welfare are the main concerns being flagged to four Australian organisations offering support to thousands of Irish diaspora in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Queensland and Brisbane.
Other issues that emigrants are anxious about include: sustainable employment opportunities, commuting services, access to health care and access to free third-level education.
"The Government are calling people back but we would be worried that people would be disappointed about what faces them in terms of employment and housing," said Mr O'Brien, who had to stress the severity of the current housing crisis and that options are limited in the rental, social and owner-occupied sectors for emigrants inquiring about returning home. "People are generally trying to move back to the areas they are from, provided there are jobs, but others are looking at Dublin."
However, Crosscare is concerned that the Central Bank's new mortgage rules will scupper these plans. "If they have already purchased a property abroad and are thinking of selling they won't get first- time buyer preference here, they'll be classified as a second-time buyer and face higher deposit requirements," said Mr O'Brien, adding: "We're not sure how big an issue it is for people yet but it needs to be flagged".
The Department of Finance was unavailable for comment on the issue.
According to Mr O'Brien, the Irish in Australia also have a "huge misconception" about welfare restrictions for returning emigrants.
"Over the past few years the Habitual Residency Condition (HRC) has made it more amenable for returning emigrants to come back and access the welfare system," he said, adding that "there shouldn't be an issue" for those who lived in Ireland up until the recession as long as they can prove that "Ireland is now their home and they have no intentions to leave again."
Deciding officers employed by the Department of Social Protection have the power to judge these applications.
They may ask return emigrants to produce the termination of their lease or proof that they've finished their jobs abroad. They may also examine family connections, time spent abroad and a person's future intentions.
However, Dr David Ralph, assistant professor of sociology at Trinity College Dublin, believes the Government needs to amend the conditions of the HRC.
"I have heard of incidents where people cannot make a welfare claim even though they've only been out of the country for a relatively short period of time. There needs to be a finer distinction between those who have been away for long, long periods and those who have been away for shorter periods," he said.
Despite the flurry of recent enquires, Mr O'Brien remains sceptical about the numbers that will imminently return.
"It's not a move that will be based on a good news story - they will want to hear it from the ground at home that it's definitely picking up at a steady pace," he said.