Svilengrad is a small Bulgarian town with around 18,000 inhabitants on the border with Turkey. It is best known for two very profitable endeavors: casinos and customs. And like many other small towns in Central and Eastern Europe, it has rapidly lost people to migration over the past few decades. But this spring something completely unexpected happened: a population boom. “They have returned from everywhere, mainly from Western Europe,” said Anastas Karchev, the mayor of Svilengrad, in a phone conversation in November.
It’s not that Svilengrad has become Las Vegas overnight, attracting a lot of British or French high rollers. Rather, the city is just one of many places affected by COVID-19 migration, a silent tsunami that, along with the pandemic, has struck the eastern part of the European continent.
The trend first became noticeable at the end of March. At the time, a Bulgarian official involved in the pandemic announced that tens of thousands of Bulgarians had already returned this month. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians had come home by early summer. Similar waves swept the rest of the region.
To get a feel for the real size of the return, my team at the European Council for Foreign Relations office in Sofia, Bulgaria, examined data from Bulgaria between March and May of this year, the date of the country’s first lockdown. We assumed that anyone willing to brave the country’s checkpoints, infrequent transportation, and 14-day quarantine during this time was likely to be less likely to be out for leisure, tourism, or business. Government data shows that around 550,000 Bulgarian citizens returned to the country during this period. Detailed records are available for around 150,000 of them. Excluding the border crossings with Greece, the main trade and tourism route, the number in our study was around 121,000 people.
Looking at the data – particularly the quarantine records – it became clear why Svilengrad and other cities like this felt overcrowded. In many places, quarantined returnees made up between 4 and 8 percent of the working-age population. Given that only about half of the people who returned to the country were quarantined and March data was inconsistent, the real numbers were certainly much higher.
Through social media interviews with available returnees, our study found that by far the most popular reason to return was “wanting to be with family and relatives” – understandable given the frightening state of the world. The second most popular reason was “loss of employment”. When asked whether they want to return to Western Europe at some point, over 10 percent of those questioned said: “No.” Around 16 percent said they were undecided. Among those who have lived abroad for more than a year, the percentages were 19 for the “no” camp and 47 percent undecided.
Return migration is booming worldwide: more than 2.1 million Indians, 600,000 Afghans and numerous others – especially migrant workers – returned home during the pandemic, according to the International Organization for Migration. In many cases, this effect will go away in a year or two. When global health and the economy recover, migrants will find their way from developing to industrialized countries again. Three things characterize the wave in the Eastern European member states of the European Union.
First, this trend has been going on for a long time in Eastern Europe. The region is the hardest hit in the world in terms of population decline and emigration. In fact, it is the only region that has seen its population decline for three consecutive decades. In many ways, this was part of the deal with the EU: you get the money, but you lose the people when crowds move west to find better options and a better lifestyle. The brain drain has exacerbated the divisions within the EU. The eastern economies struggled to find the workforce as quickly as needed to catch up with their wealthier western counterparts and keep their talents at home. Some regions were more or less deserted, and a whole range of social and political problems resulted.
In recent years, however, more and more people have chosen to come home as the standard of living in the East has increased and the inequality between East and West has gradually leveled out. Pre-coronavirus internal pre-coronavirus EU migration data is notoriously difficult to find, but nine of the eleven post-communist EU members have seen net emigration decline since 2010. Migration to Great Britain – a major magnet for Eastern Europeans – increased six-fold in 2017. compared to previous years.
Second, the Eastern European economies could absorb at least part of the new wave. In contrast to the stagnating economies in other parts of Latin America, for example, many Central and Eastern European countries have grown steadily. Unlike in Asia, where a glut of labor is keeping wages low and driving migrants abroad, the main problem facing companies in Eastern Europe before the pandemic was a labor shortage, which in turn increased wages. Given the trends towards shortening supply chains, with an increasing number of goods sold in the EU likely to be manufactured or assembled in Europe, the influx of workers is more than welcome.
Last but not least, EU membership plays a role. No other work-sending region is so connected to the work-receiving regions as Eastern Europe is with Western Europe. Moving within the EU is relatively cheap and smooth, which has an impact on people planning their near future and deciding whether it is worth staying for even a while and trying. Migration has been replaced by mobility, with the European Union increasingly functioning like the United States in this regard. This means that cities in the east are no longer victims, but rather active actors in the fight for high-ranking talent and low-skilled workers. And many of them have such benefits as lower cost of living, lower unemployment, and (especially for their own nationals, as the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated) the appeal of emotional support networks.
The question for policy makers is how to deal with the sudden influx of people. Currently, local and national authorities need to move from long-term policies to short-term measures to prevent some of the human capital from leaking out. Ideas can be borrowed from the United States and other places that have long attracted talent. Easy access to low or no interest loans; direct subsidies and tax breaks for people with a proven interest in longer stays; and administrative assistance in finding places to live, local schools, and kindergartens are key. Efforts like this do not require massive cash injections. And any initiatives that do this could use the Recovery and Resilience Facility and React EU funds, which contain billions of euros for such matters.
In Svilengrad, Karchev said he did not know how many new returnees would remain. He does know, however, that “salaries in our local businesses have skyrocketed in recent years and I have people who tell me that it is the same now to live in Spain or here when you put it at purchasing power parity adapts. ” It took a pandemic to find out, but the positive effects on the region can last generations.