Escape to Oz: Young Europeans head to Australia in search of work

Michaela Kelly: ''The quality of life is way better here, but I miss home''

Australia has become a haven for disillusioned young Europeans eager to plot an escape from economic troubles at home.

Migration from countries such as Ireland is at levels not seen since the 1980s as Australia's seemingly bulletproof economy, insulated from the global slowdown by a roaring mining industry, offers the chance of a fresh beginning.

But there are concerns that a flood of migrants in their early-to-mid-20s from Ireland and elsewhere on temporary working visas is squeezing young Australians out of the jobs market.

Taking advantage

"If we look at between 15-19-year-olds, we have 14.5% unemployment. Still well below many other places in the world but still significant enough to say that we aren't absorbing and giving skill opportunities to many young Australians, so the government has failed to get the balance right," says Tony Sheldon, from the Australian Transport Workers Union.

"That means that labour has been brought in as an alternative, which is being more exploited, [has] less rights and [is] seen as a cheap form of labour but also an exploited form of labour." he says.

He fears that foreigners could also be under-paid and mistreated by unscrupulous bosses.

"It's a lot harder than people make out"

On a wild and blustery evening at Bondi Beach, Aoife Fahey and her friends frolic in the shallows after work.

Ireland's chronic financial problems seem a world away as the surf crashes into Sydney's famous arc of sand, yet building a new life isn't easy.

"[It's] a lot harder than people make out, 'Come over to Australia, there's loads of jobs, [it's] so easy.' It is not like that at all, no matter what you're working in. It's for lads a lot easier, but for girls it's hard," says Aoife, from Castlebar in County Mayo, who arrived in Australia six months ago and works in an Irish pub.

Her friend, Michaela Kelly, from Drogheda, earns twice as much working in an office in Sydney than she did in Ireland. Like many Irish backpackers Michaela is well qualified with a degree in business.

But with youth unemployment so stubbornly high in Australia, soaring up to 40% in parts of its major cities does she feel guilty that she could be taking a job from a local?

The BBC's Justin Rowlatt takes a look at the global unemployment crisis

How the big number breaks down

Region Rate of youth unemployment



Developed Economies and EU


Central and south-eastern Europe


East Asia


South East Asia and the Pacific


South Asia


Latin America and the Caribbean


Middle East


North Africa


Sub-Saharan Africa


Source: ILO

"Is that bad if I say no?" she asks. "Irish workers come over here to work and they work hard because at home you are made to work hard, whereas Australians over here are just so laid back, they put things off and don't do it, basically. So, I don't feel bad."

The long journey to citizenship

Most Irish backpackers arrive on one-year working holiday permits, which can be extended or upgraded to longer employment visas that can lead to residency and eventually citizenship although the process can take years.

Australia owes an incalculable economic debt to successive waves of immigration over the decades, including legions of settlers from Ireland but academics now worry that a lack of training could increasingly leave young Australians unable to compete with temporary foreign workers especially in low or unskilled jobs.

"It is important to think about where future immigrants are going and whether that competition could emerge," says Anna Boucher, from the University of Sydney.

"I don't see it really coming out currently, but I see it potentially being a problem in the future. For instance, somewhere like the Northern Territory that has very high rates of indigenous youth unemployment but which is being signalled as an area for potential regional migration agreements in the future."

Australia is grappling with chronic skills shortages in many sectors while seeking antidotes to worrying rates of jobless among its young. Meanwhile, this vast nation continues to invite those seeking work from afar to its shores.


High youth unemployment is one of the biggest problems confronting societies around the world, condemning whole generations to a life of much reduced income.

In our special report we look at the challenges facing today's young and jobless, and the attempts to overcome the problem.

Tougher than on TV

"You're watching [TV shows] Neighbours and Home And Away and you're just expecting everything to be perfect," says Denise Murtagh, who arrived in Sydney from Dublin with her best friend only a week ago. "But it is tough going because you're basically living out of a bag. You're moving from place to place every few days."

"We haven't a clue what we are doing at the minute," adds Sinead Keane, who has come armed with a degree in business and sports management.

"There's thousands of people in the same boat as us looking for jobs so I suppose you just have to talk to people and hope they help you out along the way."

The Irish government says it's confident that parts of the diaspora in Sydney and beyond will succumb to the magnetic pull of home when the scars of the financial crisis eventually heal. But, for now, as the exodus of the young continues, Ireland's loss is Australia's gain.

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