Statement by Minister Cowen at the press launch of the Task Force on Policy regarding Emigrants
I would like to welcome you to this press conference to launch the Task Force on Policy regarding Emigrants. I am very pleased to have with me the Chairman of the Task Force, Mr. Paddy O'Hanlon. The Task Force is holding its first meeting today and, just before lunch, I met the members and spoke to them about the sort of vision that I have for the way in which we might approach the emigration issue.
The background against which this Task Force has been established is clear. Despite increasing levels of immigration into Ireland in recent years, to the point where there is now a net inflow of migrants every year, there is still a large number of people leaving every year to live abroad. The most recent estimate for the annual number of emigrants is in the region of 20,000, which is a very substantial figure in the context of a population of under 4 million people.
Some of our emigrants are, undoubtedly, leaving voluntarily. Many people, for instance, see value in spending some time abroad to acquire skills or experience before returning to settle in Ireland. This is part of the increasing web of inter-relationships that we are building with other countries. It shows in many ways the growing confidence of our people.
On the other hand, we know from the reports that we receive back from our Missions and from voluntary agencies abroad, that many emigrants do not leave voluntarily. Many of these are young and vulnerable people, who are ill-equipped to deal with the challenges they face abroad. It is on these people that the Task Force should focus and seek to come up with new approaches for dealing with their problems.
The pattern of emigration is changing. There is now a mixture of voluntary and involuntary emigration. There are also changes in the countries to which people are emigrating. There are proportionately fewer people going to the UK, although this remains the single largest destination for emigrants; there is an increasing number going to other European countries, as well as to countries beyond Europe.
As a result of this changing pattern, new challenges are emerging for our emigrants.
At the same time, many of the problems faced by emigrants of previous years remain. In some cases, they have become more acute, as the emigrants grow older and less independent.
I think it is fair to say that no Irish Government has ever done enough to deal with the problem of emigration. Various efforts have undoubtedly been made, including by voluntary organizations and by official bodies, including my own Department. The reality, however, is that they have not been able to meet adequately the real needs of real people. With our recent economic development, the time has come to deal with the issue in a new and more systematic and comprehensive way.
Just as we have sought to tackle the economic and social problems affecting the less privileged sectors of our society, so also must we address the problems experienced by our citizens who felt, or feel, forced to leave this country and settle overseas.
We owe a great debt of gratitude to the Episcopal Commission for Emigrants and to other voluntary agencies, for continuing to highlight the importance and needs of our emigrants. The Harvey Report, which was commissioned by the Episcopal Commission on Emigrants in 1999, is a most valuable contribution which identifies many of the issues in question. There are also other papers and published works that will also be the subject of consideration by this Task Force.
What is now needed is to take both this existing material and the experience and accumulated wisdom of those who have been involved in providing services to emigrants over the years, and to distill this into a coherent overall policy approach that can guide the Government and voluntary agencies in the future.
The terms of reference for the Task Force, which have been approved by the Government, identify the three main priorities. These are (a) pre-departure services for emigrants; (b) services overseas; and (c) services to returning emigrants. In all these cases, the Task Force requested to formulate a long-term policy approach and a medium-term plan of assistance. I have asked the Task Force to examine in particular the needs of young, vulnerable and elderly long term emigrants - who for mostly socioeconomic reasons are unable to come home or no longer have a home to return to. These are areas which contain special challenges.
I have emphasized to the Task Force the importance of consulting widely in their work, and of meeting with people at home and abroad who are involved in providing services to emigrants. It is vital that they hear at first hand their views on how these issues should be better tackled. This is an inclusive process, and everyone who wishes to contribute should have the opportunity to do so.
My overall objective is to introduce practical improvements which will benefit Irish emigrants in a concrete and immediate way. It is for this reason that I have asked the Task Force to report as quickly as possible, and ideally within a six months time frame. This is not, of course, an absolute deadline. I will be guided by the Chairman on the length of time that is needed. However, I would hope that, by the middle of next year, the Task Force will be in a position to draw together the conclusions of their discussions and present them in their final report.
I am grateful to all the members of the Task Force for agreeing to serve on it. I would like to say a special word of thanks to the Chairman, Paddy O'Hanlon, for taking on this challenging and onerous role. Through his involvement in the Northern Ireland political process over the last thirty years, he has acquired extensive knowledge of, and built up a wide range of contacts with, Irish emigrants abroad, particularly in North America and the UK. I have great confidence in him, and I am convinced that he will provide the leadership and the drive that is necessary to guide the work of the Task Force.
Background note for Editors
The Task Force will be chaired by Mr. Paddy O' Hanlon. The other members are Professor Mary Hickman (Irish Studies Centre, University of North London), Monsignor James Murray (Project Irish Outreach, New York), Rev. Paul Byrne O.M.I. (Director of the Irish Episcopal Commission for Emigrants), Mr. Joseph McDonagh (Former President of the Gaelic Athletic Association), Mr. David Begg (General Secretary, ICTU), Mr. Mahon Hayes (Former Legal Adviser in the Department of Foreign Affairs), Mr. Gerry Mangan (Department of Social Community and Family Affairs) Mr. Joe Harrington, Department of the Environment and Local Government, and Ms Máire McCloskey (Chairperson, Díon Committee, Embassy London).
Mr. Adrian Flannelly (Emerald Isle Immigration Centre, New York) and Mr. Seán Hutton (Coordinator, Federation of Irish Societies in Britain) will be alternate members of the Task Force.
In carrying out their work the Task Force will be able to draw on the excellent report published in May 1999,by the Catholic Bishops' Commissions on Emigrants and on Prisoners Overseas entitled “Emigration and Services for Irish Emigrants: Towards a New Strategic Plan”. This was based on research carried out by Mr. Brian Harvey with funding from the EU, the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs and FÁS.
The main recommendation arising from the report was that the Government “establish a time-limited Task Force, co-ordinated by the Department of Foreign Affairs and involving Government Departments, State agencies and NGO's, to develop a coherent long-term policy approach to emigration and the needs of emigrants”. It was also recommended that “responsibility for all emigrant-related policy and action be placed within the Department of Foreign Affairs”.
Proposed Terms of Reference of Task Force on Policy regarding Emigrants
To recommend a coherent long-term policy approach to emigration and meeting the needs of emigrants and, in that connection:
- to examine the adequacy of existing pre-departure services, Government and voluntary, for intending emigrants and make recommendations if appropriate;
- to consider whether the needs of emigrants in different countries, especially of young vulnerable people, can be identified better and regularly, and addressed in the context of changing social and economic conditions;
- to recommend a medium-term plan of assistance to emigrants for the relevant Government Departments and agencies at home and Embassies and Consulates abroad, clearly defining their responsibilities and functions within such a plan;
- to consider the roles of voluntary organisations at home and abroad as partners with Government in meeting the needs of emigrants in the context of such a plan;
- to examine further measures to encourage and facilitate the return to Ireland and reintegration of emigrants and their families, especially the vulnerable and the elderly;
- to recommend such changes of structures or practices or allocation of resources as may be necessary to ensure the effective implementation of the recommended policy;
- if possible, to estimate the cost of its recommendations; and
- to report to the Minister for Foreign Affairs within six months