* 100,000 seen emigrating in two-year period to April 2012
* Cowen hopes export surge will fuel growth, tackle debt
* But think-tank anticipates "lost decade" for jobs
DUBLIN, Jan 20 (Reuters) - Ireland is losing an estimated 1,000 people a week to emigration with a surge in exports failing to lift prospects for employment, a government-funded research body said on Thursday.
An unprecedented financial crisis has forced Irish people, particularly young graduates, to once again seek opportunities overseas, echoing previous generations of departures and making emigration a hot topic in an upcoming parliamentary election.
The Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) has estimated net outward migration to be 100,000 over the two-year period from April 2010 to April 2012.
The rate of departure is the highest in recent memory and overshadows even the 1980s, a decade scarred by emigration, when the net outflow peaked at 44,000 in 1989.
Prime Minister Brian Cowen is hoping that a big increase in Irish exports will drive economic growth this year and next, helping the country to meet debt and fiscal targets agreed under an EU/IMF bailout package.
But the ESRI said such export-led growth would not generate enough jobs to halt emigration.
"We are more comfortable talking about employment as the indicator of life in the economy," Alan Barrett, one of the authors of the report, told a news briefing.
"Growth like that in the export sector does not transfer readily into employment growth. As long as consumption is very depressed in the Irish economy, it's very hard to see a significant employment lift-up."
The ESRI, which is independent but partly funded by the finance ministry, cut its economic growth forecasts for this year and next after factoring in a doubling in the size of government cutbacks and tax increases.
The Institute now expects Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth of 1.5 percent this year and 2.25 percent in 2012. The government is forecasting economic growth of 1.7 percent this year and 3.2 percent next year.
In its last quarterly bulletin in October, the ESRI warned that government plans to implement 15 billion euros ($20.2 billion) in austerity measures, roughly 10 percent of GDP, over a four-year period risks a "lost decade" for jobs.
The ESRI expects the rate of unemployment to average 13.5 percent this year and 13 percent in 2012. Without emigration, the rate would be even higher.
Ireland's GDP growth is being fuelled by a surge in exports from multinational firms attracted to the country by its low rate of corporation tax -- a level the government fought to preserve in its bailout talks.
The ESRI estimated that exports will rise 6 percent on a volume basis to 166 billion euros this year, a second straight year of record growth.
Official trade data has not yet been published by Ireland's Central Statistics Office. But the Irish Export Association has estimated that exports grew 6.7 percent last year to 161 billion euros, the highest export figure recorded.
Reporting by Carmel Crimmins; editing by Mark Heinrich