Immigrants are leaving Ireland in their thousands, the Irish Independent reported on Christmas Eve.

The basis for this claim? A recent report by the CSO on the number of active PPS numbers. The CSO found that over 960,000 PPS numbers were issued to foreign nationals aged over 15 in the period from 2003 to 2008. Of these, just over 425,000 were recorded as active in 2008. The obvious conclusion, at least according to the Irish Independent, was of an exodus of recent migrants.

Yet, if we examine the CSO report in more detail, these conclusions are not quite so obvious. First, the report is based on active PPS numbers, which means a person is in employment or has some engagement with the social welfare system. There are a number of reasons why someone might be living in Ireland yet not have an active PPS number, for example full time students, full time home makers or retired people in receipt of pensions from other countries. In other words, an inactive PPS number does not mean that its holder has left Ireland. Second, PPS numbers may well have been issued to people who travelled to Ireland for a short period only, such as students who came to Ireland to work during summer holidays. The seasonal peaks in the issuing of PPS numbers since 2003, in particular the summer peak and the winter drop-off, suggest that such seasonal migration may well have been more prevalent than was realized (see figures for Polish nationals below, extracted from the Department of Social and Family Affairs).

Reports on the exodus of recent immigrants from Ireland serve an important political purpose. The Irish government has long acted under the illusion of temporary immigrants, motivated solely by economic considerations. When work dries up, the assumption is that these economic migrants will leave the country. This illusion negates the need for any long-term planning around migration or integration. Yet, as the CSO report ultimately shows, reports of an immigrant exodus from Ireland are premature. Instead, many recent immigrants continue to stay in Ireland – trapped, perhaps, in negative equity in the country’s ghost estates. We need to realize that tales of their mass departure are just that – empty tales, with no basis in fact.

Mary Gilmartin