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Coming home: How nations are luring expats back

Irish expatriates at the New York City annual St. Patrick's Day parade (Getty)

Irish expatriates at the New York City annual St. Patrick's Day parade (Getty)

As travellers arrive at Dublin Airport’s Terminal 2, they’re greeted by the voice of former US president John F Kennedy, an Irish-American, whose speech about the enduring links between Ireland and its diaspora sounds out over loudspeakers.

It’s inspiring for certain, and the audio is meant to call to mind a love of Ireland before the point of playing it is revealed.

 

At the close of Kennedy’s speech, the audio continues and asks listeners if they know of any businesses looking to set-up shop in Europe. Travellers — many of whom are either starting or ending a business trip — are then greeted at the foot of the escalators between customs and the departure gates by professionally dressed people armed with pamphlets and clipboards. The awaiting greeters are there to take down information from travellers who can connect them with companies who might be a good target. The aim: to encourage anyone expanding overseas to pick Ireland for their operations. 

Why would anyone readily give out the name of a professional contact? Simple. For every sustainable job created as a result of the introduction the tipster provides he or she is rewarded 1,500 euro ($2,076), up to 100 jobs created.

This welcoming committee is one arm of an extensive, around-the-world awareness campaign targeting people with Irish heritage that ConnectIreland, a privately funded, government-supported job stimulation and creation program, is carrying out.

It urges business travellers to become “connectors” and pass along their tips to the ConnectIreland team, which works with the government’s Irish Development Agency. The team follows up in a bid to get the target firm to open operations on the Emerald Isle.

ConnectIreland’s tagline is “harnessing our diaspora,” and the programme targets the estimated 70 million Irish nationals scattered around the globe as the “eyes and ears” of Ireland. The aim is job creation and — the big picture — economic recovery in a country that experienced a 14% drop in GDP and an unemployment rate that hit 15% following the 2008 recession.

“It looks to build on what the Irish are naturally good at, which is connecting, talking and getting to know people and use that for the good of Ireland,” said Michael McLoughlin, chief executive officer of ConnectIreland.

Taking networking to a national level is a novel approach. The ConnectIreland campaign is believed to be the only incentivised global referral programme currently in operation.

But it is one of a number of examples of how countries look to their expats and emigrant populations as key players in solutions to economic woes or improved standing in the global arena.

Repatriation in Asia

From job creation in Ireland to recruiting top academics in China in an attempt to stem brain drain, countries around the world are rolling out similar programmes that appeal directly to individuals’ heritage countries. 

Institutionalised programmes and government support have encouraged many Asians to return to the countries of their ancestry to contribute to the local economy and start businesses, be leaders and more, said Edward Park, a professor of Asian Pacific American Studies at Loyola Marymount University who studies immigration movements.

Park said the movement has been “striking” in the past couple of decades.

“When these countries are thinking about attracting people from abroad, the first group they imagine are the people who left or are the descendants of people who left,” he said.

China and Korea, both countries Park said are looking to “step up the ladder of capitalist development,” have introduced a number of legal measures and programmes to draw certain profiles — generally educated, skilled workers — to the country. The Overseas Korean Act, for example, makes renewable work visas available to those of Korean descent. Even more privileges are available to those of certain professional, educational or financial levels in hopes of attracting and retaining skilled, wealthy professionals back to the country. More than 7 million “overseas Koreans,” as the government labels them, are spread around the world.

China has taken an even more targeted approach, with programmes like the Chinese Academy of Science’s 100 Talents Program. The programme recruits top scholars in science and engineering to university teaching rosters with the offer of competitive salaries and extra benefits like housing, targeting and expecting applicants with ties to China. The objective? To keep top students in China and, ultimately, help the country rise above its reputation in some circles as “the factory of the world,” Park said.

Returnee logic

The logic behind such efforts is the belief that people, even generations removed from the ‘country of their fathers’ fathers’ still feel an allegiance to their home nation, which could translate in a pull to help financially. It’s something ConnectIreland has profited from. So far in the campaigns’ two years running, more than 18,000 ‘connectors’ have registered and investment has been secured from 14 different companies, McLouglin said.

Groups spearheading efforts to actively attract “repats” — as some scholars label expat returnees — often assume that these professionals can re-integrate with ease because they have an understanding of the country, its culture and its language.

While many “repats” do flourish, painless assimilation is not always the norm. A number of articles have touched on the “repat” phenomena. It turns out that a contingent of people find that while they identify with their heritage, when they “return” they often encounter culture shock. That’s especially true in places like India where business is governed by a different set of norms — people and business dealings tend to be non-confrontational, for example — than in the US or Europe.  

Whatever the case, the pace of repatriation efforts is growing.  McLoughlin said a number of other countries have inquired about ConnectIreland’s programme creation and implementation.

“There’s very much an element of playing your part in a time of economic need,” he said.

What do you think about these repatriation efforts? If you are an expat, would you go back home if incentivised? If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Capital, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

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