"Commuter migrants" opt for good life as "semigration" grows

They are ’mortgage refugees’, ‘semigrants’ or simply a new breed of commuter, writes Dan Buckley.

DURING the week, they work their socks off abroad at well-paid jobs in law, finance, medicine, and engineering.

At the weekends, they fly home to partner and family.

Welcome to the world of Ireland’s new breed of commuter: The young and somewhat upwardly mobile, anxious to finance their expensive mortgages and preserve the lifestyle they enjoyed during the boom.

A UCC study of our so-called “commuter migrants” to other European countries finds that most of them are mortgage refugees while others enjoy the excitement of regular foreign travel.

This growing group of international commuters have been given various euphemisms. Economist David McWilliams refers to them as “mortgage refugees” while RTÉ’S Philip Gallagher dubbed them “semigrants” — as they are halfway between “staying” and “emigrating”.

A staff member at Dublin Airport called them the “Monday-morning mob”, because each Monday they crowd onto aircraft bound for wealthy cities like London, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Geneva, Munich and Frankfurt.

The research, by Dr David Ralph of UCC’s Institute for Social Sciences, was based on 30 lengthy interviews with commuter couples. One of the principal findings is that they are relatively well-paid professionals working in areas such as finance, banking, accountancy, academia, media, engineering, the law, and medicine. The vast majority are male, with their female partners remaining in the family home in Ireland.

According to his report, few commuters work in the social and construction sectors as many of these positions do not pay enough to finance a commuter arrangement involving two homes, along with weekly air travel.

The study also found that not all of them commute overseas solely as a consequence of the economic crisis. As one participant explained, there are different “species”, with some commuting as a matter of choice, preferring the daily experience of a foreign culture over the parochialism of Irish life. This group he terms “lifestyle commuters”. Another group are ambitious careerists who have hit a glass ceiling in their workplaces here. These are the “career commuters,” many of whom have received promotion abroad.

The vast majority of those he interviewed, however, do not commute voluntarily, says Dr Ralph.

“They feel forced into this situation, compelled to seek work overseas so they can continue paying burdensome mortgages here. Commuting means they can be close to their families — many are married, many have school-age children — and as such, it is a better option than emigration.

“Some here said that they would emigrate as a family unit if they could be rid of the responsibilities of their mortgages. Others would prefer to remain living full-time in Ireland, if they had the choice. What this group have in common, mainly, is negative equity — and calling them ‘mortgage refugees’, then, is not just colourful language.”

Dr Ralph’s research was funded by the European Commission and follows previous work undertaken by him on the experiences of return migration to Celtic Tiger Ireland.

“Overall, commuters are a resourceful, resilient group,” he observes.

“They put their skills, education and work experience to creative use in the face of difficult circumstances in Ireland. Nevertheless, the chronic travelling and separation from loved-ones takes its toll. Fatigue from too many red-eye flights, miscommunication with partners and children back home during weekday separations, loneliness overseas — these are common complaints among commuters.”

Some had problems controlling their alcohol consumption while away during weekdays; others worried about sexual infidelity during periods of absence from partners.

“The future was a further source of anxiety for many,” says Dr Ralph.

“Most hope that the Irish economy will recover its former buoyancy, and they will be able to find suitable job positions back home as soon as possible. Yet hope is one thing, reality another. Most have no faith in this actually happening anytime soon; they are preparing to put up with commuting overseas for the long haul.”


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