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30 Aug, 2013 13:29

Euro flight: Refugees fleeing EU crisis in record numbers

Euro flight: Refugees fleeing EU crisis in record numbers

In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, hard-hit countries - like Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain - are witnessing a spike in emigration rates as armies of the unemployed take to the road in search for work.

Meanwhile, experts are concerned as to what affect the mass exodus will have on the 17-member economic bloc as governments try to jump-start their fragile economies. 

Irish blues

Perhaps the best way of demonstrating the real depths of the economic crisis is to consider the case of Ireland, where one person leaves the country for greener pastures every six minutes. 

Once seemingly impervious to the financial crisis, Ireland is now experiencing a steep economic slowdown: GDP has decreased for three consecutive quarters as exports remain vulnerable to a slowdown in global trade, while unemployment remains stuck in double-digits at 13.7 percent (Q2). 

This slew of negative data, which tends to feed on itself in a downward spiral, is prompting the exodus of tens of thousands of Irish to leave the country in the search for greener pastures.

Latest figures show that 397,500 people have emigrated since the beginning of the financial crisis in 2008. Most of the emigrants are leaving for the UK, Australia and Canada in search of work, the Financial Times reported on Thursday.

During the same period 277,400 people have returned or moved to Ireland, giving a net outward migration figure of 120,100. In a 12-month period from April last year, 10 people left every hour.

More than a third of people leaving the country in the 12-month period to the end of April were 24 years of age and younger.

There are now calls for the government to do more to help young people in their search for employment. “This underlines the need for immediate and stronger government action to stem the flow of young people leaving the country,” said Marie-Claire McAleer of the National Youth Council of Ireland. 

 “Emigration is a reflex action for Irish people in times of crisis,” Niamh Hourigan, doctor of sociology at University College Cork, told the British daily. “The hope is that many of these young people can come back with new skills when the economy eventually recovers.”

Ireland enjoyed one of the highest immigration rates in the EU in the first half of the 2000s, when its economy was the envy of many EU countries. But when the financial crisis made landfall, many more people began leaving the country than arriving. 

Romanians leave the Ozone Leisure Centre to spend the night in sheltered accommodation, Belfast.(Reuters / Cathal McNaughton)

The pain in Spain - and beyond

As Ireland seems increasingly unlucky in its efforts to stem a national exodus, other vulnerable EU economies are not faring much better.

Emigration rates from affected EU countries to the United Kingdom provide a good glimpse of the real depths of the crisis. 

The number of immigrants arriving in the UK from countries worst-hit by the continent’s recession has shot up by as much as 50 per cent, official figures show. Although the British economy – especially in the services sector – is heavily dependent upon migrant labor, there is a growing anxiety among officials that the UK can no longer absorb the inflow.

National Insurance figures for the year to March showed 50 per cent more Spaniards had registered to work in the UK. The figure for Greeks was up 44 per cent, while the number of Portuguese rose by 43 per cent, the British daily reported.

Bucking a past trend, fewer migrants are entering from Africa, India and Pakistan, while more migrants are entering from southern Europe.

Meanwhile, the economic situation in eastern European countries mirrors that of southern Europe where unemployment rates have risen sharply as economies contract or grow in fits and starts. New arrivals to the UK from Romania and Bulgaria, for example, numbered 141,000 at the end of June, a jump of almost 26 percent on the 112,000 recorded at the end of March, the MailOnline reported. 

The number of children born in the UK to Romanian mothers has reached a record high, and it is now the ninth most common nationality among Britain’s foreigners. Poland maintained its top position with 21,156.

Meanwhile, governments embrace painful austerity measures as the increasingly frustrated people take to the streets to vent their anger. 

To compound the problem, the Secretary General for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Angel Gurrí told the Wall Street Journal in June that the mass migration has led to a brain drain of local talent – the vital national resources that are required to get the suffering economies back on their feet again.

"Yes, it's a problem of a brain-drain, especially with countries like Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain, but if the adjustment can be contained within the euro zone, through greater mobility, the transition will be managed," he said.

However, there are some bright spots in the data, at least in the short term.

Increased migration helps to reduce the cost of providing unemployment assistance in the crisis countries, while providing labor to those economies, like Germany’s, that are beginning to rebound from the financial crisis.

The question remains, however, as to how many migrant workers the healthier European economies can safely absorb without adversely affecting social welfare expenditures, as well as the employment picture for the native population.