An Italian immigrant was quoted as saying: “I came to America because I heard the streets were paved with gold. When I got here, found out three things: First, the streets weren’t paved with gold; second, they weren’t paved at all: and third, I was expected to pave them.” This sentiment was echoed by many who made the migratory voyage with high hopes, only to be disappointed upon arrival.
We hear many success stories of immigrants who left on a one-way trip and never looked back. We must consider though, that out of the hundreds of thousands who successfully emigrated from the UK and made new homes abroad, there were many who gave up and returned home. We have put much discussion into the decision to migrate; however, in this article, we look at some of the reasons that caused a large number of immigrants to return home.
How Frequent are Return Migrations?
Return migration can be somewhat difficult to measure. Some immigrants returned home to stay, while others returned to their home countries temporarily, only to emigrate once more.
Most countries also kept poor records on those leaving the country, focusing instead on those arriving. The US, for example, only started recording departing passengers in 1908. Even those statistics can be fairly misleading, as the records only state that an immigrant is leaving. No mention is made of whether the departure is permanent or temporary.
Prior to the 19th century, return migration was far less frequent. Travel was expensive, time-consuming and dangerous, and immigrants tended to settle since returning was so difficult. In the late 19th century, trips home became more frequent, and by the early 20th century, we begin to see clear statistical patterns of return migration.
For example, some scholars have estimated that a full third of American immigrants returned home. During certain periods, such as the Great Depression, return trips were even higher.
Interestingly, however, immigrants from the UK had a fairly low return rate compared to many other nationalities. English immigrants returned at a rate of about 10.4%, while only 6.3% of Irish immigrants ever returned home.
Why Did Immigrants Return Home?
Reasons for return are almost as varied as the immigrants themselves. Some went with high hopes and gave up when those hopes were not realized. Others never intended to immigrate permanently in the first place.
“Birds of Passage”, for example, traveled purely for economic reasons. They intended to work long enough to make a bit of money so that they could better their lives back home.
Others returned due to family obligations. Many women emigrated to earn enough money for a dowry, and once that objective was achieved, they returned home. Others were forced to return home to care for parents or siblings they had left behind.
Others still had been unwilling emigrants in the first place. Shipped off as indigents, many in this group simply returned home as soon as they were able to earn passage.
Finally, a great number of immigrants were just unhappy in their new country. Instead of the easy life they had hoped for, the immigrants were faced with struggles and hostility. They looked back on their home with nostalgia and decided that perhaps things were better there after all.