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A Nation of Emigrants or Immigrants?: The Challenge of Integration 
in Ireland and Portugal

By Claire Healy



Ireland’s position with the British empire was more ambiguous, and immigration is largely unrelated to a colonial past. This is qualified, however, by the significance of Irish missionary endeavours in parts of the developing world, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, which may evince a migration link that has not been hitherto researched. This is particularly the case in relation to Nigerian migration, where Irish missionary activity in the sub-Saharan African country dates back to the 1860s, and as recently as the 1970s, there were 2,000 Irish missionaries active in the country (Irish Aid 2004). 

Ireland’s geographical position furthermore positions that country at the margins of south-north movements from Africa to Western Europe and east-west movements from Eastern to Western Europe, while Portugal is at the frontline. Portugal therefore, like Spain, is faced with the daily human tragedy of perilous boat trips from North Africa to the Iberian Peninsula. Immigrants from Lusophone countries in Africa, and from Brazil, benefit from better rights than other immigrants. Nevertheless, the number of Ukrainian immigrants has also increased substantially in recent years, demonstrating the characteristics of a classic chain migration. Due to Ireland’s immigration policies (which generally parallel those of the United Kingdom), rather than its geography, migration from Eastern Europe has been dramatic since the enlargement of the European Union in 2004 (Doyle, Hughes & Wadensjö 2006).

Largely due to the remarkable success of the Irish economy, the extent of overall migration to Ireland in proportion to the existing population has been more dramatic than in Portugal. Currently, the proportion of people living in Ireland who are not citizens is over 10 percent, while the proportion of people born outside Ireland is about 15 percent. In Portugal, the foreign proportion of the population is just 4.2 percent, though the country has a higher proportion of naturalised citizens (see www.acidi.gov.pt).

Many academics, journalists and politicians cite the chronology of Irish immigration as a reason for the lack of administrative infrastructure to deal with the phenomenon. Immigration to Ireland, so the apologia goes, has been so sudden that the country simply has had neither the structures nor the funds to deal with it. The Portuguese example belies the usefulness of this explanation, as the Portuguese High Commission for Immigration and Intercultural Dialogue was established just nine years after Portugal began to experience net immigration. Ireland has been experiencing net immigration for over ten years now, and still no governmental structure is in place to address issues arising from it. This situation has been ameliorated somewhat by the recent appointment of a Minister of State (or Junior Minister) for Integration by the Irish Government in June 2007.

In an era of increasing European political integration and cooperation, it is clear that national policies on trans-national issues such as migration and integration can no longer be made in isolation. Furthermore, European countries do not merely share a common political future, but can also look back to a shared past. Portugal and Ireland experienced large-scale emigration in previous centuries, yet the twenty-first century has seen the two EU Member States become receiving countries for intra- and inter-continental migrants. Increased mobility within the European Union requires that European countries work together on migration. Furthermore, the commonalities and parallels between the experiences of immigration among Western European countries indicate that there is much to be learned through improved communication and exchange of best practice. 

Countries such as Ireland and Portugal are accustomed to looking to their larger neighbours for lessons on policy-making. This short article posits that it is in comparing and sharing the experiences of smaller countries currently undergoing the transition from emigration to immigration and from economic failure to economic success - two interrelated phenomena - that real progress can be achieved. As mentioned elsewhere in this edition of Irish Migration Studies in Latin America, there is a mine of historical information linking Ireland and Portugal that has yet to be exploited. Perhaps the examination of links and comparisons in the contemporary migration experience of the two countries will also lead scholars back to previous centuries in search of what unites these Atlantic outposts, and what the future holds in store.


Claire Healy



This article draws on research conducted for the Immigrant Council of Ireland and on ideas developed for a paper delivered at a Seminar organised by the Alto Commissariado para a Imigração e Diálogo Intercultural (High Commission for Immigration and Intercultural Dialogue) and hosted by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon in July 2007. The author would like to thank both ICI and ACIDI for their support.


- ACIDI. ‘Portugal como exemplo de boas práticas’ in Notícias (13 August 2007). Website (http://www.acime.gov.pt/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=1954), cited 6 September 2007.

- Antunes, António Lobo. As Naus (Lisbon: Dom Quixote, 2000). Fourth edition.

- Antunes, António Lobo. The Return of the Caravels (New York: Grove, 2002). Translated by Gregory Rabassa.

- Bade, Klaus J. Europa in Bewegung: Migration vom spaten 18. Jahrhundert bis zur Gegenwart (Europa Bauen) (Munich: C. H. Beck, 2000).

- Doyle, Nicola, Gerard Hughes and Eskil Wadensjö. Freedom of Movement for Workers from Central and Eastern Europe: Experiences in Ireland and Sweden (Swedish Institute for European Policy Studies, 2006).

- Garcia, José Luís et al. A Emigração portuguesa: Uma Breve Introdução (Lisbon: Secretaria de Estado das Comunidades Portuguesas, 1998).

- Healy, Claire. On Speaking Terms: Introductory and Language Programmes for Migrants in Ireland (Dublin: Immigrant Council of Ireland, 2007).

- Holder, Daniel and Charo Lanao. SobreOViver na Ilha: Case Studies of Discrimination and Disadvantage for Portuguese Migrant Workers (Tyrone: Animate & South Tyrone Empowerment Programme, 2005). Also available in Portuguese.

- Irish Aid. Irish Department of Foreign Affairs. Minister Kitt on Two-Day Visit to Nigeria, Press Release (18 May 2004). Website (http://foreignaffairs.gov.ie/home/index.aspx?id=25768), cited 6 September 2007.

- O’Sullivan, Patrick. The Irish World Wide Series (Leicester, London, New York & Washington: Leicester UP 1992-97). Six vols.

- Oliveira e Costa, João Paulo and Teresa Lacerda. A Interculturalidade na Expansão Portuguesa (Séculos XV-XVIII) (Lisbon: ACIME, 2007).


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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2007

Online published: 7 September 2007
Edited: 07 May 2009

Healy, Claire, 'A Nation of Emigrants or Immigrants?: The Challenge of Integration in Ireland and Portugal' in Irish Migration Studies in Latin America, 5:2 (July 2007), pp. 117-120. (www.irlandeses.org), accessed .


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